Actor-activist Don Cheadle

The Oscar-nominated actor, who exec-produces and stars in The Guard, explains why it gets harder every year to make movies.

Oscar nominee Don Cheadle is a stage-trained actor who's built a solid reputation with diverse roles in such fare as Ocean's 11, 12 and 13, Hotel Rwanda and Iron Man 2. He also co-produced and starred in the Oscar-winning Crash and is a talented musician, who plays sax, writes music and sings. Passionate about the causes of the people of Rwanda and Darfur, Cheadle co-wrote Not on Our Watch, which he calls an "activist handbook," and is a U.N. Environment Program Goodwill Ambassador. His most recent project is as star and exec producer of The Guard.


Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Don Cheadle to this program. The Oscar-nominated actor and star of films like “Hotel Rwanda” and “Crash” can be seen in the forthcoming film, “The Guard.” More on that in a moment.

He can also be seen in the upcoming Showtime series called “House of Lies,” a dark comedy about the world of business consulting, before any of that, though, opening in New York and L.A. on July 29. Here now a scene from “The Guard.”


Tavis: I’m not sure I have enough time tonight to talk about all the projects you got going on, but it’s good to see you, Don Cheadle.

Don Cheadle: Good to see you too.

Tavis: Let’s start and take them one at a time. First of all, “The Guard.” Tell me more.

Cheadle: “The Guard” is a movie that we did in Ireland, a little area in Ireland called Connemara, Galway, specifically, with Brendan Gleeson who plays this Irish cop that they call the Guard over there who’s very unconventional. It was a real sort of fish out of water story for me. It’s kind of like a fish in outer space because –

Tavis: – not just out of water, but in outer space [laugh]. You are stretching the metaphor now [laugh].

Cheadle: Yeah, and it is. When you see the movie, you’ll see it’s like my character gets there, he doesn’t even know they still speak Gaelic over there. You know, it’s a whole different world.

Tavis: You also produced this film?

Cheadle: Yeah. We came on as the producer to try to, you know, in any way we can, throw in and help get the thing made. It’s a very small film. Often when you have movies like this, you have to do whatever you have to do, roll up your sleeves and champion it in any way you can to get it going.

Tavis: I’ll talk more about the producing in just a second. But to your point now, Don, about the fact that it’s a small film, one looks at your career trajectory and at least, yours truly, one celebrates the choices you’ve made and they’ve not all been blockbusters. Surely you’ve done them, but you’ve really put your name and your heart behind a lot of small projects. Why and how do you choose to make those decisions?

Cheadle: Well, you know, it’s usually just whatever hits me. You know, when I read a script like “The Guard” and I’m laughing from the first page and I can’t anticipate what’s gonna happen next and I’m just along for the ride, I feel like an audience member. Hopefully, an audience will have a similar experience to the film.

Then I have to go down the other checklist of where is it, when is it, how long is it, who’s in it, all of that stuff. If there are more positives than negatives, I usually say yes.

Tavis: Why work so hard where the producing is concerned and the starring is concerned? Why work so hard to do that when it would seem to me as an outsider looking in that the easy thing to do is just to sign up for the big blockbusters, which you obviously get offered?

Cheadle: Well, because it is something that looks more like that from the outside than it actually is. I mean, with the entire reduction of all slates from all studios anyway, movies are harder and harder to get made every year and less and less prominent, especially parts for me to play. So you could sit back and just wait for somebody to hand you something.

Those things happen every once in a while, but when you see like this that’s special, that’s different, that’s interesting, this is something that had to come from outside to come in. When you’ve got a project like that, you’ve got to get behind it to make it happen.

Tavis: I heard you say especially parts for me to play. That’s a loaded statement. Unpack that for me.

Cheadle: Well, I mean, I think when there are less parts in general, there’s always gonna be less parts for people who get less parts anyway [laugh]. So it’s less films, less roles, so you got to hustle. You know, it’s still a grind and you got to really put it together however you can.

Tavis: At this point, are you looking for just high-quality material or a couple of things? There’s a comedic element to it. Are you in that vein now or it just turns out to be that the couple of things we’re talking about tonight you get a chance to do a little comedy thing as well?

Cheadle: Well, you know, I was never really not in that vein. I’ve always done both. It’s just the dramatic roles have made more noise and they seem to be caught on more and people think, oh, he’s dramatic. I started doing standup. You know what I mean? So it’s something that I’ve always wanted to get more back into and I had an opportunity with this film to do that.

Yeah, I love doing comedies. They’re much harder to do and they’re much more difficult to sort of pull off. But when you do, I think it’s really rewarding.

Tavis: Tell me about this Showtime series I’m hearing. It’s not out yet, but I’ve been reading about it in the trades and hearing about it.

Cheadle: Yeah, it’s called “House of Lies” and I play a management consultant. Everybody always goes, “What is that?” I go, “Yeah, that’s a good question.” [Laugh] You never really know what it is and it’s a question that management consultants hate to hear because it’s not ever clearly defined.

Management consulting is whatever you need it to be [laugh]. When the company calls you up and says we need help and you come and go okay, how can I help you, and that’s what management consultants do, but they tend to prevaricate a little bit. So that’s who he is.

Tavis: At this point in your career, to your earlier point, you have to look and see where it is and when it’s filming and how long it’s filming. How much of those kinds of decisions push you toward or away from doing episodic television where you can stay home and do the thing on Showtime or whatever the network might be?

Cheadle: Yeah. Well, this was sort of a perfect kind of a marriage because it is a Showtime piece, so it’s not 24 episodes. It’s 12. It’s half of that. It’s down the street from where I live. You know, it’s nice because I get to be home. It’s a half-hour; it’s not an hour show, so it’s not such a heavy lifting, and it’s comedy.

So I’ve been very blessed and I think, you know, I’ve been very fortunate and the hand is watching over me because things that I need at certain times kind of tend to happen for me.

You know, I have two teenage daughters and I want to be here while that’s all going on. They may want me to be in London right now, but I want to be here, so it’s good.

Tavis: You called it blessing and I accept that. Some call it blessing, some call it luck, some call it –

Cheadle: – I take all of that.

Tavis: Exactly. I’m raising that because I’m curious as to whatever you call it, how much of having a successful career in this business do you think that’s dependent upon?

Cheadle: Well, I think you definitely – you know, there’s a lot of right time, right place kind of stuff going on. I mean, I went to Cal Arts and I came out of that program with a lot of actors, a lot of very talented actors, a lot of people that could absolutely do whatever it is that I’m doing and they can’t bust a grape right now, you know. The business is tricky and you have to diversify your slate and you have to be willing to do a lot of things.

That’s why I started the production company because I didn’t want to just wait for the right thing to come along, you know. If I see something that I think has potential, I want to work it and pull it together and get casting and get the director and hire whoever I have to and just make it go.

And if that has to happen for five cents, I don’t care because, if I can look back and go, “That’s something I’m proud of and that’s something that I’m glad that I made and it was a fulfilling experience for me,” then I’m all good. I make the money other places.

Tavis: But you also got to make a living, though.

Cheadle: But like I said, that hand that’s been over me or blessing, I’ve been able to eat from both of those areas, you know. There’s “Iron Man” and then I’ll go do “The Guard” for ten cents. Then I do the “Oceans” movies and I get to go do “Talk to Me.” You know, I get to have a bifurcated experience in my career which has allowed me to do both of those things.

Tavis: I’ve said many times, and I’ve told you before, you do great work all the time, but “Talk to Me” is still one of my favorites at your corpus. It’s a powerful project.

For those watching right now who’ve heard this line from you and others before you that, you know, you got to do your own thing and find ways to produce your own projects, a lot easier said than done for a lot of people.

For those who say Don Cheadle gets to do that independent stuff, do his own projects because he was in those blockbusters, if I were in those blockbusters, then, yeah, I could go do my independent thing as well.

Cheadle: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s the truth. One thing feeds the other. But another thing that we try to focus on is writing. So many actors say to me, “Well, how can I get in the business? What can I do to start?” I say, “Do you write?” Then I say, “Write, write for yourself.” You know what I mean?

Take a writing class, study. The tools that are at our disposal now, you know, it wasn’t that way 10 or 15 years ago. I mean, there’s equipment that we can get. There’s way you can shoot your own film for a lot less than was possible before. Now does that mean you’re gonna get to run right out and get a deal? No, but that can be your calling card. You know what I mean?

That’s your ability to show what you can do that you don’t have to wait for somebody to give you the opportunity to do. Now you can start to like generate some heat and you can put stuff up on YouTube and get stuff going on the internet and just completely circumvent that other process and get peoples’ attention and then get into that.

I mean, look, it’s tricky from every corridor and those of us who are fortunate enough to get in when movies were movies and before this whole financial situation happened and the corporatization of these studios, we’re fortunate because we’re here now and we kind of have a toe-hold. But for others, I think waiting around for something to happen for you is a death knell. You got to hustle.

Tavis: Because the business – my word, not yours – is these days so formulaic, now back to your point of view, because it’s so difficult to get things done now and because the slates at these studios, to your point, are shrinking, can Don Cheadle ever imagine a time where the difficulty of doing what you were born to do is so high, so significant, that you say, you know what, I’m out, I’m done with this, I retire?

Cheadle: Me personally?

Tavis: Yeah.

Cheadle: Well, I think you don’t retire from the business. The business retires you [laugh].

Tavis: [Laugh] And usually you don’t see it coming, do you?

Cheadle: No. At some point, you hear on the radio, “Oh, yeah, they’re done with Don Cheadle” and, you know, you just move on. But I’m gonna make hay while the sun shines, even when it’s not. Like I said, this film, “The Guard,” we were fortunate enough to find a script that we liked. Brendan was available at a time that worked. I was available at a time that worked.

We connected with different entities, you know, the London Film Council came together. Just a lot of people came together and made this thing go. Like I said, we were still up against it. It was not a luxurious schedule. We didn’t have a lot of – everything had to work right for us to get through this.

Tavis: But did you have craft services?

Cheadle: The craft service was whatever you brought [laugh]. If you brought a sandwich, then there you go. That’s craft service. Those are the ones actually that I love the most because you know that everybody is there for the love of the game. They’re not there because of the bells and whistles and because the amenities are great. They’re not.

You’re there because you really believe in that project and you really see something special about it and you all kind of get this bunker mentality and lock arms and go, “Let’s make this thing.” That’s when you started. That’s the juice that you get when you start it.

Tavis: “The Guard,” you mentioned earlier, is in Ireland. But if I were to run a list of all the places around the world you’ve filmed various projects, we’d be here for a while putting pins on the map.

I raise that because it’s summertime now, typically the time of year people get a chance to get out and travel if they are blessed to do so with the means in this tight economy.

How rewarding for your life – open-ended question here – being able to travel and film in so many places around the world has meant what to you or for you?

Cheadle: Well, that’s another one of those experiences that we get as actors, that we get to experience the world. We usually get to experience it in a pretty sheltered way.

I mean, you venture out on your own when you have a day off, on the weekend or whatever, but you usually have a great tour guide because the people that are there are like, “Well, let me take you to my family’s house and let me take you to this mountain area and let me take you down to this valley that you’ve got to know about and this restaurant.”

So those experiences have been invaluable to me and I’ve been able to share the vast majority of them with my family. So my kids have seen everything, my wife has gone everywhere that I’ve gone, and that’s something that you just can’t quantify what that does. It’s made my kids very worldly, it’s made them understand what we actually have. They’ve been in child soldier camps in Uganda and the sixth floor of the de Russie Hotel in Rome.

So they have pretty good ideas about where they stand in the world and what really means what. So that’s an experience that this industry has given them that I don’t think I could have done on my own, you know.

Tavis: To your point now, your humanitarian work continues, obviously.

Cheadle: Yeah, yeah. We try to still be involved in these things. I can be very frustrating and it’s really – you feel like you take two steps forward and you take three steps back.

I mean, right now we’re looking at the North-South Agreement in the Sudan is looking like it potentially could come apart. You know, we were celebrating a couple of months ago when the vote came through and it went through and Bashir looked as if he was going to honor that, or at least on paper he said he would honor it.

Then, you know, weeks later we’re back to soldiers amassing on the borders and clashes in border towns and refugee camps being overrun again and specific incidents of ethnic cleansing are reportedly happening again.

So we try to ring the bell and support those people that are focused there and are based there and are trying to do that, but it’s very difficult. We need help from our government. We need help from secondary powers. We need help from people who can really make things happen.

Tavis: How disappointing is that? How frustrating is that when, as an actor – I mean, you’re a citizen of this planet, but you and other actors have rung that bell consistently louder than even elected officials have done in this country and, for that matter, around the globe.

But since we’re here in America, how frustrating is that for you to care about something so deeply and to see people in your Congress, in your own body politic, your own White House, whatever the case may be, that do not seem to be as concerned about these issues, especially where ethnic cleansing is concerned, as you are? You’re, first and foremost, an actor in Hollywood.

Cheadle: Yeah. I would state to our defense – and it’s sort of a sad statement – I think America is doing more about it than any other countries around the world is, maybe with the exception of France. You feel like you’re banging your head against a wall a lot of times. What else can be done, you know?

There wasn’t an envoy that was a U.S. envoy when we first got involved in this and then they appointed one and that turned out to not work out as well and he’s gone and now the Ambassador, Susan Rice, is very involved in negotiations over there.

It’s unfortunate because it seems like, without a boon to be gained from this situation, if it’s just humanitarian, if it’s just the right thing to do, countries are not incentivized to get involved or they’re not incentivized to risk their soldiers in efforts there. Not that I think that what the solution is us invading a Muslim country or somehow trying to overthrow a government or insert our politics in a sovereign nation.

I think our involvement has to be at some level that’s more robust and consistent and sustained to make sure that the agreements that these countries have made are honored, and we’ve done it before. It’s not like we don’t know how to do it. There’s a handbook for it and we need to be a part of a coalition of other governments doing it as well.

But it’s hard to raise that din when people aren’t taking oil out or minerals out or water out or gold out. What’s there to be gained other than saving peoples’ lives and that just doesn’t seem to be enough.

Tavis: You are an actorvist and –

Cheadle: – I’ve heard I’m a Blacktorvist [laugh].

Tavis: [Laugh] I didn’t say that, but I’ll take that. I totally get the connection because the role of the true artist is to force us to revel in, to appreciate, to embrace the humanity of each other.

When you get a project that talks about humanity, “Hotel Rwanda,” run the list, it connects with people. So I get out how actors, given what they are called to do, connect with issues around the globe.

Cheadle: Absolutely.

Tavis: I guess the question is whether or not or why it is at this point, or if in fact you are hopeful about the world that you do all of that in?

Cheadle: I try to be hopeful because I have children. You know, we have these discussion that we’re having now because, as I said, they’ve seen all the same things that I’ve seen. I’ve taken them to all these places. So we have these same discussions and now the discussions are mostly about the environment and where we’re headed.

We just got back from Mexico a couple of days ago. We were in Puerto Vallarta and we went snorkeling in the bay over there, part of the Four Seasons property. The guide that took us over there, we jumped in the water and we started looking around for fish and there’s not that many fish. My daughter wants to be a marine biologist and he got in this discussion.

He said, yeah, the coral is all dead because the Chinese fishermen come over, they pay the Mexican fishermen to take the sharks out because of the shark fin soup. So the sharp population is totally depleted and the sharks eat the parrot fish, so the parrot fish go crazy and they eat all the coral, so the coral bed is dead. There is no fish.

We’re swimming all around this entire coral bed and it’s dead. Now what do you do about that? How do you insert yourself in that? My daughter’s attempting to do it from 14 years of age because she wants to be a marine biologist and she’s a vegetarian and very serious about what she wants to do in the world.

So you look at that and are hopeful that, okay, there are others like you who are going to grow up and make this their calling. You just feel like are we too late? Have we missed that window where we can step back from that precipice and not just go over the edge? I don’t know. If you listen to conventional wisdom from scientists, it’s a little late.

But, again, yes, when the United Nations says we want you to be the environmental ambassador for us, you say yes and I’ll try to make as much noise as I can. I’ll go on the Tavis Smiley Show and I’ll talk about issues that are important to me. Is it enough? I don’t know. So I try to be helpful.

Tavis: He’s a great actor and an even better man. His project at the moment is called “The Guard,” upcoming Showtime series and the new deal with Showtime to produce other projects, just about anything that this Blacktorvist wants to do [laugh]. Don, good to have you on, man. I appreciate you.

Cheadle: Yeah, man.

Narrator: Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: February 6, 2012 at 8:21 pm