The co-exec producer of and actor in Showtime’s House of Lies shares what it’s like to play a character that was not written explicitly for a Black man.
Actor Don Cheadle
Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Don Cheadle back to this program. The Oscar-nominated actor stars in and produces a new series for Showtime. It’s called “House of Lies.” The series explores the world of management consulting firms and airs Sunday nights at 10:00. Here now, a scene from “House of Lies.”
Tavis: (Laughter) Are we having fun yet?
Don Cheadle: Oh, man, I’m having a ball on this show.
Tavis: When I turned this thing on for the first time, I was shocked that Don Cheadle was playing this character. Should I have been?
Cheadle: Well, I don’t know. I think if you were to look at my resume in total you would see a lot of things that are kind of all over the map. For me, it’s always just been about finding material that I think is creative and interesting and fun and something that can expand me and that I can hopefully do something with.
It shoots right down the street from my house, so it’s a no-brainer.
Tavis: (Laughter) That’s the real answer right there.
Cheadle: That’s the real answer.
Tavis: You can walk to work every day.
Cheadle: I sleep in bed every night.
Tavis: And avoid L.A. traffic.
Cheadle: Exactly, you got it.
Tavis: And see your kids at night.
Cheadle: There you go.
Tavis: Yeah. What was it about the character, to your point now, though, what about this character, about Marty Kaan, that appealed to you?
Cheadle: Well, I think, you know, it wasn’t – clearly, if you look at it, it wasn’t written for a Black man and it was a character that really was dimensional, you know what I mean? And flawed.
So often when Black men have to play roles on TV, we’re either the noble savage or we’re completely a savage, and there’s no nuance. This character has got a messed-up relationship with an ex-wife and he’s got this son who may be gay, may not be gay, maybe he’s a cross-dresser, we don’t know, and he’s confused about that.
His dad’s a psychiatrist, a Jungian analyst, and he works with these idiots at his job who are just clowns. It just had so much stuff that I felt like we could just go everywhere with and it just, for me it was a no-brainer.
Tavis: To your point, and I’m glad you went there, because I was going to, so that makes it easy for me, What’s the challenge or conversely, what is the fun, Don, of playing a character that you know and that I could tell from episode one was not written for a Negro? (Laughter) This was not written for a brother.
I love the fact that you’re doing it and you’re doing it so well and doing it with style, but what’s the challenge or conversely, again, the fun of doing a character that wasn’t written for a Black man?
Cheadle: That there are these rhythms in it that you can play with that are not sort of I guess premeditated. I think every often when people are writing and they’re not Black people, for the most part, are writing for Black people, they don’t write just for themselves. Suddenly they’re people and then we’re something else.
It’s like just write for yourself, and write your cultural identifications. The family stuff doesn’t change. We all have families, we all have relationships, we all have work situations that we have to try to navigate, and that’s no different.
Let the actor be a part of the process and let them bring in their own stuff to it. So we’re very lucky because we had a very diverse room as the writers, so there were Black writers on the show, there are Black writers on the show, women on the show. We have a writer who’s gay on the show.
So we’re covering a lot of bases of people to put in input, so it’s a big soup, which is great, and then we have all of the actors who bring their own things to it as well. So it wasn’t really, at the end of the day, a challenge playing this part, it was just a thrill to go in and look at all of the different stuff to mess with.
Tavis: Was there anything about the character that gave you pause? I ask that because this is some racy stuff. It’s funny and it makes you think, it’s all of that and then some, but it’s a little racy.
Cheadle: Yeah, it did give me pause. My parents are still alive and they’ve been told they can’t watch the show. (Laughter)
Tavis: I was watching it like this, and I was home by myself.
Cheadle: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I was like, “Whoa.”
Cheadle: I watch it like that. I just called Kansas City, Missouri, and say, “Mark,” you know my cousin Mark, “You can watch it, Uncle Thermy, you’re probably not going to want to watch it.” (Laughter) “(Unintelligible) you can watch it, Aunt Sandra, I don’t know if you want to watch it.” They had to go through that (unintelligible).
Tavis: Mom and Dad, definitely note.
Cheadle: Yeah, definitely no, you cannot watch it.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Cheadle: So yeah, it gave me pause too, and not just the racy element of it. The fact that the stuff that Marty does, it’s challenging, you know what I mean? He’s not a “good guy.” He’s not concerned about being PC, he’s not trying to not hurt feelings, he’s offensive, he’s brash, he’s a lot of things that people might take exception to.
But he’s also, I think you can tell, a father who’s trying, he’s trying to be there for his son and support his son and take care of him. He’s good at his job. Now, whether you think his job’s nefarious or not, that’s up to your opinion, but he’s good at it.
So I think he’s in the margins a lot. There’s a lot of gray area with Marty. So of course when you’re taking on something like that you go, “I hope the audience not likes him, but I hope they respond to him.” I don’t know if we liked Tony Soprano, but I wanted to see everything he did. I was fascinated by him, and you hope that you get that kind of interest, at least.
Tavis: What kind of mail are you getting from management consulting firms? (Laughter) I don’t know how true this is. I’ve always looked at management consulting firms with a strange eye. As a matter of fact, when I ask anybody, “What do you do,” and they say, “I’m a consultant,” I just pause. I freeze.
Cheadle: That’s right. (Laughter) That’s right.
Tavis: I don’t care whether you’re good or not. Consulting is such an ambiguous term.
Cheadle: Very nebulous.
Tavis: Yeah, very nebulous – I like that word.
Cheadle: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: So I look at them funny anyway, but what kind of response are you getting from these consulting firms?
Cheadle: We get a lot of “That’s just like my life.” And we’re like, “No, it’s not.” (Laughter)
Tavis: I hope it’s not.
Cheadle: That’s not your life. And then we get, like, “That’s nothing like that,” and everything in between. I think people are very – we understand. Look, it’s a comedy; it’s a Showtime comedy, so we’re pushing everything, pushing all the boundaries.
But it’s funny that a lot of these stories that we’re kind of taking off on were things that consultants brought in and pitched to us and told us, “Yeah, they do play hook-up, they play games for hook-up points. They do see who they can get, and they do keep a tally,” because their lives are really lived in all of these other cities and sometimes different countries, and they’re home two days a week, and when they’re home they kind of don’t know what to do with themselves.
So a lot of them are very frustrated and (unintelligible) and can’t keep relationships going because they’re never there. So the road sort of becomes the place where all of this stuff happens, and these people kind of become your de facto family while you’re spending all this time with them trying to figure out how to get as much out of whatever company you’re working for as possible.
Tavis: How am I supposed to read this sort of animal magnetism that Marty has? Is that Marty or is that Don Cheadle? Because, like, nobody in the show does it – everybody wants to sleep with you. It’s like every race, every color. (Laughter) Every episode, somebody’s trying to get you in bed.
Cheadle: Yeah. Well, when you –
Tavis: And you’re doing your best –
Cheadle: To oblige them. (Laughter) I’m a people person, Tavis. (Laughter)
Tavis: How am I supposed to read that part of the character, man?
Cheadle: Well, I’m not doing the writing on the show, and I think they wanted this because it gives him a lot of complications and obviously, as we see these – not obviously, but as we see the shows, the latter episodes of the season, we’re going to see where that’s going to get him into some problems.
But I think it’s intoxicating when somebody is so unapologetically who they are. Now, this may not be somebody who you’re going to want to put down stakes with, but it’s like I’ll give you a run. I’ll see what’s up with you. You talk a good game.
So I think that’s kind of what it is, and it lends itself to all the places that the stories are going to go. His sexual appetite, his appetite for the job, his desire to win at all costs, it all fits in with his sort of I take it, I go, I get it, that’s what I do.
Tavis: Does Marty – and I’ve thought about this watching a few episodes now – does Marty to you, and this is a question specifically for Don Cheadle – does Marty say anything to you about our culture, about the decay of our civilization, about the devolution of our culture?
Does Marty say anything to you in this moment, 2012, about our culture?
Cheadle: Absolutely. I’m glad in the ways that it’s going to come down in the subsequent episodes, and kind of you see the cracks starting to happen now that it’s Greek, in a way. He wins here, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory because there’s going to be a price to be paid with his family, with his relationship with his father, ultimately with the relationship with the people that he’s close to at his job.
So that sort of win-at-all-costs and take-no-prisoners attitude, there’s a fallout, and we are going to see that fallout, and as the series goes on we’re going to continue to play with what’s the price of winning, and what does it actually mean at the end of the day if you’ve won the world but you’ve lost your soul?
Tavis: To the beginning of this conversation, the role was not written for a Black man, but that relationship with your son, for a Black man, that’s a tough spot to be in.
Cheadle: Yeah, and we talked about that. We talked about how do we play that, what is it supposed to be. I think you’ve seen some of the episodes. There’s one episode when he comes to me and he says, “So, Dad, what do you do if you like a boy and a girl at school?” and he’s like, “Man, I don’t know.” (Laughter) “What am I – I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t tell you just, ‘No, don’t do that,’ you’re who you are, but I don’t – it’s tough for me.”
I think we try to play that very real. He’s not, “Well, whatever you are is fine, and it’s just important for you to,” and he’s not saying, “No, don’t come to me with that gay (blank), I don’t want to hear that.” He says, “I don’t know.”
Tavis: I love that Glynn Turman’s playing your father.
Cheadle: Yeah, he’s great.
Tavis: Great actor.
Tavis: Yeah, it’s good stuff.
Cheadle: And it’s good to have somebody who – Glynn answered a really good question, because someone asked us at one of these panels we were doing. They said, “How do you -” they asked a question about diversity, and similar questions about Black people and these roles aren’t defined, and he said, “This is the most revolutionary thing just to have Don Cheadle playing this part, period.”
Just that alone, without even going to the issues that he’s going to have to deal with on the show as a Black man in a predominantly white world, in a predominately white business where he is looked at when he walks in the room already as somebody like, “We gotta listen to you?”
Without even having to deal with that, the fact that I am the lead in a show on cable, how many Black leads are there on TV today, and in television?
Tavis: And EP, I might add.
Cheadle: It’s less than a handful. So kudos to Showtime and David Nevens right off the bat for taking it up in the first place.
Tavis: Speaking of Showtime, I was about to say Sunday nights at 8:00 on Showtime, but that’s really not true, because any night on Showtime. (Laughter)
Cheadle: That’s right. Wherever you live. (Laughter) You can see it at 8:00, you can see it at 9:00, you can see it at 10:00
Tavis: 8:00, 9:00, yeah. That is the beauty, I think, of these premium cable networks now. If you get a show, and you are fortunate to have – and they’re fortunate to have you, let me put it that way – these things air all day, every day, it seems.
Cheadle: That’s right.
Tavis: So you can catch it just pretty much any time.
Cheadle: And we count the DVRs, too, so if you tape it, if you record it and see it later, that counts too, so.
Tavis: That was a nice plug. Y’all got that, right? If you record it and – they still (unintelligible).
Cheadle: (Unintelligible). (Laughter)
Tavis: It’s called “House of Lies” on Showtime, starring Don Cheadle. Don, always glad to have you.
Cheadle: Thanks, Tavis, good to see you.
Tavis: Good to see you, man. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.