Actor-producer Don Cheadle

The stage-trained actor previews the new season of his Showtime series, the edgy comedy House of Lies.

Don Cheadle has built a solid acting reputation with diverse roles in such films as Hotel Rwanda—for which he received an Oscar nod—Iron Man 2 and 3 and The Guard, which he exec-produced. He co-produced and starred in the Oscar-winning film, Crash, and is starring in and making his feature directorial debut with a biopic of jazz legend Miles Davis. He's also worked in numerous TV series, winning a Golden Globe for his lead turn in Showtime's House of Lies, and is a talented musician, who plays sax, writes music and sings. Passionate about the people of Rwanda and Darfur, Cheadle co-wrote Not on Our Watch, which he calls an "activist handbook," and is a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Don Cheadle has played one of the most honorable men in recent history in the critically acclaimed movie, “Hotel Rwanda.” But in his current hit TV series, he plays anything but. Quite a different kind of character, an anti-hero of questionable morality who is nonetheless, though, endlessly fun to watch. Take it from me. I watch it every week. I do not miss it.

Monty Kaarn in Showtime’s edgy comedy, “House of Lies” is the character he plays in the series now in its third year. He plays a win at all costs business consultant. We’ll take a look now at a scene from “House of Lies.”

[Clip]

Tavis: I’m waiting to see into this season how far Marty can actually push the envelope. I mean [laugh], is there a wall for Marty Kaarn are is there no wall?

Don Cheadle: We haven’t seen the wall yet. I think he is actually in a way trying to find it himself. You know, I think he’s driving fast to see if he can hit a wall.

Tavis: Yeah. And what’s pushing him? What’s coercing him or enticing him to drive so fast?

Cheadle: I think he’s got a real – I mean, you know, to go for character stuff that, you know, was established very early in the pilot and the writing and the creation of this character. You know, his mother committed suicide; he’s got huge trust issues. He’s picked a business to go into where he is challenged by that daily. And I think he’s probably the most frightened character that I’ve ever played.

Tavis: Yeah. Frightened of?

Cheadle: What’s in there. I think he’s afraid of what’s in there and so he wants to go 1,000 miles an hour into the other direction so that he doesn’t have to really do any introspective work at all.

Tavis: The fun for you in playing the most frightened character of your career is what?

Cheadle: That he’s completely a live wire and impossible to anticipate where he’s gonna go or what he will do. I mean, it’s attributable to the writing, of course. But it’s fun to have a character who’s so elastic that really – like I said, he can be in a fistfight and, in the next, he can be in a situation where he’s having to confront a feeling of love. He’s just all over the place. He’s hard to get a handle on.

Tavis: I guess – maybe you do know the answer. But as I think, if you knew the answer, you know, this would be gold in Hollywood would be the answer to this question what makes us relate to the character. But it does strike me as somewhat funny that a guy who is so flawed, you know, makes me want to tune in every Sunday night.

I think for me as a fan, it’s that I love his – he’s brilliant. The guy really is brilliant and he’s a problem solver. He figures stuff out. But he’s ruthless, he can be lowdown. He’s fundamentally flawed and I don’t know why I like this guy.

Cheadle: Well, I think also there’s something that’s sort of endearing about him is that he clearly loves his family.

Tavis: Oh, yeah, that’s true.

Cheadle: He loves his son, he loves his father. They get on his last nerve and they, you know, drive him insane and he has no idea really how to deal with them. But we know that he’s in a process of trying to. You know, he may neglect them at times. He may, you know, throw them under the bus if he needs to for some situation. But at the end of the day, he’s really trying to figure out how to be a good father and a good son.

Tavis: Again, I’m speaking as a fan. So what I love about this character beyond all the things I’ve just said is that he’s a Black guy and he’s a Black guy playing a role that is atypical for the complex kinds of characters that – I can say we, I’m not an actor – that you all get a chance to play in this business.

So I love that, but I wonder whether or not I should be concerned about the fact that, while he seems to get other stuff right, it’s that love thing that’s missing.

And that too often has driven conversations about the way that Black men are perceived because we seem to lack that love, love for our babies, love for the families that we create that we don’t want to take care of. You know, that stereotype that exists. Am I making sense here?

I love him on the one end. I love that he’s a Black character, but I wonder as a Black man whether or not I should be concerned that, at some point, this guy better figure out this love thing ’cause I don’t want to drive a message that Black men don’t know how to love.

Cheadle: But I think he’s antithetical to that in a way, you know. I think it’s clear that he has deep love for his son and even, you want to talk about a stereotypical situation, Black male vis-à-vis identity, sexual identity, you know – not sexual identity, his gender identity – that’s something that for a lot of our culture is you gotta get your son correct.

You gotta correct that, and he’s not trying to fix his son. He’s trying to understand his son. He loves his son. He’s trying to figure out how to be a part of his life, not to kind of put him on the sideline.

And in that way, I think he’s a champion, you know, that he’s dealing with that in the best way that he knows how to. He doesn’t have a lot of tools to deal with it. His dad’s trying to stuff his toolbox with tools on how to deal with it. But, you know, he’s a clumsy craftsman in that area, but he’s trying.

And as far as his relationships go, just irrespective of his race, he’s got a wound that he does not know how to fix with the abandonment issue that he feels with his mother, you know. And the ruthless nature of his business doesn’t allow him to, in his mind, access those soft parts that would allow him to be vulnerable, to potentially be hurt again.

He’s always feeling like he’s got to be the top dog. And we see in this season coming up where he does let that guard down and what it cost him. Every time he does that we’ve seen it, for Marty, there’s a cost.

Tavis: What were your concerns as exec producer and as star for how this story arc was gonna develop over this coming season?

Cheadle: I just wanted to make sure that we were seeing the character develop and get richer and deeper and that we were gonna put him in more and more challenging situations and have him confront things that we didn’t confront in the first two seasons. And not just for my character, but for all the other characters.

I think this season is great because all the actors on the show, Glynn, Donis, Dawn Olivieri, Ben, Josh, Kristen, they all have – because we’ve been broken up by the end of the second season, we’re all sort of figuring out our ways on our own in this season. And it’s great to get the characters to get richer and more developed.

Tavis: But everything is falling apart. I mean, the fun for those of us who are fans is to see how all these broken pieces are going to either come back together or not.

Cheadle: And in what form will they be when they come back together.

Tavis: Yeah. That’s gotta be fun, though.

Cheadle: It’s a lot of fun ’cause, like I said, it’s something that I’m left at the end of every season going, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do now?” You know, the end of season one, he doesn’t have a business really, but he’s got all of his people around him, but his family’s not there. His son’s left to go live with his mom, his dad’s like “I’m gonna leave you alone,” he pieces out. He’s by himself.

At the end of the second season, he’s got his family, but his business family is gone. Doug’s stayed. You know, Clyde has gone on to work with his ex-wife which is a nightmare and Jeannie has stayed too. So he’s on his own.

So we’re, again, all these disparate places and journeys are trying to figure out, like you said, how we get back together and, when we get back together, what does that animal look like? And it’s not the same.

Tavis: This might seem like a kiss-up or maybe it is. I don’t know. But I think it’s true nonetheless, which is that it’s not often, for me at least as a fan, that I see a show that is cast so well from like top to bottom. Some of these folks are folk we know like Don Cheadle.

Other persons in the cast you mentioned we haven’t really known as well before now, but the casting seems so perfect.

Cheadle: Felicia Fasano has done a great job at really bringing interesting people and our casting process is not rigorous, but we’re all involved and very tuned in to the types that we’re trying to bring in. It’s great this year. We have T.I. doing an arc on the show and (inaudible) is doing an arc.

You know, that’s a big part of our show this year and that’s casting that I don’t think people would have assumed would happen in this show. But it’s turned into really an interesting story line.

Tavis: Knowing you as I do over these years, I expect with your humility you’ll set this aside. But I want to explore for a second anyway, and that is whether or not you are just doing the work or whether or not you are consciously or have at any point consciously thought about the doors that are being opened for other actors because this character is so successful on Showtime.

Cheadle: I hadn’t thought of that. I mean, it’s hopeful, yeah.

Tavis: I mean, there are moments in any business where somebody does something and we haven’t seen that before and what it does, hopefully, is open the doors for other cats to do.

Cheadle: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, you know, when this part was brought to me, Matthew Carnahan, the show’s creator, Jessika Borsiczky, one of our producers, Stephen Hopkins and Kate Garwood, but it was really because David Nevins, the president of Showtime, said, “I think you could play this part.”

And I thought I could play the part, but I would never, you know, traditionally have been seen for this kind of a part. So it was really his sort of thinking outside the box that created this whole situation.

And then I think, you know, we just took our lead from there and then we wanted to cast people who were not necessarily conventional, but when you see them in the roles, I don’t know who else could have played this role any better than the people that we have.

So if there were doors being opened behind me, that’s fantastic. Because in this business right now, the doors are closing. They’re not really opening. For everybody, they’re closing.

Tavis: And what do you make of that?

Cheadle: Well, it’s just gotten more corporate and it’s just, you know, when the world collapsed and the financial situation happened, everything was looked at as a piece of portfolio as opposed to, you know, a place where this is still about dreams and fantasy in a way and people are trying to quantify it and make it about a bottom line.

And when that becomes the driver, then, you know, the gambles are less and we need people who are gamblers in this business. We need people who are willing to go I can’t quite say why on paper that’s gonna work, but I think it will and I’m gonna back that.

So those kinds of people are getting crowded out and the people that are being put in their seats are more and more corporate and thinking of the bottom line and, like I said, how to quantify the outcome of something as opposed to championing something that they just think is great.

Tavis: To your point now, let me slide from the character you play from Marty Kaarn to Don Cheadle in the real world. And I want to talk about a couple of projects that you’re working on beyond the Showtime show, “House of Lies” because I’m fascinated by them to begin with.

But your comment now is, I think, the time is propitious in that when you are an actor and, in your case, you’re an actor and a producer and director – you know, you can do whatever you want to do. How do you stay ahead of that curve?

And I’m asking ’cause here we are at the start of this new year and everybody’s trying to figure out, you know, I hope, how to squeeze the most out of this year.

And so much of what you just said really speaks to, you know, when you’re trying to dream and trying to have and trying to accomplish, you got to have a game plan and you got to try to as best you can stay ahead of the curve.

So you’ve just given a brilliant dissertation on what’s happening in this business, how it’s contracting – no pun intended. How did you ass as individual, producer, actor, artist, how do you stay ahead of that curve or get ahead of that curve?

Cheadle: Well, I think by just not stopping [laugh]. I mean, literally by continuing to go after material that you want. And to me, the biggest thing you can do is be a writer, is be someone who develops their own material and finds those things that are exciting to them.

And then you got to really just beat the bushes and go out and find people who still have that maverick kind of ideology where they’re willing to potentially take a risk.

And you have to hedge those bets by doing what the business requires and putting people in certain seats that they need to see in seats to feel comfortable about. And you have to be smart about how you put those pieces of, you know, your business together.

And that’s just the way it is. Unless you bump into some, you know, huge deep pocketed whale who just doesn’t care about money…

Tavis: Or win Power Ball, yeah [laugh].

Cheadle: Yeah. And they’re out there. But everybody’s like, “Hey, whale, wanna play with me?” You find the right one, you know, you’re good.

Tavis: Everybody’s a whale sugar, huh?

Cheadle: That’s right [laugh].

Tavis: All right. So I mentioned these other projects that you’re working on that I want to talk about. At the top of my list – and I ask you about this every time I see you, whether it’s on this stage or on the street somewhere.

Don, what’s up with Miles? How’s the Miles project coming along? So tell me what’s up with Miles.

Cheadle: It’s coming. It’s coming along. I mean, we’re at the one yard line.

Tavis: That close?

Cheadle: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Don’t tempt me now. One yard line. That’s like…

Cheadle: I’m not trying to tempt myself, yeah. No, I mean, we’re right there. I mean, our plans are to go into production this year in the summer.

Tavis: How long has this been on your docket?

Cheadle: Five, six, maybe seven years. I’m not sure.

Tavis: It is always amazing to me in over the course of doing this show for these years, I’ve sat and talked to a lot of people. And five or six years is a long time, but I’ve sat and talked to people here who’ve been working on stuff for 10 – it’s like glaciers.

Cheadle: It’s just the way it is. It’s just the way it is.

Tavis: It’s like a glacier place in this business. You’re working on something 10, 15, 20 years trying to get a project and finally…

Cheadle: Yeah, and then you move on to something else and something comes back, you’re like, oh. Somebody goes, “What about that thing?” and, like I said, you put the right butt in the right chair and someone comes forward and loves that person for this and somebody does a projection of, you know, foreign sales and it spits out a number.

And then you’ve got a quantified piece that they go, “Okay, I’ll back that.” And I think there’s also been something that’s helped this year is really the success of Black films last year, you know. You know, “The Butler” and…

Tavis: What did you make of that? Because, I mean, there’s been so much commentary in barbershops and beauty salons and Black organizations, to say nothing of the Black blogosphere. There’s been so much – I mean, a lot of it good.

I’ve seen a lot of good pieces written about certainly in the Obama era whether we make too much of this, whether it’s, you know, a phenomenon, whether it happens once every blue moon and it won’t happen again for another 20 years like Haley’s Comet, whether this really is a moment that something is going to come out of this.

I mean, how did you – again, there’s so many points of view. How did you read all the success of that stuff last year?

Cheadle: I think it’s a bit of everything that you said. I think there’s something about it that’s cyclical. I mean, if you were to ask Black people in the 70s is this a good time for movies, they’d say you’re damn right. If you ask them in the 80s, they’d say absolutely, you know, if you were in a gangster movie. You know what I mean [laugh]? Damn straight.

Tavis: Good time for a gangster movie, yeah, yeah.

Cheadle: So I think it’s a sign curve, you know. It depends on when you ask and it depends on what it is. But I definitely think that our president and just sort of that identity being so front and center has had something to do with the way people buy into a story. I think that also has to do with what’s happening overseas because, look, unless your movie can sell foreign, it doesn’t matter, you know.

The domestic part of the box office is such a small consideration to a studio anyway nowadays because the movie’s got to do business worldwide. So the stories have to be thought of as being profitable in Argentina, Italy, London, France, you know.

Like I said, you have to be thoughtful about the way you go about projects. But really it’s hard to quantify. We’ll see. I wonder in three or four years if we’re still going to be saying this is the golden age.

Tavis: One of the more fascinating points that I – and I’m not sure I’ve come to a conclusion or a specific answer on this as yet, but you’re the expert here. You’re the actor and the producer.

But one of the more interesting and fascinating tenets that I’ve been wrestling with about this year of the Black film, so to speak, is why it is that these projects always tend to be historic in nature. It’s as if Hollywood can’t deal with Negroes in real time. We got to go back…

Cheadle: And who can, Tavis, really? I mean really. Let’s be honest [laugh].

Tavis: It’s like if it’s not a project way back when in segregation or slavery or something, it’s like we can’t deal with real day. As Sly Stone would say, we can’t do with everyday Negroes. It’s got to be a historic project.

I hadn’t really thought about that. Somebody brought that to my attention. You know what? There’s something there.

Cheadle: Well, I mean, look. It’s still…

Tavis: Except Marty Kaarn, of course.

Cheadle: Of course. But it’s still probably, you know, one or two of the number one or number two of the biggest issues for us to deal with as a country. Not even just as a country, but how we deal with race is something that we are uncomfortable approaching.

And a movie like “12 Years a Slave” has started a lot of those discussions about how we deal with that. Did you see the Golden Globes?

Tavis: I did. I saw it.

Cheadle: Did you see Amy Poehler say, “I’m so glad for “12 Years a Slave. It really changed my view about slavery.” She was like how did you think about, and she just went on [laugh]. I think that’s so hilarious.

And, you know, it’s something that we’re still not willing to, as a society, talk about or deal with or come to grips with, our history and what it means for us today. And, you know, if you wonder now if that’s true, you just need one incident to happen and then you see we’re right back.

Tavis: So white folk, Black folk, everybody loved the music of Miles Davis. I don’t know if I’m like putting you in a pitch meeting, but I am curious as to what the story is about Miles, given how complex a character he was, artistic genius, of course, giant. What’s the story that you want to tell about Miles?

Cheadle: All of that, you know. Without trying to give short shrift to a career that, you know, spanned 50 years where he was actually potent and relevant and changed music four times, you know. He went left and music went left, not just jazz, which was incidentally a word that he hated and didn’t cosign to that idea at all. He said he played social music.

So to me, it’s really getting into all of those things, these ideas that we have about who he was and about what the music meant to him and knocking all those things down. I want to make the anti-biopic biopic.

I don’t want to make a movie about the facts of his life because those don’t matter to me as much. You know, I don’t care when he met John Coltrane. I don’t care about when he went and played with Charlie Parker unless that says something deeper about who he is and why that mattered to him at that time.

So our story is smaller in nature, hoping to be more specific, to get everything. So we just take a couple of days in his life during a period of time when he wasn’t actually playing, when he put down the horn for five years and was trying to figure out how to come back. That’s when our story takes place.

Tavis: That might even be more fascinating.

Cheadle: It was to me. I know when I’m reading the research and I get to “and then I didn’t play for five years,” I’m like, okay, I need to know about that part.

Tavis: So you’re in another project. St. Vincent’s or – tell me about this right quick.

Cheadle: Yeah, the Bill Murray stars. Yeah, it’s a – I’m really proud of that movie. Bill Murray plays a curmudgeonly, you know, antisocial non-PC cat who…

Tavis: It’s been cast well, then.

Cheadle: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: ‘Cause Murray can do that [laugh].

Cheadle: He’s gravy. He’s fantastic. And he’s just a dude who’s trying to live his life and literally gets run into and starts a relationship with a young kid who sort of unlocks him and gets beneath that shell. And we get to find out who he is. It’s a plot point that I don’t want to ruin, but this kid kind of opens him up.

Tavis: And finally, because you always are a humanist of the first order. You care about the world and there’s always something that you’re working on regarding that. So Miles plays social music. You care about social causes and social issues. This climate change E.P. project I read something about that you’re working on?

Cheadle: Yeah, “Years of Living Dangerously.” That’ll be premiering on Showtime too. James Cameron and Jerry Weintraub producing it and there’s about 12 of us that went to various places in the world to investigate how climate change is affecting people present day right now, not something that’s going to happen 50 years down the road or 100 years down the road, but right not today.

Tavis: Marty Kaarn’s a busy man, but so is Don Cheadle [laughs]. So Sunday nights on Showtime, join me and millions of others, for that matter. They run it like 18 times through the week, so you can catch it in one of those airings. But you got to watch “House of Lies.” I love it.

Starring and E.P.’d by one Don Cheadle. And the coming months, a bunch of other stuff that Don’s doing that we just talked about and we’ll be looking for as well. Mr. Cheadle, you’re welcome back here any time, sir. Happy new year, and have a great season.

Cheadle: Thank you. Good to see you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you, man. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: August 13, 2014 at 10:17 pm