Don Cheadle has been such a consummate chameleon that audiences may not recall how many times they've seen him. When they do see him, they may register his presence with a puzzled, then delighted double take.
On TV in the mid-1990s, the now-40-year-old actor made his biggest splash as a comically earnest district attorney on David E. Kelley's quirky dramedy Picket Fences.
In movies, he first generated worldwide buzz as Denzel Washington's homicidally jumpy friend, Mouse, in 1995's Devil in a Blue Dress -- a man so hard-wired with violence he could declare, with a straight face, "If you didn't want me to kill him, why did you leave me alone in a room with him?"
And in the last two months, he's portrayed two kinds of gangsters -- a pseudo-philosophic tropical kingpin in After the Sunset and a bandit with a terrible Cockney accent in Ocean's Twelve.
So it's a wonderful turnaround that he's almost certain to win an Oscar nomination this year for breathing fierce yet controlled life and astonishing quiet strength into a sterling good guy.
Caught in the crossfire
In the fact-based Hotel Rwanda, Terry George's extraordinary movie about the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (opening Friday in Baltimore), Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, a manager at a swank hotel who is caught in the crossfire when the Hutu tribal majority takes aim at the Tutsi minority (and Hutu moderates). Although identified as a Hutu, Rusesabagina is actually the son of a Hutu father and Tutsi mother, and is married to a Tutsi named Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo); they are the parents of two sons and two daughters.
Getting them out would be the basis of a hair-raising saga. But exploiting all his managerial wiles, Rusesabagina provides shelter and salvation not just to his own family, but to more than 1,200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus who swarm into the Hotel des Mille Collines in the capital city of Kigali. Rusesabagina prides himself on using taste as a business tool: "If I give a businessman 10,000 francs, what does that matter to him? He is rich. But when I give him a Cohiba cigar straight from Havana, Cuba -- hey... you know, that is style."
Connoisseurship is only one weapon in Rusesabagina's arsenal. He can also rise to full-frontal eloquence, urging people to deploy their cell phones as lifelines and grab listeners around the globe by the throat.
During an interview at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., in mid-November, Cheadle defused any praise for his own brilliance. "I don't have a specific technique. And by the time I show up the part's there, the writing's already done. Ninety percent of the heavy lifting is putting the part on the page, and if it's well-crafted, for me, it's not that hard to buy into a set of circumstances."
Cheadle is compactly built, and his features could be called "chiseled" if that wouldn't undermine their expressive impact. He has the elastic intelligence and flexibility one associates with British theater actors. But Cheadle is American through and through -- born in Kansas City, Mo., and raised in Lincoln, Neb., and Denver. Introduced to the teachings of Stanislavsky, Uta Hagen and Sanford Meisner in a high school acting class in Denver, he spent his college years at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton was one of his suitemates.
In the acclaimed 1998 nonfiction book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, the New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch sums up Hotel Rwanda's hero this way: "Paul [Rusesabagina] is a mild-mannered man, sturdily built and rather ordinary-looking -- a bourgeois hotel manager after all -- and that is how he seemed to regard himself as well, as an ordinary person who did nothing extraordinary in refusing to cave in to the insanity that swirled about him." It's an elegant statement of moral character.
But Cheadle, his all-American spontaneity clicking under levels of scruple and cultivation, brings to his acting more than a steady ethical compass. In a feat comparable to Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles and Leonardo DiCaprio's Howard Hughes, he locates a three-way intersection of sensitivity, strength and observation that makes a viewer watch this film with senses primed. Cheadle, Okonedo and moviemaker George (Some Mother's Son) put us right in the eye of the Rwandan storm.
As each said before the film's Nov. 17 premiere at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., they relied on Rusesabagina's rationality to make sense of an era consumed by hysteria.
Even in real life, it was Cheadle who created an oasis of sanity amid a discussion of disaster. George was understandably anxious for his film to be seen as art and entertainment, not just social protest; Rusesabagina was punctilious about nailing down the facts; the gifted, beautiful (and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained) Okonedo was in awe of the movie's potent history. But Cheadle exhaled ease and command.
Of course, what made Cheadle's latest breakthrough possible was George's decision to concentrate on "the hotel thing. Even now," says George, "when Paul goes to hotels he is able to tell you what's working, what's not. He's still the perfect manager. How he uses that, for me, was the great aspect of this story. And staying close to his commitment to his own family -- and then to his wider family -- was the perfect way to introduce the political backdrop without beating the audience over the head with it. Paul was taking in people all the time, from the poorest to the most influential. There were many Hutu moderates and Tutsi ministers hanging out in that hotel and they were the top of the execution list were they not, Paul?"
"Yes, yes," Rusesabagina answers. Then he adds that he developed genuine relationships even with some Hutu soldiers: "I can tell you that the hard line of the Hutu soldiers was not more than 20 percent."
Perhaps because of his eclectic, wide-ranging acting regimen, Cheadle says there's no difference in his acting process whether he's playing Mouse or Rusesabagina. He feels his way into every role with a novelistic and theatrical sensibility. "You dispel your disbelief and buy into the script's set of circumstances. The nuances you add here and there result from working with the director and listening and reacting to the other actors."
Layers of education
Of course, Hotel Rwanda also required listening and reacting to Rusesabagina. "We would go out to dinner and drink, and I would get a feel for what his life had been. But I mostly relied on the fact that he had approved of the script and was in concert with Terry on the man he was at that time. I kind of relaxed into it," Cheadle says.
"I kind of relaxed into it" is an amazing admission, both because of the story's terrors and because of Rusesabagina's distinctive personality. Rusesabagina, the son of farmers, attended the Faculty of Theology in Cameroon and studied hotel management in Nairobi and Switzerland. "That is a huge part of who he is," says Cheadle. "He has all these layers of education and a sort of Euro-centric perspective about things. And that served him well in Rwanda -- when this film starts, it is a powder keg. Rwandans have a saying about themselves: 'When the Rwandans are quiet, it is time to be worried.' Those involved knew there was going to be this 'final solution.' But everyone else at least knew that the social mores were about to flip."
Except, at first, Rusesabagina. Did George and Cheadle realize that they risked making Rusesabagina appear dense? "Oh, absolutely," admits Cheadle. "That was the content of our discussions every day. Is this naivete? Denial? Disbelief? I think for Paul it was a mixture of all those things. For me, the challenge was to modulate them -- and then, once he sees the horrible situation, to show him being strong enough to face the basic questions: 'How is it going to be stopped? Is it going to be stopped? And am I going to be killed today?'"
To Cheadle, even Rusesabagina's initial inertia brings his character "the sort of greatness we can bond to. I was at a screening when someone asked, 'What were you drawing on for this courage? What were you finding that was allowing you to do this?' He said, 'I didn't have a plan and I wasn't drawing on anything. I was just doing my job, moment to moment. I thought I would be killed every day, so why not try and do everything I could to help?'
"What Paul brings to bear are all those skills that he learned as a hotel manager -- dealing with myriad personalities, knowing how to keep people in line or to pacify them, knowing how to wheel and deal to get the best that he can get."
Playing a supremely self-conscious man posed double obstacles for Cheadle. There's a tremendous scene when Paul learns that the people at his hotel are about to be slaughtered while he's serving drinks to a fatuous general at his previous hotel. Paul is at his wit's end. But he's also still a manager acting as if he's at his wit's end to persuade the general to intervene. "That was a very tricky scene. When the general is saying, 'We're not going back to the hotel because the militia is on its way to the hotel,' Paul does have an immediate panic. But Paul still knows he has to keep it together enough to work this guy, to get what he wants out of him," Cheadle says.
A happy marriage
Rusesabagina thinks Cheadle hit the mark. "It's almost too good," he says. "He did it right." He and Cheadle exchanged dozens of e-mails about "who I was, how I react, how I dress, what I eat, when I eat." Then the two "stayed together for a week" and later "15 days. He was always observing me."
The movie's portrayal of Paul's marriage to Tatiana is another triumph for Cheadle. George fostered a feeling of openness and play even when it came to his and Keir Pearson's script. So Cheadle and Okonedo were able to energize a simple portrait of a happy marriage with bits of action that expressed shared humor and intelligence. Reacting to Cheadle, Okonedo improvised a couple of priceless moments. In a comic high point, she wields a shower head like a Magnum .44. In a dramatic high point, she tears off her wedding ring in anger after Paul arrogantly makes a crucial decision for her. With the help of George and Okonedo, Cheadle produces the most fleshed-out and moving portrayal of a male-female relationship he's yet put on the screen.
Okonedo felt the surge of life in the script even before she and Cheadle began making it spark on the set. "It changes all the time. At the beginning she's the one saying, 'You must save the neighbors. I mean you can't just leave them here.' Towards the end, she's feeling, 'Let's just get out now,' and he's saying, 'No, we can't just leave the people here.' And that's like life," Okonedo says.
George puts it differently. "With fact-based feature films, you can get the wine of life, the wine of reality." In Hotel Rwanda, Cheadle delivers him the miracle of clarity and ferment.
Many faces of Don Cheadle
Boogie Nights (1997)
Cheadle plays a second-tier porn actor with a mournful countenance, a dream of using his adult-film earnings to finance his own stereo store, and the charm to ask his pregnant wife when their baby kicks, "How's my little kung fu fighter?"
He was the most original of Original Gangstas, arguing that enlisting young blacks into his drug business was giving them the only growth-sector occupation that's truly open to them right now -- the substance-supply industry.
Out of Sight (1998)
As a gutless boxer turned manager / thug, Cheadle speaks his own unique (often profane) patois: "Well, the man don't just have to die, Foley. I mean, he could accidentally hurt himself falling down on something real hard, you know?"
The Family Man (2000)
He redeems the role of a paranormal taxi driver who helps give Nicolas Cage, a Wall Street tycoon, a glimpse of the life he might have led if he hadn't left his college girlfriend behind to study international banking in London. Cheadle's street-tough guardian angel has genuine warmth, wit and smarts; when Cage protests "I'm in the middle of a deal!" Cheadle shoots right back with, "Well, you're working on a new deal now, baby."
Cheadle invests the stock character of a DEA agent with his own no-bull attitude. He tells one mug, "You aren't getting any cappuccino or biscotti either. You don't like it, call 1-800-CRIMINAL."
-- Michael Sragow