The ‘Mouse’ in ‘Devil’ Is Roaring : Movies: A scene-stealing performance as a dangerous but lovable sociopath could be a breakthrough role for Don Cheadle.
Judging by the promotional poster for “Devil in a Blue Dress,” director Carl Franklin’s adaptation of Walter Mosley’s novel of 1990, it’s hard to imagine anyone upstaging Denzel Washington, who stars in the film. As reluctant gumshoe Easy Rawlins, he looks ridiculously handsome in his short fedora.
Nonetheless, when actor Don Cheadle is on screen, Washington gets a run for the money. Cast as Mouse, a sociopathic hit man and all-purpose loose cannon, Cheadle gives an electrifying performance and achieves the seemingly impossible: He makes a coldblooded killer lovable and funny.
Talking with the 30-year-old actor in a courtyard at TriStar Pictures in Culver City, one encounters an upbeat, soft-spoken man who seems light-years away from the gritty world inhabited by black Angelenos in the ‘40s, when “Devil in a Blue Dress” is set.
“The power of God has taken care of me and blessed me with lots of opportunities,” says the actor, who’s been a regular on the television series “Picket Fences” for the past two years. “And whether this film turns out to be ‘my big break’ or is a total flop, there’s no reason for me to think He’s gonna stop taking care of me now.”
Reminiscent of “Chinatown” in its allusions to local history, Franklin’s film is the first attempt to bring the legendary Central Avenue, a now-defunct district of clubs and dance halls in South-Central L.A., to the screen; it’s a highly ambitious film and it may well mark a turning point in Cheadle’s career.
Born in Missouri and raised in Denver, Cheadle came to Los Angeles in 1982 to attend CalArts, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater in 1986. The middle child in a family of three children, Cheadle reports that his father is a psychologist, his mother is a teacher and that his acting career began in the fifth grade when he appeared in a production of “Charlotte’s Web.”
“I played Templeton the rat--I guess I’m destined to play rodents,” he recalls with a laugh. “I remember carrying my script around and studying it like I do now--I don’t know why, but I was serious about acting even then.
“I was in lots of plays throughout high school, and was very involved with music then, too,” continues Cheadle, who lives in Venice with his girlfriend and their 13-month-old daughter. “I play sax but I’m reluctant to call myself a musician because of the profound respect I have for real musicians like [John] Coltrane, Miles [Davis], [Thelonious] Monk and Bird. I’d have to stop acting altogether to pursue music with the dedication it deserves.
“Anyhow, after I left CalArts I moved to North Hollywood and started working. Actually, I started working while I was in school--I got my first job in 1985--and had an agent by the time I left school. Acting is the only job I’ve ever had--I’ve done lots of theater and have directed five plays,” he adds.
As to how he came to be cast as Mouse, Cheadle explains that landing the role was a circuitous process. “I’d never read Mosley’s book, but my agent gave it to me when she heard they were making this film and asked me what I thought about the part of Mouse,” he begins. “I told her it was a cool part but that I didn’t see myself in it. She wanted me to go up for it anyway, but they wouldn’t even audition me. I was in ‘Punk,’ a student film Carl Franklin made when he was at AFI, and I guess he had it in his head that I was still 19 years old.
“Then one day I was in a crowded doctors’ office where I’d been waiting so long I’d fallen asleep in a chair by the door. Suddenly the door opened and banged into me, I woke up and Carl was standing there. We talked for a while and went our separate ways, then a few months later his office called and asked me to come in for an audition, which I did. He and I went through a scene and it went well, so he brought in Denzel and he and I read together and really had a ball. Carl’s office called the next day and told me I didn’t get the part, then they called again a week later and asked me to come in dressed as Mouse. When I walked in in my ‘40s suit, Denzel said, ‘This is Mouse,’ and that night they finally told me I had the part.
“I had six weeks to prepare so I did lots of research that included spending a week in Houston, which is where Mouse is from,” he continues. “I met a few people from the ‘40s who were of the world Mouse lived in, and having talked with some of them I can tell you that gangsters of that era were different from gangsters today. There was more honor among thieves then, and they had a strong sense of community and all kept each other in check. Crack, of course, has put an end to all that.”
As to what’s next, Cheadle says that he plans to leave “Picket Fences,” and hopes to get out of television altogether. “I plan to focus on films and theater because with television you’re forced to deal with major script changes every day. There’s no time to refine things, and they often cut things that are key to where you’re trying to take your character. I find it very frustrating.”
Recently returned from Minneapolis, where he directed a production of “Hundreds of Sisters and One Big Brother” for the Mixed Blood Theater, Cheadle is currently working on “Groomed,” a play he wrote and will direct for presentation Dec. 6-7 at the Taper, Too (located at the John Anson Ford Theater), as part of the Taper’s New Work Festival. “It’s a story about four black men who go to a wedding in Nebraska--essentially it’s a piece about rituals,” he says of the play, which will also be performed in January at the Hartford Stage.
“After that I’m wide open,” he concludes, seeming amazingly comfortable with the fact. “I’d love to star in an August Wilson play because that’s the kind of work I feel the closest to, and I plan to continue writing. It’s yet to be seen if playing Mouse will bring anything new into my life, so for now, it’s just business as usual.”
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