A hard look at himself

Special to The Times

DON CHEADLE can barely stand to watch himself in movies.

"All I can see is everything I'm doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud," he says, animatedly. "I look at it like, 'Ugh, Don, you missed that. You weren't there in that moment. You liar!' "

Since 1995, when he burst upon the scene as Denzel Washington's quick-tempered hit man foil in "Devil in a Blue Dress," Cheadle has consistently delivered attention-getting performances in projects as diverse as Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights," the off-Broadway production of "Topdog/Underdog" and the HBO biopic "The Rat Pack," for which Cheadle, playing Sammy Davis Jr., was nominated for an Emmy. The actor has also built a reputation for stealing scenes from a virtual constellation of better-known, better-paid marquee draws: George Clooney, Denzel Washington, John Travolta and Jackie Chan, to name only a few.

"Don definitely raises the game," says director Brett Ratner, who has cast him in three movies, including "After the Sunset," currently in theaters. "When Pierce [Brosnan] or Nicolas [Cage] is in a scene with him, it raises their game too, because they know they're with one of the greatest actors working today."

He also is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid seeing at the multiplex. In addition to his recent roles in Ratner's tropical heist caper and the indie sleeper "The United States of Leland," Cheadle will appear in a slate of releases.

In December, the Kansas City, Mo., native and CalArts graduate reprises his role as explosives expert Basher Tarr in Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Twelve" (follow-up to the hit "Ocean's Eleven") and portrays Sean Penn's friend and moral consigliere in the drama "The Assassination of Richard Nixon." And then there's "Hotel Rwanda," a wrenching saga of compassion and bravery set against Rwanda's mid-'90s genocide and civil war. The performance -- his first feature lead -- is already generating a steady hum of Oscar buzz.

Cheadle has also executive produced and costars in the dark ensemble comedy "Crash" (set for release in April) and is in development on his directorial debut, an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel "Tishomingo Blues."

"I guess I did every film I wanted to do, so I can't complain" is Cheadle's bloodless appraisal. Casually dressed in sweatpants and a loose-fitting polo shirt and seated with his back to the coastline on the patio of a Santa Monica hotel, Cheadle pauses before adding: "I've been fortunate."

Still, it all does little to persuade the wiry Cheadle, who turns 40 this month, that it's possible to enjoy the on-screen fruits of his labor. Aside from dwelling on perceived imperfections, Cheadle finds it grueling to relive his characters' most painful moments.

"I'm still watching me experiencing levels of emotion that most of us don't want to see ourselves having," he explains. "It's like stepping out of yourself while you're having an argument or crying and being destroyed about something -- you don't want to see yourself doing that. Maybe other actors have a healthier disconnect."

'TREMENDOUS PRECISION'

To hear it from "Nixon" director Niels Mueller, the actor brings a "tremendous precision" to his work. "He understands what's essential -- not only on the whole of a script but down to a scene. Down to specific lines and words in a scene. He's as smart as anyone I've ever met when it comes to filmmaking."

Toward that end, a growing number of directors have drawn upon Cheadle's willingness to finesse character and retool his own dialogue -- even if such on-set revisions don't always contribute to an enriching professional experience. "There have been a lot of movies where the part doesn't exist on the page and I've been called to bring an underdeveloped part to development," says Cheadle. "Which is kind of a compliment but at the same time, not really what I need to do for me. I need to do a part that's there -- that's a fully realized part of the story."

Case in point: his performance as a Caribbean crime kingpin in "After the Sunset."

"Don created this character out of nothing," remembers Brosnan, the film's star. "There was nothing there. He wrote all that stuff himself. He created his own role around the psychological aspect of Idi Amin."

Cheadle's performance in "Hotel Rwanda" stands as a dramatic counterpoint.

Playing Paul Rusesabagina, a real-life hotel manager who repeatedly risked his own life to save hundreds of refugees during the genocidal ethnic cleansing in the Rwandan civil war, was one of the most challenging roles of the actor's career.

"It was the longest time I've had to be another person -- four months," he says. "But I felt a responsibility to Paul, who is still alive, to the story, which is so big, and to the survivors to really get it right. It put a lot of pressure on me."

To perfect the nuances of African accent and mannerism, he relied upon the firsthand accounts of victims and witnesses. "When a survivor is telling you her story and she pulls up her shirt and shows you the ax marks on her back ... that's when it all hits home," Cheadle says. "And all that's in there when you're playing it." But before production on "Hotel Rwanda," director Terry George warned him that he might lose the part. Remembers Cheadle: "Terry was very honest and said, 'I don't know if this is gonna be your movie. If Will Smith or Cuba Gooding Jr. are available and make the money go, I'm gonna go with them.'

"I said, 'I agree,' " continues Cheadle. " 'Whoever you can get, do it, because you need to make this movie. People need to know about this.' I was like, 'Can I help you in any other way? Can I try and scare up some money from people I know? Can I shop the script around?' "

COVERING THE SPREAD

BRETT RATNER likes to tell this story about Cheadle's uncredited cameo as the owner of Chinese soul food restaurant in "Rush Hour 2": "I offered him the role thinking there's no way he's gonna do it. But he told me, 'I'll do it on two conditions. One, I can only speak in Chinese, and two, I get to fight Jackie Chan.' So Don went to train, doing martial arts so that when he went to fight Jackie, he was so on.

"And he practiced his Chinese so much that Jackie said, 'That's the best Chinese I've ever heard from an American!' "

But to hear it from Cheadle, who is married and has two daughters, the desire to flex some actorly muscle wasn't what inspired his creative choices on the film. "I just thought it would be crazy to do.... I just thought it would be nuts to have a black guy in there, speaking Chinese and fighting Jackie Chan," he says. "If I'm gonna do a cameo, I want it to be bananas."

While balancing art and commerce is an abiding dilemma for most creative people, Cheadle uses his mainstream projects to cover the spread on his more creatively nourishing indie efforts.

"To do 'Assassination of Richard Nixon,' you're eating whatever you brought for lunch in your car. You're not making dough," he says. "I didn't make money on 'Hotel Rwanda' or 'Crash,' but that wasn't the goal. 'Ocean's Twelve'? I wanted to do it and I made a lot of money."

Initially aloof, Cheadle grew more relaxed as he discussed the fact that starring roles continue to be hard to come by. However, he admits to becoming pickier. He said he recently told Ratner, "Don't call me again unless it's with the lead in a movie and you've got something interesting."

To combat what he sees as a dearth of movie projects tackling substantive issues, the actor has begun to explore career possibilities outside of acting. For the politically charged "Crash," which explores issues of power and self-identity, Cheadle took on executive producer duties to help facilitate director Paul Haggis' less than politically correct take on race relations. "I like examining and discussing people's differences and the perspectives our differences give us," Cheadle says. "Being a black man in this country, I don't think 'colorless' is a compliment. We're not all the same. So let's talk about it."

Noir novelist Elmore Leonard wrote "Tishomingo Blues" while envisioning Cheadle in the lead role and personally approached him to star in and direct the film. "It seems like the kind of part the town likes me to play -- he's a gangster, kind of smooth, you don't know what his agenda is," says Cheadle. "And Elmore's agent had this theory that first-time directors' first movies are usually really good. That's kind of the myth he's operating under."

But after an initial blush of excitement -- and the commitment of Clooney and Soderbergh to executive produce -- progress on the project has stalled. "Matthew McConaughey was signed and we had Jeff Daniels in there, but it's still in that never-never land," Cheadle says. "It's all budget."

Although he hasn't committed to any jobs soon, Cheadle continues to develop and search out new projects. He recently conferred with director Tom Shadyac about working together on a comedy. And then there's a long-planned reteaming with Soderbergh -- their fifth collaboration. "We're writing something," is all Cheadle will allow.

There's no career strategy beyond that, Cheadle said. "I don't have a real specific plan about how it all works-- what the endgame is," he says. "I had a very good year. This is the body of work. That is what's important to me."

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