Don Cheadle: The Missionary

Being great at being bad in Devil in a Blue Dress and Out of Sight made Don Cheadle one of Hollywood's most respected character actors. Now he's reaching for fun and the stars in Mission to Mars.



Don Cheadle erupted with such likable, screen-grabbing malevolence as the thrill-killer "Mouse" in Carl Franklin's 1995 film Devil in a Blue Dress that, after 10 years of work on-screen, big and small, he was crowned an overnight success. A blessing, certainly, but once he'd been so bone-deep believable in that role, he was every casting agents first choice to play the showy lowlife in whatever ambitiously off-center movie was going into production. So he proceeded to play a stereo-store-owner-cum-porn-star in Boogie Nights, the antacid-popping gangsta drug pusher in Bulworth and the goldfish-squashing prison kingpin in Out of Sight. His talent was inescapably apparent, but he finally turned to cable movies to leave the thug life behind. As complex and conflicted Sammy Davis Jr. in HBO's The Rat Pack, and as a 1940's Southern school-teacher who helps a wrongly accused death row inmate rediscover his humanity in A Lesson Before Dying, Don Cheadle gave stunning performances of a completely different kind.

Now Cheadle is clearly trying to wriggle the rest of the way out of the trap that put his career into high gear. The strategy? Doing a couple of big-budget potential audience pleasers. In Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars, he plays the only survivor on a mission to the red planet that goes mysteriously awry. Next he'll portray Nicolas Cage's hip, streetwise angel in Rush Hour director Brett Ratner's It's a Wonderful Life-like comedy Family Man, "Contrasts and changes are the things that make you want to go into acting," says the quiet-spoken actor, who's laid-back and ready with a laugh over breakfast at his favorite neighborhood diner in Culver City, California. "Besides, this last year in film, people pushed in every direction and made a lot of money doing it. Making money is always the idea, of course, but now I think it's time to try something fun. It's open season. My attitude is, you know, let's freak it."

Freaking it is not entirely new for a guy who has already sandwiched in the occasional high-tech popcorn epic like Volcano, in which he (and everyone else) was wasted, despite his best efforts. But hopefully this time the Kansas City native, who worked steadily on "Fame," "Picket Fences" and "China Beach" after graduating in 1986 from the respected California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, will freak it in a hit. In Mission to Mars, Cheadle's one of a cadre of superb actors that includes Tim Robbins and Gary Sinise, all apparently hired to give the sci-fi flick that extra jolt of credibility (in the tradition of Alien). Presumably, these gifted pros, like those in Alien, were left to work the details out for themselves, since director De Palma, like Alien's Ridley Scott, isn't generally known as an actor's director. Cheadle grins at the assumption and says, "I think the idea with him was, 'You take care of that actory shit and I'll try to do this.'" The "this" he demonstrates by miming serious "directing" gestures, adding, "Without telling too much about the story, my character is different than the others and a lot of my changes took place internally, so I didn't have to deal as much with the special effects. The other guys were hanging from wires for weeks."

Now Cheadle's about to leave for Manhattan to shoot his small but key role in Family Man. He laughs in anticipation of the New York experience. "I saw the greatest cartoon about New York and L.A. In the top frame, labeled New York, a man walks toward you and says, 'Fuck you!' but above, his thought bubble says, 'Hello.' In the L.A. frame, the man walking toward you says, 'Hello,' but his thought bubble reads, 'Fuck you!"

What does Cheadle hope to do once he's got Mission to Mars and Family Man in the can? "Turn 36," he says slyly. Truth is, if one of these mainstream movies takes off, it'll take Cheadle with it and ensure a substantial payoff for future work. Then he'll have what every actor wants--the financial freedom that makes for artistic freedom. Unlike a tot of actors, though, he's already had respect for years. Cheadle has reason to want the security big per-movie bucks bring. He has two young daughters with actress Bridgid Coulter, his costar in John Singleton's 1997 film Rosewood, As if on cue, Cheadle gets interrupted at this point by the ringing of his cell phone. He grins an ironic apology and says, "See? I got product to move,"


Barrett D. Ford also writes about Sydney, Australia in this issue of Movieline.