Don Cheadle first garnered a lot of mainstream attention with his performance opposite Denzel Washington in “Devil In a Blue Dress”, for which he was awarded the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Best Supporting Actor prize. Since then, of course, he’s appeared in a wide variety of mainstream and independent films, earning a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for the searing “Hotel Rwanda”, and further burnishing his sociopolitical credentials as one of the producers of the Oscar-winning “Crash”, which he was instrumental in helping get made. Heck, he was even nominated for a Grammy Award in 2004, for his narration/dramatization of the Walter Mosley novel “Fear Itself”.
In his new film, writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s “The Guard”, Cheadle plays a FBI agent, Wendell Everett, who arrives in rural Ireland to head up a large international drug trafficking investigation, and is then forced to rely on an eccentric small town cop, Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), with a confrontational and crass personality. We had a chance to chat one-on-one with Cheadle recently, about working up a multi-layered accent for the film, the subversive racial humor coursing through this most curious and entertaining little dramedy, and his work on a long-gestating movie about Miles Davis, which will hopefully start shooting in several months. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: When you’re playing a relationship that hinges on this sense of antagonistic stand-off, does it help to maintain some emotional distance for the sake of the movie, or do you still just want to get to know the person as much as possible?
Don Cheadle: I always do. I think that when you know someone better and you have a relationship where you’re comfortable, you can push things even further. There’s no danger if you know the other person. You don’t have to protect yourself. Brendan’s a great guy. We got along well from the first moment, and I think it actually allowed us to try and dig even deeper into stuff.
ShockYa: What was the physical production process like? Because of its narrative adventurousness, I guess, the film strikes me as being necessarily rooted in place, and a location setting.
DC: We shot it on the west coast of Ireland, in Galway, which is its own place — singular even to Ireland. It was pretty harsh conditions. It was the wettest season in recorded history, which is saying a lot for Ireland. So we had some challenges to deal with in terms of the weather, but we were fortunate in that we only got completely rained out one day, and then came back and did half of [that day] in Wicklow and half of it in Galway. But other than that we got through the movie all right. With a small budget like ours, we were up against it — we didn’t have a lot of room for error.
ShockYa: When you’re working on an independent film like The Guard, that doesn’t have a lot of money but is so predicated on the relationship of the two main characters, is there any time built-in for rehearsal or do you just have to meet your costar and hope it works out, and that your styles and sensibilities mesh?
DC: Brendan and I spent a day together (before shooting). He was out here in L.A. for the Golden Globes; he was nominated and won for (playing Winston) Churchill. So he was here with John Michael McDonaugh, the writer-director, and we got together and read the script on one day, and that was kind of it. We didn’t have a lot of time to work on stuff, so we were very happy that when we showed up and met each other and started going through the script we realized we were very like-minded about the story and who these guys were. That’s not always the case, but when you have a movie with a budget like this you don’t usually have the luxury of a lot of rehearsal time.
ShockYa: What was the appeal or attraction of the material for you — was it the juxtaposition of the narrative elements with the novel setting of Ireland, or was it the story itself?
DC: For me, the script was just very fully realized, and the characters (stood out). There was no “no,” there was no downside. I guess John was something of an unknown, but it was clear to me from conversations that we had that he had a strong point-of-view, was very movie-literate and was putting a good team around him. I’ve worked with several first-time directors, and usually when they’re able to create a team and they have a strong idea about the kind of movie they want to make you’re all right.
ShockYa: This is perhaps a weird question, but the film plays the sort of casual bigotry and geographical cluelessness and inappropriate mouth that Gerry possesses for disbelieving laughs. Did you ever encounter that sort of oblivious narrow-mindedness growing up, or even professionally — people assuming that as an African-American actor you’d be well suited to playing thugs or something?
DC: I think that kind of ignorance is starting to go away. In some pockets, I’m sure it’s alive and well and thriving, but it’s kind of hard to be an American and be aware at all of popular culture in this country and hold some of those ideas still. Those attitudes started to go away when I was a teenager, and have [continued to dissipate]. I think hip hop changed the world — and not just the music, but our whole identity as a culture — and how people became informed. The integration of our cultures has made America stronger, and that prejudice and ignorance has abated somewhat. Now clearly you’re going to find it in places, and yeah, I’ve heard a lot of it. I grew up in the midwest, so it’s not the first time someone has said something stupid to me. Which is why I liked how it was dealt with in this film — [Gerry] is looking you right in the face and asking you these absurd questions, and if you’re really paying attention you know that he’s not a bigot. If you’re watching the relationship that he has with the doctor who’s taking care of his mom, you can see some stuff come out. He’s someone who’s literate… he’s clearly got a sense of humor, and he’s smart. It’s hard to find someone who has that combination [of traits] who is a bigot, or an idiot. They’re usually not.
ShockYa: The film alights briefly, via Wendell’s history, upon the idea that there’s a lot that we share in common, but regionally the United States is also very, very different — that the American south is very different from the west, and urban America is different than rural America.
DC: That we’re not all the same. Absolutely. I think when you talk about Europe, all the countries are so close together, and everybody has a passport because all these other countries are maybe 15 or 20 minutes away. And our country is so big and we all speak the same language, but the culture is not the same. And there’s the ignorance that happens from this side to that side as well. I love that my character goes over there as this hotshot FBI agent, the head of this crime division, and he doesn’t know anything about Ireland and doesn’t really care to — until he meets this guy, and the guy kind of starts putting him up on game.
ShockYa: I know you’ve given amusing interviews about your accent for the Ocean’s films, and how you said you went with something big in the first movie and now you’re stuck with it. The accent that you struck upon for Wendell is kind of layered. He’s nomadic, from Atlanta but by way of Wisconsin. What discussions did you have with John about how pronounced you wanted that accent to be, and what dialects or inflections it might include?
DC: It’s so funny because when I first came over and met John I just started doing it when we were reading, and he was saying, “Oh, I didn’t even imagine that he would have an accent, but I guess that he would if he’s from the South.” And I said, “Well, he’s actually not from the South.” As you said, originally he’s from Wisconsin. To me, that was a clue. And this happens often, where a writer will have written something that they may not even intend in that way, but to me is a clue. This is a guy who named his kids Stokely and Dewey. He’s trying to let people know that, “I may have been from Wisconsin, [and have] this Midwestern, whitebeard — for lack of a better term — identity, but I’m serious, and I’m pro-black and verging on militant.” There’s a bit of affectation going on there.
ShockYa: Yeah, to me it hinted at this black-power consciousness that gave the film a bit of tension. Wendell keeps his composure when he’s faced with all these outrageous things that Gerry is saying, but early on especially you’re wondering if he’s going to blow his top.
DC: Yeah, like, “That’s what you want me to do, so I can’t do it.”
ShockYa: You’re also attached to a Miles Davis biopic, which sounds fascinating.
DC: Yeah, except I wouldn’t call it a biopic. We’re working on a film about a couple days in Miles’ life, and it’s wall-to-wall his music, and wall-to-wall him.
ShockYa: Is it centered around the recording of Kind of Blue, or Sketches of Spain, or another album?
DC: It’s actually during his silent period. It’s a very interesting take on the genre, to me. And that’s why I’m excited about it, because it’s not a cradle-to-grave, right-down-the-middle story where you’re [hitting all these biographical] benchmarks, like when he met Charlie Bird, and was introduced to John Coltrane. It’s not trying to be what I think a PBS show could do much better, which is an overview of Miles Davis’ life. It’s a movie that Miles Davis would have wanted to star in.
ShockYa: To me, that’s the big challenge of so many of these life stories you want to see on screen, be it Miles Davis or Jackie Robinson or Abraham Lincoln. They led such full lives.
DC: And Miles Davis was relevant as a musician for 40 years. Where do you get in and out? How do you do that without giving every bit of his life short shrift? So we didn’t want to try to cram into a 90-minute movie, or even 120-minute movie, every bit of information that we could. We wanted to create a piece of art, a piece of film, that would intrigue people and maybe want to make them do their own investigations of his life, and decide what his life and music meant to them. We’re working with a lot of hip hop producers, and rock and acid rock producers — Miles Davis seeded everybody, musically. Music was where Miles lived, so it’s not about some staid piece of history, it’s about now.
ShockYa: Is this still in the script stage, and do you have a director attached?
DC: It’s written, it’s done, and we’re getting the money together right now to go this fall. But every time I talk about this I kind of get slammed a bit because people get the wrong idea, so I’m just going to keep my cards close to my vest until we’re up and running.
Written by: Brent Simon