Don Cheadle is supposed to be having lunch with his girlfriend.
At least that was his plan, until he was reminded by a publicist of a scheduled interview. Which is why, on a late-fall afternoon in Los Angeles, the actor finds himself in his trailer, seated across a small table from a reporter and eating craft-service pasta off a paper plate while his longtime love, actress Bridgid Coulter, eats separately on a nearby sofa and quietly types away on her phone.
If Cheadle weren’t such a pro, the situation could easily be awkward. But after nearly three decades in Hollywood, this Oscar-nominated movie star — who most recently suited up as War Machine in the summer hit Iron Man 3 — understands that he has a job to do.
He even proves himself a gracious host, making sure his unexpected guest has something to drink.
It helps that Cheadle is eager to talk up his dark comedy, Showtime’s House of Lies, which returns for its third season January 12. While Cheadle’s fearless portrayal of fast-talking, hard-living management consultant Marty Kaan has earned him two well-deserved Primetime Emmy® Award nominations and a Golden Globe, the star believes the series itself deserves more attention.
Created by Matthew Carnahan, the show is as sharp and sophisticated as Marty’s trademark tailored suits but hasn’t yet generated the kind of buzz enjoyed by some of the cable network’s other offerings (see: Homeland and Ray Donovan). Clearly, this frustrates Cheadle.
“We’ll get people looking at the show [for the first time] going, ‘It’s great. I didn’t know about it,’” says the actor, who is also one of the show’s executive producers, with a sigh. “I hear very few people who go, ‘I hate it.’”
He pauses, a self-aware smile spreading across his chiseled face. “Not that they would necessarily tell me — although they had no problem saying they hated Ocean’s Twelve.”
Cheadle’s House is undergoing a bit of a remodel this season, with Marty leaving Galweather & Stearn to make a go of his own start-up. Naturally, all won’t go smoothly. At least initially, he’ll be a lone wolf without the support of righthand woman Jeannie (Kristen Bell), who declared her love for Marty at the end of season two, only to be harshly shut down.
“This year is really about Marty dealing with the wreckage of his past behavior and trying to repair relationships, both professional and personal, especially with Jeannie,” explains Carnahan, also an executive producer (as are Jessika Borsiczky, Stephen Hopkins and David Walpert). “He’s trying to somehow put his world back together.”
The messier Marty Kaan gets, the more invigorated Cheadle becomes, even if — or perhaps because — the quiet superstar, whose humanitarian work includes campaigning for the end of genocide in Darfur, seems to have so little in common with his flashy, self-absorbed character.
“That’s the fun of it,” Cheadle says. “Marty almost feels like a boxer to me — he doesn’t stand still long enough to get touched.
“It always takes me a minute to kind of find him again,” he continues. “Once I do, it’s a very uncomfortable comfort. He’s not at ease with himself. So when I start feeling really uncomfortable with him, I go, ‘That’s it. That’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.’”
Born the middle of three children to a psychologist father and schoolteacher mother, Cheadle grew up mostly in Denver. He realized he was destined to be a performer in fifth grade , when he was cast as Templeton the rat in a school production of Charlotte’s Web.
He found himself so caught up in the E.B. White classic that he began carrying his script around everywhere and scribbling detailed character notes in its margins.
By high school, though, Cheadle had discovered another passion, jazz, and briefly considered a music career.
He certainly showed promise as a sax player; he was named first-chair in the all-city band, with classmate (and now-renowned jazz saxophonist) Javon Jackson as his second. Ultimately, Cheadle opted to study theater at CalArts in suburban L.A.
“I have a really good ear, so I could hear everything and fake my way through a lot of stuff,” he recalls. “But to do it for real — I knew the discipline and commitment required to be the kind of musician I wanted to be, and I just knew I wasn’t going to put in that work. I wanted to have too much fun, you know?”
Even so, he wasn’t exactly a slacker in college. By the time he graduated in 1986, he already had an agent and was working professionally.
His first bit part was as a Juicy Burgers worker in the big-screen comedy Moving Violations, but it was a 1989 music video (for the song “It’s the Real Thing” by R&B artist Angela Winbush, in which he’s featured as a dancing carwash attendant) that proved pivotal, thanks to its choreographer, Debbie Allen.
Encouraged by a friend to audition, Cheadle — who had no formal dance training, apart from a couple of elective classes at CalArts — soon found himself overwhelmed by the moves.
“I told Debbie, ‘I can’t do this, so I’m gonna bounce,’” he recalls. “I got halfway down the driveway and she came running and said, ‘You can’t quit. I’m not gonna let you.’”
That wasn’t all she said. Allen — whom Cheadle had previously worked with during a couple of guest shots on Fame — had decided the time was right for a little tough love.
“She said, ‘Don’t ever say you can’t do something! Do you think I would’ve gotten as far as I have if I did? When they asked me if I could choreograph the Oscars, inside I was like, Holy shit! But I said yes and then figured it out.’” Cheadle recalled. “She was like, ‘Put your feet to the fire and figure it out.’”
One look at Cheadle’s diverse résumé, and it’s clear Allen’s advice resonated.
Over the course of his career, he’s tackled plenty of TV (David E. Kelley’s ’90s drama Picket Fences, for example), picking up Emmy Award nominations for two HBO films, A Legend Before Dying and The Rat Pack; a Showtime movie, Things Behind the Sun; and an arc on NBC’s ER.
There’s also been theater (off-Broadway’s Topdog/Underdog), character-driven smaller films (his 1995 breakout, Devil in a Blue Dress, Boogie Nights in 1997 and Flight in 2012) and those big-budget blockbusters (Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels, as well as Iron Man 2 and 3).
For a time, his chameleon-like ability to flawlessly slip into any role earned him a reputation among directors for being the go-to guy to flesh out even the most underwritten part.
While Cheadle initially found it flattering (and lucrative), the exercise often left him yearning for roles that were fully realized before he signed on.
He finally found one in 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, his first leading film role.
While his performance as real-life hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who risked his life to save more than 1,200 refugees during the 1994 genocide in the African nation, ultimately earned Cheadle an Oscar nomination, the part almost wasn’t his. During an early meeting with director Terry George, the actor was told that if another more bankable star, like Will Smith, became available, George would hire him to secure the funding necessary to get the movie made.
Cheadle’s response? “’Then can I help you produce it? Because this story is really compelling and amazing.’ I was very behind whatever effort it would take to get it made.”
Crash — the 2004 film directed by Paul Haggis and produced by Cheadle that went on to win the Oscar for best picture — was the same situation, he said.
“Of course, I wanted to be in them, but I was like, ‘If I’m not, it’s all good,’” he recalled. “I believed in those stories and believed they needed to be out there and seen.”
From the start, he also had faith in House of Lies, much to the surprise of the show’s creator.
“I’d made an assumption that there was no way that one of my favorite movie stars was going to do our TV show,” Carnahan remembers. “But Don came to the meeting wearing a suit and that, for me, was the first indication that maybe he was going to do it — because he dressed in a way that suggested the character. I thought, ‘Maybe he really wants this.’”
Part of Cheadle’s interest in the show — which was inspired by Martin Kihn’s 2005 book, House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time — stemmed from the fact that the character “wasn’t specifically written for an actor of color,” Carnahan notes.
“As we’ve tailored the part to Don,” he shares, “the color of the character’s skin certainly is something we’ve explored and embraced, especially in the second and third seasons. But it was not originally a defining trait.”
Marty’s moral murkiness, however, was there from page one. “The TV space is doing something I don’t think movies are right now, [exploring] characters that are challenging and in the gray,” Cheadle says.
“I love the tent-pole movies — I’ve done [them] and they’re great — but I also like interesting, complicated stories and the fact that you have to bring your brain to cable TV,” he said. “I was like, ‘Where am I going to get to do a character like this in a feature?’”
Another attractive part of this House: with the show in production some three months out of the year, Cheadle still has plenty of time to devote to film projects and his tight-knit clan. This includes Coulter, his love of twenty-two years, and their daughters, Tai, 19, and Imani, 17.
While Cheadle frequently refers to Coulter (who guest-stars on House of Lies this season as the spouse of one of Marty’s new clients) as his wife in conversation, the couple has never married. “We’ve talked about it, but we’ve had so many other big productions going on. Having the kids is a production, building a house...” he muses.
“We were always doing something and it was like, ‘Do you want to plan a wedding right now? No, not even a little bit! Are you going anywhere? No. Am I? No. Well, okay.’
“Our lawyer and accountant are like, ‘Will you guys please just do it?’” he continues with a laugh. “But we’re both kind of obstinate in that way.” Still, he insists, “It’s definitely not something that would never happen. We’re not against marriage.”
Whether the couple decides to make it legal, their solid bond — and the family they’ve built together — inspire those around them.
“It’s one of my favorite parts about Don,” says costar Kristen Bell. “You can tell so much about a person by the people who visit them at work, and his wife and daughters come to the set quite a bit.
“He’s always showing me videos of his girls, like, ‘Look what Tai’ or ‘Imani did,’” Bell said. “He’s a genuinely proud father.”
That comes across when talk turns to the short film Cheadle recently wrote and directed for Vanity Fair to commemorate the magazine’s hundredth anniversary.
He cast his daughters in the two leading roles. “They were really good, weren’t they?” he says, beaming. They were. Might they follow their parents into acting? He vigorously shakes his head.
“My youngest wants to be a marine biologist, and my oldest wants to be a cinematographer. It’s like, ‘Yeah, do that. Learn an actual skill that you can really trade on.’ There are very few women cinematographers, and it’s like, a black woman cinematographer? Excellent.”
Cheadle himself is looking to do more work behind the camera. This summer, he plans to direct his first feature, Kill the Trumpet Player, about jazz legend Miles Davis, whom he’ll also play.
The long-gestating film, a passion project for the guy who once considered making a living as a musician, won’t be a traditional biopic. It will focus on the 5 years near the end of Davis’s life when he stopped playing music.
“It’s our take on one of the greatest artists who’s ever lived and his journey back out of that silent place,” Cheadle says.
“We came up with something that we thought Miles Davis would have wanted to star in, not necessarily a movie about the facts of his life.,” he explained. “Because we don’t care about the facts. We care about the truth of his life.”
As a warm-up to his big-screen directing debut, Cheadle recently helmed his first episode of House of Lies. How did it go? Cheadle laughs and shoots Coulter a look.
“You know how after women have a baby they have that rush of hormones and forget [the pain of childbirth] and are like, ‘I’d do it again’?” he illustrates.
“If you’d have asked me while I was doing it, I would’ve said, ‘I’ll never do this again!’ But now? I’m ready. Let’s go.”