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December 2004
Hotel Rwanda: An Interview with Don Cheadle

Hotel Rwanda: An Interview with Don Cheadle

By Wilson Morales

Don Cheadle has always chosen good roles. He's not a big star in the sense of Tom Cruise or Eddie Murphy. He is a great actor. He comes in a film, does his part, and it shines. Who could ever forget when he first entered as "Mouse" in "Devil in a Blue ress"opposite Denzel? Though the role was short, it was so amazing many felt he was snubbed of an Oscar nomination. Since then, Cheadle has electrified many films with his supporting performances that he ranks right up there with Morgan Freeman as actors who have yet to get an Oscar. Well, the chance may come up again for Don to get the gold statue. In what many believe to be the best performance of his career, Cheadle is taking a lead role for a change in playing Paul Rusesabagina, who in 1994 sheltered and save many live in Rwanda during the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis. The film is called "Hotel Rwanda" and in speaking with blackfilm.com, Cheadle explains what led him to take this role and his awareness about Rwanda.

What attracted you to this project?

Don Cheadle: Everything about it was attractive, from the role to being able to tell a story that really relatively few people are aware of. It's shocking but true. Just to have this kind of experience was great, and meeting Paul and his family. Terry was also a great director. It's just been all positive, you know.

How close did you work with Paul to get his mannerisms?

DC: We spent a pretty good deal of time together at the beginning of the movie. When I knew I had the movie, we started emailing each other back and forward and started talking on the phone. I watched a lot of interviews because Terry actually took Paul back to Rwanda. It's the first time Paul had been back to Rwanda and filmed all of his stuff, so I was kind of voyeuristically taking notes and watching him. Then once we got together it was just a lot of, you know, hanging out and going to dinner and getting drunk and telling stories. I was kind of sitting at his feet and getting more of a feel for, I guess, just kind of his character. I wanted to do some particular characteristics but I was more trying to just get a feeling for who he was as a man, you know, his spirit.

This is really the first time audiences get to see your abilities, unlike in Boogie Nights or Ocean Eleven. How do you feel about that?

DC: You know, I have no idea and maybe I should be more methodical about that. I just kind of try to get involved in the kinds of films that make my part, you know, brace and I go "Oh my God, that would be terrifying" and "I don't know if I can do it." Those are the kinds of things I want to be involved in, and I don't know that this film will change anything but that wasn't really the thrust per se-- I wanted to do it in the beginning.

Is there an extra responsibility on your part when you're playing somebody you've met?

DC: Who might get on camera in front of national audience and say I blew it (laughing). Yeah, I guess there's an extra little weight involved and Thank God it was Paul and Thank God that we had his involvement from the beginning. He wasn't someone that we tried to keep in the shadows and not involve in the process, and "Just let us tell the movie and we'll check in with you every once in a while." He was there on the set and you know, really involved in how the story unfolded and this was something that had been in development for years, so that was a lot of time that he had to deal with the story. Umm, yeah, it's a little daunting when he's sitting behind the monitor when you're doing a scene (laughing) and you're looking at his face trying to interpret is that a frown, is that a grimace, is that a smile you know, and finally-- Just get him out of there and take him to the lunch trailer or something. Get him a sandwich and let me do this scene, you know.

Did you come home after shooting a certain scene and still deal with it?

DC: Yeah. Every day. Yeah, every day there was some kind of decompression that I needed to do. Obsessing about every single detail, obsessing about, you know. I think it is an actor's lot anyway to sort of obsess about that kind of stuff. You know, what have I done that day, what beat did I miss, something. Then I'm gonna have to go back and get in another scene. Every night on the phone after work, Terry and I were talking about the script and trying to plot the week, plot the way, when do we want to do this scene cause we haven't yet done this scene, and you need to experience this scene emotionally before we try to have you do this scene, etc. So it was always that sort of a juggling act. But it was the biggest part I've ever done and I didn't realize until doing this part how intricately involved a lead actor is in every aspect of the story, you know.

Do you try to balance bad guy and good guy and hero roles?

DC: No, it's not that plotted. I don't look at it and go "Ok I did it this kind of guy and now I need to do this kind of guy." Usually I'm just responding to material and there's not a lot of good scripts, period. So usually if I read something and go "Oh that's interesting" or if I read and go like "I said that gets my pulse up and I feel like that's gonna be really difficult and I'm gonna be uncomfortable and scared and I don't know if I'm gonna do it", those are usually the ones you're supposed to do, you know. The ones like, man I could really blow it, you know.

Did you film this movie or Oceans 12 first?

DC: That one came first. That one was first and then this one. You know what, I tell you honestly I get the order out of, I don't know, because I did five movies over the last year and a half, over four different continents and I wake up you know, is this Toronto, no it's New York. Ok we're in NY.

Seems like you have proclivity for doing crime caper heist flicks?

DC: No, it's not. It's just that those tend to make more noise. I mean everybody knows about Oceans 12 cause a million and a half people are in it, you know. I did three smaller movies during that time: The United States of Leland, Assassination of Richard Nixon, and Manic. I've done a lot of films they just don't make as much noise. They're small, they're indies, you know.

Are you directing Tishomingo Blues?

DC: Yeah, that's something that's still in the process. We didn't land any of the dough yet to make that. It's still in the works.

In terms of directing, is it harder as a black actor to raise the money to do a film? Or is it easier because you're well known?

DC: No, it's not. It's all about, look they have it broken it down to the foreign market and whose gonna buy at foreign and how much territories are being sold. That's what drives everything as far as American movies go. Studio movies and to a large degree Indie movies are driven by the foreign sales component. So you need a star, or stars on a certain pedigree or scale that can guarantee that you can sell to Italy, London, Japan, the UK-- all these places that are really where the market is. Domestic market is a small part of the film's money. And it's difficult because what always comes back for black actors is your movies don't sell well overseas. But I know that. I know a person whose job it was to sell movies overseas and he said we don't even pull the black movie out of the briefcase a lot of times because you know it's a hard sell. People don't understand, we get a little resistance so we don't push that one. It's like, well nothing sells itself except Oceans 11, you know, except movies like that. So yeah there's a lot of nuisance reasons why things, a lot of those things become difficult. Even if you're doing a movie where you're directing a movie and you have a white lead, the white lead still has to be of a certain caliber that they believe is going to generate the dollars commiserate with what your budget is. That's always a balancing act, it's always cut more, get a bigger name, you know. That's always the kind of battle cry-- cut more, get a bigger name.

How does that help with the market?

DC: Let's hope it helps a lot. I mean personally, the buzz for me personally, I'm like "whatever" about it, but for the film I'm getting buzz and that brings attention to the film that's brilliant. And to that end, I welcome all of that, because I think there's a lot of good work in the film. I think that about the film itself, people are potentially apprehensive about seeing something that they know is based in Rwanda, they know it's a genocide but interestingly the MPAA gave it an R rating. And Terry and I had to go to the appeals board and appeal to get it a PG 13 rating and once the appeals board heard our argument they decided in 10 minutes to give us the rating because really, what were they judging it on? What were they basing it on? There's no overt violence. There's no strong sexual content, there's no foul language: Everything that they earmark as being the reason that it gets an R. They gave it an R because of just overall emotional impact which we said you can't really, you know (laughs).

Isn't the emotional impact the ultimate goal of the movie?

DC: Yeah, exactly. That's the whole point of the film and the reason that no one did anything in the first place is because of its strong emotional impact, and they didn't want to deal with the news. Too big. Don't do it again to the movie, what happened to them in actuality.

What surprised you the most about the situation in Rwanda?

DC: I think what surprised me the most about it was how it was set up. I mean, how the situation was initially sort of built to come apart as it did. The Belgians decided who was going to rule who and picked people based on their features and using the minorities Tutsi to control the majority Hutu, and when they left they flipped it and gave the power to the majority. I mean, I don't know, that could be careless but it sounds very Machiavellian at the same time and like designed to keep a region unstable and it's continued. You know, it's just a cyclical thing. You know in this movie it ends with the Tutsis coming in and pushing all the Hutus out. It's 2 million people, the largest exodus in modern history, the exodus from Rwanda by the Hutus and the Tutsis that were still scared. But then when the Tutsi rebels came back in, they exacted horrible reprisals on all the Hutus who had put them in that situation, and they're still nipping at the edges and coming out of the mountains now. And there are small attacks every few weeks now and it's just diabolical.

What's more important-- getting the scene right or thinking about the whole story itself?

DC: No, getting the scene right. I mean getting, doing, which is funny because that's kind of what Paul is trying to do every day, was get the scene right. He wasn't thinking about when, you know, when people ask Paul, "Oh you're a hero, and what did you do to plan everything and what did you rely on?" He said, "I don't know what you're talking about." He was like "Every day I had to do the thing that was in front of me. There was no time to plan. There was no time to plot. There was no design. It was set 'em up, give them some drinks, keep them away from them." Keep them away from them, you know. He said it was as if you had a cat and a mouse in a box, you know and you were constantly trying to figure out a way to negotiate with the cat not to eat the mouse, and that's what he was doing day to day. So in a great microcosm, it was a great thing to have that kind of perspective on the story, because I think that's how the story was written. I think it's been done very well to not try and get your arms and your head around the whole idea of the genocide because how can you, you know. And how can you in a two hour movie. You can't. And if you'd tried to, it would've failed miserably. But to tell the story of one man and his love for his family and in that regard the movie is really a thriller, you know and with a love story at its core. Everyone that has seen this film at the screenings we've showed has come out of it saying they were apprehensive at first and a little, you know, nervous about what they were going to be seeing but ultimately they were overwhelmed. It was very heart warming for them and encouraging which is a great, great result.

It's almost an old-fashioned adventure romance, with good guys triumphing over the bad guys. Is that what you feel is so remarkable about it?

DC: Yeah, exactly. That's how it needs to be told, that's how it needs to be sold, that's how people need to go out there with what this movie is because otherwise you're like, "Oh, God, genocide, I don't know if I can" and I understand it, you know. That's what you want to do on a Friday night, go see a movie about the genocide. No. But you do want to see a movie where you see a good person triumph over insurmountable odds, and have a love story in its core. I think that's entertaining if you can use that word for this movie which I think you can. It's entertaining.

Some people may pigeonhole this movie as a black film, but it has a lot more to it. What do you think of the state of black cinema?

DC: I don't even know how that term is used really because we're not talking about the 70s or even the early 80s where there was a real sort of collective idea of black moviemaking. I don't see that much any more. There are very few black directors who are able to get their movies greenlit and they're not as far as I can tell, there's no thematic sort of synergy. It's just like this guy got his film made and this guy, everything's happening so people are all in their own little island because there's such a corporate mentality at the studio levels now that every thing about films is about the bottom line, you know. Like I told you about the foreign, how foreign markets are driving these films now and everything is geared toward repeat ticket buyers, who are none of us in this room, you know. Everybody in this room, we'll see a movie and go "Oh man, I gotta see that some day." That's interesting. We're not going, "I gotta be there first in line, Friday night, me and my seven friends and we're gonna go see this movie." That's who they're trying to get in the audience because those guys go see the movie 6 times. You're gonna see it once on cable if it looks interesting to you. So it's hard to balance that art, that question of art and commerce and it's even a smaller niche when you're talking about black films, you know.

Were you aware of the Rwanda situation before the film?

DC: Yes, I was because I saw a frontline piece about it which really, took it in detail and really described it, which was unbelievable. Now that's hard to watch.

Will you make an effort to bring this movie into schools?

DC: Yes, we will. We are because that was one of the big fights to get it to be PG 13. When I was 13 years old, I remember I saw a film in junior high school called Night and Fog, which is a documentary about the holocaust and very graphic and very, you know, just stark documentary about a lot of footage. It was a very humanizing thing for me. It actually jump-started my thinking about the world in a way I had not thought about it before. Not just the horrors that are possible, but that "Oh my God, people do that to people out there in the world." It just turned on a whole way of me thinking about the world. It didn't crush me. It wasn't overwhelming to the point that I couldn't go on and it gave me nightmares but it did really stick with me until this day. It's probably a big reason why even now I'm inspired to do something and I'm more humanistic because of it. Hopefully this film could do that same thing for someone developing their ideas about the world.

What's your role in Crash?

DC: I produced the movie. What's my role in the film? I play a detective in Grand Waters.

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