Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Don Cheadle’s career follows an arc that every actor dreams of. Granted, it wasn’t a short arc, but after kicking off his career in the ’80s, he soon began working nonstop, taking what roles he could get—including a stint on the short-lived Golden Girls spin-off, The Golden Palace—and gradually building a reputation as a dependable character actor, one aided immeasurably by his appearance alongside Denzel Washington in 1995’s Devil In A Blue Dress. From there, Cheadle began to secure supporting roles in high-profile films like Boogie Nights and Out Of Sight, eventually making the jump to leading man (Hotel Rwanda). Of late, Cheadle is probably best known for playing James “Rhodey” Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but until the Avengers next assemble, he can be found as the star—and one of the executive producers of—the Showtime series Black Monday.
Don Cheadle: This was a piece that was written by Jordan Cahan and David Caspe, and they sold it to Showtime a while ago, and it had sort of been sitting on the shelf. And then when Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, they had a deal at Showtime and had their choice to do several things, and they said, “We really spark to this one.” And David Nevins called me kind of out of blue—you know, we had wrapped House Of Lies a couple of years prior to this—and he said, “There’s this piece that I don’t think you’re actually right for.” [Laughs.] And I said, “Okay, cool. You wanna tell me about it?” He’s like, “Nah, not really, but I’ve just been kicking around this thing that I don’t think you’re right for. I’m just letting you know.” I was like, “Okay, good to talk to you!”
And then I didn’t talk to him for a couple more weeks, but then he called me back, and he said, “You know what? I’ve been thinking about it, and actually, I do think you’re right for this, and I do think it’ll work. Do you want to sit down and talk to the writers, me, and Seth and Evan?” And I said, “Yeah,” and we had a lunch in Brentwood, and the rest is kind of history.
The A.V. Club: I was on board from the moment in the first episode when Keith says, “You just got DeBarged!”
DC: Whenever you can turn “DeBarge” into a verb, you’ve got to do it.
AVC: How would you describe Mo in a nutshell?
DC: I think Mo is an insane gambler who is all id and has no governor switch or filter and will do anything to win. Even when he’s losing horribly, he’s always looking for a way back to the win.
AVC: He went through some significant highs and lows during the course of the first season, but Paul Scheer offered the understatement of the year when he said, “Season two goes to some interesting places.”
DC: Absolutely. Although it will be potentially a truncated season this year, because thank you, ’rona! But Mo definitely starts in a very different place from where we originally met him, and without going too far into it, because I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, but we absolutely see a transformation of him. I think, like, three times in two episodes. He definitely goes through it.
AVC: What’s been your favorite and least favorite aspect of the period-piece side of the series?
DC: I don’t have a least favorite aspect. It’s always great to sort of do a send-up of the period and find ways—as the writers say—of showing how far we haven’t come. It’s great to have that as a touchstone, and to send up and to point to and show off things that we thought were so cool and how advanced we were, and now we look back at it and it’s just a joke. And I imagine we’re gonna have a very similar experience in years to come.
I was saying to my wife as we were watching all of the news, and all of these commercials now that are pitched toward the moment that we’re in, and they seem like something out of a movie that we would’ve watched in the ’80s. They put this pleasant face on it, and there’s this nice music, and there’s beatific shots of people talking over Zoom meetings and having phone calls, and then saying, “Remember: Shelter in place. You are on the front lines,” in these crazy 1984 voices. Who could’ve imagined that we would’ve been here? Except a lot of people that aren’t working for the government anymore.
DC: Moving Violations was the movie that I got Taft-Hartleyed on and probably the 507th audition that I had done. I was still in school. The casting director was a good friend of my then-agent. I was one of the few people who had an agent in college. Because my friend was cast on Fame, and she was his agent. But that’s another story.
This casting director really wanted to give me the part, but it was hard for me to say the line that she wanted directly into the camera. Because in the scene, I’m a Juicy Burger worker, and I’m in the takeout window, and all of these driver-less cars, because of this gag where they all get pushed together, are going past the window. So I’m following the line of cars going, “May I help you? May I help you?” That was the bit. But she said, “I just need you to say the lines directly into the camera.” And I was like, “Okay,” but then I kept doing this sort of method acting of watching the cars go by. “Can you just look straight ahead?” “I don’t know.” [Laughs.] “I’m trying to! But apparently I can’t!” So eventually I was able to do it during one take, and she was like, “Yes! Finally! Thank you!”
DC: That was quite a role for me. The casting for that was very interesting, because the director, Carl Franklin, when I first met him, he was a directing master student at the American Film Institute, and I was in his thesis movie, called Punk. I don’t even know how old I was when I did that part. Maybe 19 or 20? So when this movie came along, and every actor that I knew in L.A. was auditioning for it, and they were saying, “You gotta get in there, you gotta get in there.” And I was like, “Carl knows me. If he wants me to read for the part, he’ll call me in.” My agent was just adamant that the part was mine: “This is you! Mouse is you!” And I read it, and I didn’t totally see it, but she was adamant. But I couldn’t get in. I couldn’t get an audition. And the process went on for a long time. He had met everybody in New York, everybody in L.A., Chicago, everywhere, but he hadn’t found the person that he wanted yet.
Well, I was at an ENT’s office, and the appointments all got backed up, so the lobby got jammed full of people, and as I was sitting in a chair behind the door, the door swung open and hit me in the legs, and in walks Carl Franklin. And he looked at me momentarily, then he went, “Don!” And I said, “Carl!” And then the receptionist came out into the lobby and said, “There’s too many people in here. You two—,” and she pointed to us, “—go back in that other room over there.” So Carl and I retreated to another little office area, and we just started chopping it up. How are you, how’ve you been, how’s the family, what’s going on. And he said, “You know, I’m directing this movie.” I said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard about it.” [Laughs.] He said, “Okay, okay.” And we started talking about other stuff. And then the next day my agent called me and said, “They called! They want to see you.” So I came in and auditioned, and I think that audition is online.
DC: So I did it, we went through it, and at the end of it, he said, “Yeah, man, I just, I don’t know, Don. I don’t know. I don’t see it. You and Denzel, you’re supposed to be contemporaries, and he’s 10 years older than you. I just don’t think it’s gonna work.” I was like, “Whatever, it’s all good. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We’ll do something else together. We’ll do the next one.”
And about a week goes by, and then he calls me and he says, “Look, come in, and come in dressed as the part. Be the part. Be in character from the second you walk in the door.” I was like, “All right.” So I came back, did the audition again, dressed as Mouse, was in character as Mouse, and he was still like, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” And then he goes, “Can I bring Denzel in?” I was like, “Yeah, sure.”
So he gets Denzel, he brings Denzel in, and we do it. And we keep cracking up at the famous line in there where Mouse asks, “If you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?” We keep dying over that line. And then Carl walks out of the room again, and Denzel says to me, “This is your part, man. This is your part. I don’t know what he’s tripping about, but this is your part.” And Carl comes back in and goes, “Can you guys read it again?” And Denzel’s, like, “Man, this is the nigger right here! Why are we doing this again?” [Laughs.] And by the time I got home, I got a call: “You’re in the movie.”
AVC: That was a turning point, as far as your film career goes, because you’d been on Picket Fences at the time.
DC: It was my third year on that show, and I really felt personally like it had run its course for me, and I really wanted off the show and wanted to pursue whatever the next opportunity was going to be. And my agents were like, “Are you crazy? You’re a regular on a network television show. You wanna quit?” I was like, “Yeah, I kinda do.” I was the soul of the piece, the heart of the show, and I was like, “I’m tired of being the heart of a show. I wanna go be the balls of something somewhere else.” So I did.
DC: It was wild. It was a trip. I remember being in the car with [Nicolas Cage], in the scene where we’re driving around, and he’s just looking around the car. And I was like, “What?” [Doing a Cage impression.] “I think this was my car at some point. I think I actually owned this car.” I was like, “Are you for real?” “Yeah!” He just kept looking around. “Yeah, I owned this car. This is the car that I used to own.” I said, “It’s like that, Nic? You’ve got that many cars that you don’t remember that this was a Ferrari that you owned?” He said, “Unfortunately, yes, it is like that.”
AVC: That is possibly the perfect Nicolas Cage anecdote.
DC: Oh, yeah, that was pretty wild. But that movie. I mean, New York in the winter? It was a lot of fun.
AVC: It’s slowly but surely turned into a holiday classic.
DC: It’s amazing to see how many people are like, “It’s A Wonderful Life and The Family Man, that’s the two things I watch over the holidays.” It’s wild, but it really has become a holiday tradition. And I actually caught it maybe a third of the way through the other day, and I couldn’t turn it off. I watched the rest of it. I was like, “This is a really well-made movie!” And I love Téa Leoni. She’s so great in it. It’s just a great “what if,” Sliding Doors kind of a setup.
DC: When we were on the Ocean’s Eleven set, I had introduced this idea to the guys that we should have a ball spa. Like, “Why do women have all the spas? Where are the spas for men? We should actually have a spa that takes care of our business in a way that’s tailored just to us.” “Like, a ball spa?” “Yes! A testicle treatment center!” And it became Sacks West. So we started talking on the set about Sacks West and just cracking up. Just cracking ourselves up, basically. And I said, “I wonder if this is something that Funny Or Die would think is funny.”
So I called them up, and I pitched it to them, and they were like, “Yes, this is hilarious. We should do this.” So I got together a bunch of guys—none of the guys from Ocean’s, but George Lopez is in it, and Cedric The Entertainer is in it, and Oliver Hudson, Ray Romano, Cheech Marin. All these guys agreed to get together and shoot this ridiculous Sacks West thing.
And while we were doing that, they approached me and said, “So would you consider doing this Captain Planet thing?” I said, “What’s Captain Planet?” I had never heard of it. I totally missed it in my childhood. And they explained it, and they told me the bit, and I was like, “Yeah, that’s kind of funny, that this dude who’s an eco-dude actually turns into a terrorist and takes down humanity for the trees. Okay, let’s do it.”
So we shot the Sacks West thing, and I came in to do the Captain Planet thing, and I sit down in the makeup chair, and they put this makeup in front of me and start unscrewing the top to the aquamarine, blue-green sort of body paint. And I’m like, “What’s that?” And they’re like, “Oh, you didn’t watch? Yeah, this is his color. This is the color that he is.” I was like, “Uh, wait a minute. I didn’t know that. I don’t know that I’m down for that.” And then they pulled out the wig, and I was like, “Okay, this is ridiculous. I don’t think I’m gonna do this.”
So there was a bit of a negotiation. They were like, “Let’s just put it on. Let’s just try it. And if you hate it, we won’t do it.” And I sat through it. And then we shot one thing, and it was hilarious. And I was like, “All right, let’s do it.” But it was quite hot. And we were shooting outside, and it was in the summer, and we were in the valley... I almost quit two or three times, but I’m glad I didn’t.
DC: Oh, that was great. And that’s something that came out of Ocean’s. We were just chopping it up, and Bernie was saying, “You should come on the show.” And Bernie was just such a great guy. He was just so generous. And no ego about his stuff at all.
I came on the show and we’d improv, and I’d be doing bits. And I looked at him at one point and said, “Are you cool with me just kind of taking this character and going there?” And he goes, “Hey, man, you do whatever you do solo. I’ll be standing behind you like the Pips, going [Singing.], ‘Uh, uh, uh...’ You do your thing, man. I’m here for you. Have fun. We’ll just make it fun.” I was like, “That’s great.” And it’s just consistent with who he had always been. In my experience with him over the years, he was just always 100% that dude. And it was a lot of fun to play that bananas character on his show.
DC: So I had been offered that part, I forget what year it was, but probably ’98?
AVC: It was.
DC: I always have to think about how old my kids are to figure out when that movie was, because my youngest is actually in the movie for, like, three seconds. So I was offered the part, I don’t know off of what, but the year after Devil, I had started to work quite a lot. That was the Boogie Nights year and Volcano. I think I did five movies that year.
So they’d offered me the part, but they’d never really in the script dealt with something that I thought had to have been prevalent for Sammy at that time, which was how he felt about who he was inside the group. He loved Frank, he loved Dean, he loved all those guys and thought of them as his brothers, but he was very often the butt of the jokes and the racist punchline, and it was never dealt with in the script in the movie. Now, in fairness, it was never dealt with in the research that I saw of him either. Even in his autobiography, he never really talked about how he felt about that. But I said, “I think it’s a missed opportunity if we don’t explore that in some way.” And they said, “Yeah, you’re right, we’ll do that. We’ll do that.” But I never saw it in the script, and I still never saw it, and then when they were like, “Are you gonna do the movie?” And I said, “As soon as you guys address that!” And it just kept never happening.
But then Kario Salem did it in one scene that was pretty elegantly written, where he talks about it with May, about what he has to take and why he has to take it and what it means. It was kind of a poignant scene. And we found another moment where I felt like I could just act it, and I didn’t have to have lines written, where I could be the butt of the joke and laugh, Pagliacci in the front, and then turn and have a camera behind me and actually show how I think he might’ve really felt at some moments, and then turn back around and put the smile back on. So once we kind of figured out how we would do it, I said, “Okay, then I think I’ll take the part.”
Now, at that point, because it had taken so long, I only had two weeks left to prepare. And Sammy did everything. So in two weeks I had to have drum lessons, a gun-twirling instructor, and a trumpet instructor, and Savion Glover was my tap dance instructor and choreographed the thing. It was great having all those experiences, but it was like cramming for an exam in two weeks. I’d go from one lesson to the next lesson, back to back to back.
DC: That dovetails into the story I was telling about how I got my agent in school, because Jesse Borrego, who played Jesse Velasquez on that show, went to Cal Arts with us when there was an open audition for Fame. We all bum-rushed it, and I think out of 3,000 people or something, they hired Nia Peeples and Jesse. But in Jesse fashion, all they had of him was a Polaroid with his name on the back of it. Because he never left any information. So they were literally putting his picture on the news and saying, “Have you seen this person? We need to find this person.” So we’d be walking through the hallway, and somebody would go, “Hey, I just saw your picture on the news yesterday, Jesse. They’re looking for you.” And he’d be like, “Yeah, right.”
So we were in the dorm room one morning, and the phone rang, and it was the producers of Fame. And Jesse and I were suite-mates, so they were like, “Do you know a Jesse?” And I’m like, “Yeah, he’s my suite-mate.” “Oh, my god, we found him. We found him.” They went crazy. “Could you put him on the phone?” So I go find him, and he gets on the phone, and he’s like, “Yeah. Uh-uh. Yeah. Uh-huh. Yeah. Cool.” And he hung up the phone, and he’s like, “Oh, I got the job.” “You what?” “Yeah, I start next week.” And then we all had to go to class. So we’re sitting in our voice class, doing these vocal exercises, looking at each other like, “What the hell just happened?”
That’s when I met his agent. He didn’t have a car, so my friend and I drove down to L.A. from Valencia, California so we could meet this agent, and when she met us, she wanted to represent all of us. She was like, “I wanna work with all you guys!” Which I kind of didn’t believe. They shot Fame in New York. When I saw Jesse again in the summer, when I was working as a camp counselor in New York, he said, “Hey, my agent’s been trying to get in touch with you. She wanted to put you on stuff.” I said, “Oh, I thought she was just kind of bullshitting.” He said, “No, she’s been trying to set you up with this stuff.” So that was my connection to Fame, through Jesse. I just auditioned for that like I auditioned for anything else, and I got the part. And I think I did two episodes of Fame as that character.
AVC: You did quite a few one-off episodes of shows back then.
DC: That was kind of the bread and butter for actors at that time, right out of school. You could get those parts. I don’t know how it works now. But I know it works differently, because people self-tape and all that stuff. But at that time, you could actually speak to a human being and have the opportunity to win the room, which is how I got all the work I got. By the time we were reading the part, I’d already won the room. And that’s just something you can’t really do nowadays. You have to get past the first part, which is the self-tape, which is just so... People ask me how to do it: “How do you become an actor?” I could never tell you how to do it now. I really don’t know. I knew then. And those opportunities were there then. But I don’t know if they’re still there like that now.
AVC: Do you have a favorite of the one-offs you did back then?
DC: Oh, no. I mean, I did a thing on Hill Street Blues that was fun. I did all those shows. L.A. Law, Hooperman...
AVC: I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about John Ritter. Are you going to continue that trend?
DC: Oh, yeah. He was great.
AVC: How did you find your way into a Golden Girls spin-off?
DC: Well, they said, “They’re looking for someone to play the character of the manager of this hotel that the girls are buying,” and at that time, when you’re just grinding and they’re like, “It’s a series regular,” you’re like, “Uh, yeah, lemme read for that.” It must’ve been one of those situations where you go in, you get the callback, then you get another callback, and then you have to sit and do a bunch of auditions for a bunch of producers. I’m sure it was that kind of process, although I don’t remember it intimately. And then bang, I was on The Golden Palace, the spin-off to The Golden Girls. And I thought that it might actually last for more than one season, but it did not.
AVC: Given that they were coming off of a long-running, highly-successful show, what were the girls like to work with?
DC: I loved working with all of them. They were really, really sweet. Especially Betty White. She is as advertised. Raunchy sometimes, but always just so sweet. I remember when we first started, they had been used to lighting all of those women, and it wasn’t an issue, but then when they would try to light me with those women, sometimes the director of photography was having some trouble. He was like, “Which side do I lean on? Who do I favor? ’Cause either Don’s gonna look like a spot, or Betty’s gonna look like a bleached-out ghost. Which way do we go?” So Betty came in one day—completely on her own, no one had asked her to—and had dyed her hair darker, and she told the makeup people to use darker base on her, just to try to help. She said, “Maybe this will help.” I was like, “Oh, Betty... That’s so sweet.” Yeah, she was great. And so were Rue and Estelle. And that’s where I first met Cheech, and we really got along and had a great time.
I had a lot of fun that year. And shooting a sitcom, compared to what I was used to doing? I was like, “This is work?” You come in Monday and do the read-through, the script’s usually not great, you leave. Or you can stay and eat lunch. What? I’m in. And then Tuesday you come in, and it kinda looks like Monday. Wednesday was a little more of a workday, and then Thursday and Friday were the real strong workdays. I was like, “This is stealing money.”
AVC: When Bea Arthur came in to guest-star, did it feel like royalty was visiting?
DC: Um... [Long pause.] I don’t want to tell tales out of school, but it felt like several things. [Laughs.]
AVC: I’ll leave it to your discretion as far as which tales you want to tell.
DC: She was a bit notorious. It was definitely la diva de gran. [Laughs.] Yeah, it was definitely a different energy when Bea was on the set.
DC: It was in that year when I was doing a bunch of things, and Carl Franklin said, “There’s this kid, you’ve gotta meet him. He’s doing this movie. It’s called Boogie Nights. It’s about the porn industry. He wants to meet you. I think you’d be great in this part. You gotta meet him.” I was like, “A movie about the porn industry? My parents are still alive.” And he’s like, “You gotta read the script.”
So he gave me the script, and the script was 170 pages long and really technical, with all of the camera moves in it, and ramping up to different speeds, and angles and lens and—it was just a really dense script to get through, and one that I hadn’t really experienced before. And it broke up the story, and I couldn’t really tell the tone of it. And I was like, “Are we gonna do a movie that’s a send-up of the porn community?” I didn’t know what the movie was. I couldn’t tell. So he said, “You’ve gotta meet Paul. Just meet him and see.”
So we met, and Paul was—and still is—unlike any other person I have ever known. And he was brimming over with confidence. He was selling me. He was like, “If you don’t do this movie, you’re just gonna feel stupid, because this movie is an instant classic, and it’s gonna be talked about forever.” I’m, like, “Are you sure?” He’s like, “Oh, yeah. I’m sure. So your loss if you don’t want to do it.” I’m like, “Who are you, man?!” It was like, “Who is this dude?” So I took a flier because, obviously, the pedigree of the people that were involved. I didn’t know Paul at the time. I saw his movie Hard Eight. I really liked it. I just said, “Yeah.”
At that time, there was a love scene between Buck and Jessie that didn’t ultimately... We never even actually shot it. It got cut. But it was really sweet, with them both outside of the business, trying to just figure out how to be intimate with each other when all they knew how to do was be performers. The script, once I could sift through all the technical stuff and finally got it, I was like, “Yeah, this is great.” I still wasn’t sure of the tone of the thing. But you take leaps of faith, and I’m really glad I took that one, because he was right: It is a movie that’s probably gonna be talked about forever. Hubris, yeah, but I would’ve been sorry if I hadn’t said yes.
AVC: How did you first cross paths with Steven Soderbergh?
DC: They were looking for someone, and I feel I knew Danny [DeVito, who produced the film], or maybe George [Clooney]. Maybe I’d done ER before that?
AVC: That was a couple years later.
DC: See, I don’t always remember the chronology. But it was definitely after Devil In A Blue Dress. I think it was through Danny and [producer] Stacey Sher. I don’t know how I met them, but some way I met them, and they said, “We’re going to be doing a reading of this movie, and we want you to come read the part of this gangster.” And I said, “Okay, sure.” So I came and did the table reading, and it became evident during the table reading that it went beyond “We want you to do the reading” to “We want you to do the part.” So I finished the reading, and Steven walked over and said, “Hey, what do you think? Is this something you’d be interested in doing?” I was like, “Yeah, it sounds like it’s gonna be a blast. This is a great cast and a hell of a script, and you’re pretty good. Let’s go!”
AVC: That’s one of those films that blew me out of the water when I saw it.
DC: Absolutely. And a really slept-on movie when it came out, too. But it’s one of those that’s now a classic and is studied and fully gets its due now.
AVC: Traffic wasn’t immediately on the heels of Out Of Sight, but it was your next collaboration with Soderbergh.
DC: There was no question once I worked with Steven and knew what he was about. When he said, “Hey, do you want to...” “Yes!” [Laughs.] That was another opportunity to work with great actors and create these relationships. Luis [Guzman] and myself being able to craft that partnership was so much fun and so rewarding.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001) / Ocean’s Twelve (2004) / Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)—“Basher Tarr”
Hotel Rwanda (2004)—“Paul Rusesabagina”
AVC: So were the Ocean’s movies like The Golden Palace, i.e. stealing money?
DC: Those were great. Those were a lot of fun and really a testimony to Jerry Weintraub’s style of production. Also, the way he put it together... He went to each of us individually and was like, “All right, so I want you to do this movie. We’re gonna make a movie. It’s you, I got Clooney, I got Damon, and I got Pitt. Whaddya think? You wanna be in it?” And I was like, “Wow, that sounds interesting!” And then he goes to Matt, and he’s, like, “So, look, I wanna put this movie together. I got Clooney, I got Pitt, I got Cheadle...” He lied to all of us! He didn’t have any one of us! That’s how he went around and put it together. It was very Don King-esque.
But once we were doing it, no one ever took care of anybody as well as Jerry took care of the people who worked with him and for him. I imagine it was like old Hollywood did it. It felt like we were always in a sweet spot and really protected. And with that kind of a cast, every place that we went, we were cool, and it was never a problem. Also, obviously, it was a testament to Steven and the way he works. Everybody checked their ego at the door. There was none of that grandstanding. Everybody cut their fee. Everybody was just there for the love of doing it. It was great. A great opportunity.
AVC: Did you guys sense that there was going to be a sequel early on?
DC: Oh, no. No, no. Not even. And the second one almost didn’t happen. It definitely almost didn’t happen for me, because they were going to shoot it at the same time I had been offered Hotel Rwanda. I was like, “There’s no way I’m coming back to do that if I’m gonna be doing Hotel Rwanda.” I mean, it wasn’t even in question. Steven was like, “But we can’t do it without your character.” I’m like, “Well, then you can’t. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you.” But I’m not not gonna do Hotel Rwanda, so...” And then Brad tore his Achilles playing Achilles, and the movie got pushed eight weeks, and it was the time when I was gonna go do the movie, so I was able to finish Hotel Rwanda and then go do Ocean’s Twelve.
AVC: And the third one?
DC: I mean, none of them were planned, because with that cast...
AVC: It’s got to be worth the studio’s while to do it.
DC: And it’s got to be worth all of those actors, who’ve got their choice of any project they want to be working on in front of the camera, behind the camera, or any other aspect, to carve out the time to do it. I don’t think it could’ve happened if not for George and Steven and how they—with Jerry—put the movie together. We never went over. Steven’s always the king of under budget, on time, and we worked 10-hour days, which is kind of unheard of. It was just a breeze.
AVC: In addition to being one of the stars of Crash, you were also a producer.
DC: I was one of the first producers on it with Paul [Haggis], who sent me the script. I just thought the script was great, and you couldn’t anticipate where it was going, and I thought it was really allegorical and very interesting, the things that it wanted to take on and the subject matter it was dipping its toe into. I didn’t think it was perfect. I still don’t think it’s perfect. But I really appreciated what it was going for.
So Paul and I started going around town, along with Cathy Schulman and Bobby Moresco, his other partner, trying to get it sold, trying to get it set up. I immediately told him I wanted to be in it, but it was a pretty long road for us to find someone to pony up the first money to make it go. Everybody wants to be the second person to say “yes” in this business.
But we finally found that first irrational investor, and then we were able to make it go. And that was definitely a labor of love. And then I made all of the calls that I made to all of the actors. Again, it wasn’t really that arduous once they read it and got what we wanted to do, and got with Paul and understood his vision.
DC: That was wild. Very super early in my career. Working in and around L.A. in gang neighborhoods with gangbangers on the set that I... I was supposed to be the leader of these dudes. And the first day—the first day!—I got sweated so hard by one of these dudes. I went to the set, I got my wardrobe, got my costume or whatever, and the first thing we shot, I think, was on the sidewalk. So I’m sitting behind that set by myself, smoking a cigarette. And I see this dude walk by, and I’m like, “Oh, he looks like a real one.” And he sees me looking at him, and he starts mean-mugging me. And I’m like, “Well, I can’t really get punked on day one, can I? I’m supposed to be the leader of the gang. I can’t get punked.” But this was not where art meets life, but where art maybe gets life killed? [Laughs.] It was like, “Where are we at right now? I’m not sure!”
So he’s walking over to me because I’m staring at him—like, “Oh, you gonna stare at me?”—and it’s quite a long distance, but he’s staring me in the face all the way across this parking lot. I’m like, “Okay, well, here’s the moment of truth right here.” And he gets up in my face, and he’s like, “What set you with, cuz?” And I say [Very primly.] “I’m, uh, not a gangbanger. I’m an actor.” “Oh, you an actor?” “Yeah.” “Well, you dressed like that.” “They... They gave me these clothes.” [Laughs.] “These aren’t my clothes. I’m an actor.” And he goes, “Aight. I just wanted to see what the fuck was up.” I said, “Okay.” And he walked off. And I’m like, “Damn, day one! I haven’t even shot a frame of film yet, and I’m ’bout to get jumped!”
AVC: That’s Hollywood.
DC: And welcome to it!
Iron Man 2 (2010) / Iron Man 3 (2013) / Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015) / Captain America: Civil War (2016) / Avengers: Infinity War (2018) / Avengers: Endgame (2019)—“Lt. Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes”
AVC: At this point, I think everyone knows how you found your way into the Marvel Universe, but how did you find your way into the running to take over as Rhodey?
DC: Early on, I had met on that role, and there were different factions and producers who wanted me and others that wanted Terrence [Howard], and the biggest voice in the room for that won, and Terrence got the part. Which was great. I thought he was great in the first [Iron Man]. And then through some stuff that is well-documented that they went through behind the scenes, it wasn’t his part anymore, so I got a call.
I was actually at my kid’s birthday party—a laser tag party—and I got a call from my agent, and they said, “Hey, so I want to connect you to these Marvel guys. They want to talk to you, but they want to offer you the part.” I don’t think it was [Kevin] Feige. I don’t know who was on the phone. But they said, “Hey, this is the role. We want you to do this. It’s a six-picture deal.” I was like, “What?! Oh, uh, okay...” And I’m trying to do the math. I’m like, “That’s 11 or 12 years. I’m not sure.” And they’re like, “Well, we need to know, because if you’re not saying yes, then we’re gonna move on to the next person. So you’ve got an hour.”
An hour to decide 12 years, and a role and parts that I don’t even know, in movies that are coming down that I have no idea what they’ll be. I said, “I’m at my kid’s laser tag party right now.” They said, “Oh! Oh, take two hours.” So generous! So I go back inside, and I’m ducking behind things, playing laser tag, and talking to my wife. I’m like, “Should I take a flier on this? Is this something I should do?” And she said, “Well, yeah, I guess so. All things being equal, this is that kind of thing. You’ve never done anything like this before. Big special effects, tent pole, four-quadrant movie. Do you want to do something like this?” I said, “I kind of do.” She said, “Well, then take a flier. Let’s do it. Try it.”
AVC: Definitely a case where the rest is history, although I’m sure you had no clue just how dramatic that history was going to get as it progressed.
DC: I don’t think anyone honestly did. I know that they had a plan laid out, but believing that it was going to be executable, believing that we were going to be able to sustain it for this long, no one anticipated that.
AVC: Before we wrap up, I have to mention that I found the Angela Winbush video you did in the late ’80s.
DC: You’re welcome.
AVC: It’s a beautiful thing. And the choreography... Well, it’s just fantastic.
DC: [Laughs.] Oh, thank you so much.
AVC: The jumpsuit really sets it off.
DC: Well, when you work at a car wash, you have to dress the part. And that was the car wash right across from the Director’s Guild. I think it’s still there. On Sunset Boulevard.
AVC: In these hard times, I think people need to see it.
DC: They need something to delight them, for sure. So again I say, you’re welcome.