Four Star Hotel:
Don Cheadle's Globe Nom For Hotel Rwanda

by Tony Phillips

Squeeze out more than a picture per year and Hollywood is bound to crow, “The hardest-working actor in showbiz!” But get called down the hall, knees-knocking, and take a good look at the name stenciled on corner office door. It reads Don Cheadle. Mr. Hard-Working, meet a genuine workaholic. Just consider the Kansas City native’s fall slate: Brett Ratner’s After the Sunset and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve are already gobbling up the multiplexes, while a role as Sean Penn’s pal in The Assassination of Richard Nixon and an ensemble part, as well as producer’s cap, in the upcoming Crash wait in the wings. Then there’s his directorial debut for Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues in which he also stars opposite Matt McConaughey. And we haven’t even touched on the television work, which includes a Golden Globe-winning turn as Sammy Davis, Jr. Or stage-work like originating the role of Booth in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winner Top Dog Underdog. If your head is spinning just reading this, think about the poor fool booking his travel.

“On my what?” is how the affable, but overworked actor responds to a question about what he did on his free time during his first trip to Africa on a three-month stint as star of the biopic Hotel Rwanda. The film substitutes Johannesburg for the war-torn land where ten-year’s ago Hutu extremists slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors in a civil war turned genocide that approached a death toll of one million in just 100 days. “I had one three-day weekend where I went to Capetown,” he admits, “I took my whole family.” He thinks a bit more and then remembers, “When we got there, at Christmas, we went on safari for about five days.” But just after safari, the daily grind of portraying hotelier Paul Rusesabina — a reluctant hero who uses his hotel to save 1,200 refugees — kicked in. “We started rehearsals as soon as we came back,” Cheadle recalls, “I was doing a film that book-ended this one, so I got three quarters of that shot and then flew to Africa to start Hotel Rwanda. The day we wrapped, I flew back to LA and two days later had to finish Crash, this other film I was doing.”

Don’t wait around expecting lofty, “I had a farm in Africa” type recollections from Cheadle. He’s happy to explain, however, that on a six-day a week shoot, “your one day off is really not a day off.” He continues, “With my kids, you wake up at seven o’clock no matter where you are in the world. They get up when the sun gets up, period. So Sundays, I was up at the crack of dawn playing with them and seeing my wife on the one day I could. Then six am the next morning you’re back in the car on your way to work. So it’s more like a 14-hour period that you have off and a lot of that would be spent on the phone with the director talking about the week’s work. In a movie like this, we didn’t have one full day of sunlight or one full day of rain, so everything had to be truncated. It was like pieces of a puzzle growing legs and running away at the corners. It was always a lot of work, so there was no real deep refreshing time off.”

He takes a pause, as if weighing whether or not to tell the rest, but then laughs good-naturedly and says, “Things went down in South Africa, but it was also very exciting, a really vibrant place to be with a film industry that’s just starting to get kicked off. There are really talented film crews down there and people who were just hungry for work.” But “things went down?” Such as? Another pause, and then that winning smile. “We were like the little film that could,“ he begins, “we had a very small budget given the size and scope of this movie. We had 17,000 extras on some days, but on other days it was very small and specific. So it ran the gamut and it was very challenging day to day, fighting weather, we had a couple riots on the set, the payroll got robbed, things happened.”

One of the things that happened is Cheadle met his co-star Sophie Okonedo. She made a splash last year playing a prostitute in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, but admits some apprehension around meeting Cheadle, which she classifies as “a bit of ‘I wonder how this is going to work out?’” She needn’t have worried as their chemistry on-screen is palpable. And clearly some of Cheadle’s work ethic rubbed off. After the three-month shoot in Johannesburg, Okonedo returned back to her native London to shoot “a quick British TV movie about IVF that was totally improvised” and then she was went “straightaway” to Berlin to play villain opposite Charlize Theron’s Aeon Flux and she’s happy to report, “I kick butt. I’m just running around doing cartwheels and I’ve become really adept at the wire.” But returning to Cheadle, who plays her connoisseur husband braving genocide in a power tie and making time for a nice glass of red wine while mortar shells fall, she turns serious for a moment. “Don is just wonderful,” she says, “he speaks the truth and when you’re with an actor that’s so truthful it just ups your performance. You listen. And that’s half of it, just listening well, but it makes the job that much easier.”

Still, that same advice didn’t make Cheadle’s life any easier. Before he became involved with Hotel Rwanda, he classifies his knowledge of the war there as “just cursory, things like scanning the newspaper and sketchy details, I didn’t know a lot.” He credits a documentary on Frontline with opening his eyes. “They did a real in-depth look at Rwanda,“ he remembers, just a year or two before the script emerged, “so when I read it I was primed already and knocked out that they were able to tell a story not about genocide, but a love story wrapped in a thriller with this impending doom closing in. Telling Paul’s singular story helped take us through some events that otherwise may have been too big to deal with.”

And now that the story’s been told, Cheadle finds it impossible to turn a blind eye to other war-torn African nations. “I saw footage of stacks of bodies people used as roadblocks with kids sitting on top drinking beer,” he remembers of his research, “personally that has inspired me to get involved. We’re showing the movie to the UN this week. Amnesty International is very involved. I have a meeting with the Congressmen who chair the Subcommittee on African Affairs to deal with the Sudan and also we’re going back to Rwanda with the movie. Still, you feel a certain amount of shame that these things happen all the time. Everyone has flipped through a magazine and seen a starving child sitting next to some white woman saying, “Please, give.” You think, If I give this money, all I hear are stories about how it’s going to warlords and the food’s not getting there and who am I giving to and what’s this organization? This film inspired me to not just ask those questions in a vacuum, but really find out. I’m going to Africa next year to try and just get involved.”

But even that decision won’t happen in a vacuum for Cheadle. “My kids are still at that age where they run when I open the door at night,” he laughs, “they can’t wait — “Daddy, Daddy!” — when I come home. So I’d have to bring this, like anything else, to the dinner table and say, “Okay, this is what this is and this is what it will mean….”