[IMG:L]Perhaps one of the most versatile actors of our era, Don Cheadle--after many years of hard work and laudable credits to his name--has crept quietly and steadily into the pantheon of actors we consider: talented as can be--and ‘cool’ as all get out!
From his memorable role of Buck Swope in Boogie Nights (1997), where his credibility started to become studio-bankable, to his recent Oscar-nominated role in Hotel Rwanda (2004), Cheadle’s arresting work has charted a terrain most actors have not. He’s a ‘beloved’ on the independent scene and an asset to every mainstream film he graces.
In Talk To Me, Cheadle portrays a real-life person, embodying the incendiary character of Waldo “Petey” Green Jr.--a ‘shock-jock’ ahead of the curve---who left an indelible impression on the turbulent Civil Rights era with his uncanny ability to call out the truths of injustice and livelihood, while uniting the masses in a radio program that he formed with partner Dewy Hughes.
Up close and personal with Cheadle, he talks about how embodying this controversial, one-of-a-kind spirit of Petey--who quickly became the voice of the marginalized masses--left him yearning for more truthful human interaction.
[IMG:R]Hollywood.com: What do you feel Petey Green means to the America--particularly his African-American audience?
Don Cheadle: I think Petey embodied the kind of spirit that would be a reflection of people who just spoke their mind, whether you agree with him or not. I think people often walk around and smile in your face and you really don’t know what’s happening--especially in my town [Los Angeles]. You just never know. People don’t say “no” to you…they just don’t call you back. It’s stuff like that. … I think Petey Greene he would just tell you, “Get out of my face. I don’t like you.” He would just let you know straight up! So you don’t have to wonder…in that regard, anything he felt, whatever it was about, he was going to say it. I think that’s refreshing and rare.
HW: Do you know anyone in your own life who is as brutally honest as Petey Greene? How do you take it?
DC: It depends on what they say but I always appreciate it. I want to know who you are, and where you are. I don’t want to have to guess. I think that’s what really drew me to the idea of someone like Petey Greene. … I think when people are that way with us we almost always find it--even if it’s insulting--like, “Wow! That’s rare. He just told me I look really fat in this shirt. OK [got it]!”
[IMG:L]HW: That upfrontness is intrinsic to the period of the ‘60s…how was it exploring this era? Radio at the time was a major force…
DC: It was really great to talk to my family about it. I talked to my parents, my uncles and aunts who were of this generation. They were contemporaries of Petey Greene’s…and you kind of get their take on what was happening in the country at the time. The film spans an era of a lot of tumult in our country and a lot of controversy. I think he was the perfect person to come through that time. I think to our great detriment a lot of where we are [at today] is because people aren’t straight forward and honest. We’ve been diminished by it in a lot of ways I think.
HW: How did you prepare for this character?
DC: The script is the bible. Whenever you’re doing a quote-on-quote “bio-pic” and trying to condense 15 years into 90 minutes there’s going to be omissions and revisions, and characters are going to be reinvented and combined and all of these things are going to happen. I tend to read research material about the person but I try to read between the lines. I don’t say, “Well, this actually happened. And this should actually be in the movie!” Because I am aware of what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to tell this one story in this particular way. For me, as far as the character goes, you want to get as much of a sense of who this human being was… It was great to have Dewey [Hughes] around. And, to have some archival footage of Petey Greene, and some archival audio tapes of him--but most of that [original] stuff had been erased or recorded over and thrown away.
HW: What do you think made him so outspoken?
DC: That he came up rough. He came up through prison. He spent a lot of time in jail. The way he got through jail a lot was with his mouth: talked himself into and out of problems. That was always sort of his gift. He just had a gift of gab. To hear some of the stories about him…he was drawn to that sort of controversy so he would always put himself as the focus of it. He wanted people to look and talk about him! I think that’s how he found his gift being a deejay on the radio station. He brought Howard Stern on his show early before Howard Stern was “Howard Stern.”
[IMG:R]HW: How many women in your life have you met with boundless screen energy like Taraji [Henson], who plays Vernell Watson?
DC: Her! Taraji is the only woman I know who is like that. I mean, there were some other women up for the part when we were casting it. But I was like, “What are you talking about? Taraji. That’s it! There’s nobody else to play this part.”
HW: How familiar were you with this story about Petey Green and Dewey Hughes before doing the film?
DC: Not at all. Not at all. I didn’t know anything about it. As I said, most of the footage and tapes were erased. Those [radio] stations didn’t keep them; the TV stations either. There’s a thing of him on YouTube called “Petey Greene Shows How to Eat a Watermelon” or something like that. Which is just wild! [Laughs slyly] It’s great!
HW: From the recordings that you heard what was the most compelling component of his deejaying: his cadence? His poeticism?
DC: Just that he was a live-wire, and you never knew where he was going to go!
HW: A lot of people looked to Petey for guidance and he was the kind of guy that could provide it--he had that kind of charisma. You’re that sort of person too. People look at you for answers these days, how do you feel about that?
DC: I wish people would just get off my back! I am not the answer man!! [Poker-faced--until he bursts in laughter] I don’t know…I think people ask me specific questions about things I’m involved in, and they want to know how they, themselves, can get involved in them [causes]. It’s a lot of responsibility in a way. You want to take people seriously and I want to take those questions seriously. I’m a student of this myself. I’m not an expert on what’s happening in Darfur, I’m not an expert on activism, I’m someone who is learning. I am swimming in the stream with all these other people who are trying to figure out what to do.
HW: Do you think there’s one way in particular to solve the Darfur crisis?
DC: I don’t think there is an answer, but I do believe from the amount of noise that we’ve been able to make, from the positions we’ve been fortunate to hold: myself…George Clooney…the activism…we’ve seen it reach levels that I don’t think it would’ve reached had there not been this kind of light shown on it. So, in that regard I feel very fortunate and very blessed that to have anything to do with what might be a solution.
[IMG:L]HW: Apparently, you’ve worked a lot offset with your Ocean's Thirteen co-stars, on addressing these international issues.
DC: I went to China, Egypt and eventually to the U.N. with George [Clooney] in December. He’s been to Darfur and he’s been to Savanna. We have a [not yet named] project “slash” organization “slash” foundation…that we started just a few weeks ago [under] “Not On Our Watch”--and we’ve raised about $10 million dollars. I think our government, compared to the rest of the world, has been doing a great deal. But I think we need to being do it in a way that is not unilateral and work with the other leaders around the world to push this thing through…genocide is a crime against humanity. It shouldn’t be a crime looked specifically as an “American issue” or it’s a “Chinese issue” or “South African” issue. It should be not allowable on the face of the earth.
HW: Of your many talents, you’ve also scribed a dynamic book about activism as well.
DC: I always want to be hirable and learn to do many different things. The book, Not On My Watch, came out of my relationship with John Prendergast who was at the time the Senior Advisor at the International Crisis Group. It’s a way to--in one document--try to answer the hundreds of questions I’ve gotten since going over there after doing Hotel Rwanda, about what can we do? And, so in our many many discussions I said, “John we should really write a book about it [the Darfur crisis] so we can answer it in one decisive place, in once concise way. [Sigh meets laugh] I didn’t realize I was going to have to actually write it when I said it!
HW: Regarding our focus on world crises, do you agree that issues reach a level of saturation, and it feels like people have short attention spans? DC: Yep! That’s the battle that we face. Journalists play a big part of how that is played out. You have to be strategic. You have to be smart--IF you really want to help…and you have to think, “Well how do I do this in different ways?” We’re [our organization is] trying to address it in many different ways--to get our leadership to respond. But, I think we’re ‘there’ in this country…I think now the challenge is to get other countries involved. One of the pressing issues right now…we want to focus on [pre-Olympic] China’s relationship to the Sudan and find ways to bring that issue to the light and press on them to do something.
HW: Speaking of folk who are ambassadors of change, the Talk To Me scene where James Brown’s music literally prevents a riot conveys many levels of might. Did you learn something new about the important role and power that musicians had back then--James Brown specifically--that you didn’t feel before this movie?
DC: Yeah. It was amazing! It wasn’t the only place that it happened [where James prevented a riot]. We just showed it in DC. In Detroit he also performed and he was able to calm things down. It’s a power you don’t see musicians having today.
HW: Why do you suppose that power has diminished these days?
DC: It’s that sort of spirit and the need to make a living [musicians have] … I mean if you’re like, “I’m gonna be a musician”--you know what I mean--that’s a hard road ahead. The need to sort of do that [takes over, then] the line blurs between making a living and being famous--and being huge--and you get sort of corrupted by the all mechanisms of what that [road to getting ‘large’] is. I mean, the studio, iTunes, television--it dilutes your power. When you’re everybody’s everything…you’re nobody’s anything.
HW: Is that a type of internal crisis that many artists face in the business?
DC: I think that’s again, what we’re talking about with Petey, he’s a specific spokesperson, in a specific area, for a specific group of people. That was really his power. When Dewey attempted to take him into some bigger scale and make him something beyond that, he rejected it because that was not his dream. He knew what his power was and that’s what he was comfortable with. People go, that’s a tragedy and think it was sabotage. I don’t necessarily think it was sabotage. I think it was someone who was clear about who they were and what their place was and was fine with it: my dream doesn’t have to be your dream.