Here's my Don Cheadle story: At the Toronto premiere of Iron Man 3 on Monday, the place is a zoo, packed with fans who'd lined up for hours, dozens turned away. Cheadle, who plays Iron Man's ally, Lieutenant-Colonel James Rhodes – and his metal-suited alter ego Iron Patriot – is there. During a Q&A before the curtain rises, Cheadle is asked, "Will this film be your legacy?" He answers, "No." He pauses for the laugh, then elaborates – no one knows what one's legacy will be, yadda yadda. The audience puts on limited-edition, red-white-and-blue 3-D glasses, and the movie starts.
It's exactly what you'd expect, a clangtastic clangfest of clanging as Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) saves the world. Cheadle does his thing, which is to jazz each of his lines with his signature brand of amused intelligence.
But he's not in it much. None of the humans are, what with all the mayhem. So afterward I tweet, "Asked if this film will be his legacy, Cheadle answered, 'No.' He is correct." Soon a tweet comes back. From Cheadle. It reads, "Um … ouch?"
In our interview the next afternoon, I come clean about our Tweetlationship. (I trademark that!) Cheadle is unfazed. "Yeah, it's a big, summer, tent-pole fantasy entertainment spectacle, and the target audience wants the clanging," he says. "I know that going in. But I'm glad to be in it. I think it's fun." (Not to mention lucrative – only a lucky few get to gambol about in multibillion-dollar film franchises.) He admits that a lot of scenes are figured out on the fly, and that much of the time, he and Downey Jr. don't even know what special effect they're reacting to.
So every day on set, "there are dollar signs flying by, with fear signs right behind them," Cheadle continues. "Because if you're doing it strong but doing it wrong, it's going to stink strong. You have to take a big swing, which I like."
Cheadle can swing with the best of them. Whether the role is small but potent, as in the recent Flight, or important and Oscar-nominated, as in Hotel Rwanda, his body of work is classy and diverse, from Boogie Nights and Crash to the Ocean's Eleven trilogy. He's 48 now, the father of two daughters (with his long-time partner, the actress Bridgid Coulter). His skin is glossy, his teeth dazzling, his suit sharp. I feel I need sunglasses just to gaze upon him, and tell him so. Just then his phone beeps, and he holds it up in front of his face to check who's calling. "You taking a selfie?" I josh, and he plays right along, saying, "Go ahead, you were saying," while preening into his screen.
He puts the phone down, back to business. "It's how I think about most of what I do: 'Be wrong strong,'" he adds. "If you're going to do something, go big. Don't limp your way in."
That philosophy is also why he signed onto his day job, as Machiavellian management consultant Marty Kaan on the Showtime series House of Lies. Well, that and the fact that they shoot for only three months a year, the set is 20 minutes from his house, and he really likes his character. Marty's a divorced dad "with serious issues in every aspect of his life" who can't quite pull off being the most cynical user in a cynical, using world, because he still has feelings, however much he tries to bury them. The writing is sharp and dark, and only someone as charming as Cheadle could make palatable Marty's nastier impulses.
"When I read the script, I went, 'Wow, are they going to let us do and say these things?'" he recalls. "It could run for 10 years and I'd be happy, because I think there's so much to mine."
And then there's the nudity. House of Lies is the opposite of Iron Man – quite often, Cheadle strips down to naked, and is his own (very) special effect. "It's not the most comfortable thing in the world for me," he says. "I'm not an exhibitionist. But it's an adult-themed comedy, and it's true to the character. To go demure at key moments makes no sense. We have to go for it."
I tell him that after I saw one scene – in which Marty, his pals and a bunch of hookers all have sex in the same room – I polled male friends about whether that was realistic. Grinning, Cheadle asks, "And what did they say?" then switches into an overly innocent voice and answers for them: "'Noooo, no, men don't do that, that is pure fantasy.'" Then he scrunches up his face in disdain and mouths, "Yeah, they do."
Cheadle developed his charm early, as a self-titled "education brat" whose family bounced from Kansas City to Nebraska to Denver, living in student housing while his father, a psychologist, pursued advanced degrees. "I guess being able to be facile helped," he says. He caught the acting bug while playing Templeton the Rat in a sixth-grade production of Charlotte's Web; he acutely remembers sitting in a diner with his mimeographed script, inhaling the toner scent and making extensive notes in the margins.
"I took it very seriously, even at 10 years old," he says. "I wanted to get it right. I wanted to be good. And the response gave me a very different feeling than I'd ever had before." He was a hit? "I brought the house down," he deadpans.
Now perched in the catbird seat, Cheadle nevertheless remains realistic. Discussing a story from last Sunday's New York Times, about how Kerry Washington is the first African-American woman in decades to headline a successful network TV drama (Scandal), Cheadle says, "I think what they're realizing is, 'Oh, we didn't have to be racist all this time? The show's a hit, people love it? See, it's okay. See?'" He rolls his eyes. "The people who argue, 'Hey, the [U.S.] president is black, racism's dead,' I'm not going to change their minds anyway."
Though he's happy to be lauded as an African-American headlining a quality show, he insists that success is "always an individual definition, an individual quest. I don't know how it looks from the outside, but my journey is totally different from Will Smith's or Denzel's or Jamie Foxx's. We're all trying to do a similar thing, ultimately. But the ways that we got here are all very different. People think I've 'made it,' but every time I finish a job, I'm unemployed. I don't know what the 'it' that I've made is."
He rhymes off the five stages of every actor's career: "Who the hell is Don Cheadle? Get me Don Cheadle. Get me a Don Cheadle type. Get me a young Don Cheadle. Who the hell is Don Cheadle?" He says he's not sure which stage he's in. "I think I have a foot in all of them. But all of us have 'Who the hell is …' coming. So I'm just trying to enjoy the middle three."
When I get home, I tweet to thank him. He tweets back ":)"