In an industry where just about everyone is striving to get noticed, Don Cheadle is content to remain under the radar, shunning the spotlight as he quietly builds a resume of acclaimed performances. When the Academy finally took notice of his work in 2005, tossing him a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, it merely confirmed what many of us had known for years, that Cheadle is one of Hollywood's finest actors working today.
In his latest movie, Kasi Lemmons's biopic Talk to Me, Cheadle plays Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, Jr., a seminal Washington, D.C., disc jockey whose outrageous, straightforward style paved the way for modern-day "shock jocks" like Howard Stern and Don Imus. More than just a media personality, Greene was an activist, lending hope and inspiration to the area's African-American community throughout the '60s and '70s.
Remarkably, Cheadle had never heard of Greene prior to his involvement with Talk to Me. "I first heard about him about ten years ago when Ted Demme, who has since passed, had this project and was trying to get it made," he explains. "Then it went into turnaround and kinda fell off the map. Kasi was hired to do a re-write on it and it got resurrected again."
Greene's prolific work in both radio and television provided Cheadle with plenty of source material on which to base his performance. There's even a popular clip on Youtube, in which Greene demonstrates the proper way to eat watermelon. "It's over-the-top and it's brilliant," raves Cheadle. "You just don't see many characters like that today, who have that kind of access and that voice to be able to hit everyone over the head with it on a TV show. It was great to have somebody like that, especially as a juxtaposition to the 'PC-ification' of the times that we live in today."
Cheadle wonders how the no-hold-barred Greene, who died of cancer 1984, would fare in today's ultra-sensitive media climate. "It didn't work out too well for Don Imus," he observes. "I think people are much more guarded. We're very litigious. And people are skittish about their jobs and you don't want to say the wrong thing, cause you're gonna be on the other end of the pink slip."
"I don't think there would be a place for Petey if it weren't pirate radio or the internet," adds Cheadle. "Petey had Howard Stern on his television show and he came on in blackface. You couldn't do that today."
Cheadle's role in Talk to Me comes on the heals of a much smaller role in a much larger film, the summer blockbuster Ocean's Thirteen. As one of the most versatile actors working today, Cheadle is able to transition easily between mainstream fare like the Ocean's films and smaller, indie-oriented projects. "Things just kinda happen in unforeseen ways to make these schedules work," Cheadle says of his diverse body of work. "It's really not a plan. I don't have a 'one for them, one for me' kind of plan. Just give me one that's good and one that's interesting. That's the one I want to do."
Surprisingly, for a man who ranks among the elite talents in his field, Cheadle isn't all that enamored with his job. "I don't think I really like it that much," he says, only half-jokingly. "I have a love-hate relationship with it. I really don't like to leave the crib. I have two daughters who are not yet teenagers and I don't like leaving them for big periods of time to go do movies around the world."
"I have -- for better or worse -- chosen this as my profession and I'm really not trained to do anything else," says Cheadle, adding that he's considering "just becoming a writer or a producer and just sitting down for a minute."
Don't look for him to slow down anytime soon. His next project, a biopic based on the life of Miles Davis, could very well be the most challenging of his career. "It's very daunting, very intimidating," says Cheadle. "The whole point is to do something that's not a standard biopic, that's not right over the middle of the plate. He was completely antithetical to that. His life wasn't about being over the plate at all. So we're trying to tell that story in a way that's really unique and really different. Or else there's no reason to do it."
Talk to Me opens in select theaters July 13, 2007.