Don Cheadle: From action man to sex-crazed, cynical consultant

Don Cheadle's latest role chimes with post-crunch sentiment

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The Independent Culture

My conversation with Don Cheadle begins via Twitter. “In a hotel room, awaiting an audience with @Iamdoncheadle,” I observe, after arriving at the appointed venue. “Hope he likes fruit and Badoit, because that’s what’s happening, refreshment-wise.” Seconds later, Cheadle fires back an @response. “Order egg whites scrambled and turkey sausage.” I inform his PR woman of said instruction, room service is called, and by the time that @iamdoncheadle strides bonhomiously across the threshold, breakfast is sitting on the table, just as he requested.

Cheadle loves it when a plan comes together, whether it involves eggs and processed turkey, or some of the more outrageous heists his various alter egos have performed. As Mockney geezer Bashar Tarr, he jollified the Ocean’s Eleven franchise by blowing things up. As “Rhodey” in Iron Man 2, he pursued elaborate (and only occasionally-successful) plans to keep Robert Downey Jr in contact with his marbles. Elegant, and somewhat prolific, Cheadle’s ability to headline both action movies and more cerebral fayre (think Crash and Hotel Rwanda) has put him in that rare breed of A-listers who confer instant credibility on even a mainstream project.

We are meeting, in a Los Angeles “boutique” hotel, to discuss his latest project, a TV series called House of Lies. It’s a dark, edgy comedy which takes a deeply cynical look at management consultants, the high-paid “fixers” whose job supposedly involves sorting out troubled companies. The show’s bashing of this opaque industry, and by extension of big business in general, chimes neatly with Cheadle’s other public persona. Away from the acting game, he’s a prominent Hollywood liberal, known for supporting of Barack Obama, hanging out with Clooney, campaigning against climate change, and dispensing nuggets of clued-up leftism via his Twitter feed.

In House of Lies, Cheadle plays Marty Kahn who in the argot of Wall Street is a big, swinging dick of the consulting industry expert in the art of dispensing cost-saving, reputation enhancing advice to feckless corporations. The show was inspired by a 2005 bestseller subtitled How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time and its premise is that consultants, who supposedly dispense cutting-edge advice to needy corporations, are in fact malign hucksters whose principal aim is not to solve a client’s problems, but to convince clients that they’re solving problems that may, or may not, actually exist.

Each episode, Khan leads a team of noxious corporate warriors (among them Kristen Bell) from their homes in Los Angeles to the premises of a fictional company whose fortunes need turning around: one week, a Wall Street bank trying to justify its obscene bonus structure; the next, a basketball franchise on the verge of imploding due to its owner’s messy divorce. Spilling jargon that even they don’t understand (“we need to chunk out a journey line for this business” or “let’s open the kimono here”), they attempt to bullshit his way towards a fat commission.

The show, of which Cheadle is an Executive Producer, has been called a hatchet-job by real life spokesmen for the consulting industry. Fuelling their ire is the fact that, Kahn is also a serial sexual predator, who likes (in Cheadle’s words) to “angry bang” everyone from his ex-wife, to clients, to strippers he picks up in lap-dancing clubs. He also enjoys fabricating vast expenses claims. This raunch serves as a sort of metaphor: in the Jerry Maguire-style exposee of corporate America that House of Lies attempts, management consulants and their clients are constantly screwing each other, literally and figuratively.

This schtick feels comfortingly topical in the post-crunch, post-Occupy era. The show launched on cable TV in the US this Spring, to largely-hearty reviews, and decent audience numbers, and has already been picked up for a second series. “I feel like the curtain’s being pulled back by the financial collapse,” says Cheadle, when I ask how he explains its success. “I mean, look at how people have responded to Marty. He’s really not a nice person. In fact, he’s just an animal. But when people Tweet me, there’s something about Marty they seem to like... They enjoy living vicariously through his sociopathic behaviour. We are pushing his character, and his ideas, to their illogical conclusion,”

It was partly the chance to play an anti-hero that first attracted Cheadle to House of Lies. Some actors steer clear of cartoon villains, but he tends to be drawn to then. “I’ve played murderers, I’ve played bad cops. When the likeability thing came up, I just thought: ‘eh, whatever!’ To me, Tony Soprano wasn’t likeable but he was imminently watchable. That’s exactly the kind of character I want to play.”

He’s been to pick and choose roles for the best part of a decade. After moving to Hollywood in the 1980s, he enjoyed years of relatively comfortable employment (starting with a well-regarded turn in the 1980s hit Hamburger Hill) before breakout roles as porn star Buck Swope in Boogie Nights, and Mouse Alexander, the trigger-happy psychopath in Devil In a Blue Dress propelled him to a-list status. At 47, he lives in West Los Angeles with Brigid Coulter, his partner of 15 years, and their two daughters.

“The movie business has changed dramatically since I started,” he says. “It’s affected everything. Today, you have to either big tentpole films; you can still get those made. Or you can get a movie made for six million dollars. But those mid-range movies, those 30, 40 million dollar films, have gone. No-one wants to take a risk on them. It’s actually analogous to what’s happening in the wider world, where the middle class is being hammered.” The dearth of challenging indie film projects drove him to a TV series, he adds.  “These days, most of the interesting stuff tends to be happening on TV.”

Cheadle’s move into television has also been prompted by domestic pressures. “Things have changed in my life a little bit,” he says. “I have daughters in high school. When they were little, we just took them everywhere. When I did Hotel Rwanda, we put them in school in Africa for three months. We could say “we’re all going to Toronto” or whatever. These days, I wouldn’t want to do that, even if I could. I want them to have continuity in their lives. That stuff’s important. The most I’ve allow myself to be away from Los Angeles in the last few years about three weeks.”

That can rule out a lot of film projects (though some, like this Summer’s Iron Man 3, still come together). But Cheadle’s a father first and an actor second, he says.  He grew up in a similarly tight family, one of three children who spent his early years shuffling round Middle America as his father, a trainee psychologist, chased scholarships to universities where he could learn the trade. “I remember we used to get pizza every night and we’d think “damn, we’re lucky!” now I realise that wasn’t quite the case. It was more like: ‘no, we’re fucking poor’!” The family ended-up in Denver, where he began acting in high school before winning a scholarship to Cal Arts, in Valencia.

Childhood gave Cheadle a keen sense of social justice, which he has never quite lost. After the success of Hotel Rwanda, for which he was nominated for the 2005 Best Actor Oscar, he set up a poker charity, Ante Up for Africa, which holds celebrity card tournaments, and was last year appointed a goodwill ambassador by the United Nations, campaigning to combat climate change, a job he says involves trying to “live as an example of what it is they’re trying to have you represent.” Does the role prevent him, say, travelling on private jets?  “No... I take them everywhere,” he jokes, before letting me know that his house runs on solar and that his family car is a Prius. He is frustrated by public ambivalence to climate change, and says that having to negotiate traffic clogged freeways of his native Los Angeles trengthens that view on a daily basis. “Why isn’t there mandatory car-pooling? You drive down the freeway here, and see jsut hundreds of cars, and one driver in each one. This city had the worst traffic. The worst greenhouse gas. It’s just a horrible situation.”

Coming months are meanwhile likely to see the political Don Cheadle turn out in support of Barack Obama, whose 2008 election he vigorously endorsed. He admits being underwhelmed by the President’s first term but admits to having had unrealistic expectations. “If you look at what Obama was saying, it was ‘I’m going to be a consensus seeker. I’m going to reach across the aisle, be everybody’s President.’ That’s what he said. But when he tried that, he found there are people were never going to support him. I mean, some ridiculous amount, like 63 percent of Southern Republicans still believe that he’s a Muslim. You hear politicians calling Obama a snob for wanting children to go to college. How can he work with people like that?”

In a world driven by greed, power, and money, idealism doesn’t always work, he’s reluctantly concluded. “Maybe, with Obama, people were drinking Kool Aid which wasn’t being offered,” he says. “Maybe the Presidency is just not an office designed to work for everybody. Maybe it’s not designed to work for the masses. Maybe it’s designed to pacify and mollify the hordes and make sure that the people who are making money and pushing industry continue.” One of those very people, Cheadle's odiously-watchable new alter ego Marty Kahn, would probably agree.