Critics may be universally praising Don Cheadle’s performance in Hotel Rwanda, but don’t ask the actor to watch himself in the film, or in any other. “All I can see is everything I’m doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud,” Cheadle, 40, told the Los Angeles Times. “I look at it like, ‘Ugh, Don, you missed that. You weren’t there in that moment. You liar!’ ”
Perhaps that’s why he seems unfazed by his Golden Globe nomination and the Oscar buzz surrounding his portrayal of real-life hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina in the harrowing film, set during the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which nearly 1 million people were killed. “My goal is to keep raising my game and doing better every time and refining what I do as an actor,” Cheadle says. “If the Oscar doesn’t come, it won’t change the trajectory of what I’ve been trying to do for 20 years.” (Incidentally, he already has a Golden Globe, for his role as Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1998 HBO biopic The Rat Pack.)
Born in Kansas City, Mo., and raised in Lincoln, Neb., and Denver, Cheadle first acted in a fifth grade production of Charlotte’s Web. After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts in 1986, he went on to appear onstage in the New York Shakespeare Festival and as a guest on TV shows including Hill Street Blues, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and ER.
But it’s the movie roles that have put Cheadle on the map, from his turn as a kindhearted porn actor in 1997’s Boogie Nights to his portrayal of a narcotics cop in 2000’s Traffic and his Cockney explosives expert in Ocean’s Eleven and Twelve.
Hotel Rwanda has not only brought Cheadle leading-man status, but also raised his social consciousness. “There are those scenes (in the film) where you can’t believe that this has actually happened,” he says. “Personally, it has inspired me to get involved.”
Shooting the movie for three months in South Africa, Cheadle was able to bring along his partner of 12 years, actress Bridgid Coulter, and their two daughters. “I cook for them a lot,” he says of his family. One of his proudest achievements as a doting dad? “Braiding my daughters’ hair,” he says. The self-described “weekend warrior” also spends his downtime on golf, basketball and the saxophone.
Along with his next film, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, costarring Sean Penn (opening Dec. 29 in limited release), Cheadle is set to direct his first feature film, Tishomingo Blues, based on an Elmore Leonard novel. As far as work is concerned, though, Cheadle says his family’s schedule comes first. “At the age they are now, it’s still them running to me when I open the door,” he says of his daughters. “When that turns into, ‘Oh, you’re here? Whatever,’ then I can do a little more.”
– additional reporting by Omoronke Idowu-Reeves and Strawberry Saroyan