When Tony Stark and company return for a new big screen adventure this week in “Iron Man 2,” all the familiar names and faces from the original will be back...with one notable exception. The character of Lt. Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes, a role originated by actor Terrence Howard, is now sporting the exasperated smirk of Don Cheadle.
Not exactly a shocking revelation if you’ve followed the development of the sequel, as the swap-out went down a mere five months after the first film hit theaters. It’s since been rumored that the split came out of Marvel’s desire to get Howard to take a major pay cut, and director Jon Favreau’s creative displeasure with the actor’s take on the character. And understanding the need to quickly clear out any impediments that could hinder Marvel’s evolving potential mega franchise “The Avengers,” the change was swift, with Cheadle getting less than a day to opt in or out.
Of course, Cheadle said yes and now it’s for audiences to decide if the actor meshes with the old guard in “Iron Man 2,” especially since the character gets a lot more screen time as Stark’s armored peer, War Machine.
In an exclusive interview with Newsarama, Cheadle shrugs off the drama and says he never let the fan chatter or media coverage get under his skin.
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“I kind of kept my head in the sand,” Cheadle admits. “I don’t go on the Internet trying to see what people are saying about War Machine or me. That’s stuff maybe I used to do when I started 20 years ago,” he laughs, “but now I know those things are so beyond my control that to me there’s not a lot of benefit in wasting time worrying about it. I would rather spend my energy focused on the job I am trying to do and hopefully, if you do the job well, those other things will take care of themselves.”
“Iron Man 2” represents Cheadle’s first foray into a full-fledged superhero film, but certainly not the world of sequential art itself. As a youth he admits to being a huge fan of “Swamp Thing,” “X-Men,” “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight,” however, “Iron Man” wasn’t a title he read. But the actor says Marvel set him up with access to everything Rhodey in order to research the character.
“I knew that ultimately [Rhodey] was going to be whatever was in the script that I had to follow, but I did want to familiarize myself with the character, to know what that history was and what the mythology was. It turned out to be very confusing,” Cheadle said.
With more than 30 years of disparate storylines, there was no one definitive Rhodey to go by. Favreau even admits they cherry-picked the most interesting aspects of his storylines to apply to their cinematic Rhodey, a fact that Cheadle says actually freed up his performance.
“That was the thing that allowed me to relax and just do whatever the script dictated, because there are so many different iterations,” the actor explained.
Cheadle said he did research the real world of the military and military contractors to get a feel for how his character would balance his chain of command demands against Stark’s more reckless attitude.
“We consulted with military advisors,” the actor revealed. “We had people from the Department of Defense on the set. And I learned that I don’t want to be in the military. Those guys have an awesome responsibility as we all know, as we have unfortunately experienced in the last several years in the world, what it really takes and what they really have to do. It was a very interesting dynamic to bring to this movie, because what does Tony owe to his country? And what does my character do to both honor his friendship with his person but still be who he is, which is a military man who really believes there are rules you have to follow? Tony doesn’t even know how to spell rules, so how does this work?”
The actor said he particularly enjoyed that the superhero genrereally allowed for an interesting mix of themes to explore, especially within the framework of Tony and James’s complicated friendship.
“It’s a very elastic genre, so you can do things that are fantastical and over-the-top but you can also drill down and deal with some stuff real people have to deal with. It’s a great juxtaposition to have Tony be a knucklehead character who’s not the white hat hero. He’s a guy that’s got demons and trying to deal with his own addictions and problems. All of that is something real and fun to play with inside of a CGI world.”
And that means this film finds their friendship suffering even more strain as Tony just gets crazier when he discovers his own arc reactor is poisoning himself ... probably to death.
“Rhodey finds himself in the untenable position of having to manage this friendship and be true to his man, but at the same time he’s got a job to do,” Cheadle explains. “He’s taken a sworn oath to protect the country and follow the chain of command and Tony Stark’s having none of it. And not only is he having none of it, but this awesome power is in the hands of somebody who is at the moment not really responsible, so what do we do?”
What he does — a turning point in the film and in their friendship — is take the Mark II technology so the government can create War Machine, with Rhodey inside. For Cheadl,e that meant he got to suit up in his own metal armor, which turned out to be equal parts awesome and a pain in the ass.
Cheadle explains the final War Machine look on film is created through a mixture of practical costume and CGI effects. “It’s us in a mo-cap suit and the stunt men in the mo-cap suit,” he details. “And sometimes it’s me in the heavy metal and the stunt man in the heavy metal. I think on the call sheet my CGI character worked as many days as I did.”
On the days when it was Cheadle in the suit, the actor says he quickly realized the limitations of being a superhero. “Yeah, getting out of the suit was always fun,” he laughs. “You couldn’t touch your own face. If you had to go to the bathroom, you just had to wait. But then you step back and get a bigger perspective and the 12-year-old boy in me is going ‘This is fun!’ So it was a lot of fun.”
Future Iron Man films?
While “Iron Man 2” does give Rhodey and Tony more screen time and the last act reveal of their metallic alter-egos in the heat of battle, Cheadle says this movie only begins to scratch the surface of what this new dynamic means to their friendship and how they work in together on the battlefield.
“I think at the end of this film those questions are just starting to be asked,” he said. “I don’t think we know yet where it’s going to go or what the results are going to be for how they will work in tandem. And I think it’s tricky because [the question] is will Rhodey able to continue to keep his position as a colonel in the military and work with this guy who is going to be a rogue? I don’t see Iron Man ever saying, ‘Yes, I’ll come under the chain of command and be ruled by a general.’ I think he is going to do how he’s going to do, so I don’t know how it’s going to work between the two of them but it will be interesting to see them try to do it.”
Cheadle says ultimately that’s something to be explored in future films if the fans are behind what they accomplish in this sequel.
“I think the proof is in the pudding and once the audience receives it, they will tell us how we did. We are trying to fill the shoes of the one that came before and hopefully further the franchise and take it somewhere even more enjoyable," he said. "But again I think that’s a determination made not by us but hopefully the millions of people that see it.”
As it turns out, “Iron Man 2” is already a success overseas to the tune of $100 million, so the chance of a return engagement is looking all but set. And Cheadle will be back to play again, as he confirms his multiple sequel deal.
“Yeah, there are more. I don’t want to say the exact number but there are multiple ones,” the actor said cagily.
The only thing to wait on now is the when, which Cheadle says is becoming increasingly complicated.
“Quite honestly we wrapped the movie so long ago and if the next one were to happen, it’s going to happen after “Thor”, “Captain America”, and Robert is going to do another “Sherlock Holmes” so it’s going to be a minute. There are many other projects I have going on between now and then so I’ll get focused on those and when the script drops then I’ll do. It’s its own train on its own track so you just let that happen and go about your life until they come back and say let’s do another one.”
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