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Don’t take Don Cheadle too seriously

“I’m a fool! That’s another part of me too,” says the “Reign Over Me” star, who often gets pigeonholed in ultra-serious roles. By Miki Turner
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Actor. Activist. Fool.

Although the first two words adequately describe what Don Cheadle does for a living and as a private citizen, don’t be fooled by his earnest exterior. Behind those big brown eyes and underneath his unkempt afro-twist 'do is a natural born clown.

While the award-winning thespian best known for his work in “Crash,” his Oscar-nominated performance in “Hotel Rwanda,” “Boogie Nights” and his scene-stealing breakthrough role opposite Denzel Washington in “Devil in a Blue Dress,” is inarguably one of the best dramatic actors in Hollywood, he can also hold his own on open mic night at the comedy club.

He’s been there, done that.

That standup experience served him well at a recent press conference to discuss his new film “Reign Over Me,” which hits theaters on Friday. Cheadle delivered a slew of straight-faced zingers that had everyone in the room — including his costar Adam Sandler — howling with laughter.

When asked about the upcoming “Ocean’s Thirteen” flick he recently completed with Clooney, Pitt, Damon and the rest of the gang,  Cheadle cracked: “Those guys, most of them are drug addicts. There’s a lot of abuse going on. Those guys have a lot of problems.”

And later, during an exclusive interview in his suite Cheadle made himself the butt of the joke when discussing his upcoming book, “Not on our Watch: A Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond,” that hits bookstores in May.

“I’d have this little judge in my head saying, ‘You’re not s—t, you’re terrible,’ ” he said when describing the process. “You’re not a writer. Oh shut up and just go back and erase this s—t.”

‘I’m a fool’With all the compelling characters he’s played in all of those meaty, thought-provoking films combined with his efforts to raise global awareness about the conflict in Darfur, it’s easy to understand why he’s been kind of typecast as the heavy.

“People try and judge you by your roles and they see the stuff I do off screen and think I’m much more serious than I am and I get pigeonholed as they guy who always has such a cause,” Cheadle said. “I’m a fool! That’s another part of me too.”

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The Kansas City, Mo., native got the opportunity to tap into his foolish side in “Reign Over Me,” an engaging dramedy written and directed by Mike Binder about two old college roommates who reunite five years after 9/11.

Cheadle plays Alan Johnson, a successful New York City dentist and family man who has grown weary of his rather lame lifestyle. One day he bumps into his old friend Charlie Fineman (Sandler) on the street and is stunned by what he sees. A lot of things have changed in Charlie’s life. He used to be a respected, clean-cut dentist just like Alan, but after the loss of his wife and three daughters during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Charlie evolved into a unshaven, disheveled loner with Bob Dylan hair who travels around Manhattan on a motorized scooter.

Alan is initially perplexed by Charlie’s odd behavior, but soon discovers that his friend, who often blocks out the world and/or memories of that fateful day by cranking up his iPod, is suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder. Subsequently, Alan helps himself by helping Charlie.

Sandler and Cheadle: kindred spiritsWhile it took some time for Charlie and Alan to work through their respective issues and rekindle their friendship, Cheadle and Sandler hit it off immediately.

“We met at Mike’s house and all it took was he cracked some joke, I cracked some joke back and we’re like ‘Oh, you’re that guy and oh, you’re that guy.’ Cool, so this will be good,” Cheadle said. “We were both coming at the part from the same perspective, trying to figure this out and trying to figure out who we were and everything. He was just sort of a kindred spirit.”

Their friendship struck an even deeper chord during a scene that called for them to have a little impromptu jam session. Both Cheadle and Sandler are accomplished musicians.

“I had no idea how great he was,” Sandler said. “He was unbelievable on drums, on horn, on bass. It was cool. It was incredible.”

Binder thought so, too.

“They actually made up this song, too, while we were shooting that scene,” Binder said. “We couldn’t use it in the film, but just the fact that these guys made up this song and it was so funny says a lot about them. You can’t fake some of this chemistry. These guys really liked each other.”

Enough with the biopicsOne of the things Cheadle liked most his new film that even though an actual event had been woven into the plot, it wasn’t a biopic. Although, Cheadle who has played real-life characters in “Rwanda,” “The Rat Pack,” “Rebound: The Legend of Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault”; and is slated to appear in three more biographies including “Talk to Me,” “Toussaint” and the recently announced feature on jazz legend Miles Davis (in which he’ll make his directing debut), he doesn’t really care for the genre.

“I think it’s kind of staid and done to death,” Cheadle said with a slight sigh. “The thing that drew me to them was not the person necessarily as it was the story. With ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ that goes without saying. That story was really the star of that movie and something that relatively few people had heard about. And with Petey Green [the real-life radio personality from ‘Talk to Me’], it’s just the time and what we were dealing with as a country at that time.  He’s a guy who was just really irreverent, talks s—t and says whatever he thinks.”

Cheadle appreciates a straight shooter.

“We need that so much right now,” he said. “We need people who aren’t going to be P.C. and just say what they think for better or for worse. People were jumping all over that Anne Coulter thing and I was like let her say that. I’m glad she said that. I want to know how people think and feel. I don’t want people walking around not saying what they feel and think. Call me a n—r so I know who you are.”

Cheadle knows where he is when it comes to the pecking order of actors in Hollywood. Like everyone else in town — black, white or otherwise — he stands behind the husband of his “Reign” co-star, Jada Pinkett Smith.

According to Cheadle with studios making fewer and fewer films, times are tough for everyone not named Will Smith.

“I’m not saying anything bad about Will Smith; I’m saying that corporations are now running [the business] and there’s a different bottom line,” Cheadle explained. “The thing the studios are saying is how do we best hedge our bets? And if you’re going to hedge your bets — black, white or whatever — getting Will Smith in the movie seems to be the best way to go.”

Even if that weren’t the case there would be no debate about that statement because at that moment there was a knock on the door indicating that our time was up. Cheadle, however, had one more thing he needed to say.

“By the way, you should write that no one should roll up on me and call me a n—r because we will be fighting,” he said with a slight smile.

There you have it. Don’t be deceived by his lithe 5-foot-8 frame. If you’re hedging your bets, go with  Cheadle over Smith when it comes to playing the fool.

Miki Turner is a freelance writer/producer in Los Angeles and can be reached at dmiki@aol.com.