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Don Cheadle Talks Black Monday Show, Kathy Griffin, and the Oscars Host Controversy
Feb 9, 2019
Don Cheadle thinks he’s boring. “I’m a dad. I go to work, I go home,” he tells me in mid-January in the suite of a Midtown Manhattan hotel, where he’s doing press rounds for his new show, Black Monday (Sundays at 10pm on Showtime), a comedy about the stock market crash of 1987. “I don’t eat out, I don’t go out partying, I don’t do whip-its.” He doesn’t keep up with pop culture; he’s concerned about his appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon scheduled for later today. “I live in a cave,” he tells me before turning to his publicist and requests half-jokingly, “Have Fallon ask me only Don Cheadle-related questions, like ‘Where did Don Cheadle lose his virginity?’ I know that one.”
Even the paparazzi find him boring. In the nineties, as Cheadle’s star rose in the wake of his role as Denzel Washington’s sidekick in Devil in a Blue Dress, the celebrity press began following and photographing him. But he says that “after five minutes, they were like, ‘You’re not doing shit!’” He flashes a satisfied smile. “I told them, ‘Not true! I’m going to Whole Foods!’” Cheadle, 54, prides himself on being a man of routine: In bed at 9:30 p.m., back up at the crack of dawn to shower, moisturize, dress, and head to set. Sometimes he practices the bass; sometimes he smokes a joint and cleans the house; sometimes he tweets. But he’s usually hanging out with his family. Which is why it’s so unusual that the day we meet, he’s all over the tabloids.
It’s not like shit talking is new. But now, it’s supercharged, and some people take it too much to heart.”
The day before, in response to Cheadle’s tweet promoting a campaign to reduce advertising dollars funneled to bigoted websites, famous person Kathy Griffin slammed him for not supporting her two years ago, when she was widely criticized for releasing a photo in which she held the decapitated doll head of a Donald Trump lookalike. “I will never forgive you for your nasty tweet the day my smear campaign started,” she wrote, apparently in reference to a tweet he sent at the time that that read, in part, “That pic tho…”
Within minutes, Cheadle replied with the same question you’re asking right now: “Huh?” That didn’t sit well with Griffin, who unspooled her aggravation over several tweets posted in quick succession, calling Cheadle, among other things, “a dick in real life” and “just another Hollywood movie star phony.” News of the spat spread, mostly because it seemed unprovoked and one-sided, which it was. Later that day, Cheadle addressed the issue more directly, tweeting, “I don’t hate @kathygriffin or harbor any ill will… I’m not sure how/why this all bubbled up over a cap but let’s dead it. ” In turn, Griffin laid down her arms, tweeting, “Thank you for this, Don. I have a lot of respect for you.”
When I ask Cheadle about what went down, it’s clear he’s not over it. “She was making a strong political statement,” he says about her 2017 video. “If you’re going to do something like that, you shouldn’t be surprised by the blow-back.” He’s pleased that Griffin ended her attack as quickly as she started it, but he suggests that she either grow a thicker skin or get off of social media. “When that kind of blowback happens, it doesn’t mean it’s warranted or that you should lose your career, but a lot of shouldn’t happen. It’s about what’s real. It’s not like shit talking is new. But now, it’s supercharged, and some people take it too much to heart. Certain people aren’t built for it.”
Not that Cheadle thinks the internet should be a free-for-all slugfest, where the right to say anything means you should say everything you think. Take the case of Roseanne Barr, who last year was kicked off the revival of her own show after she made a string of bigoted statements. Referring to her firing, Cheadle says, “Does she deserve it? What’s deserve have to do with it, really? You’re working for a corporation that sells time to advertisers who reject that kind of thing or are afraid you’re bad for their brand. You should be able to see the endgame. Free speech doesn’t mean free of consequences.”
At 16, Cheadle once found himself on the other side of the conversation. He and a friend tried their hand as a comedy duo at an open-mic night in Denver. The set-up for their first-ever joke involved the pope, on a toilet, in conversation with his assistant. The punchline went something like this:
Pope: Hey Vicar, why doesn’t Jesus eat M&M’s?
Vicar: Why, your Eminence?
Pope: They fall through the holes in his hands.
Their first two sets killed. But they bombed the third and, as it turned out, last time, mostly because of one joke so offensive that he refuses to repeat it to me. “I’ll only say it involved refugees,” he says. “It was bad.” Worse still, Bettye, his mother, and Donald, his father, were in the audience. “On the way home, my parents didn’t talk about the show at all. You know it’s bad when all they talk about is the weather.” For Cheadle, the audience’s reception caused the most lasting pain. “When you die on stage like that,” he says, “there’s just no worse feeling.”
“Have Fallon ask me only Don Cheadle-related questions, like ‘Where did Don Cheadle lose his virginity?’ I know that one.”
By then, Cheadle was a seasoned performer. Throughout his childhood, his family bounced from one Midwest city to the next. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, he moved to Nebraska at a young age. His parents were in graduate school: Bettye for teaching, and Donald for clinical psychology. For stretches, Cheadle and his sister, Cindy, lived with their parents in student dorms. When Cheadle was six, they relocated to Denver for good. He was always a decent student, but he shined onstage. He played the saxophone from a young age, and he starred in plays as early as fifth grade. He was first drawn to acting because found it fun. As he moved into adolescence, his motivation changed. “As I got older,” he says, “I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll get a lot of girls like this!’”
More than anything, Cheadle says, he fell in love with the craft because “I really love learning about the psychology of other people. That’s probably my dad’s influence. I want to know what makes people tick.” After moving to Los Angeles and toiling for a few years, he started catching the attention of the right casting agents. Cheadle proved adept at playing a vast range of characters, both villains and victims, everything from a prudish district attorney in the series Picket Fences (1993) to a porn star-turned-stereo salesman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997).
Cheadle usually landed supporting roles. When given the opportunity to lead a film, he could shine: As a hotel manager who shelters refugees facing genocide in Hotel Rwanda (2004), he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. But not every time: Miles Ahead (2015), about Miles Davis, which Cheadle not only starred in but also co-wrote, co-produced, and directed (his directorial debut), received decent reviews but poor box office returns.
The small screen was a different story. Cheadle led the ensemble cast of House of Lies, a comedy about corporate consulting which ran on Showtime for five seasons and ended in 2016. He played Marty Kaan, the series’ foul-mouthed, ruthless protagonist, for which he received three Emmy nominations and won a Golden Globe. His performance was an undisputed career highlight, and in many ways, it set him up perfectly for Black Monday.
At first glance, Cheadle’s role on Black Monday—as Maurice “Moe” Monroe, the head of a not-very-good Wall Street trading firm—seems a lot like Marty from House of Lies, just living in a different decade. Cheadle resists the comparison but acknowledges they’re on the same spectrum of megalomania. “Moe is much more narcissistic than Marty,” he tells me. “He’s unhinged. He doesn’t have any family to balance him. He doesn’t have any real care for anyone. He would throw anybody under the bus to get what he wants. If he didn’t have Regina Hall’s character, Dawn, I don’t know if he’d even have company.”
The show, like its protagonist, is bonkers, which perhaps explain its long gestation. Showrunners David Caspe and Jordan Cahan worked on a pilot years ago for Showtime, only to watch it stuffed in the back of the proverbial file drawer. But then it came to the attention of Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, who had a development deal with the network, and who came on board as executive producers. Cheadle says he signed on after Showtime’s CEO, David Nevins, pitched it to him as a way “to push comedy as far as we can.”
Rogan and Goldberg co-directed the pilot. “They’re both bananas,” Cheadle says. “They have very different directing styles. Seth was kind of cerebral and he directs the way he is. He started crying watching me in one of the scenes that got cut. He told me he hadn’t done that since he was seven.” Evan seemed to be focused more on how the jokes would land, according to Cheadle. “It was a little bit of ping pong sometimes because Seth would come in with his style and give a note, and then Evan would come right behind him and give a note. I was like, ‘Did you talk to Seth? Because that doesn’t sound like the same thing that he said.’ It was a process.”
To make that process a bit easier, not just on Black Monday but on all his projects, Cheadle refuses to watch himself on playback. “After you act in a scene, you don’t know how you did,” he says. “It’s so nebulous. I’m thinking, Was it good? Was it bad? Did it work, did it not? Everybody’s going, ‘It’s great!’ and I’m like, I don’t fucking believe any of you!” He often feels like he didn’t do something right or he missed an opportunity. “There is never a day I don’t drive away from the set going, ‘Fuck! That moment.’”
I ask him what he considers to be his biggest mistake. “My kids,” he says. He’s joking, of course. A friend recently reminded Cheadle of something he’d said decades ago: “My friend told me, ‘You used to say that by the time you were 30, you wanted to have kids and a house and a fence and dogs.’ I was like, ‘I did?’ He was like, ‘Yeah.’ Then I did just that.”
Cheadle’s partner of more than twenty-five years, actor Brigid Coulter, is his rock. Though she hopes he won’t do any more nude scenes. “She thinks it’s egregious, a lot of it,” he tells me. He looks off to his left, toward the king-size bed in the bedroom, as if he’s conceding Coulter’s point. “You’re faking sex, but you’re not faking skin on skin.”
I don’t think the producers of the Oscars are going, ‘You now what? Let’s call the Avengers!’ It’s the dumbest idea.”
His daughters keep him on his toes. He tells me about a recent conversation he had with Imani, 22. “I said something about the ‘friend zone,’ and my daughter said, ‘That’s the patriarchy talking.’ I was like, ‘What? How?’ She’s like, ‘It implies that a guy should consider sex the ultimate triumph of his relationship with a girl, and that being friend with a girl means he’s been demoted. I was like, ‘Women say it, too.’ She said, ‘I’m just letting you know for my generation, that’s what it means.’” He pauses in appreciation. “With kids, you just get schooled all the time. They tell you like it is. I want to keep growing, to make new mistakes, not the same mistakes.”
He has more room to grow. We discuss how the Academy removed Kevin Hart from hosting duties at this year’s Oscars after old tweets resurfaced in which Hart made homophobic comments. Whereas Cheadle was quick to suggest that Kathy Griffin should deal with the consequences of her social-media actions, he casts Hart as a victim. “Murderers deserve to not be in society—they should either be snuffed out or put in jail. Does a guy deserve to not host the Oscars because he said something that someone unearthed? It’s like we’re in a bunch of mishmosh.”
In the wake of the Academy’s decision, questions swirled about who would take over hosting duties. (As of press time, the answer is: no one.) One suggestion in particular found enthusiastic support, at least among Marvel Studio fans: MC duties should be given to the cast of Avengers. Cheadle has played War Machine since Iron Man 2, after Terrence Howard and the film studio parted ways over a contract dispute. War Machine might not have the same amount of screen time in a given Marvel movie as Tony Stark, but Cheadle’s involvement in the highest-grossing franchise in cinematic history has earned him a reliable income for the last decade; he last appeared as the character in Avengers: Infinity War, 2018’s biggest box-office hit. I ask about the Oscars-hosting rumor. “Yeah, that ain’t gonna happen,” he says. “That gained traction on social media. I don’t think the producers of the Oscars are going, ‘You now what? Let’s call the Avengers!’ It doesn’t even make sense. It’s the dumbest idea.” He then turns his sights on the Awards themselves. “It’s a strange thing, really. It’s a competition over something that’s impossible to judge. Most of the people up for awards aren’t that into it. It’s just a part of the business.”
Cheadle is mum about what he’s doing next. He hopes that Showtime will renew Black Monday for a second season. He’s developing a thriller/horror movie that he co-wrote, but all he’ll say is “It’s in the works” and that “I’m hopeful that the summer, I’ll be in production on this movie.” In the meantime, he’s grateful that his older daughter, Ayana, 24, has, as of two days ago, decided against following in his footsteps. She’d considered pursuing acting but changed her mind at the Black Monday premiere party. “My daughter was sitting next to me,” Cheadle says, “and we kept getting interrupted so I could meet this person, shake that hand, take this picture, dah, dah, dah. She’s like, ‘They won’t even let you eat?’ I was like, “I know, baby. It’s a part of it.” She goes, ‘I like to act. I think that’s fun. But I don’t want the attention.’” He doesn’t try to mask his relief.