Interview: The Guard's Don Cheadle

By Eric Eisenberg 2011-07-27 15:05:26discussion comments
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Itís hard not to appreciate the work of Don Cheadle. An actor with seemingly endless range, he can play everything from a hotel manager in Rwanda to a former porn star who just wants to open a stereo equipment store. The man can do both anything but in The Guard itís all about exercising your funny bone.

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to take part in a roundtable interview with the Oscar nominated actor, who plays an out-of-his-element FBI agent in the Irish film. Check out the interview below in which Cheadle talks about his time in Ireland, crafting his characterís backstory and what he did, or didnít, learn about prejudice from making the film.

So Don, how did you come to this project and why did you want to both star and executive produce?

Because Iím a megalomaniac. No, it came the way they usually comes, no often come, through the agency. My agent sent it to me and I read it and loved it, I read the first page to the last page and then back the whole way through. I thought it was really good and had that nice dark Irish humor that just makes me laugh because itís so not right. I was really invested in seeing it happen. I met with John Michael McDonagh, the writer-director, he told me that Brendan Gleeson was in, he had written it for him, he wanted him to play the guard. I thought, thatís great, Iíve always been a fan of his for a long, long time and wanted to work with him. So it was kind of a no-brainer. I came on as an executive producer to really, in addition to becoming a kind of green light element to getting it to go, to help shepherd it and do what we always have to do with these small projects that donít have a lot of studio support, which is to roll up your sleeves and start beating the bushes and trying to find money, and do whatever you can. So that was it, to get in the hustle game a little bit.

Have you seen In Bruges?


What did you think?

I loved it, I thought it was great. I had seen Pillow Man on Broadway a couple of years before that, and a couple of Martinís plays. Itís a similar, itís that similar bet perspective on life thatís really particularly Irish in that way, from the literature, itís very poetic in that same way. I just really responded to it, I thought it would be a great film.

Do you remember your first trip to Ireland? What was it like for you?

Yeah, my first trip was to shoot The Guard. It was weird because it was like, I was there, but I was making a movie too, so it was strange.

Did you feel, was it, did everybody come up to you and want your autograph?

Like, touch my hair, go, ďOh, a black person!Ē No, we just hung out a lot. Weíd go to the set, weíd go to the pubs, put back a pint of Guinness, Iíd go to a lot of the golf courses there because I wanted to play at a lot of places like the European Club, just really delved into it and had a great driver who had such a thick accent Irish people were like, ďWhat, I donít know what the hell heís saying.Ē No one understood what he was saying. And I golfed with him and John, he was my driver, we just had a great time, went everywhere and just hung out.

Did this driver know who you were?

He knew once they told him who I was.

You said that youíve wanted to wrok Brendan then when you worked for them, what was it like? Did you have the same style of working?

I didnít imagine that he was gonna be as big of an asshole as he was. And a prima donna. No, the first day I met him he came out here and he and John and I just read through the script in a room out here, and from the first couple of moments we started laughing and I was looking at him like, ďOh, youíre twisted.Ē Heís like, ďYouíre twisted, weíre both there,Ē and all three of us are like, ďOh weíre all twisted this is gonna be great, itís gonna be really good. We wanted to push it even further and then we all looked at each other and went, ďNo, thatís for us, we canít do that for...we still want people to see this thing.Ē

Are you the kind of actor that writes yourself a back story so that you can really...


So what part of your character was already on the page and what part was the back story that you gave me?

Well I thought it was very interesting, the stuff that he put in there that he was from Wisconsin, but that he was a cop in Atlanta, he talks about, ďOh, you caught a serial killer in Tennessee.Ē I mean so heís like this transplant from, and this is nothing that John told me, this is just extrapolation that I did from what was there, was that heís moved to the south, and heís lived in the south for a while, and then he went to an Ivy League school, so heís got a real identity, heís got a lot of questions about who he is, himself, I think, and who he wants to come off as, you know. You name your kids Stokely and Huey, you know what I mean, youíre saying something. Youíre starting to say what you want you want to present yourself to the world. Which doesnít really jive quite with being a guy from Wisconsin who goes to an Ivy League school. So thereís all of this stuff that I just kind of built in which was great for Brendan to be able to poke at, you know. And itís nothing that I revealed to him, these are secrets you have for yourself. But it went to kind of fleshing him out, creating this character who is kind of conflicted, in my mind, who had a chip on his shoulder.

What do you think this film teaches you about prejudice?

That itís good. Prejudice is funny [laughs] No, it doesnít teach me anything about prejudice, Iíve been black in this country my whole life, but I thought it was, the way that itís dealt with, like, ďOh god, heís such a racist.Ē Like, well, itís not like we walked into a room and he didnít see us there and us talking this way, and we overheard it. Heís looking at me and saying it to me to get a reaction. Finally in the film, he says the last thing and I go, ďHaha.Ē At first it gets me, and then heís like, ďOh, youíre just an asshole. Youíre just being affluent, letís talk about the case.Ē And once they talk about the case, all of that stuff is gone. So I never read it going ďoh, this dude is a bigot,Ē itís not Archie Bunker, Archie Bunker believes what heís saying. This character doesnít believe what heís saying, heís saying it to see if he can make you react, and wants you to react. Itís like, ďOh, now I got you. Now I can bat you around.Ē Itís just that everything is fair game.

I think at the end an active audience will relate to this because thereís a commonality between Compton and Galway and that I feel like there is a gap that got bridged in the movie.

Iíve never been to Compton, but I have been to Galway, so I donít know if Comptonís like Galway. So I donít think you can get good things in that, thatís all Iím saying.

But they do come together.

I guess, my character wasnít from Compton, but maybe they do. I think in that line, you know, when he says that, to me itís really funny because Wendell Everett doesnít know anything about Compton, but he does know about Galway. But youíre saying, exactly, when he goes, ďItís like Compton,Ē heís going, ďYeah, these people donít want to talk to me.Ē Thatís what heís responding to, not some sort of cultural identity to Compton. He doesnít know shit about Compton.

Bridging to what you were talking about earlier, was the accent ever a problem?

Really it was only my driver, i swear to you. He was the one guy who no one understood, but me. I mean once, you start to hear, with an accent, when you are totally immersed in a place, you adjust, your ear adjust, youíre like, ďOh, thatís what theyíre saying.Ē And pretty soon you just understand it. Their English is better than ours by the time, itís just with that dialect.

The responses that your character gives in the movie, is it the response that you really wanted that character to have? Was anything modified at all to make it your responses? You were so cool, sometimes being cool is what pisses people off more than if you just go completely...

Ape shit. No, it was the script. Like I said, I read the script, the script was fully there. There was very little, if any improv thatís happening or adlibs. Weíre not really adlibbing. The script was complete when I got it. I just thought it was great. You know a little tweak here and there, but nothing where, I didnít read anything and go, ďOh, he would not react like this. My character would not respond like this.Ē No, not at all, it was right there. And I loved that he gets him to sort of put himself on front street, like when he says, ďSo, you grew up in the projects?Ē He makes my character go, ďNo, I didnít grow up in the projects, I went to an Ivy League school, I was a genius, Iím smart, and youíre an asshole.Ē Itís like, alright, thatís a big reaction. He makes him think heís got it, he gets his back up. I think thatís whatís fun about that part, he allows him to, he doesnít allow him to, he gets to wheedle him and you get to see that sort of blustery thing. He has to learn how to go, ďIím not gonna take everything so seriously.Ē At the end you see what heís saying, too.

As an actor, this is the first feature film that John Michael McDonagh has directed. Does that worry you, or when you read a script this good, you go, ďYou know what, I know heís a good director because he wrote this script.Ē

Well no. Iíve worked with other first time directors and itís been a nightmare, you know. Sometimes they canít, sometimes everything is too precious. Theyíve lived and dreamed and read it over, experienced it forever, they know exactly how everything is supposed to go and if it doesnít jive with the way they see it, theyíre like, ďNo, heís gotta do it this way.Ē Iíve been on sets like that where a first time director has strangled all of the life out of a movie because heís trying to control it, and you canít. Itís a living thing, it has to breathe. That wasnít John. I read the script and went, youíve written a good script, and we met, we had several meetings, and, ďTell me how you want to shoot it,Ē and ďWhatís the concept?Ē ďGive me some movies that are kind of what youíre talking about,Ē ďWhatís the world that youíre seeing?Ē ďHow are we gonna pull this set piece off?Ē ďThematically, whatís this?Ē You know, you probe, you hang out, you get a feel for who the person is. ďOh, youíre sick, youíre twisted.Ē You drink a beer together, ďYou made that joke, oh okay, you get it,Ē you know? Then you just have to roll the dice. And theyíre rolling the dice too. Theyíve created a character that youíre gonna show up and do your thing and Iím sure sometimes theyíre sitting on their side of the camera going, ďNo! Youíre ruining my whole thing!Ē So, itís, we donít ever know. And then we do our whole thing and hand it off to an editor. And that person makes the movie or destroys the movie. An editor can take a bad movie and make it great. They can also take a good movie and make it bad. You never know. Thatís why I never get, Iím always thankful for the next job because Iím just like, that one will be what it is, I did the best I can, I hope it works out, Iíll see it at the premiere, hopefully itís not a piece of shit.
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