Don Cheadle Interview – TALK TO ME

     July 12, 2007

Opening tomorrow in select release is “Talk to Me,” the new Don Cheadle movie where he plays Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr., an iconic radio disc jockey from the 1960’s in Washington D.C. Here’s the synopsis:

Academy Award nominee Don Cheadle portrays the one and only Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr.; Petey’s story is funny, dramatic, inspiring – and real. In the mid-to-late 1960s, in Washington, D.C., vibrant soul music and exploding social consciousness were combining to unique and powerful effect. It was the place and time for Petey to fully express himself – sometimes to outrageous effect – and “tell it like it is.” With the support of his irrepressible and tempestuous girlfriend Vernell (Taraji P. Henson), the newly minted ex-con talks his way into an on-air radio gig. He forges a friendship and a partnership with fellow prison inmate Milo’s (Mike Epps) brother Dewey Hughes (double Golden Globe Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor). From the first wild morning on the air, Petey relies on the more straight-laced Dewey to run interference at WOL-AM, where Dewey is the program director.

At the station, Petey becomes an iconic radio personality, surpassing even the established popularity of his fellow disc jockeys, Nighthawk (Cedric The Entertainer) and Sunny Jim (Vondie Curtis Hall). Combining biting humor with social commentary, Petey openly courts controversy for station owner E.G. Sonderling (Emmy Award winner Martin Sheen). Petey was determined to make not just himself but his community heard during an exciting and turbulent period in American history. As Petey’s voice, humor, and spirit surge across the airwaves with the vitality of the era, listeners tune in to hear not only incredible music but also a man speaking directly to them about race and power in America like few people ever have. Through the years, Petey’s “The truth just is” style — on – and off-air – would redefine both Petey and Dewey, and empower each to become the man he would most like to be.

To help promote the release I was able to participate in some roundtable interviews, the one below is with Don Cheadle.

During the interview we discussed playing Petey and how he came to get the part. We also talked about the possibility of an “Oceans 14,” why he didn’t wear the polyester when he wasn’t filming, andhis upcoming projects like”Traitor” and playing Miles Davis.If you’re a fan of Don you’ll like the interview.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or download the MP3 of the interview by clicking here.

And before getting to the interview, if you missed the movie clips I previously posted you can watch them here.

“Talk to Me” opens tomorrow in select release.

Question: So as far as transformation goes you’re really burying yourself, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but …

Don Cheadle: We’ll know when it comes out if I buried myself or not.

…disappearing into roles so how difficult was Petey Greene compared to maybe Paul Rusesabagina or the other memorable character’s you’ve played?

I think that’s for an audience to decide how effect it was. I think you try obviously to take the script and that’s the bible and you try do as much research as you can as far as who this person really was when you have a real life that you’re trying to depict. There’s some source material that exists not a lot, they erased most of the radio program so those tapes were taped over and most of the television programs they did similar with them, it was before they were really archiving that type of stuff so there’s only a few clips here and there of him that exist and audio clips that exist but we had Dewey Hughes around which is a great touch. I met him before we started the project and he was there for a lot of the project so we always had him as a great reference point, but I don’t know I just do the best I can and try to embody those things that were emblematic about him specifically his voice and try to just read between the lines of the research and find the true essence of who he is and not necessarily try to depict all the events as they happened exactly. You take a lot of poetic license but to try to be truthful about who he was.

Did this project find you or did you find this project?

You know it’s funny because I first heard about this project over 10 years ago or maybe around 10 years ago when Ted Demme had it who was since passed, and he had been trying to put it together for a while and never saw a script but it was mostly maybe there was a script, I don’t remember reading a script but I know it centered more around his prison life and then it fell off the radar screen then came back into focus for me when Kasi was brought on to do a re-write and eventually to direct it and trying to find financing and had different casting groups and I at one point was going to play Dewey and so finally we were able to put it together in this iteration that it exists now which you guys saw I think and just really glad I stuck with it for this long because I think it’s rare to see a movie like this and it’s rare to see a character depicted like this, a character quite like this and of this time and in this period of time in our country so it just had a lot of plusses.

Before the Ted Demme version what was your awareness of the story?

None. I think it’s pretty common among people who live outside the D.C. area and are of a certain age. Unless you’re in your 50’s or 60’s you never heard Petey Green and if you weren’t in DC you probably never heard Petey Green, so he was really a local legend. But he was a legend in his time and in that area. But no I hadn’t heard anything about him.

Do you think it’s changed—the situation back in the 60’s to now? Is there still discrimination, still racism you still face it personally yourself even though you’re a well known actor.

Yeah, sure. Of course, I don’t think that’s solved by any degree. You just look at what happened with Katrina and what happened with the people that lived in Louisiana and Mississippi. You know that its right under the surface and that it just depends on what you’re up against to revel what there is. So I think it’s still there and I’m not necessarily a victim of it but I clearly am aware of it and it shows its face in many different ways and it doesn’t always have to be an overt direct insult hurled at you. It can be coming up against certain institutionalized barriers that have become in a lot of ways, the norm.

So you haven’t felt personally in the last couple of years…?

Oh, I’ve felt it personally, too.

Like what would be an example?

Just certain places you go and certain ways that you’re treated. Especially when you travel, I don’t know if it’s racism because to me that’s a very specific sort of accusation or a charge and it has I think contained within that ideology a direct attempt to disavow someone of their rights depending upon their race or whatever. But you feel the effects of the institutionalized favoritism or just in the way things are done or the way movies are marketed that you’re a part of, the way that a film if it has more than one black lead in it is a black film and the black budget vs the budget of a movie that isn’t seen as being a black movie. Just things like that that are the microcosm in our business of the macrocosm which is just how it’s perceived in the world.

When you look at the best Oscar winners and you see Forest and Jamie.

Not me, what the fuck. It’s all good. I think we’ve been able, and by we I mean the business that we’re in has been able to encompass a lot of different stories from a lot of different perspectives and I think that’s just been a result of sort of the reaction to the mainstream Hollywood movies that have become more and more narrow and more and more about doing it in the rear view mirror and trying to make these tent pole movies and target these mass audiences and they lose all their personality and they lose all their specialness and I think the reaction that we’ve seen, all these movies and these performances that you’re mentioning have kind of come outside of that studio machine and hopefully more voices are going to keep emerging and getting through.

But as a producer you seem to be able to help certain movies that deal with more important messages and themes into production, I don’t know what the question is…

That’s purely coincidental. I mean it wasn’t a plan. It’s not like I saw Crash and went oh, that’s going to have some impact socially I want to be a part of it. I thought this is a great script and unique and I haven’t seen a movie like this ever come across my desk and I want to jump on board in anyway I can and help push it through. It’s rare that you see movies that are different and get to that place where you as an actor read it and have the ability to jump on and try to help push it to get it made.

I guess I mean aside from when you take a project like that on as a producer, how are you better able to get those things made aside from just lending your name and your acting?

You get involved. You get involved in every aspect of the film making. The casting, the script, the production design, the release, the marketing, the advertising materials. You try to touch all of those things and try to make sure there is a continuum of focus and an continuum of ideas so that the movie doesn’t seem like it’s scatter shot and everybody’s in 5 different worlds and you don’t know what the story you’re trying to tell. I think everybody was dreaming the same dream on this movie and we were able to pull together people that were there because they loved it and wanted to be there and you usually get a good product. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful but it means I can be proud to stand up and go ok, I feel good about saying I was part of that one and helped put it together.

We never got to ask you any questions on Ocean’s 13, and so I would like to sort of say it’s been very successful. Would you go back to an Ocean’s 14?

I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t imagine they’d do another one, and if they do they should start killing characters. We should start going backwards, you know. I think we should count down from 11 and it should be more like a 10 little Indians scenario and we should do different genres. We should do a horror movie, we should do a porno version, you know just a different genre of film until you get down to Ocean’s 2 should be like a death match between I don’t know who it would be…whoever is left standing. Me and George. Me and Shaobo.

But is it nice though that Oceans 13 seems to be critics and the public seem to really love the movie so obviously that’s a little more rewarding after …

Yeah, after people want to come up and tell you in your face, hey 12 sucked. You know, it’s like the movie that people have no compunction about telling you they didn’t like. Those movies are what they are. It’s a franchise, it’s fun. I enjoyed those guys. I feel I’m like the only one besides Steven Soderbergh that’s working in those because I’m trying to fucking wrestle this dumb accent down, not that the accent is dumb but my attempt to work with it is not always successful, so I feel I’m the one who’s in the trailer, they’re out there playing basketball, and I’m going over a diction book going I, I, A, A. You know? They’re frustrating for that, but you know, look they’re just puffy and a nice little piece of popcorn, if people like it that’s great. It’s a cry for peace, that’s what the Oceans’ series is.

I was going to go back to this film. You wore some very interesting clothes.

Thank you.

I wanted to know if you took any of them home and did you get a sense of freedom as an actor when you’d walk out with that thing? Did you ever look in the mirror and say wow?

I think freedom isn’t the word I’d use with those tight constricting clothes. You know, you could really see my religion in most of those pants I wore. No, I didn’t take any of them home. I couldn’t wait to get out of those clothes, but it obviously helps define the character and define the era and make you feel like you’re really back there and I love that people would just go out in those clothes every day. Didn’t need a special occasion its like yeah, I’m going to rock the velour bell-bottoms and you know, velvet tank top, why what’s the occasion? It’s Tuesday, what do you mean why? I miss that kind of style actually.

Did you ever go out with the clothes just for the hell of it and go around?

Surprisingly no, I didn’t do that. Turns out polyester in 98 degree heat isn’t that comfortable.

What were the 70’s like for you presumably as a kid?

I was 6 to 16 during the 70’s so I didn’t know my way around a cup to find the handle but I remember having similar clothes like that and going to discos and all of that shit.

The movie is not a straight bio pic as it has elements of other things. Can you talk about what it is hopefully that you are trying to say about entertainment and black entertainers from the 60’s to the 80’s?

Yeah, I like that it’s not a straight bio pic and we’re not trying to tell the Petey Green story or the Dewey Hughes story. It was really a story about the friendship between these 2 men and the triumvirate being Vernell as well. That’s it’s really a story about …with a backdrop of the times and what this friendship had to come through and what they had to face and deal with and the unity they had and the disunity and the coming back together. I would hope that not just black audiences but definitely the black audiences show up but that all audiences show up because it’s really a celebration of that friendship but I think everyone who’s seen it and comes out of it has an experience that’s not relegated merely to race or any real political issue. I just think it’s a very entertaining film that encompasses a lot.

I think it’s about liberation or liberating from being yourself.

I think when you look at the pecification of everything that’s happened in this country definitely. It’s you long to have somebody stand up and go this is what I think and this is what I’m saying about it and I don’t give a shit, you know, come at me if you’ve got a problem with it, look me up but you don’t see a lot of that lately and it’s dangerous for people to do that and lose their jobs and I just think it’s a part of how we try to deal with something that’s uncomfortable which is to just sweep it under the rug and then you don’t have to talk about it anymore. Don Imus, what did he say oh, get it out of there, now the problem’s over as if it solved anything, so I think maybe there’s a longing for… you live vicariously through somebody like Petey because we wish we could always be front and center with what we think.

What would it take for someone to come out today and say these sort of things and stay in the arena and not just be swept under like that?

I have no idea if you could it. You’d have to be on pirate radio or you’d have to be somewhere where you could really voice your opinion. You think about a popular media, do you think All in the Family could get made today if somebody got that pilot across their desk? They’d say oh, no, no, no. You’re not saying this unless you’re animated. I mean Family Guy can get away with it and American Dad can get away with it, but you have to be drawn.

I was going to ask about other things you might be working on right now, or things that might be on the horizon if you wouldn’t mind talking about that?

I’m starting a film in September, hopefully, if all things go forward, called Traitor. I have a documentary that I’ve produced coming out in October about activism in Darfur and then hopefully next year pre-strike I’ll get this Myles Davis project up and running.

Could you tell us about Traitor?

Yeah, I think I can. It’s a movie about someone who infiltrates a cell, an agent that infiltrates a cell and maybe has gone over and isn’t an agent anymore but may actually be on the side of the extremists. A Muslin American.

Does it have a director or a studio if I may ask?

The director is Jeffrey Nachmanoff who also wrote it and I think they’re going to roll it out officially so I’m just going to leave it at that.

Continued on the next page ———->


Do you play or are you going to learn to play for Myles?

I’m playing now, yeah.

How are the lessons going?

You know the lessons, I’ve been touring so much and traveling so much, I haven’t been able to jump back into the lessons so much but I play every day.

Does it sound good?

Yeah, it’s a work in progress, I’ll tell you that much. It don’t sound good to me but I’m not going to play in the movie. I just have to play so I’m comfortable with it. We have all of Miles archival music. I’d never try to play it personally.

Do you know who’s going to surround you in the Miles Davis…?

No, I don’t know yet. We’re just putting it together now and just writing the start of the script now.

I’ve heard about 2 projects. One about Toussaint…


No, ok. And the one about (inaudible) Leonard?

No. Bad IMDB info.

Can you give us an update on Darfur now that you’ve mentioned it? You’re very active. What’s the situation now and what needs to be done?

Well, it’s hasn’t changed that much for the people on the ground, I mean, it’s still over 2 million people displaced in camps on the Chad/Sudan border and there’s still attacks by the Jonjueed and the government is obfuscating and saying it’s not true and the numbers there’s been a thousand people killed and we know it’s 200,000 shy of the real number. The US made a unilateral move as we’re want to do in my opinion a very big mistake to try to impose sanctions and certain asset freezes and name a couple of other people on the list of those who’d be potentially tried as war criminals but none of the upper level people have been targeted and we didn’t work with the UN security council so once again we stepped out on our own to try and I don’t know what be the flag bearer of all that is right and just and I think it’s a mistake.

Do you think its PR or dumb pig headedness?

I think it’s both. I think its PR and this entrenched ideal that our leadership has that the best way to solve problems is by our self and we don’t need anyone else to tell us what to do or jump on board. Either the world comes together or we attempt to get the world to stand up and say genocide will not stand. We cannot as human beings that are on this rock, move forward if this is happening or we just say you know what as long as it doesn’t happen here, as long as it doesn’t affect our bottom line then it’s cool. And I think that is what the prevailing attitude is unfortunately and so we’re continuing to do what we can from our position you know, is to continue to push and raise awareness and you know George and Brad and Matt and Jerry Weintraub and myself started a foundation Not On Our Watch and raised about $9 million so far and given about $450,000 to Oxfam and given money to the NGO’s that are on the ground but that really is a blip on the radar. The more important thing to do is work with the leaders in other countries. The middle powers, the super powers and to come together and work through the system to get people back to the table and back talking because we can’t have peace until you can protect people.

How can your audience, the people who follow you, how can they get involved somehow?

They can educate themselves and that’s easy to do. You can go online and go to and find out. You can go to Google, Earth and click Darfur and it will show you a map of the villages that have been burned, you know what I mean. First find out what is going on and then when people ask me what they can do, I ask them what can you do? Take stock in what you have. You guys are in this unique position because you all have the power of the pen and the power of the article and you can talk to a great number of people. But people who are involved in church groups and in school groups and whatever civically you do in your community, all of those things help to raise the din and raise the level of noise and get our leaders doing what we want them to do. In this country we have a great process coming up called the elections and these debates are coming up and we’ve worked really hard to interject that question into the debates and make sure all of these people who either have been to the region or at least talked about it. We have Brownbatt, Clinton, McCain, Obama, Gov. Richardson, Senator Biden, they’ve all been to the area or talked about it or seen it. We want to hear how they’re going to make it a part of their platform and what they plan to do about it. We have the Olympics coming up in 2008. The Chinese are sponsoring it and their motto is One World, One Dream but they buy 60% of the oil from Sudan so you can argue that they’re underwriting a great portion of that genocide so there’s places to throw the light and there’s places to push and we just think we’re at a period of time where we haven’t been before. A number of these watershed moments are up so we want people to help push on those.

I think many companies are divesting. How is that working?

That’s another one. The Sudan divesting is working very well. We have I think 9 states in this country that are divesting and many more with the legislation on their ballots. I think Texas just came over, I mean we have Daimler/Chrysler divested. Big companies are pulling out and if that continues to snowball that will have an effect on the calculations of the government. But we have to do more. We have to support the international criminal core, we have to share information with them so they can indict people that have really been the architects of this, not some low level lieutenants and you know foot soldiers and people who it’s not really going to change the calculations of the GOS.

You also mentioned pre-strike, are you concerned or optimistic about how things are going to work out on that front?

Pre-strike? Oh, whatever. What’s going to happen is going to happen. Everyone always gets all atwitter before it happens and the last time nothing happened. We’ll see. I hope that cooler heads prevail because nobody wins when that goes down, you know. If you remember when it happened here, I don’t know if you were here, but when it happened here about 20 years ago it was amazing to see all the businesses that got hurt by it. Not just ones that you’d imagine casting in the business. I mean, dry cleaners and restaurants and sandwiches shops and the city just grinded to a halt. There’s some real issues that need to be dealt with but hopefully we can deal with those fast and get back to it.

20 years ago I just remember watching TV and everyone was on strike.

That’s right.

You were out there with a picket?


Have you ever wanted anything as bad as Petey wanted that job?

You know, happiness and health for my kids.

Have you ever had to just go in and…

Get it?

Demand it.

You know, no. I’ve been knock wood pretty fortunate to you know, be able to get the things I’ve wanted but hopefully if I ever come up against that I’m going to have the hoodspa that….don’t take no for an answer.

Are you a master of Go?

I’m not a master of hell, no I’m not a master of Go. I love the game though.

What’s your strategy though real quick? What would be yours?

You know, I played Go with somebody who was not ranked but he was a really good Go player and it was a really unorthodox method. It was just attacking which doesn’t really work unless the person responds to it which he did. It really made that parable about the best swordsman not being afraid of the 2nd best swordsman but the worst because he’s unpredictable. That really works. Somebody has no idea what the hell you’re doing, you can win.

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