Written by Robert Waldman
It isn’t often you get a chance to go one on one with one of the top actors in show business. Well, not exactly. Versatile Don Cheadle took time out of his busy schedule to sit down for half an hour with journalists across North America to chat about his latest movie, Hotel For Dogs. Being the only Canadian participant was certainly an honour. Afterwards, I walked away quite impressed with the humanity and level-headedness of one of Hollywood’s hottest stars.
Hotel for Dogs, a new family oriented film from Dreamworks set to charm kids and parents similarly, may be seen by some as being quite a departure for Don Cheadle. Known far and wide for his jarring work in such classics as Traffic, Crash, Hotel Rwanda and the just released Traitor, Hotel for Dogs actually has a lot more in common with this gifted actor than may appear at first glance. Cast as Bernie, the social worker to two “difficult” children, Cheadle patterned that character on his own parenting skills. “Speak to kids straight” was the approach taken by the director and this automatically appealed to Cheadle, as this is how he treats his own two daughters. Another thing in common with this story was that the family man has his own dog, appropriately named Candy, a nice Christmas present for his daughters who had always longed for a pet and good old dad finally gave in. That dog is somewhat of a cross between a pug and beagle and as loveable as any of the canines hamming it up in Hotel for Dogs, CGI effects and green screens et al. Many of the scenes with dogs were actually put in later. Ah, the joys of technology.
Shot in and around Los Angeles, what attracted Don to the story was the relationship between the adult social worker and the kids. ‘Families are what you make them out to be, and not just what you’re born into,” according to Don and the story reveals that poignantly. Adoption is a key element in the story of Hotel for Dogs which is also full of fun, warmth and good-natured humour – along with those adorable four legged charmers. Cheadle himself has quite a sense of houmour, as revealed when he told the ten journalists on the conference call that black kids should be adopted by rich white folks with trust funds. Just a joke he says, but with him it came across deliciously in this soft-spoken manner filmgoers have learned to love. Rather than simply yank the kids from home to home, which has happened in the past to Bruce and his sister, our kind-hearted Bernie does what he can to make the pair “comfortable” and stable in their current foster parents place. No one likes the uncertainty of new surroundings so on the surface this seems like a sensible approach and could easily be applied to the real world – another way Hotel for Dogs can connect with audiences on mass.
Busy as always, we learn that in development from Don’s company is a movie on the career of legendary music man Miles Davis. Unlike being a typical bio-pic this film is set to be a total departure from the norm. Being not just an actor, but a musician and producer Don has set up his own production company and currently looks for new, interesting material. Early on success with producing both Traffic and Hotel Rwanda has provided budding lessons for this craftsman who’s not shy about taking a stand on things he believes in.
Tragedy in Darfur is where Don Cheadle gets serious. With a new president he’s hopeful something can be done about this genocide, a campaign he’s been active in for the past four years. Clearly he’s hopeful new President Barack Obama can do something about the tragedy but unfortunately other global events like the current Middle East crisis and the economic meltdown are taking priority. On a less global issue as an actor Don Cheadle has his own opinions on a potential actor’s strike, with his position favouring the workers as opposed to the producers. Believing the last deal signed that gave away DVD rights was too miniscule for creators Don worries that those actors needing residuals from past work may not be getting their fair share of royalty revenues. Lucky for him his career has left him relatively secure as he himself acknowledges. Concern for his fellow workers, however, shows this man’s humanity and character. So again, to put it rather succinctly, Don Cheadle doesn’t support a strike, he just wants the authorization to consider a strike, which seems a reasonable compromise.
Those wanting to see Don suit up for action hero status may be sorely disappointed. One notable exception, however, will be an appearance opposite Robert Downey Jr. in next years highly anticipated Iron Man 2 follow-up to this year’s blockbuster. Always ready to help others Don adds his two cents about working with first time directors. To this man the whole film belongs to the director, as it’s his/her vision. No one can tell how things will work out with a first time director, as was the case with Hotel for Dogs as Thor Freudenthal got his first big break. If only other actors would follow Don’s approach in helping guide such newcomers to the process while not obstructing their view. True professional veterans don’t tell directors what to do, whether they are rookies or well-seasoned craftsmen. In the case of Don Cheadle he helps novices out by discreetly trying to help them see traps and give them advice at the same time, never infringing on their vision for the movie. Some of the directors Don would like to work with in the future include, but are not limited to, The Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Danny Boyle and David Fincher, all artists willing to take chances. Come to think of it, this sounds a bit like our interview subject today.
In selecting roles, Don goes after stories and scripts that are interesting. He decided to do Hotel for Dogs since it was a completely different genre for him. Unlike some actors who alternate between serious roles and lighter fare this thespian’s main concern is the story. And it doesn’t ‘matter how much dialogue is written for the players. What matters is how the characters interact and talk. That’s the key to a successful outing. Keep it real.
History will remember Don’s good work warmly. As a producer, one of the most challenging grinds was filming Traitor on four continents under 40 days. That involved considerable travelling, unlike the routes needed for the L.A. shot Hotel For Dogs. For Hotel Rwanda the filming was also rather problematic but that brought out the best in the cast and crew. Hard to film in Africa, the film won raves and so convincing was Cheadle in his portrayal that locals thought he was one of their own despite being born in the U.S. Total immersion in a foreign culture can do that to people.
Would – be actors should take note. Due to the current nature of the business Don Cheadle says today to make it in Hollywood is a very tall order. Try to do regional theatre, he suggests. Good spots can be found in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York. Why even Vancouver has its fair share of local theatre where those with the show business bug could develop a successful career. Los Angeles in this day and age would be a lot more difficult to try to succeed in. But the dream still lives on and Don Cheadle has obviously lived it well.
Doing good for people is how you judge a man or woman. Besides being a champion for the defenseless in Darfur Don Cheadle supports a number of important social causes including, but not limited to, the Not On Our Watch Foundation as well as Ante Up for Africa, a poker foundation he established. Name a good cause and this decent man will be one of the first to lend a hand. Not at all interested in the star system, Don Cheadle is well grounded and seems to be treating his own family and those he works with as equals, a sign of both character and class. .
Odds are good that the warmth, humour and loveable mutts in Hotel for Dogs will bode well for Don Cheadle. He decided to do this movie as most of the other roles he’s excelled at were too “mature” for his own children to see. Now a whole new audience will get a chance to experience one of Hollywood’s leading lights.
Hotel for Dogs opens Jan. 16, 2009 across North America.
Read more reviews by Robert at www.moviereviewssite.com