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July 2007
TALK TO ME: An Interview with Don Cheadle

TALK TO ME: An Interview with Don Cheadle
By Brad Balfour

July 9, 2007

Though the late "Petey" Greene is now a relatively obscure figure on the cultural landscape, he was a forerunner of the modern-day shock jock. A voice for the urban experience as a radio deejay on WOL-AM in Washington, D.C., Greene reflected his tough roots--both as an ex-con and veteran of the fight for civil rights. During the mid-'60s to early '70s, he was a regional king, one who resisted going from radio to television and stage because in those days, it would have meant tempering his hard-hitting, off-the-cuff brand of humor and commentary. Channeled through Don Cheadle's uncanny skills, Greene gets the spotlight again in "Talk To Me," director Kasi Lemmons' third feature.

Through Cheadle's chameleon-like performance, the 40-something actor captures Greene's character and gives him a sympathetic reading in an uncanny replication of his unique style. Cheadle is supported in his re-creation of this explosive era with the help of such talent as Cedric the Entertainer ("Nighthawk" Bob Terry), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Sunny Jim Kelsey), Mike Epps (Milo Hughes) as well as Taraji P. Henson playing Greene's wife Vernell and Chiwetel Ejiofor as fellow prison inmate Milo's brother, Dewey Hughes--the station's program director, Greene's friend and partner. From Greene's first day at the station onward, he relied on the more straight-laced Hughes to run interference at the station.

Besides playing Greene, Cheadle also served as executive producer for this film, putting his passionate committment to ideas and values into play. But the Kansas City-born Oscar nominee ("Hotel Rwanda") doesn't neglect the fun side of his craft--as Basher Tarr, he's also part of Danny Ocean's crew in the Ocean trilogy (check out "Ocean's Thirteen"--it's smooth). Hell, as far as this Rat Pack-inspired film goes, Cheadle has even played Sammy Davis Jr. himself in the 1998 HBO film "The Rat Pack."

Beyond his acting roles, Cheadle chooses to put his money where his values lie by working on a book on the crisis in Darfur entitled "Not On Our Watch," focusing on numerous other social issues and speaking out about such concerns as the genocide in the Sudan.

How did you prepare to do the character of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene?

Don Cheadle: Drink! A lot of drinking [smiles wryly].

What did you drink?

DC: Anything that was put in front of me.

No, the bible is the script... the script is the bible rather. Whenever you're doing a "biopic" and trying to condense 15 years or 12 years into 90 minutes, there's going to be omissions and revisions. Characters are going to be re-invented and combined and all of these things are going to happen. I tend to try to see the research materials, read research about the person, but I try to read between the lines. I don't try to say, "this actually happened and this should actually be in the movie," because I'm aware of what we're trying to do. We're trying to tell this one story in this particular way.

But for me, as far as the character goes, you want to get as much a sense of who this human being was as you can. It was great to have [the real] Dewey Hughes around. He was somebody that was a great touchstone we could talk to. And to have some archival of Petey Greene [was helpful], some archival audiotapes of him, but most of that stuff got erased and recorded over and thrown away.

Director Kasi Lemmons said she wanted you in this film regardless of what part you wanted to do--that you could've played either part. It seems the crew involved in this film were either Petey or Dewey people. Why'd you choose Petey?

DC: They paid me more for the part [laughs].

At one point, I was going to do Dewey. I don't know the exact moment that I went, okay I'm going to play Petey. I think Terrence Howard was involved at one point. He was going to play Petey and I was going to do Dewey. Then my agent or somebody said, we want you to do Petey and he'll do Dewey. And it became that. And then he fell out and Chiwetel Ejiofor came on.

These movies go through many iterations. I first heard about this movie from Ted Demme over 10 years ago and he was going to direct it. I would've played Petey then. So you just never know how these things wash out.

It's easy to spot a guy like Petey. There's a lot of Peteys floating around. But who was the Dewey kind of guy, who says that this guy has something important in him--Dewey was the kind of person who would give this guy a shot.

DC: I think that's what was Dewey's gift. It's like... what was the Chicago Bulls coach? Phil Jackson's gift. He went, "Oh, you and you and you and you, okay, and give me Dennis Rodman." People thought, why are you putting these people together? He's like, "because that's a championship team."

I think that's kind of what Dewey had as well. He recognized something in Petey that he didn't have. But [it was something] that he knew the town wanted and that the community would respond to. Dewey's very honest about saying that Petey knew that their dreams were not in concert.

Dewey wanted something for Petey that Petey didn't want. They did not want the same thing. He knew that and he pushed back against it. That's why they had their falling out. They weren't friends for a long time. They finally made up but it was a long time that they were on the outs, because Petey felt pushed in a way that he didn't appreciate.

Talking about people who can be ambassadors of change in very subtle and powerful ways... in doing the James Brown scene, did you learn something about the important role these musicians had that you didn't feel before? The film showed this aspect of Brown and his power.

DC: It was amazing that his coming out to perform could stop a riot. It wasn't the only place that it happened. We just showed it in D.C., but I think in Detroit, he also performed and was also able to calm things down. It's a power that you don't see musicians having today. But again, that's because that sort of spirit, and a need to make a living, which if you put out a shingle on "I'm going to be a musician," that's a hard row to hoe. The need to sort of do that... the line blurs between making a living and being famous and being huge.

But you get sort of co-opted by all the mechanism of what that is: the studio, and iTunes, and the TV. I think it dilutes your power potentially. When you're everybody's everything, you're nobody's anything.

And again that's what we were talking about with Petey. He was a specific spokesperson, in a specific area, for a specific group of people. And that was really his power. When Dewey attempted to take him into some bigger scale and make him something beyond that, he rejected that, because that was not his dream. He knew where his power was and that's what he was comfortable with. People say it was a tragedy, you think it was sabotage? I don't necessarily think it was sabotage. I think it was someone who was clear about who they were and where their place was, and was fine with it. It's like, my dream doesn't have to be your dream.

In terms of working with Kasi as a director, what do you feel separates her from other directors you've worked with?

DC: She's really tenacious, but I knew that before we started shooting because of how much stick-to-it-ive-ness she had to even get the film made. It was just her and J. Miles Dale in Toronto, with no crew. It fell apart. Not going [to happen]. She's just like, I'm not leaving Toronto because it's going to happen. I'll just keep going on locations and keep putting my movie together and it'll come back. [There was] this extreme faith she had that it would work.

It was great to do this film with a female director because it's such a male story. She would often bring different perspective to things and different ways she wanted to approach stuff, that I don't think necessarily would've happened... that may not have happened with a male director. But just having her there, she's got a really good eye and is very open to the way we all worked, which was really supportive and I think made for a really good result.

What do you think made Petey Green so outspoken?

DC: That he came up rough, and that he came up through prison. He'd spent a lot of time in jail. The way he got through jail was with his mouth, and [he] talked himself into and out of problems. But that was always sort of his gift. He's always had the gift of gab.

To hear some of the stories about him, [Greene] was drawn to that kind of controversy. He just liked that kind of controversy. So he would always put himself as the focus of it. And he wanted people to talk about him. He wanted people to look and talk about him. So that's where he found his gift as being a DJ on a radio station. He brought Howard Stern on this show early, before Howard Stern was Howard Stern and pissed a lot of people off, which he was fine with, because he wanted to know what was cutting edge.

How familiar were you with his radio show prior to starting this project?

DC: Not at all. I didn't know anything about it. As I said, most of that footage, most of those tapes were erased. Those [radio] stations didn't keep them, and the TV stations didn't either. There's a thing on him on YouTube--Petey Greene shows how to eat a watermelon or something like that. It's... "Whoa! Did you see it?" It's whoa. It's wild, right? It's great.

From the few recordings that you were able to hear--from his cadence, to his poetry or comedy--what did you feel like was most compelling?

DC: Just that he was a live wire. And you never knew where he was going to go. His perspective on things always came from off-center--at a degree that was steep and dangerous, yet really precise and insightful, do you know what I mean? You just have to look at that piece on that tape--you can see it on YouTube--and it says it all. That really encapsulates how he talks about racism, about manners, about prevailing attitudes, about everything and just showing how he's going to eat watermelon. Just saying, "I'm going to eat watermelon." It works right off the bat.

You're like, "What are you talking about?" To me, [it's brave] to go right to an issue like that, and not to have to sit down and have try to have a dialogue about race relations in the country but just go "I'm gonna eat watermelon and this is how you eat watermelon."

He blows up every stereotype. Completely! Goes right to the stereotype. Goes, "here, I'm the stereotype." And do you really believe this? Who's watching this right now going, "Wow, that guy is really…he's cooning. Am I cooning? Or are you cooning?" He really goes right to it. And that's what I think was great about him. He didn't try to talk around the edges of an issue and figure out a different way. He just goes right to the heart of it.

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