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August 2008
TRAITOR | An Interview with Don Cheadle

An Interview with Don Cheadle
By Wilson Morales

August 25, 2008

With the exception of ‘Ocean 11’, ‘Ocean 12’, and ‘Ocean 13’, most of the films that you have seen Don Cheadle in as of late as him giving dramatic performances. Whether it’s playing opposite Adam Sandler in ‘Reign Over Me’ or playing the role of Petey Greene in ‘Talk to Me’, Cheadle brings a level of believability to the characters he plays. With his latest role, not only is he once again bringing in his ‘A’ game but the film itself is almost is a suspenseful political thriller without the extreme action-packed scenes you see in other similar films.

In ‘Traitor’, which was originally conceived by Steve Martin, but written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff, the story revolves around an undercover CIA agent (Cheadle) who is suspected of being a terrorist. Pearce plays an agent looking for him.

In speaking with blackfilm.com, Cheadle talks about the role he plays and why the story is relevant to today’s world events.

Can we talk about making a movie and then walking the line with dealing with a real issue of terrorism but then yet making it entertaining to keep a movie audience engaged?

Don Cheadle: I think the first job of a movie is to entertain. I’d like to smuggle in things for people to talk about when they walk out of the theater. Those tend to be the most enjoyable movie experiences I have where I can go and sort of escape, but also lead to thinking and having a discussion. I don’t mind a debate too. We weren’t really trying to answer questions as much as raise them. We were obviously very cognizant of the subject matter and the world that we ware dealing with, so we try to be clear about that. Ultimately for us, the movie was an espionage spy thriller where the background was some real things that are happening around the world.

Was there anything in particular that pulled you into the script? Even as a producer?

DC: Well, at the time this script came across my desk, there were in the news a lot of ideas and stories about security and Guantamano and the Patriot Act and what rights you would give up in order to be secured, and terrorism and radical laws. It was interesting to me because the character that I play in the movie, Samir Horn, seemed to be someone who encapsulated all these questions within his own journey through this film. What is my allegiance to my faith? What is my allegiance to my own country? When I feel, in some ways, that they are both letting me down, who do I believe in and who do I listen? And ultimately, who takes responsibility for these things? In the film, he decides to take responsibility for these things. That was interesting to me as a producer because I thought, ‘Wow, here’s a story that could potentially can raise a lot of those questions while you are watching a thriller. Have your conscious open up a bit and think.’

As you played the character, was there anything you could relate with?

DC: I don’t know. I try to relate to every character I play on some level and find a way in. I relate to a character who feels like he’s got to rely on himself and doesn’t necessarily trust the people who have been in the position that he is in. He has to try and find a way. That’s what is interesting to me as an actor. This guy is wearing a mask and I’m wearing a mask as the character and you try to find those moments where the mask has to be pulled down and you have put it back up. That to me was the fun and challenge of playing Samir.

He wanted it to be edgier than when we first got it. We took out from Disney. I didn’t think they were going to make the movie anyway and if there were, they would ‘Disney’ it up. It was leaning towards being white wash than I wanted it to be and I wanted to dirty it up. With the subject matter that we are dealing with, people have to get hurt. There has to be some veracity. There has to be a cost for everything that is happening. This character isn’t really weighing anything heavily. If people always narrow the escape, this is what it’s about. I’m putting others’ lives at risk. I’m deciding to do that and how do I not deal with the fact that, in my mind, I’m playing God when my faith tells me that I have no right to do that.

How hard was it to learn Arabic?

DC: It’s like any language I guess. It’s like any language you have to learn. It’s an acquired mind. You have to study it and I had tutors everywhere I went. The funny thing about it is that traveling across this country or Australia or anywhere, the dialects are so different. We had one Arabic speaking who mostly spoke Egyptian in the United States and when we went to Toronto, the guy who was telling me how to do things was Sudanese; and when we went to Morocco, we had a bunch of Moroccans… so every word changed as we went to different places. If you questioned the pronunciation of the word, they were positive they were saying it the right way. It was similar to when we did ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and the dialects were different. We had to find a standard Arabic language and have everyone fall in line with it.

As a producer, how involved are you with the marketing of the film? The trailer reveals a little bit more than it should be. Some things should be kept as a surprise.

DC: I think it is always a push pull and this is the most interesting part of the whole movie making process. You can do whatever you do, then you have to deal with the marketing department and how you get this story out and what is the best way to draw in an audience without telling the whole thing. This is a very difficult trailer to figure how to cut commercially. You don’t want to give away the plot but you want to say that there is a plot with intrigue and twist and turns. That was a point of contention for me as well. We went back and forth a lot and Jeffrey and I wanted some of that stuff pulled back and it is from what initially it was.

Were you involved in choosing Guy Pearce?

DC: Guy’s an amazing actor. He’s played a bunch of different roles, different characters with different dialects. We have a few scenes together. Someone once asked, ‘What’s it like to work with Guy?’ I said I don’t know. I think I have spent more time with you than I did with Guy in the film.

You have made decisions that are important to world events. At what point did you realize that this project was just as important as the others?

DC: This wasn’t one of them. This is something that I thought was important not just to me but everyone. This is a world discussion that everyone is talking about, to some degree, and especially in the United States. Are we safe? How are we safe? What would we do to maintain a semblance of safety? This character was wrestling with all these things too. How much collateral damage is justifiable? That was something that was interesting to me and I tend to find projects that come to me that have an humanistic approach to things like that; but it’s not like I go, ‘This is an issue I want to attack or let’s find a movie that serves that.’ It was the same thing with ‘Hotel Rwanda’. I found a great script and an interesting story that would be compelling.

What type of research did you do to bring this character to life?

DC: Mostly talking to a lot of people. Mostly interviewing individuals and reading a fair amount of articles and books about Islam and the Middle East and also a lot of stuff about our government and how it works. Jeffrey also did a lot of research and papered me with a lot of stuff. We dug into it.

Do you think America is ready to see this film?

DC: I don’t know how they wouldn’t be. If they are ready for ‘The Bourne Identity’, then this is something similar but has something that you can actually have a discussion about. We have everything from this film being too patriotic or that we are humanizing the terrorists. We hear all sides of it. Now, that’s a debate, but mainly you want to entertain people. You want to give people something that they can go to and get away for a minute.

TRAITOR opens on August 29, 2008


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