Wednesday, February 23, 2005

OSCAR Week Continues/Awards Report #6/Don Cheadle, etc.




'I'm gonna grab that Oscar' From jobbing actor to Academy award hopeful - Don Cheadle, star of Hotel Rwanda, talks to Xan Brooks

Next Sunday will mark Don Cheadle's second visit to the Academy awards. He goes as one of the big guns, nominated in the best actor category for his performance in the genocide drama Hotel Rwanda and taking his place alongside the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Clint Eastwood and front-runner Jamie Foxx.

Last time he went as a nobody, a jobbing actor with a few credits to his name. He paid $1,000 for a pair of tickets, rented a tuxedo and paraded his wife, Bridgid, up the red carpet. Ahead of them was Cher, surrounded by her circus of acolytes. Behind them came Jack Nicholson. And the humble Cheadles were caught in the middle.

"Bridgid's train was stepped on and ripped," he recalls. "All these handlers were shoving us and pulling us. Some of the paparazzi were screaming for Jack and some were screaming for Cher, and all the flashbulbs were going off. Then, right in the middle of all this commotion, a photographer saw me and shouted, 'Mr Cheadle! Mr Cheadle!' and I turned around smiling and he just goes, 'Get out the fucking way!'" The actor chortles at the memory. "It was a feeding frenzy," he says. "And I was the minnow."

Or, to put it another way, he was the gate-crasher, the interloper, the thief who stole the thunder. It is a role that, over the years, he has made his own.

The line on Don Cheadle is that he is Hollywood's supporting actor par excellence. His stock in trade is the trusty foot-soldier, the mercurial background presence. But you have to keep your eye on him. Fob him off with a decent second-string role and he'll play it like a maestro, often finessing the film out from under its star.

Denzel Washington took the lead in Devil in a Blue Dress but it was his sidekick who took the plaudits. Out of Sight established George Clooney's Hollywood credentials but it was Cheadle's playful little bad-ass that stuck in the memory. Even sci-fi doggerel like Mission to Mars came to life during his third-billed slot as a marooned astronaut gone out of his mind. Terry George, writer and director of Hotel Rwanda, refers to him as "a chameleon". He shows up, makes a noise, then disappears back into the woodwork, leaving the audience scanning the end credits and wondering who the hell was that.

By the time you read this, Don Cheadle will be gone again. He flew into London late Sunday night and jetted out Tuesday morning, his schedule accelerating as he enters the last full week of Oscar campaigning. But here, sitting in his hotel suite, he is a slender little live-wire; a deep-cover Puck thrust into the limelight.

In the past, he says, he has been content to occupy himself with supporting roles because they tend to be the ones with more juice, more edge. "But I don't think it helps to be thought of as a scene-stealer," he cautions. "That's not comforting for the other actors. They think, 'Well, I don't want to work with him. Go steal from someone else.' So I'm never going into a movie thinking that I want to grab the attention. Quite the opposite: I give that stuff away, because I'm wanting to make the best whole piece. I want to look back at my resume and think, 'That was a great movie,' not, 'Oh, those four movies were shit, but I was good in them.' I want to be a part of great things."

At the age of 40, he has racked up his fair share. That breakthrough role in Devil in a Blue Dress won him an award from the Los Angeles critics. He was brilliant as Buck Swope, a country-music loving porn star in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, and quietly impressive as the federal agent in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. But in box-office terms, Cheadle was B-list at best. "It's not like I was being offered lead roles and turning them down," he says. "Most of the time I wasn't being offered anything at all."

Fingers crossed, that has changed. Hotel Rwanda installs Cheadle, belatedly, at centre stage.

He plays hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, an unsung hero of the 1994 genocide who turned his four-star, Belgian-owned resort into a kind of de facto refugee camp. Outside the gates, the Hutu extremists are butchering the Tutsi minority while the west twiddles its thumbs and debates the distinction between "genocide" and "acts of genocide". Inside, Rusesabagina finds rooms for the orphans and fills kettles from the swimming pool. He straightens his tie and tries to keep the horror at bay.

Hotel Rwanda is a muscular, harrowing picture; a stark portrait of an everyday man in a world run out of control. Offscreen, the shoot appears to have politicised Cheadle, who last month travelled to the Sudan to publicise the current crisis in Darfur. On screen, it marks the point where he comes of age, taking top billing and winning that Oscar nod. Except that it almost didn't turn out that way.

"I always had Don in my head when I was writing the script," Terry George admits. "But I had to say to him, 'Look, I'm trying to get this made. I'm schlepping it around Hollywood. And if Denzel Washington or Will Smith express an interest, I'm going to have to go with them.' Because that's the reality. They were A-list and he was not."

Presumably this is something that Cheadle has experienced before: being the first choice creatively, but the third choice commercially? "Oh yeah," he says. "Probably more times than I know. It's the ugly side of the business that an actor should never have to see, because it distils you into a number. Man, I just want to tell stories and inhabit different characters, and be this fool in a way. And they say, 'Well, that's great. But look, this is how much you're worth, little Mr Fool.'"

In any case, too much worth can have its downside. Cheadle's stint in the ensemble cast of Ocean's Eleven and Twelve has led to a friendship with his co-stars. He has vacationed at George Clooney's Italian villa, hung out with Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, and has come to view that level of stardom with a deep mistrust. "All of those guys have been over to my house in the last few months," he says. "And the last time Brad came over it was in People magazine the next day, along with the address of where I lived. And I had to say, 'Brad, you can't come to my house any more, that's it.' Another time, Matt was driving over and he rang me from the freeway saying, 'I've got a tail.' The press were tailing him on the freeway, directing him to my house, waving him down the right street.

"That's a part of it that I don't want at all. I mean, I grocery shop. I get my mail. I go buy my clothes at the mall. And I would hate for it to get to a level where I couldn't be someone normal. Where I had to buy an island. Get my 600 acres in Montana. Create my own little world."

Cheadle hasn't acted since completing Ocean's Twelve last summer. Since then, he has been bogged down in his promotional duties for Hotel Rwanda and is also trying to get his directing debut - an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Tishomingo Blues - off the ground. But he admits that the scripts have started to stack up, and sooner or later he's going to have to choose something. He has to work, after all. Make money, support his family. "Unless I sell one of my kids," he deadpans. Cheadle has two daughters, aged eight and 10. "So the youngest one, maybe. Less emotional investment. I don't know her as well." EDITOR'S NOTE: LOL! SHARP COOKIE!

Before that, there's Oscar night. He admits he probably won't win. Everyone knows that Jamie Foxx is the heavy favourite, and it will be a major shock if the award goes to anyone else. That said, it should be entertaining, if nothing else. "I mean, they're talking about having all the nominees on stage this year, which is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. So what, we're the Miss America contest now? Just bring my tiara and a wreath."

Then a thought occurs. "Listen," he says. "They really better not have me on the stage, or I'm gonna grab that Oscar. I don't care what name they read out. If it's close, it's mine." He mimes running across the hotel room, brandishing a phantom treasure above his head. "Hey Jamie," he shouts. "You're gonna have to catch me." And off he goes: Hollywood's ultimate scene-stealer, still up to his old tricks.

Horror movies
Michela Wrong wonders what a spate of new films can teach us about the 1994 African genocide

Strange as it may seem, fashions - or perhaps it would be better to say "trends" - apply even in the sphere of human atrocities. When the world first grasped the true nature of what was taking place inside Rwanda in April 1994 - that this was not some frenzied, chaotic outburst of ethnic violence but a meticulously planned government extermination programme - the reaction was one of guilt, grief and enormous sympathy for the Tutsi community.

True, there were some who became confused as to who were the "goodies" and the "baddies" in this far-off African drama. Tipper Gore famously emoted about the Hutu cholera victims in the sprawling refugee camps of eastern Congo, missing the point that these were the very people who had slaughtered neighbours, friends and spouses only a few months previously.

And the wave of sympathy for the mainly Tutsi victims didn't have much impact on the ground: the international community, in the form of the United Nations' refugee organisation, allowed the interahamwe militias to seize control of the camps and prepare for their eventual invasion of Rwanda. But there was no doubt that the Tutsi-dominated rebel movement led by Major Paul Kagame, which had replaced the Hutu government responsible for the genocide, firmly occupied the moral high ground in the eyes of journalists, human rights workers, aid officials, foreign politicians and the ordinary public.

By the time the 10th anniversary of the genocide was commemorated last year, that was no longer the case. These days, sympathy for Rwanda's administration and Kagame, who now holds the post of president, is distinctly strained. In the circles that count - the circles that grant aid, draft human rights reports and compile news stories - the Tutsi-led government is no longer seen as a victim, but as a cynical, greedy aggressor for its role in lawless Congo, where it has supported rebel groups and repeatedly sent troops to flush out remaining members of the interahamwe , appropriating minerals, timber and coffee in the process.

Human rights workers who once listed the atrocities committed by the outgoing administration now denounce Kagame's patchy record on granting the Hutu majority a significant share of power, and his ruthless treatment of domestic critics. Official Rwandan delegations visiting western capitals face hostile questioning from the floor.

Clare Short, widely criticised for what was seen as favouritism towards Uganda and Rwanda, has been replaced as international development secretary by the careful, more nuanced Hillary Benn. Journalists like myself who covered the original genocide now become locked in shouting matches with younger colleagues working in the Great Lakes region, who have seen their own share of nasty goings-on in Congo's dense forests. Confronted by such furious denunciations, we end up wondering if we have simply lost the plot.

Now, four films about the genocide are emerging: the current surprise Oscar contender Hotel Rwanda; Shooting Dogs, a forthcoming British-German co-production directed by Michael Caton-Jones; Raoul Peck's Sometimes in April; and Nick Hughes' and Eric Kabera's 100 Days, first of the quartet to see the light of day. These movies may well mark the beginning of the pendulum's return swing.

For those who can claim to be players in central Africa's unfolding political process, as well as a less well-informed general public, the four films are timely reminders of the horror that serves as a framework for today's turbulent events. It's one thing to know, in an abstract, intellectual sort of way, that between 500,000 and 850,000 moderate Hutus and Tutsis were slaughtered in the space of three months on the orders of a government that wanted rid of a potentially disloyal ethnic minority. It's quite another to see the bloody handprints on the wall left by those scrabbling to escape as grenades were lobbed into packed classrooms, or to talk to a woman whose nearest and dearest have just been fished out of a pit latrine.

To grasp for a moment that fear - and there is nothing to beat the medium of film for conveying the full force of raw emotion - is not to indulge in emotional hyperventilation for its own sake. We can only understand and usefully engage with what is happening in central Africa today - from Rwanda's constant readiness to intervene in neighbouring countries, to its paranoid distrust of power-sharing and quiet contempt for critical western governments that never lifted a finger to stop the genocide - by registering the horror that lies at its root.

Rwanda's Tutsi community has stared annihilation in the face. As with the protagonist in Jean Paul Sartre's novel The Wall, whose death sentence confronts him with the shock of his own mortality, that vision of imminent extermination has left it for ever changed. When it comes to trauma, Rwanda stands in a lonely league of its own.

Human rights workers, western politicians and journalists are right to complain about Kagame's policies. But if they don't constantly remind themselves that this nation has gone through an experience calculated to drive the most rational into gibbering insanity, if their criticisms are not couched in the realisation that it is a near-miracle that Rwanda today is even halfway "normal", they will be able to contribute nothing worthwhile to the debate.

"I've written a film that is against the flow of what people are currently saying and writing about Rwanda," says producer David Belton, who created Shooting Dogs after trying, without success, to bury his memories of covering the genocide for Newsnight. "Some people now are incredibly revisionist about what happened. They are all, its seems to me, missing the point. This is a country that 10 years ago went through this horrific trauma of neighbour killing neighbour. No one knows how to recover from that. There is no template."

These moviemakers face a double challenge. While they want us to see through the eyes of the victims, any director who fails to probe the minds of the perpetrators - those Hutu villagers who were terrified and bullied by their mayors and local officials into taking up machete and hoe and slaughtering their friends and relatives - will be providing only a partial account. A film about Rwanda's genocide that doesn't grapple with the impenetrable riddle of how ordinary, decent folk were persuaded to do such extraordinary, indecent things has fallen at the first fence. I didn't understand it in 1994; I don't understand it now.

For the public, who have not followed the various shifts in perceptions and attitudes towards Rwanda, this clutch of films will serve a simple function. It is no bad thing, as the crisis in Darfur rumbles numbingly on, to be reminded that western indifference, especially as it concerns fragile Africa, always comes at a terrible price. And the films offer another, more timeless and universal message: that even when your world seems to be falling apart, individual actions can produce small miracles. The characters of the manager who turns his hotel into a makeshift asylum centre in Hotel Rwanda, and the Catholic priest who fights to keep the executioners at bay after the UN packs up in Shooting Dogs, were based on real people whose deeds will never be forgotten in Kigali. Never believe that you are too insignificant to make a difference. EDITOR'S NOTE: MIGHT BE TOO DEEP FOR OSCAR WEEK, BUT GOOD FOOD FOR THOUGHT WHEN OUR MINDS RETURN FROM THE HOLLYWOOD GLITTER-SPHERE.


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