Like many eventually famous performers, Don Cheadle‘s interest in the spotlight was first sparked when he was a child. Cheadle was born on November 29, 1964, in Kansas City, Missouri to his teacher mother and psychologist father (via Biography). When he was in the fifth grade, Cheadle was cast as Templeton in his elementary school’s production of Charlotte’s Web. Unlike many of his peers, Cheadle didn’t treat the play like just an opportunity to wear a costume and have some fun. He took the play and his role in it very seriously. "I remember carrying my script around and studying it like I do now—I don’t know why, but I was serious about acting even then," he once said in an interview (via Biography).
This passion never died and only grew as he did. Cheadle went on to perform in several high school productions and then headed off to college at the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia, California. He once said of his college experience, "I loved Cal Arts. I knew I would be acting all the time there. You might not get the part you want, but you know you’re going to be in twenty-four plays no matter what." This foundation prepared him exceptionally well for what would become a remarkable career. Unlike many aspiring artists, Cheadle never had to wait tables or work retail. "I’ve been blessed beyond belief. I’ve only been an actor to support myself. To complain would be sinful," he once said.
Don Cheadle’s first paying roles and entrance to Hollywood
The reason Don Cheadle never had to take non-performing jobs is because he actually began landing paying acting gigs while he was still in college, which means he can officially say he has been a "working actor" since 1985, per Biography. He graduated in 1986, and to help him jumpstart his dreams, his parents gave him $500. As luck would have it, just as that money was running out, Cheadle landed a role in Hamburger Hill, a war movie about soldiers fighting to take a specific hill during the Vietnam War. Upon returning from filming in the Philippines, Cheadle quickly landed more work, and in short order had appeared in a stage play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and in a handful of films.
Still, he did not become a household name until 1995, when he landed what is generally agreed to have been his "breakout role" in the movie Devil in a Blue Dress across from superstar Denzel Washington. Critics loved Cheadle in the role of Washington’s unhinged and violent friend, Mouse. In a review in the publication New York, David Denby noted, "Don Cheadle does a frighteningly funny turn as a completely amoral little man who finds it easier to kill someone than to talk to him," and in a review for the Los Angeles Sentinel, Sibylla Nash wrote, "Cheadle almost steals the show from Washington with his matter-of-fact humor," via Encyclopedia.com.
Don Cheadle went on to appear in many blockbusters
As his career continued to blossom, Don Cheadle went on to appear in many big-deal box office blockbusters like the ever-controversial Boogie Nights. Cheadle was very conscious of how this film, which was about the pornography industry in the 1970s, could be used for good or for exploitation, and he went back and forth about whether or not he should take the role. He ended up deciding to play the role of Buck Swope, a porn star. However, he had some stipulations to ensure his character was treated fairly in the story and that he was treated fairly as an actor. "My backstory on him would be that he’s from a broken home, and he’s fallen into this family of misfits that have welcomed him," Cheadle said to publication Ebner, per Biography. He also said, when talking to the outlet Interview, "I didn’t want to be naked and exploited. I wanted the film to take a deep look at these people and it does," via Encylopedia.com.
Cheadle likes to take roles with a purpose
Another ’90s blockbuster Don Cheadle appeared in was the disaster epic Volcano, a role he admits he took just for the money (via Biography). In retrospect, however, he didn’t feel great about the part, and that decision went on to influence the way he chose other roles in the future. He said of his character in the movie, which was not specifically written for a black actor, "Color blindness is ridiculous … You don’t need to ignore your race … There are issues you can’t not confront. I’m glad people try to write roles that anyone can do, but I also don’t ever want to end up in movies where the fact that I’m a black man is a nonissue. In America, it’s always an issue," via Biography.
A now-iconic television character he played in the ’90s was very much the opposite of the "race-is-a-non-issue" role in Volcano. Cheadle played hotel manager Roland Wilson in The Golden Girls spinoff The Golden Palace, and in more than one episode, the very real racial dynamics of the south were addressed. In one particular episode, Cheadle’s character teaches southern belle Blanche an essential lesson in the difference between tolerance and true acceptance and equality when the two butt heads about whether a confederate flag should be displayed in the lobby of the hotel they run together, per The Week. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch.
How Don Cheadle became involved in activism
Another role that Don Cheadle took because the issue was close to his heart was when he played Paul Rusesabagina in the critically acclaimed 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, which depicted the horrors and aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, per Rotten Tomatoes. The film followed Rusesabagina, a Hutu, who was running a hotel with his family, when a Hutu army begins executing their terrible plan of ethnic cleansing against the Tutsi people. This inspires Cheadle’s character to allow refugees to hide in his hotel, much to his own peril. This role not only earned Cheadle an Oscar nod but sparked what would eventually become his far-reaching activism.
Back in 2007, he told Reuters of a trip to Rwanda. "I went on a trip with several congressmen and women, Democrat and Republican, and saw with my own eyes what had happened. Talking with people, breaking bread with them, laughing and playing with their kids. Those manufactured walls between who we are melted away really fast. One of the few worthy ancillary benefits of fame and celebrity is to take the focus, when it’s put on you, and throw it onto other things."
Don Cheadle’s current activism
Don Cheadle has since become one of the biggest Hollywood names in activism and philanthropy, and has been involved in causes ranging from the genocide in Darfur to the more current Black Lives Matter movement. He is one of the biggest supporters and financiers of the Enough Project, a charity dedicated to countering genocide and crimes against humanity in Africa’s most war-torn regions, via Enough Project. The organization has named Cheadle an "upstander." Cheadle has even co-written a book with the founding director of the organization, John Prendergast, titled Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond, which is a New York Times bestseller, along with the follow-up book The Enough Moment.
In 2016, Cheadle, along with George Clooney and Prendergast, presented an investigative report on the subject at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC. They met with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
In the summer of 2020, he talked to NBC about the racial strife in the wake of brutal police killings and of the then-impending presidential election, saying, "From the ashes of this conflict can come great change, but it’s not going to happen if we rest," he said. "It’s not going to happen if we don’t get behind the people that have been doing the work thus far."