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SYFY WIRE Don Cheadle

Don Cheadle, certified good guy, on hope for Quibi, hype for Space Jam 2, and 'inventive' horror

By Justin Carter
Don Cheadle on Saturday Night Live

Don Cheadle is a good guy. 

That may sound obvious; after all, he works with the United Nations on climate change, received a Humanitarian award in 2007, and during his episode of Saturday Night Live in 2019, wore a T-shirt saying "protect trans kids." And, sometimes, he plays men who are good, most famously his Oscar-nominated turn as humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda and, to a more fictional extent, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (aka War Machine) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Then there’s his latest project, Quibi’s Don’t Look Deeper, in which he plays a heartbroken single father with an exceptional — if not quite human — daughter. It’s even clearer in speaking to him over Zoom, where he’s quick to crack a smile and jokes around: Don Cheadle is a real good guy.

But that’s worth pointing out all the same, because some of his famed roles haven’t really been as good guys, but rather deranged maniacs. Look at his turn as a megalomaniacal Captain Planet in the 2011 series of Funny or Die shorts, or his work headlining two darkly comedic series for Showtime: House of Lies (which Cheadle executive-produced and directed four episodes for) and Black Monday (on which he’s also an EP and just received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series). Though switching between those two types of people — the good guy and the wholly questionable one you wouldn’t want to mess with, let alone be in the same room as — has made some actors “a little crazier than others,” he tells SYFY WIRE, he’s managed to avoid that by keeping grounded and detoxing. “Jumping back and forth between characters, tapping into different emotional truths than others,” he says with a smile, “it’s just kind of what we do.” 

It’s the kind of level-headed response genre fans might expect from the man who’s portrayed Rhodey since 2010’s Iron Man 2. Perhaps more than any other character in Marvel’s stacked lineup of A-list heroes, Rhodey’s future is one big question mark. Since his introduction as the firm-yet-wise-cracking and wholly good-natured counterpart to Tony Stark’s specific brand of genius-billionaire absurdity (and tragedy), Cheadle’s Rhodey has been an integral part of Iron Man’s legacy. But Tony’s death after a decade of one-liners and heart-wrenching character development leaves a lot of room open for (and a lot of questions about) the characters so closely associated with him: namely Happy Hogan, Pepper Potts, and, of course, his old friend Rhodey. 

Previously, a War Machine solo film meant to explore the character’s internal struggles had been written, but it was ultimately scrapped. “We kicked it around a bit," Cheadle explained last year. "There was definitely going to be a lot of tension between his job as a military man and his allegiances to the code that he swore an oath to uphold, versus the changing world. I think they probably would have run afoul of each other a little bit, but I don’t know if [Rhodey] would have been a straight fugitive, or if he would have become decommissioned. But there was definitely going to be some tension between those two worlds."

Since then, fans have been hoping for the project to be revived, a fervor that grew with the reveal of Avengers like Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch getting Disney+ shows. Whether as his own man free from Tony Stark or as a potential mentor to fan-favorite, comics-centric superhero Riri Williams (aka Ironheart), people want more Rhodey. There’s still plenty of places for his character to go — Rhodey has dated Captain Marvel in the comics, and more recently piloted an even bigger mech suit called Manticore. But, if there’s anything specific Cheadle wants for the character, he’s not saying. He simply explains: “If they got something in mind, I’m open to it."

Right now, though, Cheadle’s attention belongs to Quibi’s new series Don’t Look Deeper. As the father to Helena Howard’s Aisha (no spoilers), Cheadle’s Martin knows more about her than he’s letting on, while also doing everything he can to keep her safe. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s app, on which Don’t Look Deeper launched on July 27, is having trouble finding an audience, but its fortunes are looking up, since it recently landed 10 Emmy nominations in the short form brackets. “Quibi’s sort of meant for people who are on the go," Cheadle says, acknowledging the circumstances of its release — meaning, it’s a mobile-based streaming service that arrived just in time for everyone to stay home. “We'll see how people take it in. Katzenberg is obviously a tried and true and proven entity in the business,” he adds. "If anybody can make this work, he can."

Speaking of a “proven entity in the business,” Cheadle’s versatility extends to more than just working in front of the camera. The 55-year-old actor, writer, director, and producer’s resume is only growing bolder and broader with time. 

Even before launching his production company Radicle Act in 2019, Cheadle was a champion of diversity in the entertainment industry. Now, it’s through Radicle that he’ll be producing the film adaptation of the upcoming 2021 book Amari & the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston, which has Black-ish's Marsai Martin attached to star. By his own admission, it’ll be some time before anything about that comes to light, since they haven’t even gone into production yet. “It’ll be a ways off, but hopefully if the world resets, we can start again next year,” he teases. 


Radicle is also in the process of developing several cartoons, though if you’re expecting him to star in any of them, that doesn’t look to be in the cards. He has a lot of respect for voice actors and the medium — having animators “take you on and figure you out through your voice,” he says, is something he enjoys, and he’s open to new challenges, likening animation as “another genre to play” in — but he doesn’t think he’s at the level of professional voice actors quite yet. And that’s fair, even if he did deliver a fun turn as a for-once-intelligible Donald Duck in the recent Ducktales reboot. But at the moment, his biggest project coming down the line is 2021’s Space Jam: A New Legacy, a project that's highly under wraps but which he says was “a lot of fun to make. I think people are really going to be surprised at how different and original this new one is.”

Even with his extensive resume, there are still some genre gaps that he’d like to fill. He enjoys a good psychological thriller, which he’ll get his fix for with Netflix’s upcoming series Ratched, starring Sarah Paulson and based on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Cheadle says he’d be down for something scary, though nothing gory or a slasher like Saw or Halloween. “I don’t need to do horror,” he says, though he admits that “ghost stuff is always interesting to me.” The ethos of Korean movies is something that interests him, as well — he thought Parasite was "fkkkng dope!" “I think [scary films are] very hard to do well,” he admits. “Audiences are so jaded and we’ve seen so much, that you really have to find new, inventive ways into that type of story.” 

The pursuit of new stories and finding new ways to tell them is part of what led him to pursue Don’t Look Deeper. Ultimately, it's a story about identity and personhood, and he would like to do more sci-fi in this vein. “I think something like Get Out is real inventive,” he explains. “That or Twilight Zone, stories that are about something.” He wants more chances to branch out, which more Black actors of all ages have now been afforded in recent years. “Maurice wasn’t originally written as Black,” he says of his character on Black Monday. “It was nice to be able to play in that world.” He knows that this type of diversity push is cyclical in Hollywood, but he also hopes that, for once, the wave doesn’t come down. “It’s a good time for us to find these different voices and roles to play. We’ll see if it sticks.” 

Don't Look Deeper is streaming now on Quibi with new episodes each weekday until Aug. 11.