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‘You are going to die. You can be terrified, or you can live’: Don Cheadle on mortality, White Noise and that cockney accent

Is Don Cheadle a cold fish or a cool customer? It isn’t clear at first. The 58-year-old actor, who has been celebrated (he received an Oscar nomination in 2005 for Hotel Rwanda) and mocked (for his mangled cockney accent in Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels), has asked in advance for the cameras to be off during our video call. Our body clocks are also out of whack: it’s the crack of dawn for me in the UK, evening for him in Hawaii. What’s he doing there? “Chilling.” What can he see? “It’s night. So nothing.”

By way of preliminary chit-chat, I bring up A Strange Loop, the Tony-winning Broadway hit about a queer Black theatre usher; Cheadle has co-produced the show along with RuPaul, Jennifer Hudson and Alan Cumming. He is nothing if not an LGBTQ+ ally, having hosted Saturday Night Live in a “Protect Trans Kids” T-shirt. What drew him to A Strange Loop? “It was the woman who ran my production company. I just followed her lead.” Does he think it will translate beyond the US? “No idea.”

Related: White Noise review – Don DeLillo adaptation is a blackly comic blast

Steer him on to the topic of Noah Baumbach’s frantic new adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise and he becomes mercifully more animated. In this collision of disaster movie, campus comedy and existential horror, Cheadle plays Murray Siskind, a college professor – white and Jewish on the page, African American on screen – who is obsessed with making Elvis Presley part of the curriculum, just as his colleague (Adam Driver) has done with Hitler. “Elvis is my Hitler,” he declares.

“It’s bananas,” says Cheadle. “We’re sending up that kind of ivory tower academia. Murray is turned on by ideas. He wants to cement his place, somehow, with this focus on Elvis. It’s farcical but he longs to do something of relevance, to give himself more insight into the human condition.” He is also the character who has the most honest relationship with death. “All the worrying you do doesn’t change anything,” the actor explains. “You are going to die. You are. You can spend your time on your way to that moment being terrified and not living, or you can live until you die.”

From left: Driver, Greta Gerwig and Cheadle in White Noise.
From left: Driver, Greta Gerwig and Cheadle in White Noise. Photograph: Wilson Webb/AP

Can he remember learning about death? “No. But I think it changes as you get closer to it, whether because of age or from people you know dying. It’s yours to wrestle with. Over the course of my life, the way I’ve felt about it has shifted.” How about now? “Tonight? At 8.30? Here on the couch?” He ponders this. “I’m just a passenger. Mm-hm. Yeah. It’s there.”

Has he ever reflected on the kind of immortality that comes with his job? Perhaps when he’s done a film that makes him proud? “I’m more likely to think about that if I do one I’m not proud of,” he laughs. “Like: shit, people are gonna be seeing that for a long time. But I don’t know if we’re going to be here that long. We are dangerously close, I believe, to cementing our fate as a species on this planet.” He imagines future inhabitants of Earth digging up old VHS tapes of his movies: “‘What is this crap? Ah, I see, so if you stack them up and put adhesive tape around them, you can climb up high and reach stuff …’”

It’s funny to think of his career in those utilitarian terms. The son of a teacher and a psychologist, Cheadle moved from state to state (Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado) during his childhood before training as an actor at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). He landed small roles in the Vietnam war film Hamburger Hill and Dennis Hopper’s cops-and-gangs thriller Colours. A taste of success arrived when he played Ice Tray, Will Smith’s wiseacre pal in a 1990 episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The character went down so well that Cheadle was promised his own show.

It nearly happened, too: the Ice Tray pilot was in the can and ready to go. Then the executive who commissioned it jumped ship, killing all his unmade projects in the process. “The day before that, I gave my brother my car. I said: ‘I’m about to make a lot of dough.’ Then I got the call.” Did he ask for the car back? “Nuh-uh. It was a lesson. Don’t count your chickens.”

He bounced around in TV-land for a while, most notably playing a hotel manager in the only season of The Golden Palace, a Golden Girls spin-off. Clips from an episode about the Confederate flag went viral recently, he tells me. “Blanche considered the flag part of her heritage. My character found that offensive. Eventually, we reached across and hugged it out.” Was he happy with how it was handled? “In a 22-minute sitcom? I mean … no! They got as deep as they were ever gonna get. But at least they brought it up.”

In 1995, everything changed. He had recently left Picket Fences, the small-town TV comedy-drama series from future Big Little Lies creator David E Kelley, because his storylines as an upstanding DA were so drab. “It was like: ‘Your guy is the heart of the show.’ Get me the fuck out of here! I want to have crazy-ass experiences like the other characters.”

The risk paid off. Years previously, in 1986, Cheadle had starred in Punk, the thesis film by the director Carl Franklin, who was now making Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel Washington as the reluctant private eye Easy Rawlins. The one role Franklin hadn’t cast was the hero’s psychotic acquaintance, Mouse. And practically the only African American actor in town he hadn’t auditioned yet was Cheadle. “I told everyone: ‘I’d be wrong for the part. I’m 10 years younger than Denzel.’”

One afternoon, he found himself in the crowded waiting room of an ear, nose and throat doctor. “I was smooshed behind the door. It flies open and Carl walks in. Straight away, the receptionist says: ‘It’s too crowded in here. You two’ – she points at me and Carl – ‘go into the other room.’ He and I get talking. Next day, he calls me in. My life is peppered with those meant-to-be moments.” Thank goodness for the ENT doctor, I say. “Yeah. And he got rid of those little polyps, so everything worked out.”

Cheadle was electrifying as Mouse, who kills as casually as other people roll cigarettes. When Easy expresses dismay at him for strangling a hostage, Mouse blinks back calmly: “If you didn’t want him killed, why’d you leave him with me?” After that, he was on a roll: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, John Singleton’s Rosewood, Warren Beatty’s political comedy Bulworth. Not to mention Out of Sight, his first of six films to date with Steven Soderbergh, including Traffic, the recent No Sudden Move and (oh dear) the Ocean’s series.

I point out that as a Brit, I am duty-bound to ask about his accent in those films. “I appreciate that,” he deadpans. “It’s not just your job. Your countrymen would demand it.” Is it true he didn’t want to go cockney but that Soderbergh insisted? “No. Steven said: ‘You don’t have to do it.’ I said: ‘Well, that’s how you wrote him. I’ll try it.’” Try he did. Though in 2019, he happily embraced the online theory that his car-crash vowels were merely part of his character’s cover: “Now I can say ‘he was an American doing a British accent – you guys missed that?’”

Even as his career was exploding in the 90s, Cheadle still felt like a jobbing actor. “Every time they say: ‘That’s a wrap,’ you’re unemployed again.” He once used the phrase “percussive recognition” to describe his level of fame, meaning that strangers click their fingers repeatedly as they struggle to remember where they’ve seen him. “It would usually be Hotel Rwanda.” In Britain, it was often The Guard, where he played a by-the-book FBI agent paired with Brendan Gleeson as a coarse, buffoonish garda. “These were movies that hit the zeitgeist.”

The percussive recognition years must surely be behind him since he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as James “Rhodey” Rhodes, AKA War Machine. This isn’t just hitting the zeitgeist – it’s saturation bombing. “It hits all quadrants, yes,” he says coolly. He has put in the hours in assorted Iron Man and Avengers outings, even earning a baffling Emmy nomination for a 98-second cameo in the TV series Falcon and the Winter Soldier: “I don’t really get it either,” he tweeted.

Now he is being rewarded with his own War Machine spin-off movie, Armour Wars. Does he really think there’s more to explore in Rhodey? “There’s nothing that actually has been explored,” he protests. “Who are his friends? What are his relationships? What does he want? I’m not complaining. But I don’t think we know anything yet.” So we’ll find out which side of the bed he sleeps on, and who with? “All that stuff. His favourite ice-cream flavour. What his peccadilloes are.” The camera might be off but you can sense the twinkle in his eye.

• White Noise is in cinemas from 2 December and on Netflix from 30 December.