Of all the actors who make up Marvel’s cinematic universe, Don Cheadle just might be the most unsung hero.
After contractual disputes prevented Terrence Howard from reviving his role in Iron Man 2, Cheadle stepped into the army fatigues of James Rhodes just in time for the character to strut his stuff as War Machine. It could have been a distracting piece of recasting, but Cheadle had no problem making the character his own. When Iron Man 3 rolled around, he was ready to help turn the franchise into a robo-suit buddy picture with one-liners and explosions aplenty. Cheadle of course has a long line of respected and Oscar nominated performances to his name in movies such as Boogie Nights, Traffic and Hotel Rwanda, as well as the hit television series House Of Lies and even some hilarious Funny Or Die shorts enacting Drunk History or re-imagining Captain Planet as a psychopath.
However, for the comic book faithful the man will forever been known as War Machine, and CGMagazine got a chance to speak with the award-winning actor just before Iron Man 3 slid into screens to the giddy delights of fanboys everywhere. He chatted about working with his new director Shane Black (writer of Lethal Weapon, Monster Squad, and The Last Boy Scout and writer/director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), his involvement in the Marvel Universe as a whole, possible sequels/spin-offs, and of course how embarrassing it is to wear motion capture tights. I’d go into further details, or you could also just read Cheadle’s own words in T-minus 3, 2, 1…
Since Marvel tries to be collaborative and you’re a mainstay in the Iron Man franchise, were you able to get involved with the development of your character at all?
Don Cheadle: Well, Kevin Feige, Robert, and I all stayed in touch over the last year and a half to two years while they were working on The Avengers. We all just sort of talked about how to make it bigger and better if we came back. Not so much in terms of the size and scope of the spectacle, but more in terms of the characters and strengthening their relationships. We came to a greater understanding of why Tony and Rhodey are who they are, and why they work well together. It was nice to get out of the suits in that third act set piece and work with the stunt team. That was a lot of fun and I got to have a certain wish fulfillment satisfied.
So much of the film is about how Tony deals with the events of The Avengers , but you don’t get to see much of how Rhodey reacted—
Don Cheadle: No you don’t, he probably should have been in The Avengers, right? (laughs)
How do you think he’s coming to terms with the new world order of the Marvel Universe?
Don Cheadle: Well, that’s what [War Machine’s] rebranding is about. As the president says in the movie, Washington wants to look strong and have their own public sector superhero. I think that’s what the propaganda behind The Iron Patriot is about. But I don’t think that matters much to Rhodey. He just wants to uphold the oath he took when he agreed to put on the suit and protect home.
What do you think that Shane Black brought to Iron Man 3 that makes it different and distinct from the last two entries in the franchise?
Don Cheadle: Well, I think this ear for the “buddy cop film” definitely came into play in the relationship between Tony and Rhodes. His focus on irreverence and comedy in the face of insurmountable odds really feels like a trademark of his and it’s something that I think makes this film a lot of fun. I think he filled the movie with humor and strong character beats against the backdrop of a huge spectacle. He’d never done anything on this scale before and he really stepped it up. We all had to in order to pay off the setup of the first two films.
I know Jon Favreau was a big proponent of improvisation when he directed his Iron Man movies, but Shane Black comes from a screenwriting background, so was there much of a difference in his approach?
Don Cheadle: Well, Shane isn’t one of those writers who are super-precious about his words. He understands that he can come up with other ones that work. Now obviously there are plot points that you try to track to keep the stories on the rails, but when characters are interacting he wants to make that as natural and realistic as possible. So when you have Robert and I, or Sir Ben Kingsley, he’s like “this is the blueprint, let’s go.” Now obviously when we start shooting and have camera angles locked and effects to worry about, we’ve pretty much nailed it down. But yeah, there was a lot of improvisation that goes into the discovery of it and some of that found its way into the film.
Was it a bit odd to still have Jon Favreau on set as Happy even though Shane was directing, and how was that transition?
Don Cheadle: Oh, there were fist fights every day. They were trying to force sides, you know, a lot of “Who is with me?!” I actually never saw Jon on the set, but I know Shane kept Jon very close to him. Help is help. Jon had done this dance and Shane wanted to know how to do the dance without tripping over his feet. Shane obviously has his background as a screenwriter, but this thing is a juggernaut and at a certain point we’ve all got our arms around each other and it’s us against this movie. None of us know once we wrap the film what it will actually be. You show up to ADR and the special effects department has animated in what you’ve been looking at as green screen for months and you go, “oh that’s what that scene is about!” This type of movie is a huge magic trick to us so Shane was smart to keep Jon in his corner to help survive.
I wanted to ask you about Ben Kingsley or “Sir Ben” as you referred to him—
Don Cheadle: As the world refers to him.
You’re right. I sincerely apologize. But how was it working with an actor of that stature in a summer tent pole kind of movie?
Don Cheadle: Well, I think it speaks a lot about Sir Ben and his desire to continue to expand and flex different muscles to increase his joy for his craft. We get into acting because we want to be excited every day and do something new. At some point you don’t want to just play Gandhi every day. He was the dude in Sexy Beast. He was also in The Dictator with Sacha Baron Cohen. He’s been in everything and done everything. He’s great and it was exciting to see him be a part of this.
Now that you’re fully installed into the Marvel Universe and have House Of Lies up and running as well, do you have time to even consider other projects or are you locked into bouncing between these titles for the time being?
Don Cheadle: They went back-to-back last year. I wrapped Iron Man 3 and then literally a week-and-a-half later was on House Of Lies. Then I finished that up and started the press for this movie. So it’s been pretty packed right now. I’m not sure if when the wheels are up for Avengers 2 whether Iron Patriot is going to make an appearance or Rhodey. But the writers go back to work on House Of Lies next month and we’re going to hit the stages in August. So there’s not a lot of time next year if Avengers 2 or another Iron Man or a War Machine movie takes off. We’ll see. I still like to look at other things because I like to believe that I’ll have the opportunity to do something other than these two things.
Is there something about the serialized nature of a TV show like House Of Lies and a comic book franchise like Iron Man that allows you to return to characters over a long term that has a particular appeal for you?
Don Cheadle: I didn’t think about it that way when I picked them, but maybe. The idea of developing and changing characters over time and surprising people with where the stories go, sure that’s fun to do. They’re completely different things. House Of Lies is a comedy with a particular bent and these Marvel movies are a juggernaut with characters who have lives of their own that people get attached to in very different ways. At the bedrock it’s still work. You’re still trying to create believable moments with characters that people connect to in some way. It’s fun at this stage of my life. I did it before with the Oceans movies, but at the end of the day it’s all acting to me.
Were you someone who had a love for superheroes at an early age or had one you looked up to?
Don Cheadle: (Laughs) I always wanted to be Wolverine. No, you know, when I got into comic books I was 17 or 18, I didn’t really read them when I was a kid. I guess maybe Archie and Veronica or Richie Rich, but Archie was not my role model nor was Jughead (laughs). I got into comic books more when I was in college because I went to Cal Arts and a lot of my friends were animators. They had all of these comic books around that I had never seen before or even heard of like Watchmen or Heavy Metal. I remember thinking they were just incredible stories and really sophisticated. Swamp Thing was one that I remember thinking was a really ridiculous character until I read the stories. That’s what really caught me about comics at that time was the writing and the incredible stories. There was one Swamp Thing book about a serial killer that I remember being really surprised about because I didn’t know comics dealt with subject matter like that. So that’s when I got into it, right at the nexus of my adulthood. So I was too old to really consider them role models or anything, but I remember being anxious to dig into those late at night in my dorm room.
It feels like the focus in Iron Man 3 was to create a really strong standalone movie and not worry so much about expanding or tying into the larger Marvel Universe this time. Was that something that was important to everyone on set?
Don Cheadle: Yeah, especially because the second movie felt like it was as much a prequel to The Avengers as it was a sequel to Iron Man. We are still breathing the same air as the rest of the Marvel Universe with Tony almost suffering from PTSD as a result of what happened in The Avengers. So we tip our hat to that huge event in the ongoing Marvel Universe, but we had to make this its own contained piece in itself and assume that people knew the mythology going in, while still making it all clear enough that you could jump in without being lost. There are so many ways to get information now that you can go online and within five minutes figure out what you need to know going in. But I think just focusing on telling the story was what allowed the movie to achieve what it did, which is become a really entertaining and interesting piece.
A very important question now: Which was the most difficult costume to see yourself in, the motion capture tights for Iron Man 3 or the cowboy costumes you wore in Boogie Nights?
Don Cheadle: (Laughs) Both of them were tough, I’m not going to lie. One is spandex and dotted bands and squares; the other was…just a cowboy. But you know, Don Cheadle never imagined himself in either of those get ups, so both of them took a minute to adjust (laughs).
Last week Gwyneth Paltrow said that as far as she knew there wouldn’t be an Iron Man 4, is that what you’ve heard as well?
Don Cheadle: I’m hearing everything. I’m hearing people telling me that they heard there would be another one. Roberts said he won’t come back and that he might come back. I don’t think anyone knows. A lot of it is predicated on how this one performs and is received and it seems like it’s tracking insanely well. That can always change things. But really I think it’s about finding a new way in that doesn’t feel like another trip to the well or the ATM. There’s no reason to go back if that’s what it is. So we have to find a new way in. It’s funny because that was never really an issue in the comic books. You can have seven million sequels in a comic, but movies are a little different. As long as they can find a fresh and innovative way of doing it, who are we kidding of course they’re going to try and do it again.
If there is no more Iron Man, but the possibility of a War Machine movie comes up, would you be into it?
Don Cheadle: If I could play it as Marty [from House Of Lies] because they’ll probably be shooting at the same time (laughs). Yeah, of course! But again, it would have to be something that felt warranted. If it was just something made to capitalize on this heat while it’s going, it would be a recipe for failure, especially among comic book fans. There needs to be a veracity in the storytelling and material that hasn’t been mined. I’d like to see Rhodes untethered. I wonder what he would be like out of uniform. What if his moral compass had him answering the call to something that wasn’t politically correct or sanctioned by the government and all of a sudden he’s out there as War Machine discharged? I don’t know. I’ve got fantasies about where it could go and there is a canon of comic books suggesting where it could go. In the comics Rhodes took over Iron Man’s mantle at a certain point. So, they’ll figure it out or they won’t figure it out, but it would be great to do it again.
Don’t forget to check out CGM’s review of Iron Man 3.