Actor Don Cheadle has been one of the most consistently sought after faces and personalities for character work for the better part of two decades, and this weekend he reprises his role of James “Rhodey” Rhodes in the Marvel Studios juggernaut Iron Man 3. Cheadle, who has worked regularly with the likes of big name directors like Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Robert Zemeciks and consistently delivers memorable, iconic performances, joins director Shane Black as he takes up the helm of the superhero franchise from previous director Jon Favreau.
As Rhodey, Cheadle has to help the snarky, rich Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) bring down a terrorist known as The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) and a scorned scientist (Guy Pearce). The relationship between Tony and his best friend (whose suited hero War Machine has now been re-branded by the US government as Iron Patriot) gets tested because following the events of The Avengers, Tony seems ill equipped to deal with such a voracious threat. It’s up to Rhodey to help his friend restore order and save the day.
Dork Shelf sat down with Cheadle in a downtown Toronto hotel room during a promotional stop to talk about his thoughts on the franchise and where it’s headed, his working relationship to Black and Downey, and his first experiences with comics.
This feels like a bit of a different kind of film from Iron Man 2. What did Shane Black bring to the table that really set this entry apart?
Don Cheadle: I think his sort of ear toward the buddy cop movie definitely comes into play throughout, and especially when it comes to the interplay between Tony and Rhodey. His focus on irreverence and comedy in the face of insurrmounting odds is something that really feels like Shane’s trademark. That’s something that this film had which sort of made it a lot of fun. We’re dealing with real character beats and a lot of humour, but again, it’s against this backdrop of this huge spectacle. I think everyone knew that we kind of had to step it up and pay off on the promise that the first two films sort of made. I think this is the culmination of all of that.
One of the things about this movie that’s really rare, especially coming in the third film of a franchise and coming off such a juggernaut like The Avengers, is that the focus seems to be placed on making just a great stand alone story and not trying to force a way to tie into some larger mythology. Was that sort of the established tone between everyone on set this time out?
DC: Yeah. And especially because it felt like the moment we started making this movie it was a question of if we were making a sequel to The Avengers or if it was the third Iron Man. It was kind of both because we are in the same Marvel universe. We’re all breathing the same air. So Tony’s PTSD with regards to what he went through in The Avengers became such a huge part of the story line. Our awareness of those incidents and how aliens came out of an opening on the sky is exactly why the president says he needs someone next to him as his superhero. So we tip our hat to that with the full knowledge that this is what this world has become, but yeah, we had to make it its own contained piece and in a way assume that people already knew the mythology coming in and if they didn’t that they could still enjoy it for what it was an have a good time.
I mean, there’s so many ways to get information now that we weren’t able to get in five minutes when I was a kid. We live in a day and age where you can catch up on what happened in five minutes on the internet on your way to the theatre before the movie starts. It’s a brave new world in that aspect, but I think just focusing on the story here first and foremost is what makes this such an interesting and entertaining piece.
The first couple of movies certainly had a big improvisational aspect when it comes to how the script was approached, but with Shane Black writing and directing this one, was anything different and how did he approach that style of work?
DC: Well, you know, Shane wasn’t one of these writers who was super precious about his words. He understands that he can come up with other ones if those aren’t the ones that work. Now obviously there are plot points that you’re trying to track so that the story stays on the rails, but finding how these characters interact and how they speak to one another, he wants that to feel as natural and realistic as possible. When you have Robert there, and me there, and you have Sir Ben Kingsley there, and he’s like ‘this is the blueprint, let’s go.’ By the time we’re actually shooting it and everyone knows where they have to be, what angles work, we’ve pretty much nailed it down, but there’s a lot of improvisation that goes into the discovery of it and some of it finds its way into the film.
Previous director Jon Favreau also reprises his role of Happy here. What was it like having the old director and the new one on set at the same time?
DC: (dryly, jokingly) It was like fist fights on set. (laughs) We had to choose sides like “Who’s with me?!” A bit of Mutiny on the Bounty. (laughs) No, I never actually saw Jon on the set – we didn’t have any scenes together. But I know Shane kept Jon very close to him because help is help. Jon had done this dance and Shane wanted to know “how do I do this dance without tripping over my feet?” He clearly has an identity as a writer and comes at it from that side, but this thing is a juggernaut! At some point we’re all wrapping our arms around each other and it’s us against this movie. None of us know once we wrap the film what it’s going to be; did we actually do it? It’s a huge magic trick to us and Shane was smart to have Jon in his corner for it.
When it comes to making a movie of this scale that takes place inside the Marvel universe, do you ever get the chance to sort of come in early and have any sort of say about where your character goes?
DC: Well, Kevin Feige and I and Robert all stayed in touch after the second one for about a year and a half or two years or however long it was with The Avengers, and we just talked about how if we were to do this again that we would need to figure out how to do it bigger and better than the last time, not so much in terms of size, scope, and specactle, but in terms of the relationships becoming deeper and getting a greater understanding of who these people were. We had to figure out where Tony and Rhodey were going to be and why they were friends and what they bring to each other.
It was even nice to get both of us out of the suits for a while and do a bit of the action that you see us doing in the third act set piece here. That was a lot of fun. I got to work a lot with the stunt team, and I got to have this sort of happy sort of wish fullfillment finally satisfied. (laughs)
In this film, we get to see a lot of how Tony is dealing with the events that sort of changed this world in The Avengers, but we don’t really know how Rhodey dealt with them…
DC: (laughs) I know, right? Should have had him in The Avengers. (laughs)
How do you think that Rhodey has adjusted to this new world around him?
DC: Well, I think that’s what his re-brand is about. The president says in the movie that Washington wants to look strong; they want to have their public sector superhero. That’s what the propaganda behind Iron Patriot is about. I don’t think it matters much to Rhodey, he just wants to do his job. He’s much more focused on upholding the oath that he took when he said he’d put on the suit which is to protect the country.
How did you envision the relationship between Tony and Rhodey here, and what was it like working with Robert again with the new tone of the film?
DC: We get to see more in this one than in the last one what that relationship between them is like. Tony is always trying to get Rhodey to let down his hair and get out of his shell, and clearly Rhodey is one of the grounding elements for Tony in his life to kind of keep him a little bit tethered. Tony is so fond of telling the world to bring it, and then the world brings it and it gets him and all his friends in danger. Rhodey is a lot more sober and level headed and has a chain of command that he has to follow. As I said, it’s fun being out there trying to figure things out outside of their suits and you kind of see who they are for a minute. There’s points where he has to follow Rhodey and there’s moments where he has to follow him. That sort of interplay between the two of them is key.
And Robert and I bring elements of our own relationship into that of the characters, as well. We stayed friends over the years. We’re both fathers and we have ways that we can connect outside of just doing a film. It’s nice to have someone that you have mutual respect with and is willing to help out with the planning and building of the characters and letting all these different ideas in.
Now that you’re fully ingrained in this Marvel universe and you’ve had such great success with House of Lies on TV, do you have a lot of time left for other projects?
DC: Yeah, they went back to back last year. I wrapped Iron Man 3 and then a week and a half later I was on set for House of Lies. Then I came out of that and started the press for this movie. (laughs) It’s all been running back to back to back, so I don’t know when the wheels will be up on The Avengers 2 or if Iron Patriot or War Machine or Rhodey will be making an appearance in any iteration. Then the writers go back to work on the show next month, so we’re starting up again pretty quickly. In August we go on stage.
So yeah, there’s not a lot of time. Unless next year there’s suddenly another reboot on Iron Man or The Avengers or War Machine, I dunno, I might be back right at it again. But I still look at other things because I like to BELIEVE I have the opportunity to do things other than these two. (laughs)
Is there something about the serialized nature of comics and TV shows and being able to explore the same character over an extended period of time that kind of draws you to the format?
DC: I didn’t even really think about it in terms of that, but maybe. I mean, the ability to continue to wring more out of a person, or grow more, or surprise people with the place they can go is always fun to do. I mean, these are completely different things. House of Lies is adult, on Showtime, not entirely a comedy, and it’s got a particular bent that it has to have. These Marvel movies are these huge juggernaut movies where these characters have lives of their own and they’re attached in various different ways. But at the bedrock, it’s still work and you try to create believable moments with characters and a dynamic that people are entertained by. It’s fun at this stage in my life to do these kinds of things. I kind of did it a bit with the Ocean’s movies, which was a ton of fun. I did a play where I guess it’s kind of the same thing when you get to play the same person over and over again every day in the exact same way. But at the end of the day and down to its basic thing, it’s all just acting to me.
These movies definitely appeal to a wider age range that something like House of Lies would, and that’s kind of the strength of these Marvel franchises. When you were young did you have any super heroes that you looked up to?
DC: (laughs) I always wanted to be Wolverine. (laughs) No, I guess, young for me when it comes to comic books happened when I was seventeen or eighteen years old. I hadn’t really read them before that as a kid. Archie and Veronica and Richie Rich I guess were sort of what I read growing up.
Archie could be a role model.
DC: (laughs) Archie was NOT my role model. Nor was Jughead. (laughs) But I got into comics really when I got to college. I went to Cal Arts and a lot of my friends were animators and they had all of these comics around that I had never seen or heard of. And it was largely stuff that was coming from left field at the time like Watchmen and issues of Heavy Metal and I thought these were just some crazy stories. This was some really sophisticated stuff. Even something like Swamp Thing, which I always assumed was kind of this ridiculous movie with a weird character, and then the stories for that caught me. What really got to me was the writing. It was really interesting. There was one Swamp Thing that I read where he was dealing with something as dark as a serial killer. I didn’t know that there were these comic books that were dealing with subject matter like this. That was how I got into this; right at the nexus of my eductation. At that point, I was really trying to create a ME that I was looking up to, but I loved coming back to these stories late at night in the dorm room just before bed.
Last week there were rumblings that there wouldn’t be an Iron Man 4. Is that what you’re hearing?
DC: I’m hearing everything. I’m hearing people telling me that they heard there would be. Robert saying he’s not coming back. Robert saying he might come back. I don’t think anyone knows. A lot of it is predicated on how this one performs and how it’s received – and it seems to be tracking insanely well – that can change the calculation with people want to do and how they do it. Really though, it’s about being able to find a new way in; something that doesn’t look like another cynical trip back to the well, another trip to the ATM. There’s no reason to go back if that’s what it is. We have to find a fresh approach. It’s funny because with comic books you never had a lack of options – you could have seven million sequels to a comic book but a movie is a little different. Keeping in mind what Marvel is doing with their other family of movies as well – Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, who will probably have another spin eventually – it’s just about figuring out ways to tell the story that is fresh, innovative, and interesting. If they can do all that, who are we kidding? Of course they’re going to try to do it again! Of course.
If there is no more Iron Man and you’re offered a War Machine movie, would you be down for that?
DC: If I can play him as Marty [from House of Lies] because we would probably be shooting at the exact same time then yeah! (laughs) Yeah, of course. Again, it would have to be something warranted. It would need to be needed. If it just feels like something trying to capitalize on this heat while it’s going, then that’s a prescription for failure – especially for comic book fans. There needs to be a veracity that they can get behind and a storyline 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 that wasn’t politically correct and/or sanctioned by the government, but he does it anyways because that’s what his conscience tells him that he needs to do. Now he’s out there, he’s no longer a colonel, he’s been discharged. I don’t know. I’ve got fantasies about where it could go and we’ve got the canon of comic books to refer to as well. In the comic books he takes over Iron Man’s mantle at some point, so they’ll figure it out or they won’t. It would be great to come back and do this again if there is a real engine behind it that made sense.
What was more embarrassing for you to wear in your career: the green screen motion capture tights that you had to wear here or the cowboy outfits in Boogie Nights?
DC: (laughs) Both of them were tough. I’m not gonna lie. One is spandex and dotted bands and squares, and the other was just that… cowboy. (laughs) But I can safely say that Don Cheadle never envisioned himself in either of those get ups. Both of them take a minute. (laughs)