Don Cheadle has become known as one of Hollywood's more socially active stars since his Oscar-nominated role in 2004's Hotel Rwanda.
His new film, Talk to Me, about a 1960s radio disc jockey and social activist, debuted in major U.S. cities on July 13 and expands nationwide in coming weeks.
Cheadle, 42, spoke to Reuters about being an African American actor in Hollywood and using his stardom to promote social causes:
Q: Along with stars like George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, you're viewed as one of the more socially active actors in Hollywood. What drives you to be involved in social and charitable endeavors?
A: I think I was pulled into the stream of activism after Hotel Rwanda. We filmed the movie in South Africa, and a lot of the South African actors said they didn't know what was happening in Rwanda, which for all intents and purposes was up the street from them. And then Darfur (in Sudan) happened, and people found out about it, but still nothing was happening.
Q: So how did you end up involved?
A: 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.
Q: It seems there are only a few African American actors who can get a film made including you. Is that accurate?
A: There's probably 10 actors of any ethnicity who can really write their own ticket. And probably 8 of the 10 don't really feel that way about themselves. So I don't feel like I've made it but I know that I can get a movie greenlit at a certain budget.
Q: Do you feel that black actors of your stature have any kind of artistic obligation to do certain types of films?
A: No. I would never presume to tell someone else what they need to be doing. It would be great to do a role where you got $19 million, or however many million dollars you need to help you coast through life. But in order to take care of all the things I need to take care of ... I'd have to make four or five movies a year, which starts to show diminishing returns. You're doing all of this for (your family), but you never get to see them because you're never there. I think a lot of that went into my decision to produce, because the five stages of an actor's career are real.
Q: What are those five stages?
A: Who is Don Cheadle? Get me Don Cheadle. Get me a Don Cheadle type. Get me a young Don Cheadle. Who is Don Cheadle? By the time it gets back to the second who is Don Cheadle? I want to know enough about this business that I can continue to be a creative and hopefully productive, lucrative part of this business.
Q: With international box office becoming an increasing part of the Hollywood financial equation, are you worried that it will negatively affect black actors who, some say, cannot be relied upon to draw people to box offices overseas?
A: I don't necessarily believe that black films and black actors don't travel. There's sometimes a lack of (marketing) on those films. It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy if you don't spend 'Spidey' money on a movie like Talk to Me and then say oh, it doesn't work. When I do international press, people approach me all the time and say we love you in Europe, in Asia, in South America, and so on. There's definitely an audience there.