Don Cheadle talks Hotel Rwanda

Hotel Rwanda is the most powerful film of the year. It hits you with a devastating combination of horror, guilt, anger, and joy. It is a "Schindler's List" for Africa, the amazing true story of how Paul Rusesabagina saved thousands of people from being massacred. Don Cheadle, the consummate character actor, owns the screen with the finest performance of his career. It would be criminal if he didn't receive an Oscar nomination for this role. He puts a face on a tragedy that the world has ignored.

Most people are completely unaware of the terrible genocide that took place in Rwanda. Did you know about the tragedy before taking this role?

Don Cheadle: Yes, I saw a Frontline piece about it, which really took it in detail and really described it, which was unbelievable. Now that's hard to watch.

What attracted you to this project? Did you feel it was a story that needed to be told?

Don Cheadle: Everything about it was attractive, from the role to being able to tell a story that really relatively few people are aware of. It's shocking but true. Just to have this kind of experience was great, and meeting Paul [Rusesabagina] and his family. Terry [George] was also a great director. It's just been all positive.

Did you spend a lot of time with Paul? How did you research him and what was his involvement in the film?

Don Cheadle: We spent a pretty good deal of time together at the beginning of the movie. When I knew I had the movie, we started emailing each other back and forward and started talking on the phone. I watched a lot of interviews because Terry actually took Paul back to Rwanda. It's the first time Paul had been back to Rwanda and filmed all of his stuff, so I was kind of voyeuristically taking notes and watching him. Then once we got together it was just a lot of, you know, hanging out and going to dinner and getting drunk and telling stories. I was kind of sitting at his feet and getting more of a feel for, I guess, just kind of his character. I wanted to do some particular characteristics but I was more trying to just get a feeling for who he was as a man, you know, his spirit.

Did you feel any pressure playing an actual person? Especially someone who so heroic and courageous?

Don Cheadle: Who might get on camera in front of a national audience and say I blew it. (Laughs) Yeah, I guess there's an extra little weight involved. Thank God it was Paul. Thank God that we had his involvement from the beginning. He wasn't someone that we tried to keep in the shadows and not involve in the process. He was there on the set and really involved in how the story unfolded. This was something that had been in development for years, so there was a lot of time that he had to deal with the story. It's a little daunting when he's sitting behind the monitor when you're doing a scene and you're looking at his face trying to interpret is that a frown, is that a grimace, is that a smile? Just get him out of there and take him to the lunch trailer or something. Get him a sandwich and let me do this scene, you know. (Laughs)

The film is so emotionally devastating. Did you ever take your feelings home from work?

Don Cheadle: Every day, every day there was some kind of decompression that I needed to do. I think it is an actor's lot anyway to sort of obsess about that kind of stuff. What have I done that day, what beat did I miss? Then I have to go back and get in another scene. Every night on the phone after work, Terry and I were talking about the script and trying to plot the week. When do we want to do this scene because we haven't yet done this scene, and you need to experience this scene emotionally before we try to have you do this scene, etc. So it was always that sort of a juggling act. But it was the biggest part I've ever done and I didn't realize until doing this part how intricately involved a lead actor is in every aspect of the story.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while filming this movie?

Don Cheadle: I think what surprised me the most about it was how it was set up. How the situation was initially sort of built to come apart as it did. The Belgians decided who was going to rule. They picked people based on their features and used the minority Tutsi to control the majority Hutu. They flipped it when they left and gave the power to the majority. I don't know, that could be careless, but it sounds very Machiavellian at the same time. Designed to keep a region unstable and it's continued. It's just a cyclical thing. This movie ends with the Tutsis coming in and pushing all the Hutus out. It's 2 million people, the largest exodus in modern history, the exodus from Rwanda by the Hutus. But then when the Tutsi rebels came back in, they exacted horrible reprisals on all the Hutus who had put them in that situation. They're still nipping at the edges and coming out of the mountains now. There are small attacks every few weeks now and it's just diabolical.

Despite the horror of their situation, the love between Paul and his wife kept them both strong? Is that the uplifting part of the story, that love can conquer all?

Don Cheadle: Exactly. That's how it needs to be told, that's how it needs to be sold. Otherwise you're like, "Oh, God, genocide, I don't know if I can" and I understand it. That's not what you want to do on a Friday night, go see a movie about the genocide. But you do want to see a movie where a good person triumphs over insurmountable odds, and have a love story in its core. I think that's entertaining if you can use that word for this movie, which I think you can. It's entertaining.

Should children be allowed to watch this movie?

Don Cheadle: Yes. That was one of the big fights, to get it to be PG-13. When I was 13 years old, I remember I saw a film in junior high school called Night and Fog, which is a documentary about the holocaust. It's very graphic, very stark documentary with a lot of footage. It was a very humanizing thing for me. It actually jump-started my thinking about the world in a way I had not thought about it before. It just turned on a whole way of me thinking about the world. It wasn't overwhelming to the point that I couldn't go on. It's probably a big reason why even now, I'm inspired to do something and I'm more humanistic because of it. Hopefully this film could do that same thing for someone developing their ideas about the world.

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Dont't forget to also check out: Hotel Rwanda