It’s no secret that Don Cheadle’s talent level and stardom level are unbalanced. The 43-year-old’s performances are consistently nuanced and, frankly, he’s something of a workhorse. He’s equally content doing yeoman’s work in a franchise like Ocean’s Whatever (where he has no hope of breaking out as the unlikely headliner while sharing screen time with George Clooney and Brad Pitt) and carrying a film on his back, as he did in last year’s criminally overlooked Talk to Me.
So it’s no surprise that, every once in a while, even Cheadle himself laments his subpar score on the fame scale.
But after spending a portion of my Labor Day in the darkened cool of an AMC theatre, watching Cheadle embody the role of counterterrorist Samir Horn in Traitor, I knew Cheadle’s career is exactly where it should be.
You should know that you can’t get a half-hour into Traitor without starting to draw parallels between it and the Bourne series—just like I can never sit through any Cheadle performance and not draw comparisons to Matt Damon.
Recall, if you will the post-Good Will Hunting years of 1998-2001. What you’ll find on Damon’s filmography are a series of commercial flops wherein Damon’s performance is likely the only bright spot. In interviews, Damon has often categorized these post-screenplay-Oscar years as the leanest of his career—the years when he thought he’d have to go out and get a 9-5 to avoid homelessness. Then, along came Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity in 2002. Against the better judgment of the studio, producers, and casting directors, Liman fought to award Damon the lead role. It was a total gamble, as Damon’s short stature, crooked grin, and “Aw shucks,” Richie Cunningham demeanor really didn’t scream, “Amnesiac Assassin!”
But as it turned out, Damon’s doggedly solid acting in all those flops had prepared him for a star-making role like this one. He was so thoroughly convincing as a lowkey killer that word of mouth propelled The Bourne Identity to box office and DVD heights the likes of which Damon had never seen before (and may not see again).
Clearly, someone thought Traitor would do the same thing for Don Cheadle—and by simple right and logic, it should have. But Traitor only opened at $7,868,465—and in the week since, it’s earned just under $5 mil more for a total of $12,085,043. The film’s open ending suggests the filmmakers’ hope for a sequel, though receipts make a return to Samir Horn’s world of bomb-building espionage unlikely.
In a discussion of the difference between Bourne and Traitor, my aunt insisted that the only thing separating the two is the color of the lead actor’s skin. Neither Damon nor Cheadle are likely action heroes, yet Damon was able to overcome his plain appearance by being a White guy with above-average acting ability. Meanwhile, Cheadle—whose talent arguably eclipses Damon’s (we’d like to see Damon pull off the feat Cheadle conquered with ease in Talk to Me) is still languishing in the everyman land of thankless roles and inequitable paychecks. My uncle countered that it’s the films’ content that made the difference; Bourne is the fictional tale of one man’s battle with his former self, whereas Traitor deals with the very real threats of U.S. and foreign acts of terrorism. The fare in the latter film isn’t escapist enough for anyone to settle in, munch popcorn, and forget that the free world is ever on the verge of implosion.
My idea is that Cheadle knew all of this before he signed on for Traitor. He just wanted to make a realist’s thriller. Cheadle’s ever-deepening interest in causes of social import, as well as the pregnant pauses between his acceptance of roles, suggests that he really isn’t a Hollywood player because of potential fame or box office. Those things would be nice (what professional doesn’t want to be paid or recognized more for a job masterfully done?), but gaining them at the expense of quality just doesn’t interest him. In fact, Cheadle recently told New York magazine that the rigorous travel and time away from home made a Traitor sequel rather unpalatable to him. (Even his objections to work are practical; his main gripe about not being more famous is the amount of time he’s held up in customs because the agents don’t recognize him as a star and slide him on through.)
So yeah, we guess he’s totally fine with remaining under the paparazzi’s intrusive radar. We suppose he’s making more than enough to live comfortably and semi-anonymously with his wife and daughters. We reluctantly have to admit that he doesn’t need our consumerist adulation.
Of course, none of this means that we wouldn’t love to see Cheadle take on some sort of Black martial arts film or pull on some a fitted emerald unitard for a Green Lantern flick. But if he’s cool with continuing to quietly build his repertoire with films that may only be important to an invested few, we support his plan wholeheartedly*.
*It’s kind of interesting to note that Cheadle recently told the Detroit Free Press that he’d like to do a big, lighthearted comedy with no sociopolitical underpinnings. Whether or not anyone will cast him in one remains to be seen, although we can’t imagine it’d be too big a stretch for a studio to envision him in a comic role. A director need only dust off some old footage of Cheadle in that now-classic Fresh Prince ep where he guested as Hillary’s erstwhile love and Will’s loose cannon “friend from the hood,” Ice Tray.