DON CHEADLE Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
November 11, 2004
Based on true events that occurred in the political hotzone of 1994's Rwanda, Hotel Rwanda chronicles the story of Paul Rusesabagina, a real life hero who used his resourcefulness and connections as an upscale hotel manager to save the lives of over 1,000 refugees. Tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi, two Rwandan social factions, had set the stage for a bloody genocide, and nearly 1,000,000 people were killed in the span of 100 days while most of the world stood by and did little to intervene.
Hotel Rwanda is directed and co-written by Terry George (In the Name of the Father) and stars Don Cheadle in a dramatized portrayal of Paul Rusesabagina. In this interview, Don talks about the making of this informative piece of filmmaking, and how it made the arduous trek from concept to completion.
MEDIA: When did you first meet Paul?
DON: In Africa, when I went down for rehearsal before we started filming the movie. I had spoken with him on the phone a few times before that, but that was when we first met face to face.
Some actors don't like meeting the real life inspiration for their character. What were your thoughts on meeting Paul?
I'm very thankful that I got to meet Paul, for a whole bunch of personal reasons that have nothing to do with the playing of him. But also for the reasons of portraying the part because I just got a real sense of his spirit, and he was very open with telling us where he was emotionally at the time--just little things that seem like they may be insignificant, but that I was able to kind of latch on to and put as the bedrock of who this character was.
What sort of things did you take from him and put into your performance?
There were things, some specific, but mostly it was just getting a sense of the nature of him and the sense of his spirit and a sense of how he dealt with the world. Being with him in social settings, being with him one-on-one, being at a restaurant with him, getting drunk...you know, whatever. [laughs] All the different things. Just kind of getting the whole picture of who he was, not just the 110 pages on the script or the interviews that I had seen. Sitting with him and joking with him and telling stories, and him meeting my kids and me meeting his kids...little details would come off of those things.
What was it like portraying someone who is also serving as a consultant while the film is shooting?
It's not comfortable. At times, it was really daunting, and I would say, "Do you have to sit behind the monitor today?" But because he's not an historical figure, we weren't shackled with that responsibility of playing Paul exactly as he was, which allowed us to just really tell the story.
How did you come to being cast in the lead role?
When I first met with Terry, he basically said, "I would love for you to play this part. I love your work, I want you in it, but honestly, there are some other actors who I may have to make the movie with to make the movie go." He had been trying to make it for three to five years, or something like that. And he said, "If one of them says yes, then that's who I'm going to make the movie with, because the most important thing here is telling this story." And I was in agreement. [laughs] I said, "I'm in agreement and I will support you in any way that I can to get this movie made even if it means me not doing it." Because it's an amazing story that too few people know about.
Was Terry's honesty on the matter refreshing, especially in a business not necessarily renowned for integrity?
[jokingly] I slapped him...No, that's what I like about Terry, he's just a straight shooter. And his passion for the piece was clear and I knew that he wasn't telling me out of some sort of power trip or wanting to dis me, he was just wanting to be very honest and straight up tell me, "I had been trying to get this movie made for years, I'm passionate about it, I'm going to get it made however I can get it made, I hope it's with you. If it's not, I hope you understand." And thank God it came around my way because I really was knocked out by it when I read it.
What were your biggest concerns once shooting began?
I had a lot of concerns that were increasing daily when we were down there, but whenever I take a part, I'm kind of insecure about the work. I never just think, "Oh, I'm going to knock this one out of the park." I'm always concerned that I'm doing the right thing and that the story is being told properly and it's coming off right. And there were a lot of challenges with this one. It was a short schedule compared to what we were trying to do. We had a lot of logistical things to deal with given the size of our budget, the size of the cast and the extras, and the scope of the story. But following Terry, who just had all the passion, and knowing that Paul had signed off on the script gave me confidence that we were in the right place and we could do it. It was really difficult every day, but it was the kind of difficulty that, at the end of the day, really served telling the story, because we did feel like it was us against them. We did feel like it was the "little engine that could." And that's kind of what Paul was, the man who was going to continue.
How long did it take you to pin down your character's accent?
Oh, it was every day. I hired someone as soon as I found out I got the part, a dialect coach. Took him to Africa with me, and he spent a great deal of time there. And then we had another woman there the whole time for the other actors as well. And they would always come up and go, "Say this word" or "Say that word, say that phrase to me again." And just the total immersion of it, the fact that everyone on the set was singing music similar to that with their dialects, which was a great benefit to have constantly in our ears.
When did you finally get comfortable with it?
I don't know that I was ever totally comfortable with it. [laughs] One day, the character Gregoire...the actor who played him, Tony, came up and started speaking to me in his tongue and stopped and went, "Oh wait, you don't know what I'm saying." And I said, "Man, that's the best compliment that I've ever gotten."
Did Paul or his wife Tatiana comment on anything they felt was inaccurate in the movie?
[laughs] One day on the set, he and Tatiana were there. We were shooting one of the bedroom scenes. And Tatiana said something in French, and they all laughed. And I said, "What? What was so funny?" And she said that this scene is not right because Paul sleeps in the nude. [laughs] And I said, "Well, this scene probably just won't be right then." [laughs] I'm not "dropping trou" in this one.
There goes the rating...
Yeah, right away. But no, I never sat him down and tried to grill him about the specifics of what happened to him. I much more just wanted to hear what he wanted to tell me. I took it on faith that him saying, "This is the script that I agree with and this is the version of the story I'm fine with you telling"...that we could just relax and focus on telling that story.
What did you learn from the experience of making this movie?
Well, the real details of the circumstances that went into setting the stage for this violence to occur. I didn't know the history of it, I didn't know a lot of the specific details of it, and I didn't know how they got themselves out of it. This movie doesn't try to capture the whole of the genocide. It's about a very specific set of circumstances at a very specific time, and focuses on one man's journey. But you do, I think, get a very strong sense of what's going on. You kind of get a feel for the history of what's happening, and hopefully it will inspire people to try and discover more about it like it did for me.
Do you remember giving any mind to the social and political upheaval in Rwanda as it was occurring back in 1994?
I had sort of cursory knowledge of it--little bits I had seen on the news and read in the newspaper--and knew that something was going down. Really what was going on in '94 for Africa in the forefront of my mind was Mandela was being released and apartheid was being abolished. That was really what was the focus in Africa. And two short years before--I believe it was in '92, maybe it was later than that--those soldiers had been killed in Somalia. The militia took a page right from that playbook when they killed the Belgian soldiers because they knew that meant that the UN would pull out. And it's details like that, which are so diabolical, that I didn't know anything about until I started doing the research on the film.
Do you think Hotel Rwanda's PG-13 rating will afford many younger viewers the opportunity to see it?
Well, the film was originally given an R rating. We had to go in and really lobby for it to get the rating that it got. I hope it means that it'll be a broader audience. And I don't think it's anything that a 13-year-old can't handle. When I was in junior high school, I saw a documentary about the Holocaust that had a very positive effect on me in that it, I think, shaped my humanistic viewpoint and opened my eyes to events around that world that I had no knowledge about. And it was really a humanizing event. It was harrowing and hard to watch, and really much more disturbing than Hotel Rwanda in its graphic detail, but it sensitized me, and I would hope that people would not be afraid of this film for thinking that it's going to be some sort of a gorefest, which Terry was really careful not to make. And look, I think it's an entertaining film. You know, it's a hard word to use maybe with this subject matter, but I think it's a movie that is ultimately very uplifting and hopeful that good can triumph over evil. And people can walk out of the theater and, if they are feeling wrecked and guilty and all that, they can do something. These situations are continuing today. It's not over. You don't have to be someone who goes, "Well, I can't do anything about it, it's too huge." You can do something about it.
Did you feel an obligation to be a leader from a production standpoint, and not just from an acting standpoint?
Yeah, and I realized that. I think being a lead, you have to lead on and off the set. For you to be the lead in the movie and not lead creates a vacuum. You dictate kind of the tone on the set. Everything is, in a way, bending to your will. So I did feel a lot of responsibility for that, and I was glad I had allies like Sophie Okonedo, who is my co-star in it. And Terry is a great director.
Because of the serious subject matter, did people think the tone on set should be somber at all times, even when the cameras weren't rolling?
No, I think quite the opposite. I think because it was such a serious subject, people really needed to decompress and would love a great joke. And Terry was never like a general in that sense like, "This is deadly serious, you have to be deadly serious." And I'm definitely not. And Sophie is completely not.
As an actor, how can you lead by example on the set?
Just showing up on time, not complaining, doing the work, working overtime if you have to, being out of the trailer first. You know, just doing it.
Was it difficult to "switch off" the mindset of your character at the end of the shooting day?
I don't think I really did switch it off. Every night, I would have to go home and pour over the script again. We were always shooting out of sequence. I would always have to go home and really carefully notate what we had done, what the work was going to be for the next day. Sometimes you're shooting a scene near the end of the movie at the beginning, and vice versa. So keeping track of the trajectory and the arc of the story was really tricky, especially on days when we'd start off and it would be raining, and so we'd have to go inside, and then the rain would stop and we'd go outside and it'd start raining again. Pages were being torn out of the script because we just didn't have the time and luxury to go over two or three days. We had to figure out ways to make it work, so every day after work, I was on the phone with Terry and pouring over the script and trying to make sure that we were keeping true to the story.