Don Cheadle Interview: ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy,’ ‘No Sudden Move,’ and War Machine

Space Jam A New Legacy Cast
Bugs Bunny, Don Cheadle, Cedric Joe, LeBron James, and Lola Bunny at the red carpet premiere of ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ (Photo by Eric Charbonneau / Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

As a fan of 1996’s Space Jam – the live-action/cartoon mash-up starring NBA legend Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny – Oscar nominee Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) jumped at the chance to star in the sequel, Space Jam: A New Legacy.

“I liked the original. It was very entertaining. I’m a huge fan of Michael Jordan and love the Looney Tunes characters,” said Cheadle.

A native of Kansas City, MO, Cheadle is an alumnus of the California Institute of Arts in Santa Clarita, CA. He starred alongside Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Fences) in 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress as Mouse, for which he received critical praise. He won a Golden Globe for playing Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1998’s The Rat Pack, as well as a Golden Globe for the TV series House of Lies. Cheadle is best known for playing Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, alias War Machine, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.

“I’m just glad to be employed,” he said, laughing. “It’s been a lot of fun to play a bunch of different characters in such a short time span. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do as an actor. I’m having that opportunity, and that’s great.”

Space Jam: A New Legacy

In New Legacy – opening Friday, July 16 – NBA legend LeBron James plays a fictionalized version of himself. He and his son Dom (newcomer Cedric Joe) find themselves trapped in the Warner 3000 Server-Verse, a virtual space ruled by a tyrannical A.I. called Al G. Rhythm (Cheadle), whose name is a pun of “algorithm.” James joins forces with Bugs, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and the rest of the Looney Tunes characters in a basketball game against Rhythm’s Goon Squad, a team of powered-up virtual avatars of other NBA stars.

“It was fun to come back in this iteration with LeBron and to work with newer toys, new ideas, and new concepts,” said Cheadle. “The concept is really interesting, all these elements coming together. I mean, come on, there’s family, there’s basketball, there’s all the Warner Bros. (intellectual property) – there’s this spectacular world to behold. And inside of that, there’s real characters that are hitting real human emotional beats. I thought it would be pretty fun to be a part of all that.”

While the final product looks phenomenal as flesh-and-blood people interact with cartoons, filming such a movie has its share of challenges. However, Cheadle was up for them.

“A lot of imagination is involved,” he said. “Sometimes you’re looking at cardboard cut-outs and sometimes you’re just looking into space and hearing people say lines and reacting to that. All of acting is imagination to some degree. Some of it is just more tricky because of the technical aspect you’re trying to do. You get to see pre-viz – which is pre-visualization – and get an idea of what it is you’re supposed to be doing. That’s cool.”

New Legacy producer Ryan Coogler (director/co-writer of 2018’s Black Panther) wanted Cheadle to play Rhythm. In fact, he offered Cheadle the role before the screenplay had been completed.

“We’re really excited about Al G. Rhythm,” said Coogler. “We can’t wait for the world to meet this character who we’ve been seeing Don Cheadle bring to life up close and personal. He’s a guy who’s been designed to determine what products should get made when it comes to entertainment at Warner Bros. He’s off-the-charts intelligent. And then you have Don, who’s one of the most talented actors of our generation.”

No Sudden Move
Don Cheadle as Curtis Goynes and Benicio del Toro as Ronald Russo in HBO Max and Warner Bros. Pictures’ crime drama ‘No Sudden Move’ (Photo Credit: Claudette Barius © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc)

No Sudden Move

New Legacy isn’t the only movie Cheadle’s appearing in this month. He plays the lead character – a small-time hood named Curt Goynes – in No Sudden Move, a crime drama set in Detroit (where it was also filmed during the Coronavirus pandemic) circa 1954. Written by Ed Solomon (the Bill & Ted trilogy) and directed by Oscar nominee Steven Soderbergh (the Ocean’s franchise), No Sudden Move also stars David Harbour (Black Widow), Oscar nominee Benicio del Toro (Traffic), Golden Globe nominee Kieran Culkin (Succession), Golden Globe winner Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Ray Liotta (GoodFellas), Brendan Fraser (Trust), and Oscar winner Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting). Detroit is also a character in its own right and plays a strong supporting role, according to Solomon.

“Don Cheadle plays Goynes. Benicio plays Russo, Liotta plays Frank Capelli. They’re playing these parts and Detroit is in the film too as a character,” said Solomon. “Detroit shows up as a character in the film and is playing itself at a different time… It’s an unbilled character, but it is a character. You can’t have this film be what it is without Detroit playing itself.”

Cheadle agreed.

“Detroit is a character in this movie as much as the actual living human beings in the movie,” he said. “You can really look at the environment and understand why this movie would not work anywhere else. Detroit is so well-preserved. The architecture and the structure of the city makes it easy to say, ‘This is 1954’ … The architecture is still there, which is fantastic. Obviously, the tons of cars we used were right there; we didn’t have to bring any of those in because they all exist there. You can really look at the environment and understand why this movie would not work anywhere else.”

No Sudden Move begins with Goynes, who’s just out of prison and in need of money, getting roped into a scheme by a go-between named Jones (Fraser) to “babysit” auto exec Matt Wertz’s (Harbour) family with Russo, while Charley (Culkin) takes Matt to his office to retrieve top-secret documents. However, the plans aren’t there, and the babysitting job goes sideways. Goynes won’t let Charley murder Wertz and his family, killing him instead. Soon thereafter, Detroit’s criminal elite and corporate titans come after Goynes in a deadly game of double-cross and triple-cross.

“Without being too much of a fanboy, I have been an admirer of Don for so long. I’ll be honest: I never thought I’d have a chance to work with him. I was quite intimidated turning the script over,” said Solomon. “When I met him for the first time, which was on-set, I got very emotional – ‘It’s so amazing, Don. I’ve had a relationship with you for the last 1-2 years that you haven’t had, but we share this character. I’m passing the mantle to you…’ He couldn’t be kinder about it and was really gracious. He’s such a good guy. I like him a lot.”

Solomon continued: “Watching Don say those words… he made the script better. Running the script through… (the cast’s) genius, their brilliance, their aesthetic taught me more about writing. When you have actors that good questioning your work as well as manifesting it, you can’t help but come out the other end a better writer. When you have actors that good saying the words, the script just seems that much better. Every moment watching them, I had to stop myself and say, ‘Pay attention, airhead, this doesn’t happen all the time, getting to watch artists like this realize something in front of you.’ I never stopped thinking how fortunate I was.”

No Sudden Move
David Harbour, Don Cheadle, director Steven Soderbergh (masked), and Benicio del Toro on the set of ‘No Sudden Move,’ which was filmed in Detroit during the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo by Claudette Barius)

Working with Steven Soderbergh

No Sudden Move was one of the first films to resume production during the pandemic, which was daunting at the beginning, according to Cheadle. Soderbergh paid for two mobile COVID-19 testing units out of his own pocket because he didn’t want to take resources away from the citizens of Detroit. At the end of production, he donated them to Wayne State University for their mobile-health outreach program.

“We never got shut down and worked straight through, which is a blessing and…a testament to the people that Steven, (producer) Casey Silver, and Warner Bros. put around us to protect us,” said Cheadle.

No Sudden Move marks Cheadle’s sixth collaboration with Soderbergh. They worked together on 1998’s Out of Sight, 2000’s Traffic, 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven, 2004’s Ocean’s Twelve, and 2007’s Ocean’s Thirteen. (Cheadle stated there are currently no plans for another Ocean’s sequel.)

“It was an opportunity to revisit not totally dissimilar material than a movie like Out of Sight as far as it being a tight thriller,” said Cheadle. “(Soderbergh and I) have a very good shorthand and we’re real simpatico when it comes to the kinds of stories we like to tell. It’s always good to return to someone who’s definitely gifted behind the camera and really gets this kind of material.”

Working with Soderbergh is a high point in Solomon’s career.

“I do not say this lightly: He’s a truly brilliant mind and you could not ask for a better steward of your material because in a certain way he’s this amazing combination of confidence and egoless-ness,” said Solomon. “Steven says his role is to bring out the best in you as an artist and the best in the film – whatever it’s trying to be – (and keep that) separate from him. A lot of filmmakers put their ego in front of them, but Steven isn’t that way… As a writer, you couldn’t have asked for a better or smarter collaborator.”

Soderbergh was one of the reasons Cheadle chose this role.

“The auspices of creating it, to work with Steven again, to work with Benicio and actually have scenes with him for the first time – we were in Traffic but never got to work with one another, so this was an opportunity to do that – as well as the rest of the cast, the story, the historical aspect of what we were doing,” explained Cheadle. “The fact that we were going to be folding some really good, interesting, relevant information about not only the city but the country writ large inside this gangster noir thriller. Everything was a yes.”

Iron Man War Machine
Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) fight side-by-side in ‘Iron Man 2’ (Photo Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Playing a Superhero

For more than 11 years, Cheadle has played War Machine. In the comics published by Marvel, Rhodey is a former soldier, as well as the personal pilot and right-hand man of corporate tycoon/billionaire playboy Tony Stark, alias Iron Man. When Stark is incapacitated by alcohol, Rhodey becomes the second Iron Man and even joins the Avengers, the team of superheroes Stark founded and financed. Once Stark sobered up, he resumed the mantle of Iron Man. Eventually, Rhodey adopts his own superhero identity as War Machine.

Cheadle debuted as War Machine in 2010’s Iron Man 2. He also played him in 2013’s Iron Man 3, 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, and 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. He made a cameo in 2019’s Captain Marvel and earlier this year in the Disney+ series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. He’s slated to reprise this role in the upcoming Disney+ series, Armor Wars. However, he couldn’t talk about the latter project.

“What attracted me to the part was the part,” said Cheadle, laughing. “It’s a lot of fun to be part of those big, fantastical escapist kind of movies. I was a fan of them as a kid and continue to be a fan of them as an adult. Also, I get to work with some cool actors, cool people, and exciting storylines that are – although they don’t have to be – pretty nuanced.”

Initially, War Machine was played by Oscar nominee Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow) in 2008’s Iron Man, starring Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin, Tropic Thunder) as the titular character. In fact, Howard was also the highest-paid star in the MCU’s inaugural film, earning $3.5 million, compared to Downey’s $500,000 (with his history of legal and drug problems, Downey was still considered a risk at the time he was cast).

After Iron Man’s box office success to the tune of $585.5 million, Downey’s salary increased exponentially for the subsequent movies. Howard stated in interviews his salary would’ve been decreased exponentially by 50-80 percent for the sequel. In the end, it’s unclear if Howard quit or if Marvel fired him over this salary dispute. What is not unclear is War Machine was recast in Iron Man 2 with Cheadle.

“In my own opinion, I didn’t replace Terrence Howard,” said Cheadle. “He was not in the movie when I was offered the movie. (His departure) had already happened, so I didn’t move him out of a job. I wouldn’t have done it.”

Activist and Author

In addition to being an actor, Cheadle is also an activist and an author. With John Prendergast, he co-authored the books, Not On Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond and The Enough Moment: Fighting to End Africa’s Worst Human Rights Crimes. Alongside his Ocean’s co-stars Damon, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt, Ocean’s producer Jerry Weintraub, and former Ambassador David Pressman, Cheadle co-founded the Not On Our Watch Project, an international relief and humanitarian aid organization.

In 2007, Cheadle was awarded the BET Humanitarian Award of the Year for his humanitarian work for the people of Darfur and Rwanda. Also in 2007, Cheadle and Clooney were given the Summit Peace Award by the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates in Rome for their work to stop the genocide in Darfur. Additionally, Cheadle is on the Advisory Board of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

When asked if he considered himself a role model, Cheadle wasn’t comfortable with that question.

“I think that’s a question better suited for people, not me,” he said. “I’m a role model, yes, but how does that even sound coming out of my mouth? That’s ridiculous. I don’t know what I am to people, and I don’t know what kind of role model, unless to say I’m supposed to live a life that comports to with what people would point to being honorable or something.”

Cheadle continued: “I just try to use what I have, whatever you want to call it – celebrity, attention, the ability to pull focus and lend support and point to other people who don’t have the ability to do that. Other organizations and people who’ve been working to deal with injustice and find ways to move everyone move towards equality. That’s what I try to do: Work with people who’ve already been doing that for a long time. If my celebrity allows that to be done more effectively, then that’s great. I leave it up to other people to determine what they want to say as a result.”