LOS ANGELES – Decades before becoming one of Hollywood’s most sought-after talents, Don Cheadle would routinely pile into his Honda Civic for a 2,000-mile road trip, just for the chance to appear on a Minneapolis stage.
“Driving cross-country with no radio, just being in your head that much, helped make me who I am today,” said the star of Showtime’s “Black Monday,” just before word came that he’s hosting “Saturday Night Live” this weekend. “Everything comes into your mind when you’re on the road with no distractions, thinking about where you’re going and how it’s going to be amazing. I loved that time.”
Cheadle hasn’t acted on the stage since 2001, when he appeared in the Public Theater’s critically acclaimed off-Broadway production of “Topdog/Underdog,” but he spoke of those formative years in the Twin Cities as if he’s still treading the local boards in between “Avengers” movies.
Cheadle had just graduated from the California Institute of Arts when renowned director JoAnne Akalaitis cast him in a 1987 Guthrie production of “Leon & Lena (and lenz).” For the next few years, Cheadle split his time between small film roles (“Colors”) and guest appearances in sitcoms (“Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”) with more substantial work in Minnesota productions of “The Boys Next Door,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Liquid Skin.”
“I didn’t know what was happening in Minneapolis until I got there,” said the Kansas City native, sporting a slightly askew baseball cap and good amount of graying stubble. “I was meeting actors who just did theater and a commercial here and there, but still had two-story houses with picket fences and two dogs. Where I was coming from in Los Angeles, you really had to be making it there to afford that kind of life.
“It drove my agents crazy,” he added, “because I’d leave during pilot season and they’d go, ‘How are you going to leave at the height of hiring?’ But it didn’t make sense to stick around for a ‘maybe’ when I had a ‘definite’ elsewhere.”
Cheadle’s biggest Twin Cities champion was Jack Reuler, founder of Mixed Blood Theatre, where Cheadle also directed productions of Syl Jones’ “Cincinnati Man” and Deborah Swisher’s “Hundreds of Sisters and One Big Brother.”
“It was clear to all, including him, that his was to be a meteoric career,” said Reuler, who still has dinner with Cheadle when they’re both in Los Angeles (even if it means enduring ribbing about the Minnesota Vikings’ never-ending woes). “Mixed Blood was always the beneficiary of his talent. His poise, his delivery, his wicked sense of humor, his onstage generosity and overall intelligence set him aside from the time any of us met him.”
‘Time to explore’
Cheadle finally broke through nationally in 1995 with the role of live-wire Mouse Alexander in “Devil in a Blue Dress,” neatly stealing scenes from Denzel Washington. The following years included juicy parts in “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Boogie Nights” and “Hotel Rwanda,” which earned him an Oscar nomination. In 2015, he wrote, directed and starred in the Miles Davis biopic, “Miles Ahead.”
In “Black Monday,” he plays Wall Street trader Maurice Monroe, a bullish bully with an insatiable appetite for cocaine, dookie chains, Lamborghinis and more cocaine. His outlandish behavior lays the groundwork for a fictional explanation of what led to the 1987 stock market crash.
“We were looking for someone who could do big dramatic scenes and then do comedy on a dime,” said co-creator Jordan Cahan. “There are maybe five or six actors who can pull that off and Don is one of them.”
Cheadle’s previous success on TV — four of his eight Emmy nominations were for his role in Showtime’s “House of Lies” — earned him a prominent voice behind the scenes. And he’s not afraid to use it.
“We’d pitch lines that we wanted him to say and we’d hear back, ‘Yeah, Don said no way,’ ” said co-creator David Caspe, adding an unprintable expletive. “And we’re like, ‘Well, all right. That’s fair.’ ”
Being involved in the development process is what Cheadle misses most about his theater days.
“I love the rehearsal process far more than the actual performance — being in a room with other creative people, discovering the material,” he said. “When it comes time to actually do it, that’s when it feels more like a job.”
As he spoke, Cheadle leafed through a magazine with director Alfonso Cuarón on the cover. Cheadle praised Cuarón’s latest film, “Roma,” expressing envy for all the time the director pours into his moviemaking.
“Yeah, he doesn’t make many films, but it’s like Daniel Day-Lewis. He makes one film every three years and then you see it and go, ‘Ohhhh. That’s why,’ ” he said, adding that he’s rooting for “Roma” lead actress Yalitza Aparicio to win the Oscar.
“That kind of time to explore is rare in TV or even film. TV, in particular, is a runaway train. You may get a chance to run through your lines a couple times, but then it’s time to shoot. I miss that four-week or even six-week rehearsal period.”
Despite his desire, Cheadle hasn’t found the time for a return to the theater. That could change soon — his youngest child is about to graduate from college, making him and his wife empty-nesters. “That window is now more open in some ways,” he said.
While he’s come close to returning to the New York stage, or at least producing something for Broadway, he hasn’t ruled out returning to the Twin Cities — especially if it means tackling an original play rather than a revival.
At least one Twin Cities gatekeeper is willing to make room on his season’s schedule.
“I think I’ll find the right play and ask him,” Reuler said.