Interview | Don Cheadle on War Machine vs. Captain Planet

Nowadays, lots of actors play superheroes. But very few get to lay personal claim to two of them at a time. That’s just one of the many victories that acclaimed thespian Don Cheadle can claim. This Oscar-nominated actor plays the power-armored War Machine in Captain America: Civil War and the homicidal nature god Captain Planet in various Funny or Die videos online.

Naturally, when the time came to sit down with Don Cheadle about the new blockbuster Captain America: Civil War, we had to ask the geekiest question imaginable: which of his two heroes would win in a fight? We also asked about what comes next for War Machine, in a segment of our interview that contains VAGUE SPOILERS (but only for plot points that the trailers for Captain America: Civil War already kind of ruined).

Also: ‘Captain America: Civil War’ Review: Why We Fight

And since we were already chit-chatting, we caught up with Don Cheadle about his plans for the future, his experiences directing the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, his thoughts on past projects like Devil in a Blue Dress and Volcano, and the time a fan of his grabbed his crotch and asked, “Is it true?”

Captain America: Civil War opens in theaters this week.

Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios

CraveOnline: When you signed on to play War Machine, was this where you expected the franchise to go, in terms of your character and the amount of screen time you would have? Is this what you talked about initially?

Don Cheadle: All we really initially talked about, to be honest, was me being a part of it. They called and said “We’re going to be recasting this part, are you interested?” I said, “Yeah I guess I’m interested,” and they said, “Okay it’s six, seven movies” and then I had to try to do the math and go… what does that mean? [Laughs.] If that’s one movie even every two years, which it probably won’t be but if it is, then that’s 14 years that I’m committing to right now. And they said, “Well, take an hour.” [Laughs.] And I said, “I’m at my kid’s birthday party.” They said, “Then take two hours.” So in two hours I had to try to figure out… and we didn’t really know what it was going to be. They just said that it’s a long commitment and ultimately we decided okay, let’s take a flight.

Was James Rhodes a character that you were familiar with beforehand?

No, I became familiar with him once I knew it was in the works, and I asked my daughter and she’s like, “Okay, let me tell you about the whole Marvel Universe.” She knew it all so she kind of told me everything and yeah, it’s been interesting, this journey.

He’s an interesting character in this context because unlike a lot of the heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Rhodes knows what he stands for at the beginning of the film.

Right.

That is an interesting place to take a movie that is essentially about moral questioning.

Right, that he doesn’t have that much! He’s not struggling with that, that much.

What does that do for you as an actor? Do you wish you had more conflict or is it kind of a safe zone?

Well, I think that the conflict for Rhodes in this one is coming. You know I mean? That’s sort of what he’s matriculating into. I think that this is the first time we’ve seen this question of, am I on the right side? It happens late, but he is saying… I don’t know what’s in there because I haven’t seen the movie, but I know that went in there at the end.

Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios

At the end of the movie you’re in a bad place.

Yeah, he’s like, was that worth it? Is that right?

In Avengers: Age of Ultron it was kind of a joke that you were a little bit on the outside. 

Right.

That’s an interesting position because you’re an important character – there’s only so many superheroes in this whole universe – and you’re the outsider. I think you’re entitled to your own movie by now…

[Laughs.]

Has there ever been any talk about that?

It’s been banded about, here and there.

What is Rhodes’ story, to you?

I think it would be interesting to see the very question that you brought up, pushed a little more. Where he does come up again – even more than in this one [Captain America: Civil War] – that question of, can you remain loyal to the sort of chain of command, and the way that you are used to thinking that authority should work, when you are up against circumstances that challenge that in a way that you didn’t anticipate? So following that letter of the law, is that applicable in every situation?

In Iron Man 3 you were still very much an employee of the government.

That’s right.

We don’t really talk about it in too much detail in this film. Are you still employed by the government or are you completely freelance?

No, he still is.

Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios

I know a lot of the time the action sequences are very CGI. Do you get to do anything cool anymore?

Yeah!

What do you get to do that’s cool?

We still do. I mean yeah, as soon as the faceplate goes down it’s like, maybe somebody else. Sometimes it’s us under there. But yes, often when the faceplate goes down it’s somebody else. So we still get to fly sometimes, and we still get to do some of that wirework and that green screen stuff. I would love to do more of it, and obviously when he’s not in uniform he gets to… it’s me.

What was it like the first time you got to fly?

It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun.

It’s what we all fantasize about and you guys are the ones who get to do it.

That’s right, and you get to do it with the best toys and the biggest set and friends, everyone’s flying around! [Laughs.] It’s a lot of fun.

Funny or Die

Funny or Die

Who would win in a fight: your War Machine, or your Captain Planet?

Well, I think Captain Planet can turn people into trees, which I don’t think War Machine can do.

Yeah, that would probably be over pretty quickly.

Pretty quick! “You’re a tree.” “Aw, shit!”

It’s weird that we don’t have a Captain Planet movie. He was such a big deal for a while.

There was actually one in the works for a minute, and then I think the Funny or Die thing came out and they went, “Oh, we gotta rethink this whole Captain Planet. I didn’t know it was going to be an R-rated Captain Planet.” [Laughs.]

You’d make a good Captain Planet.

I think it would be hilarious.

TriStar Pictures

TriStar Pictures

How close have we ever come to getting another “Easy” Rawlins movie?

Actually, when we signed that [contract] it was a multiple picture deal as well, but I don’t think it performed the way the studio wanted it to perform, and that was it.

On the DVD they had your audition…

Oh yeah, yeah… somebody told me that.

It’s the coolest thing ever. You walk in the room and you just feel like, “Yeah, he nailed it.”

[Laughs.] Well, it was a lot of fun. It was a great experience. I just talked to Carl [Franklin, director] a couple of days ago, just about directing and things in general. I had something I wanted to send him, but we were reminiscing about that. That was an interesting time, being on the set and watching the Lakers finals and the O.J. chase all happening at the same time. 

That’s an eventful production. Were you talking about another adaptation, another movie?

No, it was something I was writing. It was something I wanted to send to him to see if it was something he’d be interested in directing.

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

You’re writing a screenplay? Can you tell me a little about that? I know you don’t want to jinx it or anything.

Well, I’m writing with somebody else and I would have to get his permission before I start talking about it.

That’s fair. Have you caught the directing bug though? Are you going to be doing more?

Probably not in that same way, with me as the lead and producing it and co-writing it. 

I’m amazed you’re not still asleep.

I am, I think. I’m actually… this all is in a dream. I’m not sure you’re real! [Laughs.] I’m just acting as if.

I just turn into a cockroach.

I would expect it. “Oh yeah, Kafka. There we are. That’s what I thought.”

Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics

But directing was a positive experience for you?

It ultimately was. It’s a rewarding thing to finish [but] during it, it was like, Sisyphean, and once pushing it over the thing it was like now riding that rock down the mountain, is what it felt like!

It’s an interesting environment for filmmakers now. You make a small movie about the life of a great artist or something, and the next question on everyone’s mind is, “When are you going to make a superhero film?”

Yeah.

Like that’s the only place to go.

Well it’s very interesting because the business is somewhat bifurcated in that way now, where you can do these smaller, interesting movies where everyone’s showing up for the love of the game because there’s no payday, you know? Or you can be in something of this magnitude, where it’s really a juggernaut and all support and everything is taken care of. You know what I mean? And you can afford to do things that you would never even dream of doing on the budgets that we do all these other movies. But there’s a ballast when that’s happening.

Is there a particular dream project of yours right now?

No, no.

Is it just a passing fancy? You get a script, go “That looks cool” and do that?

Well yeah, I mean I’ve been very fortunate to have scripts that have come across the trench that have been very interesting, or that I’ve been developing with people [or] take stuff off of the shelve. Like Traitor was something that was in turnaround at Disney and we took it out of turnaround and produced it. So there have just been opportunities like that, that have come along and been very fortunate. But now that I’m starting to generate my own stuff I guess in a way I could say that would be a… I don’t know if it’s “dream material,” something that I’m dying to do, but if I’m generating it, it must be something I want to do! [Laughs.]

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

When you were just getting started, when you were hungry and you didn’t have the clout you have now, were there odder projects that you feel like you wouldn’t have done today?

No.

I look at something like Volcano, which was an interesting piece. It stands out in your filmography.

Yeah, well that one came during a very interesting year. I did five movies that year I think. And it was really coming out of being on Picket Fences and coming off of Devil [in a Blue Dress]. And again, it’s not dissimilar to this movie where you don’t know what it’s going to be until it’s finished! Then you can look back and go, “Huh.”

I remember I was walking somewhere and someone commented about Volcano. I was with my mom and I made some offhand remark, and we went a couple more feet and she said, “Don’t ever do that.” I was like, “What?” She said, “That person just complimented [you]. That was a great experience for them. Basically you just told them that they don’t know anything, that they don’t know what they’re talking about. They have no taste. People like that? That’s fine. They can like that.”

What’s the best fan interaction you’ve ever had with a War Machine fan?

Best War Machine fan… that’s interesting…

Anyone who amused you, or touched your heart?

Someone tried to touch my crotch. That’s a good War Machine fan. He said, “Is it true?” I was like, “First of all, I don’t know what you’re asking me! [Laughs.] Yes, now take your hand away from there.”

“Wait wait wait! Wait, one second… now take it away.”

Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.