Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle may have the toughest task of any of the stars joining the Iron Man 2 cast: Not only does he have to take on the role of an ordinary man (Col. James Rhodes) becoming a superhero in a suit (War Machine), but he also has to take on the fact that the role was played by a different actor (Terrence Howard) who is also a friend of his. Don sat down with Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier at Comic-Con in San Diego, CA to talk comic books, the benefits of bribery and the detailed schematics for Variable Threat Response Battle Suit, Model XVI, Mark I (just kidding)...
Emmanuel Itier: Every fan boy worth their salt is excited about you playing Col. James Rhodes, the War Machine. Were you thrilled about the reception you just got at Comic-Con?
Don Cheadle: I was, and I spent a lot of money to get that reaction, so I’m glad…
EI: It paid off.
DC: It was $100 a head; I thought it was a little expensive but, you know, they clapped. [Laughs] No, it’s great. It’s nice. I guess when you’ve been in 50 movies or something, people go, “Yeah, that’s that guy’s head. I’ve seen his head 100 times.”
EI: You must love playing a superhero.
DC: It’s fun. It’s different. I’ve done the blockbusters — the big movies like that before, so it’s cool, but not one of this magnitude. It’s the big summer hit kind of thing, so it’s a lot of fun to do and it’s fun to play make believe as a grown-up, and you’re doing stuff that you would love to do as a little kid.
EI: This is your first Comic-Con?
EI: How do you find the whole phenomenon of it?
DC: These people are dedicated, and they know their stuff, and you feel… Because they were talking about it: “We’re going to Comic-Con, Don, it’s a big deal.” I was like, “Okay, whatever,” but it’s a big thing. They’re like, “No, it’s really important and we have to do well…” and I was like, “It’s fine. We’ll do well.” And then you get there and you go, “Oh, I see what you’re talking about. These people know it…” But War Machine makes a very impactful appearance in the movie, so it was great.
EI: Is it overwhelming?
DC: I wasn’t overwhelmed, but I was definitely whelmed. [Laughs]
EI: What and who, exactly, is War Machine?
DC: In the comics, Rhodes was a friend to Tony Stark who took over as Iron Man when the billionaire industrialist’s alcoholism, purported death, or other dangers made him unable to put on the suit. Responding to a threat from Justin Hammer, Stark designed his all-out battle masterpiece — the “Variable Threat Response Battle Suit, Model XVI, Mark I” which he nicknamed “War Machine” — that Rhodes would eventually wear. Over the years, Stark and Rhodes have had many fallings-out and reconciliations, usually surrounding one’s perceived misuse of the technology and often resulting in Rock’ Em, Sock ‘Em Robot-esque battles between the two stubborn, super-suited men.
EI: Sounds great! Are you excited about becoming an action figure?
DC: I hope they do a good one, because sometimes you see people’s action figures and you’re like, “I bet he’s not happy with that.” [Laughs] I hope they get a really good artist to do it.
EI: Were you a fan of the superhero genre? Was playing a superhero something you wanted to do?
DC: I’m sure I fantasized about it, as a kid, and thought it would be a lot of fun. And then you’re 40 and you’re like, “Eh.” But I saw the first Iron Man and really enjoyed it, and thought they did a great job. They were able to combine the CGI and the pyrotechnics, and all of that stuff, with some real character stuff going on, so I thought it was a very interesting mix. When I got the call, I had to ponder it for a while, but ultimately I thought, “Yeah, this is a good thing to do.”
EI: Working with Robert Downey, Jr. — did that put pressure on you?
DC: Yeah. We had to work out why these guys are friends and on what level they connect and miss each other. We would just try to figure out who we were, and then, once we figured that out, we’d say, “How does that inform this situation?” It’s not different than what you do on other films, but a little different because there’s so much source material already, and you have to go, “How much of this do we have to be beholden to, and how much of this can we just find for ourselves?”
EI: Did you feel the weight of expectation while you were making the movie?
DC: Like I said, you hear the buzz all the time because Kevin Feige — Marvel — is there all the time, and Dave Maisel…so you know that’s happening, but I kind of dropped into this world, so I wasn’t really aware… I didn’t feel that as a pressure. I felt more pressure to make sure the role was properly done, and I just figured that the rest would take care of itself or it wouldn’t. As an actor, I’m used to just doing something and going, “Okay, I hope it works.” You just don’t know.
EI: Were you a comic book reader yourself?
DC: Not Iron Man. I read Swamp Thing, I read the X-Men and Watchmen, but not until college. When people first said Iron Man, I thought it was a robot; I didn’t know there was a person in the suit until I saw the first movie.
EI: How was it being the new kid on the block?
DC: It was great. I was really welcomed with open arms, and everybody knew I was dropping into a part that had been done previously, but there was always a very strong understanding from everybody that I was going to be creating my own thing and encouraged to do my own thing, and find this character for myself and with the other characters. It’s good to have a director who is an actor and understands that, and it’s great to have a co-star like Robert who is able to go anywhere you want to go. So we had a lot of experimenting, a lot of playing, and a lot of improv to find who these guys were.
EI: It never felt uncomfortable?
DC: No. Like I said, there really wasn’t because there was never any expectation that I felt I had to do what Terrence [Howard] did in the first one or somehow play any character beat that he played. It was really, “You have to create this reality for yourself, and we have to support that and find ways to honor this script and deal with Iron Man 2 — it’s own entity.”
EI: Did you have a talk with Terrence?
DC: Yeah, I talked with Terrence. He’s a friend. I produced Crash and put him in the movie, and even before that, I knew him, so there were no hard feelings. It wasn’t like I took the role from him; that’s something that happened before I even came on board. It’s going to be different since, in the second movie, Tony and Rhodes aren’t always going to see eye-to-eye. Our relationship has gotten deeper. In the first film, Tony wasn’t saying he was Iron Man. Now that he’s embraced it, there are all these attendant problems and pressure and questions that all the characters surrounding him have to deal with.
EI: How much of this film is Rhodey’s? Is it possible to break this character out into his own franchise?
DC: We haven’t discussed that. I have no idea. Maybe, potentially, but he’s an integral part of the story, for sure. His relationship with Tony Stark and what happens with them is a big part of the story.
EI: What was the biggest challenge?
DC: The biggest challenge was trying to always find the reality inside all of the artificial stuff. My Rhodey CGI character worked as much as I did on the schedule; my stunt double worked as much as I did. There are times when you really have to just go on faith that the real thing is happening and you don’t know.
EI: What stunts were you allowed to do?
DC: Some of the fighting and as much as we could, but there are certain things that were integrated into the entire computer graphics and all that stuff that you didn’t need to be around for 18 hours while they completely detailed every little thing, so they made some other poor sap go through that.
'Iron Man 2' is scheduled for a May 2010 release from Marvel/Paramount Pictures.