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Man on a Mission: Don Cheadle

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ESSENCE: How did acting in Hotel Rwanda draw you into the center of this crisis?
Don Cheadle: We had a screening for invited audience members. One was Congressman Ed Royce, who was working on an Africa subcommittee. He wanted to meet with me after the screening to see if I would get more involved, and I said that I would.

ESSENCE: When you visited a Darfur refugee camp in 2005 with Royce's congressional delegation, what did you see?
Cheadle: Right away they took us over to some kids who had drawn pictures of what had happened to them. You know, very rudimentary stick figures, in crayon. What the pictures were depicting was unimaginable: villages being bombed, people on horseback coming in and hacking people up, someone being thrown in a fire. It was just overwhelming.

ESSENCE: What have you been doing to draw attention to Darfur?
Cheadle: I recently testified before a Senate subcommittee, and I met with Condoleezza Rice right before that. A month earlier I had gone to China and Egypt with a small delegation. China buys 50 percent of the oil that comes out of Sudan, so they have a very close economic relationship, and potentially a lot more influence than we have. In a way, they're underwriting this genocide by providing the arms. So we urged them to be more vocal. And Egypt is one of the main players in the Arab world, so we wanted them to be more vocal, too.

ESSENCE: What kind of response did you get from Condoleezza Rice?

Cheadle: She walked me through what they've been doing with the United Nations, what they've been trying to do independently, the messages they have been giving directly to the president of Sudan, who is clearly worried about having international troops in his region hunting him down. She told me she has tried to impress upon him that if he continues to stonewall that may be where it leads.

ESSENCE: Why do you think there aren't more African-American actors doing what you are?
Cheadle: I would love to see more brothers and sisters doing this. Maybe I need to reach out more, pull them in the same way that I was pulled in.

ESSENCE: What led you to write the book?
Cheadle: I started getting all these hits on my Web site, with people asking me what they could do. I kind of wanted to write an "activism for dummies" handbook, because I was definitely the dummy when I started getting into this.

ESSENCE: In the book you describe yourself as a pessimist. What makes you hopeful that something is going to be done about this crisis?
Cheadle: If you look at the law of averages, I would say it's probably not going to get fixed until it gets a lot worse. But I have become more hopeful because I've seen more people having the courage to attach themselves to this issue. I guess hopeful is the right word, even for a pessimist like me.

ESSENCE: As citizens, what can each of us do as a first step toward helping resolve this issue?

Cheadle: That question was the impetus for this book. There are many different ways that we can apply ourselves to this issue, from letter-writing campaigns to rallies; from concerts to sit-ins; from demonstrations to bum-rushing your councilman, congressman, senator, governor or mayor. And change is incremental. So no one should ever look at it like, 'Well, I had a prayer group, and what did that do?' Overall, there's a growing concern and focus on this issue. Two years ago, no one had heard about Darfur.

ESSENCE: So far what impact has your advocacy had?
Cheadle: I don't know that I could quantify it. There's definitely been a lot more dialogue about Darfur, especially with the reporters and news outlets that have spoken with me regarding the issue. Beyond that I can do very little other than attend events where I'm asked to support. I attended a rally at UCLA with a group called STAND (Students Taking Action Now for Darfur) and the Darfur Action Committee, where they tried to lobby for the UC Regents to divest their funds from businesses working in the Sudan. Eventually, we were able to push that legislation and get Governor Schwarzenegger to sign a bill that divested funds of the two biggest pension funds in California, Calpers and Calsters, from doing business in Sudan.

ESSENCE: Has your activism on Sudan affected your acting career?

Cheadle: It doesn't help when you're trying to get a comedy set up, I'll tell you that much.

ESSENCE: What do you mean by that?
Cheadle: I'm already known as the 'the serious actor.' That's fine because I worked hard for that, but it's not the only thing I am. I have a comedic side, but because I'm often thought of as 'the serious actor' and taking up issues like Darfur, it doesn't help change people's minds.

ESSENCE: What about your time? How do you balance the acting part and doing this?
Cheadle: I guess if you asked my kids, they would say I'm not balancing it. They're not happy about it when I take off, but they're understanding and supportive. Right now, my wife is going back to school, so you really have to juggle a lot of things. It's not convenient, but nothing that's really worth anything ever truly is.

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