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Don Cheadle on ‘Traitor,’ Gambling, and Getting Through Customs

Courtesy of Overture Films

Don Cheadle hasn’t been onscreen since last summer, when he played limey safe-cracker Basher Tarr for a third time in Ocean’s Thirteen, and embodied jive-talking radio-history maker Ralph “Petey” Greene for the underrated biopic Talk to Me. Tonight sees the premiere of his latest film, Traitor, an espionage thriller in which he stars opposite Guy Pearce and Jeff Daniels. Cheadle sat down with Vulture to talk about his new movie, the compliments that make him blush, and why he wishes he were more famous.

Traitor takes a lot of political risks: It portrays some terrorists as sympathetic, vulnerable people, while also defending counterterrorist strategies. Did the story line change your political views?
I don’t know if I see any of the characters as very sympathetic. I think you see in some of the terrorists the potential for being better people. [My character] Samir sees a kindred spirit in Omar, a Muslim terrorist. Jeff Daniels’s character, who’s a rogue element in the U.S. government, truly believes that what he’s doing isn’t terrorism. There’s a point in the film in which well-meaning people become terrorists because they’ve been told, “This is just the cost of getting the bad guys.” But in this movie, there’s no point when you can say, “These guys are good, these guys are bad.” Everyone is both.

Your co-star Neal McDonough calls you an “actor’s actor” and “a cool cat, like a Miles Davis character.”
Neal and I agreed that he gets $300 every time he says that.

You’re blushing.
Oh God. What am I supposed to say to that? That’s very nice.

This movie skips all over the world, from Morocco and Marseilles to Vancouver, D.C. and Chicago. Any good stories from abroad?
You wish that you were big enough of a celebrity to get through customs. You don’t want to be that guy who muscles up to the front of the line like a hotshot, but after two months of standing in line with all your luggage, you wish you could. Most of the time they didn’t know me at all, but sometimes a customs agent would be like, “Oh, hey, it’s you! Open your bag, sir.” That just means now they’re looking for different things in your luggage. But that was way too much traveling. I’m not doing that again.

You’ve said before that you want to spend more time with your wife and kids. How did you negotiate frequent traveling with a family?
It was easier when the girls were younger, because we could take them with us. During Hotel Rwanda, we put them in school in Africa, and they loved that. But now they’re older and we can’t do that. I can’t do another grueling film like Traitor. This was the longest time I’d ever been away from my family, and it was too long. Especially when my kids are this age, so much changes in a few months, and I can’t miss that.

You’re filming another cop movie, Brooklyn’s Finest, which should be closer to home. Why do we get the feeling you’re probably not playing an all-around good cop?
Oh, I’m not a good cop. It’s complicated. He’s dark. Ask me about it next time you come in here.

We read that you’re a big card player, and you organized a charity poker tournament last year. What’s the biggest bet you’ve ever lost?
I don’t gamble. I have kids! I have a mortgage. Some players say, “You don’t really know poker unless you risk something that matters to you.” And I say, “Whatever, man, then I don’t know poker. That ain’t never going to happen in my life.”

Don Cheadle on ‘Traitor,’ Gambling, and Getting Through Customs