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We expect actors to dramatize a range of emotions as the characters they play; even, to some extent, when they’re playing a version of themselves on The Tonight Show or E! News. That’s what actors do, after all; they “act”—tearing up, raging, clowning, and otherwise emoting. So what secret magnetic field does Don Cheadle tap that allows him to convey all that with no detectable effort and a virtually unreadable face? He sits back, unruffled and self-possessed, while we do the work of reading into his performance whatever it is he needs us to know. This is not charisma of the “Let’s put on a show!” variety; it’s the kind that makes an actor impossible to look away from.

The Hollywood Reporter noted in its review of his current series, House of Lies, “There’s an exceptional cast…, but everything revolves around the fact that Cheadle is riveting and impressively deft at being funny one moment, serious the next… He’s the giant magnet at the center of the show.” But a number of critics (and casting directors) looked under the radar long before a lot of us in the mass movie-going public, noting his uncannily facile power in films like Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Talk to Me, Devil in a Blue Dress, and Traffic. Most of us, though, wised up a few years later with the release of Hotel Rwanda, The Atlantic along with us: “[Producer and director] Terry George has, in Don Cheadle, perhaps the most underrated performer working in motion pictures. A character actor of uncommon range and charisma, Cheadle has over the last decade shown himself to be exceptional at playing characters both ineffectual and ferocious. Cheadle delivers a performance without seams, one in which the character’s later heroism is merely another facet of his earlier pragmatism. His genius makes Hotel Rwanda not only an important work of politics, but an important work of art.”

It was a role George was honest in telling Cheadle he’d have to give to an actor with a bigger name, if he could get one. Cheadle’s reaction says a lot about him and how he sees his career. He told George he’d support the film in any way necessary regardless of whether he got the part, because it was a story that needed to be told. Cheadle honestly doesn’t care a whole lot about Oscars and fame and the like; he’s interested in longevity and the ability to make work that he believes has value—whether it puts him in front of or behind the camera. These days, he’s finding himself in both places, often simultaneously. He writes, directs, and stars in the upcoming film Miles Ahead, a take on musician Miles Davis so fiercely imaginative it demands its own genre. He’s also established his own production company, through which he’s now producing a new comedy for NBC—all while continuing to lead House Of Lies, which just became the first U.S. scripted series to shoot in Cuba.

All to say, he’s going to need his preternatural calm more than ever. But it should be noted that in Cheadle’s case, “calm” does not mean “reserved.” He continues to be an outspoken advocate for issues like humanitarian aid to Darfur and climate change awareness through fundraising, and by making films and co-authoring books on the subjects.

You get the feeling the man contains multitudes we’re only starting to see. Fittingly, we’ll let Miles summarize: “When you’re creating your own shit, even the sky ain’t the limit.”