Gotham Actor Award

No one can say this year’s Gotham actor honoree, Don Cheadle, lacks work. He is in no less than four films this winter — “Hotel Rwanda,” “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” “After the Sunset” and “Ocean’s Twelve.” And “Hotel Rwanda” has the industry buzzing that Cheadle’s breakout time as a leading man is here.

The terrifyingly true story of a four-star-hotel manager in Kigali, Rwanda, who helped protect over a thousand people from the country’s raging genocide in 1994, “Hotel Rwanda” appealed to Cheadle’s aim to mix entertainment and enlightenment. “It’s a movie, not a textbook,” he says. “The genocide was the backdrop, but this movie is a thriller, a love story and about triumph over insurmountable odds. That’s why I liked it.”

Co-writer-director Terry George always saw Cheadle playing Paul Rusesabagina. “In all his roles he disappears into the character, and here, it’s an African hotel manager who appears onscreen, not this American actor from Denver,” says George.

Cheadle, 39, has mostly stood out in ensembles — “Boogie Nights,” “The Rat Pack” and “Traffic” — or playing wickedly charismatic bad guys like Mouse in “Devil and a Blue Dress” or Snoopy in “Out of Sight.” But Rusesabagina is a full-on star role, and he’s in practically every scene.

On a movie as tightly scheduled as “Hotel Rwanda,” with location shooting in South Africa and tricky crowd scenes, the leading man is a very particular job. “You really have to lead,” says Cheadle, “by example, your attitude, your work ethic, your commitment to staying later if you have to. It required a lot. I mean, you can’t get sick. The day we wrapped, I had to leave and the day after be filming on ‘Crash.’ “

Set for release in April through Lions Gate, the Los Angeles-set ensembler “Crash” was another for-the-love-of-the-game indie movie for Cheadle. He was so excited about script that he became a producer, accompanying writer-director Paul Haggis to meetings to wrangle money and calling actor friends to take roles. Notes Cheadle, who plays a seen-it-all cop in the pic, “It was ultimately more fulfilling than just taking the part.”

“He put his own reputation on the line to pull this off for me,” says Haggis. “I love the man. Any time he calls me up, I’m there for him.”

Lately, Cheadle has been trying to get his directorial debut — an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s New Orleans-set novel “Tishomingo Blues” — before the cameras, but financing has been the obstacle. “It’s not an easy sell,” he says. “Elmore doesn’t care about plotting. He loves to put a bunch of crazy motherfuckers in a room and throw them off against each other, which is cool, but unless there’s some sort of drive, marketers don’t know how to sell it.”

Even harder for this acclaimed actor with the reliably simmering intensity is talking about what he does. He’d rather golf than promote himself to reporters. “I’ve never done a role and gone, ‘Wow, knocked that one out of the park!’ ” he says. “I’m always saying, ‘I missed this, I went too far there.’ I always have neurotic assessments of my work.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more