ShoWest Actor of the Year: Don Cheadle

The critical consensus on Cheadle, the ShoWest Actor of the Year, is a bit confused. While he’s near-universally recognized as one of the finest actors of his generation, he’s torn between two well-intentioned, if paradoxical, pigeonholes — that of supporting player extraordinaire and “scene stealer.”

It’s that last epithet that gets to Cheadle. “That’s never the goal. I do what the scene requires,” he says. “I never try to steal anything, unless of course the script says ‘in this scene he steals something.’ “

Far from chewing scenery, Cheadle has delivered consistent tutorials on how to best enrich a film with limited screen time. He’s also shown that humility and patience — two words rarely associated with screen actors — can be indispensable to building a career.

Cheadle had to wait nearly a decade after his breakout as the gleefully psychotic Mouse Alexander in “Devil in a Blue Dress” before taking on a leading role. But when he did, as the saintly Paul Rusesabagina in “Hotel Rwanda,” the refinement of his craft was obvious, and the major award noms were forthcoming.

“I’m glad I didn’t run the sprint,” Cheadle says of his unhurried ascension. “Even when I may have wanted to, that race wasn’t necessarily open for me. So it’s nice now that I’ve learned I want to be a marathon runner and look back on it in my 70s. I want to retire when I’m ready to retire, like a Michael Caine or an Anthony Hopkins.”

To help maintain his steady pace, Cheadle has plunged into producing, starting with a little indie film called “Crash” and moving on to the upcoming “Talk to Me,” in which he also stars as activist talkshow host Ralph “Petey” Greene. And there’s “Reign Over Me” with Adam Sandler this month and “Ocean’s Thirteen” in June.

“When you first start out as an actor in this business, you’re just a hired gun — ‘You have the job, show up Tuesday,’ ” he says. “(Producing) became a way I saw of being able to control your fate out here, which we are so in need of doing as actors, because we’re really the low man on the totem pole.”

These days it’s hard to imagine Cheadle on the bottom of any totem pole — unless, of course, that’s what the scene requires.

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