DON CHEADLE can barely stand to watch himself in movies.
"All I can see is everything I'm doing wrong that is a sham and a fraud," he says, animatedly. "I look at it like, 'Ugh, Don, you missed that. You weren't there in that moment. You liar!' "
Since 1995, when he burst upon the scene as Denzel Washington's quick-tempered hit man foil in "Devil in a Blue Dress," Cheadle has consistently delivered attention-getting performances in projects as diverse as Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights," the off-Broadway production of "Topdog/Underdog" and the HBO biopic "The Rat Pack," for which Cheadle, playing Sammy Davis Jr., was nominated for an Emmy. The actor has also built a reputation for stealing scenes from a virtual constellation of better-known, better-paid marquee draws: George Clooney, Denzel Washington, John Travolta and Jackie Chan, to name only a few.
"Don definitely raises the game," says director Brett Ratner, who has cast him in three movies, including "After the Sunset," currently in theaters. "When Pierce [Brosnan] or Nicolas [Cage] is in a scene with him, it raises their game too, because they know they're with one of the greatest actors working today."
He also is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid seeing at the multiplex. In addition to his recent roles in Ratner's tropical heist caper and the indie sleeper "The United States of Leland," Cheadle will appear in a slate of releases.
In December, the Kansas City, Mo., native and CalArts graduate reprises his role as explosives expert Basher Tarr in Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Twelve" (follow-up to the hit "Ocean's Eleven") and portrays Sean Penn's friend and moral consigliere in the drama "The Assassination of Richard Nixon." And then there's "Hotel Rwanda," a wrenching saga of compassion and bravery set against Rwanda's mid-'90s genocide and civil war. The performance -- his first feature lead -- is already generating a steady hum of Oscar buzz.
Cheadle has also executive produced and costars in the dark ensemble comedy "Crash" (set for release in April) and is in development on his directorial debut, an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel "Tishomingo Blues."
"I guess I did every film I wanted to do, so I can't complain" is Cheadle's bloodless appraisal. Casually dressed in sweatpants and a loose-fitting polo shirt and seated with his back to the coastline on the patio of a Santa Monica hotel, Cheadle pauses before adding: "I've been fortunate."
Still, it all does little to persuade the wiry Cheadle, who turns 40 this month, that it's possible to enjoy the on-screen fruits of his labor. Aside from dwelling on perceived imperfections, Cheadle finds it grueling to relive his characters' most painful moments.
"I'm still watching me experiencing levels of emotion that most of us don't want to see ourselves having," he explains. "It's like stepping out of yourself while you're having an argument or crying and being destroyed about something -- you don't want to see yourself doing that. Maybe other actors have a healthier disconnect."
To hear it from "Nixon" director Niels Mueller, the actor brings a "tremendous precision" to his work. "He understands what's essential -- not only on the whole of a script but down to a scene. Down to specific lines and words in a scene. He's as smart as anyone I've ever met when it comes to filmmaking."
Toward that end, a growing number of directors have drawn upon Cheadle's willingness to finesse character and retool his own dialogue -- even if such on-set revisions don't always contribute to an enriching professional experience. "There have been a lot of movies where the part doesn't exist on the page and I've been called to bring an underdeveloped part to development," says Cheadle. "Which is kind of a compliment but at the same time, not really what I need to do for me. I need to do a part that's there -- that's a fully realized part of the story."
Case in point: his performance as a Caribbean crime kingpin in "After the Sunset."
"Don created this character out of nothing," remembers Brosnan, the film's star. "There was nothing there. He wrote all that stuff himself. He created his own role around the psychological aspect of Idi Amin."
Cheadle's performance in "Hotel Rwanda" stands as a dramatic counterpoint.
Playing Paul Rusesabagina, a real-life hotel manager who repeatedly risked his own life to save hundreds of refugees during the genocidal ethnic cleansing in the Rwandan civil war, was one of the most challenging roles of the actor's career.
"It was the longest time I've had to be another person -- four months," he says. "But I felt a responsibility to Paul, who is still alive, to the story, which is so big, and to the survivors to really get it right. It put a lot of pressure on me."