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THE L.A. FILM FESTIVAL

The right man to grab the mike

June 17, 2007|Cristy Lytal | Special to The Times

YEARS before Howard Stern began paying fines to the Federal Communications Commission, Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene was electrifying the Washington, D.C., airwaves with his frank, uncensored discussions of racial pride, poverty and justice during the civil rights era. And if dancing around in nothing but an Afro wig and bright blue 1960s-era skivvies is what it was going to take to bring Greene's life to the big screen, well, that was OK with Don Cheadle.

"Those were mesh underwear, by the way, and see-through," says Cheadle, who stars as Greene in Focus Features' "Talk to Me," which kicks off the Los Angeles Film Festival on Thursday and opens July 13 elsewhere in Southern California.

"He was irreverent to say the least," Cheadle says of Greene, "and didn't give a you-know-what to say the most. He was a much different kind of character than I had played before."

After DJing in prison and being paroled early for talking down a suicidal inmate, Greene found a mentor and manager in WOL-AM radio producer Dewey Hughes, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. The film chronicles the unlikely friendship between the two men from the early 1960s until Greene's death in 1984. Martin Sheen costars as the conservative station owner, Cedric the Entertainer plays rival DJ Nighthawk, and Taraji P. Henson takes on the role of Greene's fiery girlfriend, Vernell.

"We rehearsed, like, once," says Henson of the movie. "He was like, 'I really don't want to do this scene over and over and over, and then it doesn't leave us anywhere to go.' I knew who this woman was, I knew the relationship that she had with Petey, and so did he."

While the dancing scene sets the film squarely in the late '60s, it was how well Greene's story meshed with current themes and with Cheadle's growing unwillingness to confine himself strictly to the realm of entertainment that attracted the actor, who also executive produced the film.

"It's definitely relevant because of the lack of people just saying how they feel -- especially from politicians," he says. "There's such a dearth of it now and such a need for honesty and straight-up-ness and opinion as much as actual truth. It'd be great to really know what people thought as opposed to just glad-handing you and walking away with a smile. You knew where he stood, and that's refreshing."

Since very few recordings of Greene's show still exist, Cheadle had to glean a sense of the DJ's flamboyant personality from old newspaper clips and conversations with the real Dewey Hughes, who served as a consultant on the film.

A project gains traction

ONE of Cheadle's biggest challenges was lowering the register of his voice to approximate Greene's. "That's part of the character to me," he says. "You have to affect some manner of that and understand what it came from. I mean, I could never get mine to exactly where his was, but that came from years and years and years of very hard living."

Films with predominantly black casts are notoriously hard to finance, and "Talk to Me" was no exception. The late Ted Demme tried to get traction on the project years ago, but it didn't get its green light until producer Bill Horberg at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment took a liking to the story. Director Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou") became involved when the script was sent to her for a polish.

At one point, Terrence Howard was attached to play Greene and Cheadle was signed on for the Hughes role. "People are used to seeing the more dignified side of Don and this role [of Petey] is kind of wacky," says Lemmons. "I knew him well enough to know that he was very, very funny. Honestly, I thought that he was the kind of actor who could do either role." So the actors switched parts, putting Cheadle in the lead role. When Howard later dropped out of the production, Ejiofor stepped in as Hughes.

For Cheadle, that artistic versatility also includes music and a brief stint as a comedian -- he did stand-up for about three weeks as a teen. "It made me realize that it's something I would never ever try to do seriously," he says. "We used to do stupid stuff like dissect the humor of the 'Nancy' comics. The jokes were so pedestrian and banal, but we would seriously dissect it like it was high-concept comedy," he says of himself and his friends.

After graduating from high school in Denver, Cheadle was torn between pursuing jazz or acting. "I made a weather choice," he says from the comfort of his temperate Santa Monica home. " 'I don't really want to go to Carnegie Mellon. I don't want to go to Pittsburgh. I'll just go to L.A.' And I entered CalArts and started working in my junior year and just never turned back."

As it turns out, it may not have been an either-or proposition. "He has a complete calmness to him," says Ejiofor. "You need that if you're going to improvise, just a real relaxed assurance. That's a jazz skill. I mean, the great jazz musicians never break a sweat."

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