This story first appeared in the inaugural Watches supplement to The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Fresh from his Emmy nomination for Showtime's House of Lies -- in which he plays a cocksure management consultant with a wardrobe of custom Italian wool suits and Audemars Piguet timepieces -- Don Cheadle is living in a Hollywood moment uniquely his own creation. Having just wrapped his portion of Iron Man 3 in North Carolina, he's already back on the Sony lot filming the second season of House of Lies, which returns in January, and more than holds his own in Paramount's Flight. A veteran of sitcoms, TV dramas, action flicks, popcorn blockbusters, Soderbergh ensembles and Oscar-caliber message films, Cheadle is the consummate character actor who has become a star.
In Flight, Robert Zemeckis' live-action directorial return, the 47-year-old offers a master class in smug arrogance as attorney Hugh Lang -- "a man with a gold Rolex trying to save someone who is not interested in saving himself," says Cheadle. The role also gave him an opportunity to reunite with Washington; they co-starred in Carl Franklin's 1995 film Devil in a Blue Dress, widely considered to be Cheadle's breakthrough. In Flight, the tension between them crackles. Cheadle plays Lang as a man with neither patience nor conscience, the flip side of the same coin he plays for laughs on House of Lies as Marty Kaan (a character adapted from Martin Kihn's book House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time), which resonates in the shark tank of the entertainment industry.
Cheadle is well-known for his political activism -- he co-founded with George Clooney, Matt Damon and other Hollywood figures the anti-atrocity organization Not on Our Watch and co-authored the New York Times best-seller Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond. Along with his intensely dramatic turns in Traffic and Crash (which he co-produced) -- and the heroic empathy that earned him an Academy Award nomination for Hotel Rwanda -- Cheadle is beloved by fans of the Ocean's 11 and Iron Man franchises for his effortless ensemble banter. Onscreen, he has a formidable combination of intellect, physicality, gut instinct and charismatic cool that make him a distinctive presence even in formula and franchise films. "You can hide inside a character," says Cheadle, "but if you are being honest and using the things that drive real situations, acting is about exposing who you are. And I'm never sure if I've done a good job."
Says House of Lies creator Matthew Carnahan: "He comes with good baggage, a perceived moral rigor as a humanitarian, and it's fun to mess with that." Kristen Bell says her co-star elevates everyone's game: "For as magical as he is onscreen in the variety of roles he's played, he is shockingly normal."
Cheadle has rolled into the Pier 59 West photo studio in Santa Monica wearing a gray shirt, windowpane-checked golf pants (he's a nine handicap on most courses) and a tiny-brimmed porkpie hat. On his wrist is a classic Audemars Piguet rose gold Royal Oak, part of his personal collection (see sidebar). "A lot of actors can be insecure about fashion," says stylist and E! Fashion Police co-host George Kotsiopoulos, putting Cheadle in a pink cashmere sweater. "He can pull it off."
Born in 1964, the middle child of a psychologist and a schoolteacher, Cheadle played alto sax in a jazz band and later appeared in plays by Moliere and Mamet, Shakespeare and Neil Simon at CalArts, demonstrating the versatility that would define his career, from early appearances on the TV version of Fame to producing the 2007 documentary Darfur Now. Cheadle has lived for two decades with interior designer Bridgid Coulter, whom he met in the parking garage of the Beverly Center. They have two daughters, Ayana, 18, and Imani, 16, and live in Santa Monica canyon.
Cheadle's off-the-cuff humor and largely under-the-radar celebrity has fueled his success in creating a niche as unique as his ever-evolving skill set. But then, Cheadle likes to upend expectations. He is, after all, the passionate Obama supporter who took to Twitter to clarify remarks he made about wishing the POTUS had been "more gangster" in dealing with the country's woes. On the set of House of Lies, the sound of Cheadle practicing trumpet is a regular lunchtime treat, says Bell, part of his prep for a Miles Davis biopic he intends to produce and topline. Sounds like just one more peak in a career for the ages.
"You know the five stages of an actor's life?" he asks. " 'Who's Don Cheadle? Get me Don Cheadle. Get me a Don Cheadle type. Get me a young Don Cheadle. Who the hell is Don Cheadle?' Well, every actor gets to that last one eventually," he says, admiring the dials on his Royal Oak watch. "I'm not quite there yet, and I want to wring everything I can out of this life before I am."
THE 'GOOD SHIT'
Don Cheadle's appreciation for watches begins with an establishing montage: "When I lived in Denver during my high school years, I lost the Timex watch my parents had given me for my birthday somewhere in the snow," recalls Cheadle. "We used to walk home from school the same way every day, looking around trying to find it. Then in the spring thaw, I was walking past the park, saw something shiny and picked it up. It was my Timex still running -- but really slowly. I clasped it in my hands and ran home, and by the time I got there it was like nothing ever happened.
"First and foremost that's what you want in a watch," he continues, "durability and functionality. You can get that from many brands, but over the years I have come to admire the fine craftsmanship and machinery of Swiss chronographs. They really are pieces of art that I value for their precision and aesthetics. I often feel naked without a watch on."
Cheadle discovered Maurice LaCroix chronographs at a photo shoot 10 years ago and now owns a Masterpiece Flyback Annuaire, Globe Chronograph and Pontos PT7538 -- he sent a selection of the company's models to his fellow castmembers as a wrap present on Ocean's 12. "Casey Affleck got his first," jests Cheadle. "I know the pecking order."
He was introduced to Audemars Piguet in a 2011 Tony Awards green room and developed such a rapport with the company's president that when prepping House of Lies, he approached the luxury watchmaker with a proposition: "Marty Kaan" --Cheadle's character -- "wears the good shit. He is not buying off the rack."
Thanks to Cheadle's guerrilla product placement, Audemars loaned the show some of its finest timepieces, worn by celebrities including Jay-Z and LeBron James. The Kaan character sports an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Time Power Reserve in rose gold, which retails for $36,000, and a white gold Jules Audemars valued at $42,000. Cheadle notes happily that one of the perks of playing a high roller is that Audemars later gave him the watches as a gift.
No collection would be complete without a sentimental favorite. Although Cheadle's childhood Timex is long gone, he cherishes a stainless steel Patek Philippe Nautilus with a distinctive face of embossed horizontal bars designed by Gerald Genta, who also created the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Bridgid Coulter, the mother of his two teenage daughters, gave him the Nautilus as a gift two years ago.
"A lot of times we'll get each other something just because the feeling hits, which is a lot more memorable and fun," says Cheadle, smiling. "It wasn't for a special occasion, like you were born today. It was more of, 'I'm thinking about you and you deserve a watch right now.' "