Don Cheadle Explains How to Capture Characters from the Outside In (& from the Inside Out)

What do today's great actors look for in a director? Well, Don Cheadle has some ideas. 

The actor was at this year's SXSW with his film Miles Ahead, which he directed and starred in, and at the festival, he sat down with critic David Edelstein to have a conversation about the subtleties of a good performance, job security, and what directors can do to make sure their projects are living up to their full potential.

Here are some takeaways:

Some of the best performances involve simply listening

Not all dynamite performances involve crying and screaming and crawling through mud; sometimes all it takes is an observant gaze and an engaging stance. Cheadle says that even when the focus is not on his character during a scene, he still makes sure that he's "present", "alive", and "acting in the spaces." This is definitely a good thing to keep in mind when directing actors, because if you pay attention to the edges of the frame, you might just find some gold.

Give yourself job security

It can feel like torture waiting for the call to come in that you've landed the job on a project, and this is something Cheadle knows all too well. That's why he became a producer, a director, and started his own production company — for job security. This doesn't mean you have to go out and secure a small business loan with a high interest rate in order to have some independence and autonomy, but finding ways to invest in your own films may prove to be the thing that allows you to keep on working.

Capturing a character from the outside in

Whether you're writing a character, embodying one as an actor, or directing, learning how to fully understand a character is supremely important. But how do you go about it? Cheadle explained that understanding can come from the inside out — learning about their personalities and psychology, or from the outside in — wearing their costume or, for Cheadle, learning how to play the trumpet for his role in Miles Ahead, in which he played Miles Davis.

I think if you haven't done the work to understand what makes the person tick, their psychology, from the inside out, their background, the circumstances they're coming from, then you can put on whatever suit you want but you're not going to fill it out. But definitely when you start doing some of those things that may be the outside in way to work, you start fleshing that out.

Make sure all the boats are rising

It takes a village to make a film successful, and if you're a director, it's your job to ensure that all of the skills and talents of your team are being utilized to their full potential. Guess why — because it's not all about you and making yourself look good. As Cheadle said, it's about making sure all of your boats are rising. Looking out for your entire team is not just, I don't know, nice, but it's a good way to keep the focus on the project, rather than on one specific individual. Cheadle said:

If you like the piece and you like the work then you should want it to work for everybody. And some of the best experiences that I've had in film are when you feel like the whole ensemble is working together — not that there's this one light and everybody else is kind of throwing alley-oops to that person.

Directors! Know what the hell you're doing

Cheadle got to talking about working with Paul Thomas Anderson on Boogie Nights, divulging how the director's confidence and precise vision helped him and others on set feel assured, like they were in good hands. That's a good lesson for all directors to learn: be confident and be able to answer any question that is thrown at you — your cast and crew with thank you for it. From Cheadle:

I think when you have a director who knows what they're doing and has a clear point of view — then you can relax, as opposed to when you've been on sets and it feels like it's a fire drill — and you know it's every man for himself and nobody really knows what's happening.


No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom    

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