Don Cheadle in “Traitor”
From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Just how safe is America?
Terrorism film “Traitor” starring Don Cheadle poses that question
NEW YORK – Don Cheadle believes the first goal of a movie is to entertain.
But if a movie also can stir up debate on real-world issues, so much the better.
“I like to try to smuggle in things for people to talk about when they walk out of the theater, because those tend to be the most enjoyable movie experiences I have, where I can go and sort of escape, whatever, and just let it be a ride, but I also leave kind of thinking and having a discussion,” Cheadle said in a recent interview to promote his new movie “Traitor.”
In “Traitor,” Cheadle, 43, stars at Samir Horn, an enigmatic Muslim American with a shadowy special forces background. Samir is nabbed in Yemen selling detonators to suspected terrorists and thrown into a rustic prison. He is visited by FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough), who offer him freedom in exchange for information.
Samir chooses to stay in prison, and he forms a friendship with a canny terrorist, Omar (Said Taghmaoui). They pull off a spectacular prison break and soon are connected with bombings in Spain and France. As the FBI agents embark on a globe-trotting pursuit, Roy starts to wonder if Samir isn’t quite what he seems.
“I thought this was a world discussion. Everyone’s talking about this to some degree, and especially in the United States, trying to focus on are we safe, how are we safe, what will we do to maintain a semblance of safety because how are you ever really completely safe. And this character was wrestling with all those things too: How far do you go? How much collateral damage is justifiable?” Cheadle said while talking to reporters at the W Union Square Hotel.
Famed for his Oscar-nominated turn in “Hotel Rwanda” and co-starring role in the “Oceans Eleven” franchise, Cheadle has become known for his charitable and socially conscious stands on issues such as the genocide in Darfur. But he said he doesn’t seek out issue movies.
“I’ve always been interested in politics and how we get to the places that we get to with the people leading us. … I think these things are finding their ways into movies more and more often because it’s what’s happening around us. It’s either that or like complete escapism, and they’re both definitely important. I mean, I can’t imagine that anyone would think the ‘Oceans’ series is relevant in any way,” he said with a laugh.
Cheadle liked the “Traitor” script enough to become a hands-on producer. The continent-hopping spy thriller takes several plot twists, and the biggest actually served as inspiration for the movie. Multi-talented actor Steve Martin came up with the big twist and first-writer director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (co-writer of “The Day After Tomorrow”) built on it. While casual filmgoers might find the comedic Martin an unlikely source for an espionage story, Cheadle said it makes sense.
“If you know about him you would expect it. I mean, he’s a pretty serious novelist and a playwright and an art collector. He’s not just the guy who’s the wild and crazy guy; he’s pretty deep in his game,” said Cheadle, who wore a black T-shirt, blue jeans and a ball cap.
Once the newly created Overturn Films agreed to take on “Traitor,” Cheadle set out to “dirty up” the project, which he said had been whitewashed and then languished at Disney.
“The subject matter that we’re dealing with, I said, ‘People have to get hurt, or it won’t feel like there’s any veracity.’ There has to be cost for everything that’s happening, and a real cost, or else also this character isn’t really weighing anything heavily. If people always narrowly escape, that’s really not what this is about. This is about somebody going ‘I’m putting others’ lives at risk, and I’m deciding to do that. And how do I now deal with the fact that I’m in my mind playing God when my faith tells me I have no right to do that,’” he said.
The hot-button issues of religion and terrorism are at the heart of the story. While his character is a devout Muslim, Pearce’s Southern-born and bred FBI agent is a declared Southern Baptist and preacher’s son.
Cheadle, who learned Arabic and researched Islam and the Middle East for the role, said the filmmakers were aware they were taking on sensitive topics. He recalled a spirited on-set debate among Muslim cast and crew about whether showing a plotting terrorist kissing the Quran was going too far or in character.
“They decided that, no, it makes sense that this character is claiming the religion for his purposes because that’s what people do. They always hide behind that when you want to do whatever you want to do, whether good or bad. ‘It’s not me, it’s God, I’m just God’s messenger, you know, crushing you so that I can have power.’ It’s like, ‘Really, is that what the religion says?’”
The debate extends to people who have seen and heard about the movie, too.
“We’ve gotten everything from this is jingoistic and too patriotic to this is … trying to humanize the terrorists. We get it all; we get all sides of it, which to me is like good. That’s a debate, and that to me what’s interesting about what you can do with this art form is inspire that kind of debate,” he said.
“But mainly you want to entertain people.”