NEW YORK – "I feel like I keep hitting seven," Don Cheadle (search) says, likening his career to success at craps. "I feel like I'm on the dice."
He knows snake eyes can come up any time, however.
Just not yet.
Recently, he appeared in "After the Sunset" and "Ocean's Twelve." Next comes "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" (search) (starring Sean Penn in his first role since his Oscar-winning performance in "Mystic River") and "Hotel Rwanda" (search) — for which Cheadle and the film have received Golden Globe nominations.
"I've been really blessed, I think. I've been really fortunate to be involved in the films that I wanted to be involved in."
And when he's involved in a movie, he often shines albeit in a supporting role — as a DEA agent in "Traffic," a porn star who aspires to open a stereo store in "Boogie Nights," Sammy Davis Jr. in the made-for-cable "The Rat Pack," and as the charmingly psycho Mouse ("If you didn't want me to kill him, why did you leave me alone with him?") in "Devil in a Blue Dress."
He has a rare starring role in "Hotel Rwanda," playing Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who saved 1,268 people from death during the Rwandan genocide of a decade ago.
"I read a lot of scripts and most of them are not good; they're just not good," says Cheadle, who once played a very different kind of hotel manager in "The Golden Palace" (the spinoff of "The Golden Girls" sitcom).
But he thought the "Hotel Rwanda" script "jumped off the page" and he was motivated by the fact that few people around the world were familiar with what happened. (In 1994, news coverage about the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the small African country was scarce.)
When he takes a role, Cheadle says he looks for his character to take "a journey."
"It doesn't necessarily have to be one that ultimately becomes some moral thing at the end. It can be a journey into hell. It can be a descent, as well. But I like characters that have an arc. Whatever that arc is, I like to see them in one place and go to another place.
"I think that's what's fun for the audience."
It's daunting to play a real-life character, but at least he didn't have to play someone as famous as Jamie Foxx did in "Ray," Cheadle says.
"A challenge that I didn't have, like one that Jamie had — which I think he knocked out of the park — was that so many people know Ray Charles for his entire life. There's so much footage on him, and so much documented fact about his life, that he had to do that, he had to nail that."
But no one knew Rusesabagina's story "so I didn't have to try and recreate something that there really is no document on."
"Hotel Rwanda" director/screenwriter Terry George thinks Cheadle is "clearly one of the foremost character actors in the world."
"In everything I've seen him in, from `Devil in a Blue Dress' through to `Traffic,' he had the ability to disappear in character, and yet then take that character and use his acting talent to project the charisma of the character he's playing. And that's exactly what I needed for this role — somebody who would disappear into it and yet have the acting chops to pull off the emotions necessary," George says.
But the filmmaker, who directed the 1996 feature "Some Mother's Son" and co-wrote the Jim Sheridan films "In the Name of the Father" and "The Boxer," wouldn't wish on Cheadle what he sees as the downside of being an A-list, $20 million leading man.
The 40-year-old Cheadle, who with Bridgid Coulter (his wife in "Rosewood") has two daughters, isn't so sure he would wish that on himself.
He's gratified by the Oscar buzz that's accompanying his Golden Globe nomination, and thinks an Oscar might bring "unlimited choices — first crack at every script I see, being able to pick and choose which ones I wanted to do, which fit perfectly for my schedule for my family, for my schedule with my own desires and interests in taking on subject matters and characters that I want to do."
But he'd still want to enjoy relative anonymity and be able to shop with his kids without attracting a paparazzi scrum.
"Right now, nobody pays attention to me. I do whatever I do. And it's great. I'm walking down the streets and it's no problem."