A perfect role fit is often not apparent to the actor involved. Denver-born Don Cheadle, since elevated to fame as the engaging star of the Ocean’s caper trilogy, the Marvel Avengers and Iron Man sagas and such acclaimed films as Boogie Nights, Hotel Rwanda and Flight, and the wicked-smart series House of Lies, initially felt that way about playing the hot-wired, hair-triggered thug Mouse Alexander, the unlikely pal of neophyte private eye Easy Rawlins, in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). In an interview last year with critic David Edelstein, the always-busy actor, who turns 54 today, said he was unsure about auditioning for writer-director Carl Franklin (adapting the Walter Mosley novel) and star Denzel Washington, because he didn’t feel right for it. Assured by that terrifically talented pair that he was, he admitted that taking on the mighty mantle of Mouse “felt like my personal mountain….I think my career shifted dramatically after that.” Indeed, the word breakout is an understatement for a guy later to create dead-on characterizations of real-life luminaries Sammy Davis Jr. (1998’s The Rat Pack), Miles Davis (2015’s Miles Ahead) and the refugee-sheltering manager Paul Rusesabagina of Hotel Rwanda (2004), the last-named earning him a Best Actor Academy Award® nomination. Cheadle was surprised at the impact that Mouse had, particularly sharing the screen with as formidable a presence as Washington.
Shortly after the detective thriller set in 1948 Los Angeles opened, Stephen Farber examined Cheadle’s work in a piece for The New York Times: “Carl Franklin, the director of Devil in a Blue Dress, offered a slightly different view [that contradicted Cheadle’s reservations]: ‘The best actors are able to identify with some little kernel in the character. Don conjured this up too easily. There's got to be something of Mouse in him.’Audiences have reacted with raucous glee to the scenes of Mouse terrorizing the bad guys who menace his pal Easy. ‘At first I was surprised that audiences laughed at Mouse,’ Mr. Cheadle said. ‘I wasn't attempting to get laughs. But in any farce, the energy a character spends pursuing a single goal is funny. And it's scary, too. I think one reason people laugh is that they're feeling, ‘I'm glad I’m not in that room with Mouse.’” However, once Franklin, who employed Cheadle before in a student film called Punk made during the filmmaker’s tenure studying at the American Film Institute, decided to go with Cheadle, the actor filled the room with detailed character exploration. He told Los Angeles Times writer Kristine McKenna: “‘I had six weeks to prepare so I did lots of research that included spending a week in Houston, which is where Mouse is from. I met a few people from the '40s who were of the world Mouse lived in, and having talked with some of them I can tell you that gangsters of that era were different from gangsters today. There was more honor among thieves then, and they had a strong sense of community and all kept each other in check.” Also featuring performances of glamour and grit from Jennifer Beals, Tom Sizemore, Albert Hall, Terry Kinney, Maury Chaykin, Lisa Nicole Carson and Albert Hall, Devil in a Blue Dress would bring singular honor to Cheadle in the form of 1995 Los Angeles Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics Awards for Best Supporting Actor. On Twilight Time’s gorgeous hi-def Blu-ray, available at 50% off list through this Friday only as part of TT’s limited-time Pre-Holiday Sales Promotion, you can witness the making of Mouse via a brief but juicy Cheadle Screen Test Sequence.