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Don Cheadle: "I would love to be more hopeful"

One of America's greatest actors of modern times, Don Cheadle is currently burning up the small screen as the amoral Mo Monroe in Showtime's raucous Black Monday. We spoke to him about the madness of 1980s' Wall Street and the presidency of Donald Trump... 

Don Cheadle – Black Monday

In an alternate reality, the great Don Cheadle would be gracing the cover of April's Square Mile. 

Unfortunately, this reality had other plans. 

As we're an exclusively London-based publication, we're putting the print edition on hold until London reopens for business. 

Meanwhile we'll still be running plenty of content on the website – including My Life / My Lockown – and when we return, Don Cheadle will be on our cover, sharing his remarkable life story in one of the most fascinating interviews we've ever conducted. It's worth the wait. 

However, to coincide with the mid-season finale of Black Monday, we're sharing a taster below.

Enjoy – and keep safe! 

Your character in Black Monday, Mo Monroe, is a bit of a scoundrel, a charismatic fast talker. Is there anyone you had in mind when creating the character?

Not really. This is not anyone specific but there's a lot of that energy that you get from the guys of that time and, of course, cocaine always helps to fuel that energy. You read about these guys who are just flying by the seat of their pants at a time when regulations weren’t what they are now, they didn’t used to be that way and people were just freewheeling it. It was very much the Wild Wild West.

So, to have a comedy where it’s not all the way to farce but we’re definitely pushing reality, these are characters that are pushed and that we’re taking to another level. We’re not really trying to do any neorealism. It’s a comedy and it’s maximised as a comedy. So I don’t know that there are any guys that I would point to out there that I would go, “That’s like Mo.” There may be but a lot of those guys are probably in jail.

Did you go into any trading firms on Wall Street? It’s probably quite different now than it was back in the 1980s.

It’s very different now. I've been to them but, again, our due north is always the script. One of our creator’s father was a trader during this time and I've met several. Very few black men were traders at that time but I've met a couple. They were wild. The whole environment was just wild and everybody was on drugs and drinking heavily and just trying to make money hand over fist. When you have Michael Milken who could pay a $1bn fine, that’s insane. It just tells you how far these guys were going in their day-to-day.

You get to see human beings stressed to the max. It’s always a high wire act

Did you get told any stories or anecdotes from that time that you're able to share?

I was at a concert and I met a young black woman and she was saying to me, “Where did you guys get this story ideas for it?” She rattled off a particular episode and she said, “That was my dad’s life, that was his life.” She goes, “He used to show up sometimes in drag on the trading room floor.” She said, “Why?” He goes, “He just did shit like that.” It was wild. They would just do whatever they felt like doing.

She said her brother and her would always find these little straws at the house and they would make little designs with straws like they were little Legos. It wasn’t until many, many years later that she realised what all these little straws were. Her parents kept going, “No, no, no, give me that!” and throwing them away. They were like, “What's the big deal? They're just little straws!”

Daddy, why is there so much sugar?

Yes, it’s got sugar in it! It doesn’t taste like sugar!

The innocence of youth. Do you know anyone who was affected by Black Monday or the 2008 financial crash, for that matter?

 The 2008 financial crash, I knew very few people and I know very few people that were involved in the stock market, who had their livelihood in that. I didn’t really have a lot of money in the stock market at that time. Because of the volatility of it and because we weren’t familiar with it, we just kept our money in cash.

I remember our business manager at the time saying, “That’s a brilliant idea, that’s a brilliant strategy.” We were like, “Brilliant strategy? We just didn’t know what we were doing.” We would have been wiped out too if we had been smart enough to put our money into stocks and bonds.

No, I didn’t really know anyone personally who was affected. I'm an actor, and most of my friends are actors, and many of them were not working. We didn’t have dough like that to be worried about the crash. In 2008, I was still doing… What was happening in my life in 2008? That was 12 years ago, right? I think I was just putting my money in mattresses and hiding it!

Black Monday

That’s the safe way to do it. You’ve also done Marty in ‘House of Lies’ so do you have a thing for immoral salesmen?

No, it just happened like that. It’s interesting because this job came about as a result of David Nevins, president of Showtime, now head of CBS. He called me up and said, “I have this show.” He had a deal with Seth and Evan and he was asking them what they wanted to work on and they had seen this show that was written by Jordan Cahan and David Caspe and they said, “We want to do it.”

David said, “I thought of you and then I thought, ‘No, you're not right for it’ and I went back and forth thinking, ‘Should I tell you about it or not?’” He said, “I finally asked Seth and Evan and they said, ‘Yes, we would love to see Don in this.’” It’s how a lot of jobs come in over the transom. It was hilarious to me and interesting and a subject matter that I hadn’t really known a lot about or seen in a TV setting anyway.

I'm not drawn necessarily to amoral characters but I'm definitely drawn to characters who straddle a line, I guess. Mo’s a little more amoral probably than Marty. He doesn’t have a family to anchor him. He doesn’t have relationships like that that he’s beholden to and wants to be a good person for. He’s just trying to figure out how to fucking crush.

Management consultancy might be one of the least sexy things in the world but that show made it sexy...

Yes, it was a lot of fun. I love that show. Again, I love all the castmates on that show and all the writers and we just had a great time. Showtime has been a great place for me to work these past few years.

In recent years, we’ve had ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, ‘Billions’, ‘The Big Short’, ‘House of Lies’, ‘Black Monday’ – what is it about the real-life Wall Street that makes it such fertile ground for drama?

 I think because it is relatively unknown to the population at large about how it actually works and what's actually being done. Once you reveal it, you realise that half of the people that are dealing in that area don’t have any idea how it’s being done either! And how much of it is about gambling - that’s all the futures market is, right? You're just rolling the dice and hope this shit works out. Educated guesses but, honestly, we know that the volatility.

We’re watching the market right now as a result of the coronavirus. It’s just about people’s ability and how much risk they can withstand and how cautious they are and how risk averse they are. I think it just plugs right into our deep, base, human shit. It’s just dressed up nicer in suits and fancy cars but it really reveals who we are and how fragile that we are.

That’s the draw. And it’s happening at such a high level, and it’s so high-octane and so fuelled with ego and money and power. A lot of times, people like to vicariously live through that without having to put themselves into that position. They're like, “I'm going to watch you crash and burn, I don’t want to do that.”

Many of the shows I just listed, including both of yours, are also really funny. Where do you think that comedy comes from? Are we laughing at these people or are we laughing with them?

I think yes, to answer the question. Both. I think at times it’s both. You get to see human beings stressed to the max. It’s always a high wire act. It’s not really mundane. As soon as that bell hits, they're in the pits having fist fights and threatening each other and people are whacked out of their minds because the ability to potentially go from zero to hero is so right in front of you - and, also, to go from hero to zero.

It’s big swings, and that volatility is dramatic and exciting and it’s going to be funny because people are going to act at their extremes trying to achieve something, and I think that’s what comedy is. It’s watching people use an inordinate amount of energy toward attempting to achieve their goals, and how far they will go to achieve them, and how ridiculous people can be to achieve them - all for the almighty dollar. We’re going to see every emotion come out when that happens.

I would love to be more hopeful but I'm not right now

Donald Trump was the embodiment of Wall Street, and now he’s the President, and part of the reason he’s President is no one took him seriously when he started...

Yes. There are obviously a lot of factors why he’s the President but I think that’s something that people were talking about when Ronald Reagan… I think that was a George Carlin joke or something; people go in like, “I'm going to vote for the actor.” Then he wins and people were like, “Wow, shit, I was just fucking around, I didn’t think he actually had a shot.”

I think Donald Trump, his rise, has a lot more to do with other endemic and systemic things that are happening in this country. Yes, he was a joke to a lot of people. There was no way it could happen for a lot of people but it just shows you, if people don’t come out in numbers, you're going to get what you get.

How do you think he’s done in his first term?

Horribly. You can go down the line and look at where we are. People say the economy’s doing great and it’s like, “Who’s it doing great for?” The stock market, that was one of the things he was touting and, in two days, we've seen the eight biggest losses we've ever had have all been under his administration. The spin cycle on his progress is really amazing.

People say, “Look at the African-American jobs, the unemployment rate is lower than it’s ever been.” In eight years, it was a steady decline from Obama to now. I guess he gets credit for not fucking that part up but it’s not like it’s on him that that’s the reason.

Then you look at the negatives that far outweigh all the positives. Where we are in this country with race relations, where we are in this country with justice, where we are in this country with our courts, I think it’s all pointing to… I would love to be more hopeful but I'm not right now.

That’s an alarming thought...

The trend is not our friend, I'll just say that.

The mid-season finale of Black Monday airs 12 April on Showtime