Don Cheadle Talks Role in Kendrick Lamar's 'DNA' Video, Favorite Rap Album & Best Rappers Turned Actors

Don Cheadle poses for a portrait on Feb. 21, 2016 in Los Angeles.
J. Countess/Getty Images Portrait

Don Cheadle poses for a portrait on Feb. 21, 2016 in Los Angeles.

After setting the Internet ablaze with his new album DAMN., Kendrick Lamar upped the ante late Tuesday night (April 18) with his new video "DNA." 

Instead of crafting a traditional video, Lamar flipped the script on the music industry by reeling in prolific actor, Don Cheadle. Known for his prowess on the big screen (Crash, Hotel Rwanda, Ocean Eleven, Iron Man 2), Cheadle nailed his role as a police investigator, even delivering an intense rendition of Lamar's hard-hitting rhymes in the Nabil and the Little Homies-directed video for "DNA." 

Though Cheadle's appearance in "DNA." may have been a surprise to the Internet, he and Lamar have been plotting a sneak-attack on hip-hop for years. With a bond centered around creativity, Lamar and Cheadle forged a relationship several years ago out of mutual admiration for each other's talents. To his surprise, Cheadle recently found out that his Rush Hour 2, Kenny, was the inspiration behind Lamar's moniker Ku-Fung Kenny (the rapper even debuted a kung-fu flick at his headlining Coachella set this past weekend dedicated to his martial artist alter-ego).  

In an interview with Billboard, The Don speaks on his relationship with Kendrick Lamar, how his role in "DNA" came about, if K.Dot is in his Top 5 rappers of all time and other rappers who forged a successful acting career. 

You teamed up with Kendrick Lamar for the "DNA." video. How did you get involved in the process? 

It's been a couple of years since we been communicating about different things. I've been trying to figure out casting opportunities for him and put him in things that I'm involved in. He was somebody that I thought could play Junior in Miles Ahead, but he was busy working on To Pimp a Butterfly, which turned out great for everybody, right? Because he got to create that album and we got Keith Stanfield [for Junior]. So, everybody was happy.

Since then, we just stayed in touch. I'd hit him every once in awhile and he'll hit me up like, "Hey, what's up big bro?" and we'll just rap for a second. Weeks would go by and I'd just hit him like "Where you at?" So we've just been keeping in touch for a couple of years like that. Then he just hit me out the blue and said, "Hey, I'm doing this thing. I got this video. You wanna come through and maybe do it?" I was like, "Yeah. For sure. I don't even know what it is, but of course." He sent me the rap and said, "Can you get this down?' I was like, 'Are you f--king crazy?'" [Laughs] Do you know how you rap?" But he said, "You just have to get this part of it down and then it'll go into a different thing." So, I only had two days to cram but that's kind of how it came about.

How were you able to retain his lyrics so quickly, especially since his flow and delivery are complex? 

He gave me [the rap] and I was really sweating because I was worried about making a fool out of myself. [Laughs.] With Mark directing and Bill did great with some really good editing, they worked around the slippery parts for me. The best thing, really, about it for me was that I had no idea what the setup was. They told me to bring a suit and that I was gonna be a cop. That's all they really told me. I showed up and saw the whole thing. When we were trading back and forth, we just started improv-ing. That was just us messing around. That was the fun part for me because I was like, "Oh, so you want to act a little bit?" So we just did it like that. 

Where do you think Kendrick Lamar stands as a top-tier rapper all-time in your eyes? 

He's in there. He's a game changer. 

Where does he fall in your top rappers list? 

I could argue about him being top 5 just because of his innovation and the way he has impacted [the genre]. You have to make an incredible impact to move up that list and he has done that. It's like you can name them. We can go through them and say, "Oh, Rakim? He changed it." People were like, "Oh, we gotta do that." When Nas came out, he changed it. So, you know, there's several people like that, that come out and everyone is like, "Oh damn." He's definitely one of those dudes. It's a tough scale, but he's definitely in the top 5 for me. 

Last year, you were on Lip Sync Battle and performed The Notorious B.I.G.'s 'Mo' Money, Mo' Problems.' If you could do a three song-set of your all-time favorite rap songs, which three would you choose and why? 

Oh my God. That I couldn't even do because they change all the time. It depends what I'm listening to. There's some Slum Village tracks and those are deep cuts that aren't the popular ones that are dope. But, man, I don't even know. Mos [Def] to me has so much stuff that I love. I couldn't pick the three that I would want to do. I would be too intimidated to try any of them. I just want to see them do it. 

What are some of your favorite albums that you still play to this day? 

I kind of like go in when I get something that I love and I'll listen to it for a year. [Laughs.] I'm serious. Like, To Pimp a Butterfly came out and that was all I listened to and D'Angelo's Black Messiah. Those were the only two I listened to, and I listened to all my old Miles [Davis] stuff. That's kind of all I listen to really. 

You worked with T.I. on season three of House of Lies. Tell me about his growth as an actor and some of your favorite memories that you shared with him during the filming of the show. 

Oh, we had a great time. I actually directed his introduction into the show, the debut on the show, which was cool. He was just a consummate professional and showed up. Sometimes, you don't know what you're gonna get. [Laughs] You're gonna hire a hip-hop dude and you're like, "Ok, there's stories. I know that this can go a certain way." But, he came in and was really dedicated, and was always ready to go. He fully wanted to be a member of this thing and not the only dude that needed things to bend to his will. He was great. It was just a great experience. 

You appeared on an episode on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1990. Back then, Will Smith was transitioning from a rapper to an actor. Does his growth and transition into an iconic actor surprise you today? 

No. I mean, you can see it then. It's another situation where he was somebody that by the time he had done that show, he was already world famous, and was already a professional, and knew how to work. He was really serious about what he was trying to do. I wasn't surprised that it kind of took off for him because you could see it early that he was very serious about his, you know? He was on his way somewhere. 

If you can choose your Top 5 rappers-turned-actors, who would make the list? 

Best rappers/actors? Man, I don't know if I can think of five. Will [Smith], for sure. Obviously, he's in there. 

You could throw Ice Cube in there. 

I guess 50 [Cent] is an actor now. 

A lot of people have been going with Drake, as well. 

Oh yeah. I think Drake showed another color of his on Saturday Night Live. I didn't know how funny he was. He was hilarious. 

You can also throw Queen Latifah.

Oh yeah. Latifah, for sure. Definitely, she was big for the women. 

She's not a rapper, but would you consider throwing Beyonce in there? 

Beyonce is a good actress. It's hard because you need to see more of them and see them do more things. It's like a one movie, one thing. Will has done 28 movies. He has a lot of range. It's hard when you see someone just do one thing to determine whether they can act or not. 

You transformed into Miles Davis for his biopic Miles Ahead. Talk about the preparation and what it took to enter a musician's mindset.

I don't know to whatever degree I was successful or not, as far as getting into his mindset or not. I really wanted to get into what he did and become a musician. I learned how to play. I wrote music for it. I really studied it and spent a lot of time with his family. I just kind of wanted to get more than just an imitation for him. I was trying to understand and experience him and kind of try to walk in his shoes. That's what I tried to do. I guess that's something we all try to do as actors when you're trying to find your entry point. He was a trickier one, but I'm such a fan of music and happened to be for most of my life. I came up as a musician. I played sax all through school and I almost went through with that as my profession so jazz wasn't far away from me.

A lot of biopics have been coming out based on music. Which would you say was your personal favorite biopic based on a musician's life?

I think Round Midnight was really good, and it wasn't really about Dexter Gordon. He basically played himself in it, but it wasn't specifically about his life. He kind of played a version of himself. I thought that was really good. The genre tends to kind of irk me a little bit because it feels like it's kind of locked into a format and that was something I was kind of trying to break out of in mine [with Miles Ahead]. I think Round Midnight was my favorite.

What's interesting is that you were up against Jamie Foxx's performance in Ray in 2005 for best actor at the Oscars when you did Hotel Rwanda

Yeah, I was, but that was a forgone conclusion. 

It could have been a toss-up.

I thought so, too, but I knew it was gonna be Jamie, because you kind of just have a feeling how it starts to go and who's gonna get it, and who the Academy is gonna give it to. It's like, I saw Leonardo DiCaprio [last year] and he walked by like, "Man. I'm really nervous." I was like, "Man, you don't have anything to be nervous about. You're fine. Have a drink. You'll be cool." [Laughs]