Here's Don Cheadle, weaving his little silver Prius through the afternoon traffic of Venice, Calif., jazz skippity-bopping out of the stereo, trying to keep his cool. His 8-year-old daughter, the younger of his two girls with actress Bridgid Coulter, has a soccer game, and if he doesn't floor it he'll miss the first half. It's bad enough he mistakenly scheduled an interview for the same time as the game, but now he can't even find the field. He taps away at his onboard navigation system, looking for the right school. The screen lights up with white squares. ''Oh my God, there's 8,000 f---ing schools!'' he says. But he will not be deterred. He can't miss this game. ''The one you miss will be one where she scores two goals,'' he says.
This month, the actor has scored a pair of goals of his own with two very different kinds of movies: the glossy caper sequel Ocean's Twelve and the sober drama Hotel Rwanda, the true story of an unsung hero who saved over a thousand refugees during the Rwandan conflict by sheltering them in his hotel. While Cheadle, 40, is already famed for popping off the screen in supporting roles as a twitchy psycho in Devil in a Blue Dress, a cowboy porn actor in Boogie Nights, a violent ex-con in Out of Sight, a British explosives expert in Ocean's Eleven and Twelve Hotel Rwanda marks his first time carrying a high-profile film. The movie's been showered with awards on the festival circuit, and Cheadle is being mentioned for a possible Oscar nomination, a prospect he's trying not to dwell on. ''It's not anything I can affect,'' he says. He smiles. ''I mean, I could put the bribes down, but I'd rather spend my money on other things.''
From the moment he read the script for Hotel Rwanda, Cheadle wanted passionately to be involved. ''It was a story that had to be told,'' he says. A film set against the backdrop of a genocide in which nearly one million people were killed over 100 days was not, however, the easiest sell, and the project's backers would have preferred the insurance of a star like Will Smith or Denzel Washington. But when neither was available, director Terry George (Some Mother's Son) successfully lobbied for Cheadle. ''I'd always been knocked out by Don's work,'' he says. ''He just disappears into his role each time.''
The simultaneous promotion of a light popcorn movie like Ocean's Twelve and a gut-wrenching drama like Hotel Rwanda creates a bit of cognitive whiplash for Cheadle: ''It's like, 'So have you talked to Julia since she had the kids?' 'Uh, weren't you just asking me about people being slaughtered?'''
But leaping from one extreme to another is nothing new for him. ''Don has this energy, like he could say or do anything at any moment,'' says Ocean's Twelve director Steven Soderbergh, who's marking his fourth collaboration with Cheadle. ''Movie stars in general make us feel safe, but that's not where he operates from. He seems not to be governed by the laws of the universe somehow.''