"I really got sort of pulled into this," says Don Cheadle, his voice quiet and intense. "I didn't seek it out. But once I was in it, I just...

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NEW YORK — “I really got sort of pulled into this,” says Don Cheadle, his voice quiet and intense. “I didn’t seek it out. But once I was in it, I just asked myself, ‘How can I be of use? How can I be of value here?’ “

The actor is talking about his humanitarian work and tireless activism — chiefly for Africa, specifically about bringing peace to Darfur. It’s led him to take trips to the continent, to lend his famous face to ad campaigns and to cowrite a book on the Sudanese genocide, “Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond.”

But he could also be talking about his approach to his own career.

Cheadle, 42, has been an actor for more than 20 years, starting with guest shots on TV’s “Fame,” and including an Oscar nomination as best actor three years ago for “Hotel Rwanda.” He calls Brad Pitt and George Clooney friends and has worked with director Steven Soderbergh five times. But his own, egoless approach to the work has always been more about the project itself than his part in it.

Like any actor — like any freelancer — he’s had to take some jobs to pay the bills. Most of those jobs — like the globe-trotting “Ocean’s” franchise, with No. 13 still in theaters — have been painless ways to pay a lot of them. Others — like, say, “Swordfish” — made him work harder for the money.

But when the film is something that really speaks to him, well then, Cheadle only wants to be of use.

” ‘Crash,’ they had been going around town trying to get it made, and hadn’t been able to attract any attention,” he says. “And I got hold of the script and was blown away and said, ‘Look, anything I can do to help you get this film made, I will.’ And then, I think it was about two weeks later, I got hold of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and basically had the same conversation [with that director], saying, ‘You want to cast me in it, that would be great, I’ll play anything. You don’t want to cast me in it, fine, I’ll do craft services. I just want to be part of this.’ “

Latest role

Cheadle ended up starring in “Hotel Rwanda,” and co-starring in and helping to produce “Crash.” He took on the same duties for his latest film, “Talk to Me,” the biography of seminal ’60s radio personality Petey Green, an ex-con who talked his way into a local D.C. broadcasting job — and eventually a new career as stand-up comic, political commentator and all-purpose social activist.

“Petey was unpredictable and dynamic and did everything he could to push buttons and get people to respond,” Cheadle says, sipping honeyed tea in a Manhattan restaurant. “A real live wire. And that was fun, finding that out about him and researching the part, and then walking into a situation that was just fully set up to let me go in and be that.”

“Petey’s a very unpredictable character and there should be some discomfort with that, the audience should always be a little on edge,” says director Kasi Lemmons, whose film opens July 27. “And Don really nailed that. He’s smart, thoughtful — I’d describe him as an intellectual — but once he decided to do this, he just got very spontaneous and playful. I call the film ‘Cheadle Unleashed.’ “

“The roiling energy of this performance is fairly different from what he’s done before,” agrees film scholar Kent Jones. “And yet he’s very succinct about it, very exacting about how it’s unleashed and when — it’s not just some undisciplined, unbridled actor simply dumping his energy all over the scene. It’s a very intelligent approach.”

“A journeyman”

Perhaps it’s in the genes. Cheadle’s mother was a teacher, his father a child psychologist; education and the liberal arts were things the family always prized. Although Cheadle describes his childhood as poor to middle-class — “we moved around a lot as my father pursued scholarships and jobs” — his parents were nothing but encouraging as their middle child developed an interest in performing.

“They probably realized this was something I was going to do even before I did,” Cheadle says. “But I was always involved in drama and jazz, instruments and vocals. When I graduated from high school I was offered several different scholarships, some to pursue acting and some to pursue music. The acting one was in California, so I basically made the choice based on the weather. …

By the time he was 22, Cheadle was working regularly on TV, with one-shot parts on “L.A. Law,” “Hill Street Blues” and “China Beach.” But it was a small part in “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995), as the hilariously profane and dangerous Mouse, that had critics finally noticing him.

“Yeah, that’s how it works, doesn’t it, the 10-year overnight success,” he says with a smile. “It’s funny, it’s only recently that I even started referring to all this as a career. For a long time, it just felt like, OK, I’m doing this thing, and if it doesn’t turn out to be a swan song, I’ll do another thing. … It’s just like being a journeyman. It’s this very mercurial kind of lifestyle, and it’s hard to have roots. Which is why I’m so fortunate and blessed and happy and thankful that I have a family that’s so solid, because it grounds you and motivates you in the best way.”

Cheadle has lived for more than a decade with the actress Bridgid Coulter, the mother of his two children and the woman he calls simply “my wife.” (“If we ever did split, I’d get half her shoes.”)

Conveying a message

Once “Devil in a Blue Dress” gave him more acclaim — and a recurring role on TV’s “Picket Fences,” some more visibility — Cheadle realized he could use this newfound stability and respect to explore topics that meant something to him.

And most often, that topic was race.

It’s never done obviously, or clumsily; Cheadle wants to make pictures, not polemics. But he also remembers the stories he heard from his late great-grandmother, a 107-year-old survivor whose mother had been a slave. He knows what he saw the first time in Africa, and on the times he’s returned. That informs his work powerfully and positively.

So it was no surprise that, when Cheadle made a movie about the days of lynching and segregation, he chose “Rosewood,” a John Singleton movie that told the true story of black heroes who, when racists came knocking at their doors in the middle of the night, met them with shouts and shotguns.

“I don’t think people ever just completely give in,” Cheadle says. “There are sometimes insurmountable forces — you’re shooting a BB gun at an elephant. But people do fight back, and that resilience needs to be shown, too.” It was also no surprise that when Cheadle chose to do a story about Africa in “Hotel Rwanda,” it was one starring a black hero, not a white bystander — and instead of merely picturing the continent as hell on earth, featured an African risking his life to make a real difference.

“I think it’s very easy to get this sort of ‘compassion fatigue’ when it comes to Africa,” he says. “You see another story and you think, ‘Oh God, one more thing.’ And certainly there are many conflicts there, and crises, and things that urgently need to be done. But I think the popular media does a disservice to the continent because there are so many more stories of transformation and economic opportunities that don’t get talked about. And maybe when we start doing more movies about Africa, we’ll start telling more of those.”

Drawn into Darfur

For the moment, though, the world’s eyes are focused on a tragic story in Darfur — as, frankly, Cheadle wants them to be. He first visited refugee camps in neighboring Uganda two years ago. He has since reported on the issue for several newspapers and has co-written “Not on Our Watch” with international aid worker John Prendergast. Their book both outlines the issue and suggests concrete ways to help.

“I’m not an expert and have never claimed to be,” Cheadle says. “I’m a student, and I’m still learning. I just happened to be part of a movie that was about a similar situation in Rwanda, and as a result of this confluence of events got drawn into it … which is one of the best things about what we do as actors — it opens doors to all these places and personalities that you might never encounter if you were in a regular job. … I know people like to say all the time, ‘Oh actors, what do they know? They’re not educated.’ Well, any time I take on a part, I read everything I can about it. I have gotten very educated about certain subjects.”

“Not a household name”

He’s also grown very knowledgeable about acting, always pushing himself to do different things. He can be volatile, as in “Talk to Me” or “Devil in a Blue Dress,” or secretive and subdued, as in “Traffic” or “Crash.” He was the melancholy still point of “Boogie Nights” as insecure porn star Buck Swope; he was a manic ball of energy in TV’s “The Rat Pack” as Sammy Davis Jr. “I’ve worked with great, great actors,” says Lemmons, who’s married to Vondie Curtis-Hall and directed Samuel L. Jackson in “Eve’s Bayou.” “But I’ve never had an experience like this one with Don. There’s just a lightness and an ease that — well, whenever I’ve been lucky enough to be in the presence of that kind of talent, I call it genius. Don almost gets upset when I accuse him of that — ‘I’m a competent actor, and that’s it.’ But after seeing this, and ‘Rwanda,’ I really think he can do anything.”

And, more and more, Cheadle is trying to create projects himself.

“You have to be proactive,” he says. “You can sit around waiting for somebody to hand you something, which happens. It’s happened to me. But as I become older and start understanding the business more, I think you have to create your own opportunities — or you can’t complain about not getting them.”

So Cheadle has pushed himself. He continues to do stage work. He’s formed his own production company to develop projects for the screen. And he’s looking forward to taking on his own dream project, directing himself in a movie bio of Miles Davis — a venture he calls “awesome and terrifying and wonderful.”

“The business is littered with meteoric rises and meteoric descents,” he says of fame. “And it can be really challenging when you get it when you’re very young because you’re often not ready to deal with all that it entails, to realize that you’re the flavor of the month and that one day they’ll move on to a younger, prettier you. So I think I was fortunate not to have immediately gotten it, whatever it is, and to have much more of a long-distance relationship with it.”

A relationship that, for all of its rewards, still offers a few hurdles.

“I’m not a household name by any stretch of the imagination, but I like that,” Cheadle says. “I’ve hung out with some extremely famous guys for a while now, and that life has its own challenges — which, at this point, I’m not really trying to take on. … I never feel like I’ve made it, but that’s a good thing. Because there’s always a challenge ahead. There’s always something in front of me I haven’t done.”