Don Cheadle on ‘Black Monday,’ Wall Street in the Trump era, and hope about the climate change fight
Don Cheadle won’t say what the future holds for his Marvel character, “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine, for fear of being taken out by a sniper. “I could talk about that, but the red dots show up every time I start to, so I’m not,” he tells Fortune. But what he can discuss is the new season of Showtime’s Black Monday, the ’80s-set dark comedy in which he stars as the aggressively amoral Wall Street trader Mo Monroe.
The first season followed Mo and his conniving, cocaine-loving employees engaging in a scheme that ultimately brings about the titular 1987 stock market crash, with all the excesses, racism, sexism, and homophobia of the decade played to the extreme. Costarring Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer, Casey Wilson, and Ken Marino, the second season picks up after the chaos of that day, with Mo framed for murder while his former colleagues work on their next hustle—charming and blackmailing politicians into deregulating banks.
Fortune recently caught up with Cheadle just as the stock market was reeling owing to coronavirus fears, which he said he was watching “as much as you would if you were riding on a roller coaster with your eyes closed.”
Before the season premiere on Sunday, March 15, the 55-year-old actor spoke about how the show’s profane take on politics and financial greed relates to the Trump era; toeing the line of offensive comedy while discussing serious issues; his climate-change activism; and what Democrats need to do in 2020.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was the big-picture idea going into this season?
Well, it’s really just visiting these characters. For Mo, sort of his descent, I guess, but then seeing where he ends up and seeing where Blair [Andrew Rannells]—just ascending obviously—and Dawn [Regina Hall] are going in the other direction. We decided it would be interesting to take them in opposite directions and figure out how we can get them back together. I think the first thing to do is blow up the room and then, you know, see what you can do.
And where did the long hair come from?
Probably some very well-adorned women who were trying to make money. [Laughs] These are the things that we kick around—“What’s the look going to be?”—and it’s always based on the time. The styles of the ’80s kind of covered the waterfront, so it’s fun to play with that, for sure.
It must be a blast being able to pick out the most ridiculous parts of culture from that decade and run with them.
Well, the most fun is how seriously everybody took that. I mean, look, we’re going to look back at this era and go, “Really? That’s what we were doing?” Twitter is just going to be something that people are like, “Why did you ever engage?” Some of the best fun about the show is finding those cultural touch points and lambasting all that stuff, lampooning it.
You couldn’t make fun of it in the same way during the ’90s, because the wounds were too fresh.
Yeah. The ’90s, wait till we get there. It wasn’t much better.
The one-liners and cutting jabs have a really loose feel. Does the cast improvise a lot of it?
We do in the rehearsals, for sure, and then a lot of those things become what we will do in the takes. The cowriters, David [Caspe] and Jordan [Cahan], are very open to that and encouraging of that. They’re joke whores, and, you know, the best answer wins. We really encourage it. Everybody’s trying to make each other laugh and see, “How far can this thing go?”
It must be also freeing to play a character like this who doesn’t have much of a filter or moral compass.
Absolutely. It’s what made me want to play it in the first place. This guy is operating directly from his id. He’s absolutely “shoot, ready, aim.” That’s who he is, for sure.
What’s it like getting in that headspace? It’s so stereotypical of traders from that era who don’t really think of consequences outside of how much money is going into their accounts.
It’s not necessarily that different now. I mean, there are obviously more regulations now, and…well, it’s fits and starts, right? There’s regulations, and then this administration comes in, they want to take all of them away again. It’s just really human nature when you gravitate toward that. That job is a zero-sum game. When that’s your true north, just to make as much as you can, the rules tend to be pretty slippery. And especially at that time, when all of those rules started to come in place to deal with these robber barons at that level, it was kind of the Wild Wild West. When we were doing the research for it, a lot of guys I talked to—some that were there at that time—said, “Yeah, everybody was fucked up, and everybody was just going for it. You do whatever you can do to win.” That was the bottom line.
Really, it wasn’t enough just to do well. Somebody had to be smoldering on the other end of the deal to feel good about it. You had to destroy the people that were on the opposite ends of your trades. One of my really good friends who was there—gained a ton of weight, drinking every night, heart attack candidate—and it wasn’t until he got out of it and looked back that he was like, “Oh, my God, I was insane. I was a very sick person.” That was just the culture. Take no prisoners.
So much of the show is skewering the ridiculousness of the ’80s, but a lot of the laughs come from the sad fact that these things haven’t changed: sexism, racism, the corruption of greed, etc. What issues are going to be covered this season?
We definitely dip more into politics this year. I don’t want to give it away, but we’re trying to dip into whatever the cultural sort of divide was at that time. There’s more in that way with racism and sexuality, with what the characters are going through. There’s a lot of grist for the mill.
Was delving into politics this season an inevitability, given the times we live in?
Well, we’re obviously trying to draw allusions to today and ground the show and have there be relevance to where we are right now. But it just seemed also to be a natural progression for Andrew [Rannells]’s character, Blair, to be moving up as they’re trying to figure out how to get a bank, like, “Who do we need to have in our pocket, and how do we go about doing that?” Politics is also another area, as we can see, that lends itself sometimes to the worst kinds of motivations in us.
Very sadly. But it’s a comedy, so obviously we do it with jokes and laughs and fart jokes and stuff. That’s the goal, to find how to play that balance, to be able to hit those down notes but always undercut it and come back to being about how ridiculous these people are. Never let it get too somber, but don’t be afraid to go there, too, because I think the show is elastic enough that it can hold both of those [sentiments] in the same container. When you have the actors to do it, do it.
And setting it back then gives you that sort of leeway to say offensive stuff you can’t get away with in 2020.
Well, that’s tricky, right? It’s a fine line because it’s how people talked, it’s how they worked, it’s how they interacted. These things that you would never say today, that’s how they communicated to one another. If you don’t have some measure of that then you’re not being authentic. But at the same time, you have to tread the line because it can totally take you out for a 2020 audience to hear certain things. So, we’re always walking that line, and often you don’t know how far the line is until you’ve walked across it.
It’s like any comedy these days. You want to push the limits, but you have to realize when something is just racist or sexist and you’re not actually making any points or bringing people in on the joke.
Exactly. You want to make a point of it. You just have to keep in mind what it is you’re trying to accomplish. You want them to be in it, but you want to play these characters for real so you’re going to have them use the language and the tropes that were happening at that time.
You mentioned that in 30 or so years, we’re gonna look back on Twitter and laugh, but you’re on there a lot now. How do you stay sane?
You have to already understand what it is. I don’t really get shook up when dealing with it. Sometimes it’s just people venting their spleen and not really attempting to do anything other than agitate. Those people tend to have the least effect [on me]. It’s when you really feel like, “Wow, there’s an opportunity here, hopefully, to change your mind or even have my mind changed,” to engage with people who are really going through stuff, that’s the value of it. That’s one of the great things that it affords us, but at the same time with all the proliferation of bots and accounts that are literally just trying to sway opinion and not deal genuinely, it’s a tricky minefield. But I anticipate that going in, so it doesn’t really affect me.
Just like the show, you balance it out with some humor.
Absolutely. God, if we don’t have that, then it’s just a wrap, you know? I’ve been tweeting #Asteroid2020. That might be our best way out.
Researching this season, how closely are you paying attention to Trump’s attempts to deregulate the financial sector?
It’s like, “Didn’t we just do this dance?” It’s shocking to me how many supporters he has from places that seem to not have an awareness about what the bottom line really is. They’re supporting a President who gave the top 1% a trillion dollars of tax breaks. I can’t really qualify how it works, other than thinking, “Oh, well, it’s gotta be racism or tribalism.” It’s something other than logic, but somehow they’re behind it. Somehow. There’s a belief, I guess, that they’re going to get there, and they’re going to be able to take advantage of these kinds of breaks. It defies logic to me.
Like, climate change becomes a red or blue issue, not just the “human beings on this planet” issue. Every issue like that is now a wedge issue. You have to pick a side, and you can’t sort of cherry-pick what you want to believe in—that’s when we get in these problems. It’s like if you’re a conservative, you have to believe in all of these things, and if you’re a liberal, you have to believe in all of these things. You can’t parse it. That’s dangerous.
There’s no room for nuance. You have to be on a team.
Yeah, “Pick a team, pick a side.” It’s because people, rightly so in some ways, are feeling the real desperation of where we’re at with our environment, with income inequality. These things are real, we feel them, and it’s what animals tend to do, right? We want to think of ourselves as something much more elevated than just an animal, but we’re just trying to get from rock to rock and not be eaten by a tiger. That’s in our DNA. You’re easy to manipulate when you’re afraid, and that’s what we see happening. You get out of your brain and into your emotions, like, “I need a team. I can’t be out here by myself. There’s a tiger over there!”
So many people are despairing over climate inaction right now. Can you share some reasons for people to be hopeful?
First, awareness is as big as it’s ever been. All of the candidates, no matter who’s the nominee on the Democratic side, they’ve all made climate change a part of their platform and know that this is a critical issue. It’s not something they’re glossing over. That’s a big deal, and a big change. Second, I think that the youth are all over it. Thank God we have people like Greta [Thunberg] and AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and the Green New Deal. There’s a groundswell that’s starting to reach critical mass. Hopefully, we’re able to reengage and be a part of the larger community around the world to push for this. We know we have to get it done. There’s no option.
People often have an inability to act on things that they don’t believe affect them directly. As long as it’s sort of abstract and feels like it’s something that’s happening “over there” to somebody else, a lot of people won’t act. You have to continue to figure out ways to say, “No, this is climate change. This will happen to you. This is happening to you.” That’s going to take constant effort and innovation. You have to tell those stories, and, hopefully, it won’t be, “The water is at your knees. There’s no more Florida. Now, do you see what I’m talking about?”
I’m on the board of a group called The Solutions Project, which is trying to get cities to agree to 100% green energy, dealing with frontline communities, the poor communities, and communities of color that are often the first to have to deal with the results of inaction on climate change, and trying to attempt to get action from a grass-roots level, working to broaden that lens. There are places all over where we’re having success stories and the solutions are coming from people who are having to deal with it—communities showing how to fight when fracking in their neighborhoods or wastewater is coming from factories right into where their kids are going to school. They’re on the front line, fighting these big corporations and winning, but it’s not really a part of the national story, because so many other things are on fire right now. We absolutely need a champion. We need a President and a government that will champion those things and be on the front lines with us.
So how do you plan on staying active during this election year?
Um, I’m going to nap a lot. [Laughs] We’ll see. Once we’re through with this primary and have a nominee, then we’ve just got to get out and really, really, really push and fight for them and try to bring the party together because we’re fractured right now. We’ve all got to get on the same team or we’re just going to deal with four more years of Trump. Or eight years or 12 years. He says that with a smile, but is he joking? We can say that that’s ridiculous, but there are probably a lot of countries around the world we can point to and go, “Yeah, that’s what they thought, too.”
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