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A worthy enterprise

It is high noon during the movie nomination season, and a couple of folding chairs in a fluorescent-lit hallway outside a Hollywood screening room will have to do. Inside, members of the Screen Actors Guild are watching Hotel Rwanda.

Don Cheadle, the star of the film, hunches forward in one of the chairs as he considers, once again, his much talked-about performance as Paul Rusesabagina, the Kigali hotel manager who saved the lives of more than 1,200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the genocidal rampage by Hutus in Rwanda in 1994.

Cheadle has barely opened his mouth when a young man in a suit, with a shaved skull, stops to interrupt: "My friend was over there with the United Nations," says the stranger. "Thanks."

Cheadle nods an assent, "Thanks, man."

Long one of the most highly regarded yet underexposed actors in Hollywood _ notable in movies from Devil in a Blue Dress to Boogie Nights to Ocean's Eleven (and Twelve) _ Cheadle suddenly finds himself the focus of attention not just for his moving portrayal of a real-life hero, but also as an emissary for the issues raised by the film, which is scheduled to open in the Tampa Bay area on Friday.

That off-screen role has become a mission of sorts, though an exhausting one. A week before this mid December screening, Amnesty International presented an award to the real Rusesabagina at the Los Angeles premiere of the movie, which was followed by a concert for Cheadle led by singer Wyclef Jean. Cheadle has given countless interviews and attended endless question-and-answer sessions for Oscar voters, including the one he is waiting for this evening. He said he planned to go to Darfur, in western Sudan, in January to draw attention to the victims of the fighting there.

It is all worth it, of course. "As tired as you are, it's nice to have people show up," said Cheadle, who just turned 40. "It means something. It's substantive."

Hotel Rwanda represents one of those kismetlike moments when an underappreciated actor (Cheadle has never played the lead in a feature film) meets an unmakable script (African genocide is not exactly box office magic) and hits the mark.

Critics have singled out his understated performance as a gem _ one without the scenery chewing that you might expect in a drama about real-life horrors. Instead, Cheadle's Rusesabagina is "heroic and psychologically complex," John Anderson wrote in Newsday. The actor brilliantly portrays "the transformation of one man, as he moved from servant to saint," Stephen Whitty said in the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. "In playing an ordinary man who finds a core of heroism he never knew he had, Cheadle looms like a colossus," Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone. Many critics, including the St. Petersburg Times' Steve Persall, have rated the film among the top 10 of 2004.

But neither the role nor the movie was a sure thing.

The director, Terry George (In the Name of the Father), said he and Keir Pearson wrote the script with Cheadle in mind, but they warned him that the realities of film financing might make him impossible to cast. If Will Smith or Denzel Washington wanted the role, it would go to one of them.

"There's a wealth of black acting talent," George said. "But of those actors who can disappear into a role _ Jeffrey Wright, Harry Lennix _ with Don you get a plus of charisma and personality. We talked and got along great, but I had to caution him, "If someone wants to fund this with another actor, I'm going to have to give that consideration.'

"I'm sure he's heard that a few times in his career."

Cheadle, who is slight and not movie star handsome, said he wasn't offended by the qualified offer. "I said, "If you have to go with someone else, I still want to be involved. I would love to play Paul. But it's more important to make this movie.' "

In the meantime, he got to know Rusesabagina, the soft-spoken former manager of the Hotel des Milles Collines, who bribed and begged his way to securing the safety of Tutsi and Hutu refugees camped at the hotel in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. Cheadle began questioning Rusesabagina, who now lives in Belgium, by e-mail: What did he read? What did he eat? What music did he listen to?

"Anything I could think of, without asking, "When you saw the bodies in a pit,' " Cheadle said. "It seemed like an affront to ask him things like that."

By the time Chris McGurk, the vice chairman and chief operating officer of MGM, which had agreed to distribute the film, decided Cheadle was the right person for the lead role, the actor was mentally prepared.

Cheadle spent two weeks with Rusesabagina in South Africa, where most of the film was shot: eating, talking, feeling his way. "I saw him on the set one day, filming," Rusesabagina said in a telephone interview. "I saw him changing. The way he was talking, his accent, the way of behaving. He took himself and disappeared. He became myself, and did it properly."

Once the producers devised a complex web of financing, production was able to begin, but the conditions were trying. "It wasn't until I got down there that I realized what an awesome task this was," Cheadle said. "We didn't have enough money, enough time."

The first day, the financing fell through. "My agent called and said, "There's no money in escrow,' " Cheadle remembered. "But everybody felt there was no way we wouldn't push through."

The weather also worked against them. It would rain, then the sun would shine on the same day, making continuous shooting impossible.

George had worried that the emotions stirred by the story could spill over off the set, and they did. A riot broke out among the extras, he said, over payment and food, and some of the actors were running wild, wielding real machetes. "It got hairy," he said.

One of the most remarked-upon aspects of Cheadle's performance is his depiction of Rusesabagina's servility to the Hutu butchers who continually threatened to overrun the hotel, while at the same time maintaining his dignity and repressing his horror. It is not a posture that Cheadle, more accustomed to hip, sharp-tongued Western characters, has often taken.

"When I read the script," he said, "I saw a direct parallel between what Paul had been trained to do and the situation: "I appease when I need to. I cajole when I need to. I appear to be weak. Whatever I have to do, moment to moment.' I wasn't trying to play saintly. Paul didn't consider that. I didn't. I liked the foundation of: "I'm going to take care of my family. Then my neighbors. Then all these people.' He wasn't saying, "Bring me your tired, your poor.' It was: "More? You're bringing me more?' "

Asked if there was a moment when he finally felt he had captured the character, Cheadle laughed for the first time in the conversation. "I don't ever really feel like I got it," he said. "I'm always questioning what I did, thinking I missed stuff." He compared the experience of finding a character to seeking a position of balance that lasts a moment, then vanishes. "Even in great performances, you only get a couple of those moments," he said. This time, he admitted: "I visited it. I'm greedy for that."

But the most important thing about making this film, he said, was not that it was the most difficult performance of his career, which it was, or the most prominent, which it was. But rather, it was the sense that he had been part of a worthy enterprise. He recalled that the week before, a friend had come up to him after a screening to offer praise, which at first, Cheadle said, he had tried to deflect. His friend stopped him short. "He said: "It's not about you. It's about moving something forward. You should be honored to be a part of it.' "