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The Schindler of Rwanda

Don Cheadle on Paul Rusesabagina and 'Hotel Rwanda'

By Douglas Hyde
Special to

Don Cheadle

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- On April 6, 1994, the president of Rwanda was killed when his plane was shot down near the airport in the country's capital, Kigali.

Rwanda erupted in war. Within 100 days, 800,000 people were dead -- the vast majority members of the country's minority group, the Tutsis, by members of the dominant group, the Hutus.

The genocide was dominated by indecision and paralysis on the part of the West, with the United States, Western nations and United Nations doing little to stop the carnage.

However, a Kigali hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, managed to save more than 1,000 people, protecting them from Hutu forces and earning comparisons to "Schindler's List's" Oskar Schindler, the German who saved thousands of Jews during World War II. A new movie, "Hotel Rwanda," tells Rusesabagina's story -- and the larger story of the genocide. (See review of "Hotel Rwanda.")

Last month, producer Douglas Hyde talked to actor Don Cheadle, who portrays Rusesabagina, about the film. This is an edited transcript of their interview.

CNN: I thought your performance was so convincing, so authentic. I didn't see Don Cheadle up there on the screen, I saw Paul Rusesabagina. How did you do it?

DON CHEADLE: Well, when I read the script it really leapt off the page and was so compelling and so engaging, right off the bat -- and about something that very few people have a real knowledge of. Even when we were in Africa, I realized that a lot of the Africans we worked with did not know about the genocide. ...

And then, once I met Paul, [I] just picked up on a few things from him, more his spirit and just the quality of human being that he was -- not any real specifics about how he held his hands or twiddled his thumbs (although I did pick up some of that stuff) -- it was mostly just a general feeling I got from what kind of man he was.

CNN: It seemed to me Paul was able to save lives because he was a gentleman. It's kind of rare to see a hero so classy. Would you agree with that?

CHEADLE: What was amazing to me is what got Paul through it was that he relied on what he knew the best, which was this set of skills that he had from being a hotel manager ... being someone who was a coordinator and a fire putter-outer. That's what he did. He was able to just translate that set of skills to this harrowing and horrible event.

That's what actually got him through. Knowing how to talk to people, when he had to knowing how to hustle people, knowing how to bribe people, knowing how to reprimand, knowing how to do all those things that he needed to do, and in the proper order.

Cheadle as hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina in "Hotel Rwanda."

Also, [he was] lucky as hell. Because it could have all gone south at anytime. It wasn't a guarantee that what he was doing was going to save them. He thought he was going to die every day.

CNN: There is a powerful scene where Paul's about to get on the truck with his family and ride to safety. He pulls back at the last moment and sends them on their way while he stays behind to help the other people at the hotel. What do you think got him to that point? Most of us would make sacrifices for our family, but to put our life in danger for strangers? That's a big leap.

CHEADLE: Well, for one, they really weren't strangers. Everyone that worked at that hotel, he had worked with for many many years. They were like family members to him.

And they were his neighbors. Everyone from his neighborhood fled to his house, to the hotel, so it was like his neighbors were there. To let Paul tell it, he couldn't live with knowing if he had left, that they would have been killed and he could have done something to save them and he didn't. So in a way [though] it's sort of selfish, it was as selfless as it was selfish, saying I could not live with myself and wake up everyday knowing that I left 6,500 people behind and I could have done something to protect them and they were all killed on my watch, so to speak.

CNN: Sometimes it's a fine line between selfishness and selflessness ...

CHEADLE: Yeah. It looks heroic, but underneath it was soul-saving for him, in a way.

(CNN also interviewed Rusesabagina, who had this to say: "I said, 'No, I'm not leaving.' People couldn't believe me until the time I took my wife and children and sent them on the trucks and I stayed. It was a very hard decision to be taken, but it was the only decision that should have been taken. Because leaving a thousand people in a hotel and going, knowing that one day what was taking place in Rwanda was going to be over and I had to face history and regret the whole of my life -- I wouldn't do that. I might die, but I die as a man. Instead of dying like someone who didn't do anything.")

CNN: Another thing that struck me is that if this happened again, I don't know if the West would do anything differently.

CHEADLE: Well, are they? They aren't doing anything now. Darfur is raging, the Sudan is out of control, northern Uganda is going crazy. It's a pattern that we've seen happen again and again, and I don't know to what degree we've learned anything or are being challenged to do anything.

CNN: Are you at all concerned about the film's dark subject matter?

CHEADLE: I think people can be potentially nervous about the subject matter of this film, but I hope that the word gets out about this film, and you guys [the press] have a lot to do with that.

The movie is not a gore fest. There's difficult content, to be sure, but it's a film that 13-, 14-year-olds, high school, junior high school kids should see because on top of it being about something real and telling us about events that we really didn't know about, it is a thriller. It is a love story. It is entertaining. And at the end of the day, very uplifting.

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