On House of Lies, Don Cheadle plays a business consultant who’s no Mitt Romney.
If the business-consulting firm Galweather & Stearn, featured in the new Showtime half-hour comedy series House of Lies, were asked to undertake a thorough review of all the shows on the channel’s roster, it might point out a certain overreliance on the anti-hero. The network’s product range is unusually stacked toward following the exploits of misfits and sociopaths made sympathetic by their raging against the machine. These protagonists have various degrees of redeemability: Homeland’s Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), the recently disgraced CIA agent and secret manic-depressive with a sordid sex life, who goes rogue to expose an American hero as a sleeper for Al Qaeda; Dexter’s serial killer and Miami police blood-spatter expert Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), who sates his bloodlust with perps who’ve dodged punishment thanks to procedural incompetence; painkiller-addicted Nurse Jackie (Edie Falco), who has been known to forge organ-donor records to save patients’ lives. They may be reckless, but they manage to survive on their wits, an uncanny sense of timing, and, well, series renewals.
And now there’s Don Cheadle’s brazen management consultant Marty Kaan, who charms his way into the boardrooms of big, exploitative corporations—and who likes them these days?—to plunder, both financially and sexually. Marty and his clients portray the one percent at their very worst: “You look at the pilot and go, ‘Man, these guys helped these assholes be happier and keep doing their business,’ ” says Cheadle. “But they give themselves the out that ‘We’re not the ones doing it. They’re doing it. We’re just helping them do it better.’ ” House of Lies is based on a satirical exposé of the same name, by a white B-school grad and former TV writer named Martin Kihn, whose other book is a faux memoir–self-help volume titled Asshole. The timing, between Occupy Wall Street and the presidential election, couldn’t be better for a sendup of corporate amorality and the kind of M.B.A. capitalism Mitt Romney, at Bain & Co., helped perfect.
But Cheadle brings subtlety to a character that could have gotten away with leaning on its topicality. While Marty appears to be a man without principles—as aggressive and predatory as any of his mostly white alpha-male colleagues (he preaches “dissing” the client “like a pretty girl so she’ll want you … to make them think they’re almost perfect”)—as an African-American man, he is going to be held to a different standard. (Okay, there’s some political resonance there, too.) Marty has to occasionally overcompensate and, in one instance, even has to step back altogether and let his white female protégée take over and close the deal with a racist client. His negotiations with race, and, inevitably, racism, lend nuance to what could be a too easily detestable character.
Casting Cheadle was Showtime president David Nevins’s idea, according to the actor. “He called my agent and said, ‘We’ve got this part, Don’s the guy I see.’ I don’t know why; I didn’t ask,” Cheadle says. “I came in, and he said, ‘I think you can be funny.’ And when I read it, I was really shocked, because the type of humor is how I clown around with my friends already, the sort of edgy, sardonic, everything is on the table to make fun of, nobody and nothing is safe.”