Don Cheadle Talks Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA.” Video, Being the Original Kung Fu Kenny

Yesterday, after releasing his new album DAMN. and delivering a huge headlining set at Coachella, Kendrick Lamar dropped the stunning new video for “DNA.” The clip, directed by Nabil and the Little Homies, stars Don Cheadle as a police officer who interrogates Kendrick before rapping the song. Throughout the video, Kendrick is dressed in a Kung Fu Kenny costume—an homage to Cheadle’s character from the 2001 movie Rush Hour 2. Today, Cheadle spoke to Pitchfork over the phone about his appearance in the video, how he had two days to learn the lyrics, the ad-libbed dialogue from the video, his text conversations with Kendrick, the time he offered Kendrick an acting job, and how he only just figured out that he’s the inspiration behind Kung Fu Kenny.

Pitchfork: You obviously learned the trumpet for your portrayal of Miles Davis in last year’s biopic Miles Ahead. How did you prepare to rap in a Kendrick video?

Don Cheadle: Well, it was a very different process. I didn’t have to figure out how to play anything like I did for Miles Ahead. As opposed to about eight years to try to figure out the movie and get ready for that, I had two days to get ready for the video. Kendrick just hit me out of the blue and just said, “Hey man, I’m going to do this video, do you wanna be in it?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” And then he said, “Do you want to know what the part is?” He was like, “Yeah, you’re gonna come in and play a cop, and you’re interrogating me, and then you’re just gonna spit my rap.”

I was like, “Uh OK, you know you’re like the best rapper in the world, so what are you talking about.” He sent me the lyrics and was like, “You just have to get this much of it down,” which was like half of it [laughs]. I was like, “Are you gonna have a teleprompter?” And he said, “No, it’s gonna be fine.”

So I crammed like we have to do as actors. It’s tricky, because it’s not a linear process. His thought process is not linear. That was probably the trickiest part of it—to figure out how thoughts led to each other. As a human being, he’s pretty normal and straight ahead, but when you listen to his rhymes, he’s constructing ideas in ways that are not immediately understandable. It takes a deep dive to kind of figure out why one verse creates the other verse and what it comes out of and all of that. So it’s tricky to memorize because it’s so specific to the way he thinks. But then when we got in there, we really just started playing. We just started improvising, really.

It’s crazy that you only had two days. I wondered if you had this album weeks before everybody. 

No. I literally had that song. They sent me that and said, “Can you do it?” And they sent me a couple of video clips of him literally just sitting in a trailer, just kind of moving. They said, “We want you to get his movements, ’cause you’re kind of going to be mirroring him at some point.” So they sent me a couple clips of the way he moved and him doing the rhyme, just really casual and laid back. And then we showed up and it happened really fast because they had the entire rest of that video they had to shoot with cars and all of that stuff. So we just kind of improv’d it. The cameras moved around a lot. Nabil, who directed it, was just really clever about how to cover it. We did it like five or six times and that was it.

The part where you ask if he knows what “DNA” stands for—was that something you came up with or was that Kendrick?

That was me. He just said, “You’re a cop, and you’re going to be messing with him and getting in his face. So just fuck with him.” So I said, “OK, well this would be a pretty fucked up thing to say” [laughs]. So I just improv’d all the dialogue, everything I said. I did it once, and after we finished it, Kendrick was like, “Yeah, say that again. Say exactly that. Do that one again.”

Did you see that Geraldo criticized Kendrick again?

Kendrick sent that to me. It’s just hilarious. It’s like, “Wow dude, you don’t have anything better to do? That’s not your lane, bro.”

You introduced Kendrick’s amazing performance at the Grammys last year. What was it like being right there?

It was amazing, and again, it was a complete surprise. I was walking the red carpet and everybody was saying, “Have you seen it? Do you know what he’s going to do?” And I was like, “No.” It did not disappoint.

Right before I announced it, they stuck me somewhere—I had to go stand somewhere before I walked on stage—and Robert Glasper just happened to be standing in front of me. Neither one of us knew, and as soon as it was over, he just turned around and looked at me, and we just stared at each other for 10 seconds. Like, “What did we just see?” Incredible.

Did you already know Kendrick before then?

Dre had connected us because I wanted to use Kendrick in some project I was doing—his music, for sure. I maybe wanted him to try his hand at acting, which he was very reticent to do at that time. He didn’t feel like that was his lane and said he wasn’t ready. I really appreciated that, because a lot of people are like, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” just because they want that shine. He was like, “Nah, I don’t do anything unless I know I can do it.”

But we just stayed in touch from that point on. We texted, “Hey what’s happening,” he’s like, “oh I’m on tour, I’m working on this music.” I’d be somewhere and I’d get a text just out of the blue saying, “what’s up big bro, what’s happening.” So we just kind of stayed in touch like that over a couple years, and then a month ago, he said, “Oh I’m gonna do this video, do you wanna do it?”

What’s your take on the second half of the video? It shows this much more varied life than Geraldo or whoever is saying Kendrick represents. What’s your take on what the video means?

I loved it. I love the whole video. Like I said, to me, he is real. He’s just real and straight-up and honest and truthful and generous to the degree that he lets you in. He lets you see the cracks in the armor. He lets you see his insecurities and all that stuff. It’s just rare to have any kind of artist do that—especially a hip-hop artist. He’s kind of the anti-hip-hop artist in that way.

What thoughts do you have about the rest of the album?

I haven’t heard it! I didn’t even know that I was the Kung Fu Kenny model. I didn’t know that until the next day. He got that from my character in Rush Hour 2. He was like, “Duh!” He texted me like, “Dude are you serious? You didn’t know that?” I totally forgot about that. I’ve been working too long, I didn’t even remember that.

He’s dressed like your character, right?

Yes! When he hit me, before the video, he said, “The video, it’s gonna be here, and I’ve got a little surprise for you.” I was like, “Cool.” So I showed up, I did the thing, then I left, and I did not put it together. Then I went to Coachella and saw him perform, and I saw the video before the thing and still didn’t figure it out. And then I went on Twitter and someone had randomly tweeted, “Don Cheadle is the original Kung Fu Kenny.” I went, “Wait a minute, I did play a character named Kenny who did kung fu and spoke Chinese.”

And I texted Kendrick and was like, “Hey man, am I the inspiration for Kung Fu Kenny? Because I’m going to say I am whether I am or not.” He was like, “Fam, that was the surprise. So, surprise!” Oh shit! I feel stupid now.

I wonder what he was thinking the whole two days when we were together and I hadn’t said anything about it. He was like, “What’s wrong with this dude? Is he senile? Does he hate it? Is he not a fan?” It was obvious. Now, when you say it, it’s obvious.

You talked about Kendrick and Kamasi Washington while you did press for Miles Ahead, and you worked with Robert Glasper. How do you find new music?

Through them. It’s kind of like how Joseph Campbell talked about how he became a scholar. I’m not saying I’m a scholar, but he’d read all the people he liked and then he’d go and read all the people that they read. Then he’d read that person and see who that person read. That’s kind of how it is. I look at the people that Rob has worked with. You look at the tracks and see who the people are. You find them and what their music is and who they’ve worked with. It just kind of works like that. Christian Sands, Christian McBride, Walter Smith III, Kamasi Washington—all these young cats that are really doing it now. And the guys who have still been doing for a long time. I still listen to Wynton [Marsalis], who I love.

source”times of india”