Kendrick Lamar - DNA. (screen grab) CR: KendrickLamarVEVO/YouTube
Credit: KendrickLamarVEVO/YouTube

The video for Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA.” begins with the rapper sitting in an empty interrogation room. Then, Don Cheadle, looking stern and suspicious, walks in. Soon, he’s miming the DAMN. track’s verses to Lamar himself before the two start taking turns aggressively, impressively mouthing the rhymes to each other. Cheadle makes it look easy, but the Avengers star wasn’t exactly confident when Lamar gave him the assignment.

“I listened to the track, and I was like, ‘You’re out of your mind. Like, have you heard how you rap?'” Cheadle tells EW, laughing. “I crammed, like we often do as actors, and with some directing and editing, they made it work.”

This collaboration has been long in the making for the two, who have wanted to work together for a couple of years; Cheadle says he wanted Lamar to star as Junior in his directorial debut Miles Ahead, a role that eventually went to Atlanta’s LaKeith Stanfield. And though the “DNA.” clip marks the first time they’ve officially joined forces, Cheadle plays a very important part on DAMN.; he just didn’t know it.

Lamar mentions “Kung Fu Kenny” multiple times on his latest record and even kicked off his Coachella headlining set this past weekend with a short, kung fu-style film. As Cheadle learned just this week, that’s all a reference to a minor role he had in 2001’s Rush Hour 2: The character he played was the owner of a Chinese restaurant named Kenny who impressed Jackie Chan’s character with his martial arts knowledge.

Read on for the amusing story of how Cheadle discovered he is, in fact, Kung Fu Kenny, plus why Lamar’s putting off acting, and what the rapper’s music means to him.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How was memorizing this rap different than memorizing lines for, say, a movie?
DON CHEADLE: It’s tricky with Kendrick because the complexities of how his thoughts work. It’s very poetic, and it’s not linear, necessarily. As an actor in a scene, you know what you’re playing, you know what the other actor is saying, you’re usually on a track that you can track very specifically. But when he says, “You see fireworks and Corvette tires skirt the boulevard,” you’re like, “fireworks and Corvette tires?” [Laughs] So to make the connection also while I’m looking at him, saying his rhymes to him — that was a little intimidating. Everybody just made it comfortable. Nabil, the director, made it great. All that back and forth we were doing was just completely improv, which was fun for me. I was like, “Oh, you wanna improv?” Between takes, I said, “Dude, this is where it’s at. You can do this.” I said, “I’m going to cast you in something, and you’re going to have to say yes.” He was like, “All right, all right. I’m just trying to figure out if I can be an actor.” I’m like, “I’m going to cast you in the right thing, I’ll protect you, but I need you to come do something.” He owes me one.

Was he seriously considering being in Miles Ahead?
He thought about it. To his credit, he’s like, “I’m not going to do anything that I cannot do well. And I’m not going to come in there and do it halfway, and I don’t think I’m ready.” And he was working on To Pimp a Butterfly. He had to go make an epic project. It worked out great because we got a great actor in there, we got LaKeith Stanfield, and that was amazing. But since that time, we’ve just stayed in touch. He was going to potentially be doing a story about his life, about him growing up, so he’d call me up and say, “Hey, how do you go about writing a script or getting a story or breaking it down?” So we talk about a lot of stuff.

What does his music mean to you?
He’s just really innovative and doing it differently and has a great ear for music. One of my favorite tracks on To Pimp a Butterfly is “For Free.” Him being a horn basically soloing over a straight-ahead jazz track, I’ve never heard anybody do that. And Wynton Marsalis, a good friend of mine who’s just not into rap, is not into hip-hop, I was like, “Hold on a second,” and I played that track for him, and he was like, “Oh no, that’s dope.” [Laughs] “That was dope.” To get someone like Wynton to be into that, that’s huge. For me, I’m just into innovators. That’s why I love [Miles Davis] so much. Just do something interesting. Violate the form. And that’s all in his brain. I was asking him about the track, and I said, “Is it your idea to slow the track down in the middle and do these stops and starts? These tempo changes? These different time signatures?” He’s like, “Yeah, that’s all in my head.” I’m like, “Okay. You’re a cool, sick individual.”

When are you going to work together again?
It’ll probably be something organic like this was. I was with him at Coachella, and when we left each other, I was like “We’re gonna do something else,” and he was like, “For sure,” and I was like, “Peace.”

You played Kenny in Rush Hour 2, and Kendrick references Kung Fu Kenny a bunch on the album. Is that a direct reference to that character?
The funniest thing about the whole thing was, after I shot the video, he’s like, “So we’re doing these dates at Coachella, you should come to Coachella and kick it.” I’m like, “I’ve never even thought about coming to Coachella, that’s not my thing at all, but because you’re going to be there, for sure I’ll come to Coachella.” So he says, “Okay, come, it’ll be dope. And I’m going to have a little surprise for you.” So I came, I saw him perform, it was dope. He has this crazy karate movie that he has before the concert which is weird and cuts all through it and is really bizarre and funny and out of his brain and great. Crazy-great kung fu movie. We ride back, we actually ate at P.F. Changs [laughs], and hung out, and then I left, and I went on my Twitter account and somebody wrote, “Don Cheadle, the original Kung Fu Kenny” and put a picture of Rush Hour 2 up. I was like, wait a minute. So I texted him. I said, “Is Kung Fu Kenny me?” He’s like, “That’s what the surprise was. Damn.” I was like, “Oh, I didn’t get it at all.” [Laughs] He’s like, “Yeah that’s what the surprise was, so… surprise.”

And this was after the Coachella set, correct?
Yeah, the next day. I had no idea. I texted him back, and he was like, “Yeah, that was the surprise.” I said to my wife, “I wonder what he was thinking the whole time. ‘Like, is this dude gonna say anything? What’s he thinking? Oh, is he mad? Because he has to remember that he played that part, right?’” It’s like, “No, I’ve been doing this for too long, I’m too old.” [Laughs.]

So you are Kung Fu Kenny. That is confirmed.
He confirmed it.