Don Cheadle’s viciously dishonest corporate consultant Marty Kaan on Showtime’s House Of Lies isn’t exactly a departure for the actor, but it might be the most fun he’s had in a role. Following a tense, dramatic season that saw Kaan clawing his way back after a stint in jail, Cheadle has nabbed his fourth Emmy nomination (and eighth overall) for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for the part. Here, the Oscar-nominated actor (for Hotel Rwanda, and he also was a producer on the Oscar-winning Crash) talks about tapping into Kaan’s hidden sociopathy, audience wish fulfillment and the show’s plans to get back to basics in the upcoming fifth season.

You’re obviously not unfamiliar with being recognized. Why do you think this role keeps connecting with Emmy voters?

Maybe because he is such a fun, unscrupulous character, it tickles people’s id, where they’d love to be able to play around and sort of not give a f*ck and just go for it. But it may also have something to do with all the money I’m spreading around Hollywood. (Laughs.) It’s one or the other I’m not sure.

You’ve not often played someone quite this ruthless. What’s that like?

This is the most balls-out (character), just owning it and loving it–his own duplicitous nature. It’s a lot of fun to go to places you would not necessarily ever go in real life. I was as surprised as those around me that I was called to be the guy. It’s definitely not what I’d consider typecasting. I mean, his name is Marty Kaan, let’s be honest.

Thinking about wish fulfillment, of course Marty Kaan isn’t just being ruthless to be a straight bad guy, his team basically rips off some very terrible people.

Some of the biggest criminals are bankers and these guys who, if it weren’t for the fact that they could change the rules, would clearly be criminals. (They’re) of a much higher order than quote-unquote blue-collar criminals who might hit you over the head and take your wallet but can’t take down Sacramento. These guys destroy entire towns and bloodlines. I think when you think of that sort of criminal, that kind of purveyor of evil, those guys always do it best in suits and ties. And there is a delicious sort of delight that they take in being able to so mercilessly and callously wield that kind of power. So I think it’s fun for our characters and the way we can couch what we’re doing as not evil so much as that we’re doing it to those guys. We’re even more clever because we’re thinking about ways to take those guys down.

Don Cheadle in House of Lies
“Because he is such a fun, unscrupulous character, it tickles people’s id,” Cheadle says of his House of Lies character Marty Kaan.

People are clearly fascinated in this era with powerful malefactors, white-collar criminals, powerful antiheroes.

Maybe there’s something about being able to enjoy that in the comfort of your own home. You can root for those guys. There’s also a fair amount of honesty in the fact that these men acknowledge their flawed nature. They understand that the part of their nature that allows them to be the way they are is some level of sociopath. Marty’s ballast is always his family, and his son, and we see the way he cares. So did serial killers. These guys acknowledge that.

Where do you see the character headed?

He’s a new dad, and that’s an interesting consternation for him. “How do I parent this child in the way I didn’t parent my other child? What is my relationship to the woman who has my baby?” Our best relationship is professional, not personal. I think he’s in flux and that’s what’s fun—at the beginning of every season we just don’t know. I’m excited to see how these things will weigh on him and his relationships.

What about next season? Where does the show go from that relatively happy ending in the finale? 

What we’ve kind of put up on the board and (need to) make sure we get to is really the fun of this group, really back to the pod. We’ve done some heavier stuff the last couple of seasons. We’ve done a lot of things like that and I think we want to get back to the fun of this troop, taking down these big marks, get back to the 1% running from the 1%.

Thinking back to the most recent season, and before, what are your favorite scenes or arcs?

I loved our Vegas arc; that was a lot of fun. The Marty-and-Jeannie (Kristen Bell) dynamic, all that. Last year with T.I., the DollaHyde storyline was really crackling. I feel very fortunate to go to work every day and have the writers come up with these interesting narratives that I hadn’t anticipated would be part of someone I would be playing. I could point out a ton of times, just improv moments where Ben (Schwartz) or Josh (Lawson) or Kristen say something that gets into the show and onscreen. We never know when it’s going to come and the fact that we have the ability to do that and have it be part of the show is a joy.

When you have the cast that we have, especially our core pod, who have all done improv and are comfortable with it and the energy of the characters and what they do, trying to obfuscate and double-talk and use nomenclature that no one else understands. It just lends itself to a kind of rapid-fire patois that we get, and I think often we just take it off the page and banter. We’ll do that for a take, and that will sometimes become, “We’ll change the lines and do that.”

Sometimes improvs just get thrown in. We have one scene where, really early—the second episode, I think—some characters were going through a horrible divorce and were just beefing in front of us, in the worst way possible, calling each other names. And the woman says something disparaging about (the husband). And the line that was written is him saying, “What’s another word for c–t?” And Ben said off the cuff, “Oh God, there’s many”—an improv he threw out that made it onto the show that was so dark and wrong and so funny. (Laughs.)

What about for your character specifically?

There was a line a while back when Marty is arguing with Jeannie, and he’s cauterizing his emotions because of what happened between them and how she’s possibly sending him to jail. And she says something like, “Can you just have a reaction?” And I’m sitting there, deadpan, and I say, “This is my reaction.” Marty can be vicious that way. Though I think it’s always out of a place of protection for himself. He’s ultimately not a sociopath, he clearly loves his family, and those idiots are his friends.

To see Cheadle in a clip of House Of Lies with co-star Kristen Bell, click play below: