Las Vegas has been pretty good to Don Cheadle over the years.
He earned his first Emmy nomination and took home his first Golden Globe for playing Sammy Davis Jr. in HBO’s "The Rat Pack." He stole a sizable chunk of the Strip in the "Ocean’s" trilogy. And he’s spent his fair share of time in our poker rooms.
Now, the city is serving as the backdrop to a season-long story arc on "House of Lies" (10 p.m. Sundays, Showtime), the dark comedy that follows a team of unscrupulous management consultants led by the slicker-than-an-oil-spill Marty Kaan. It’s a role that just delivered Cheadle his second Golden Globe.
"I always have a good time in Vegas," he says, by way of understatement, in late November during a break in filming at Caesars Palace.
When Marty’s team realized at the end of last week’s season premiere that they were headed to Las Vegas to help their newest client reinvent his struggling casino, there was a palpable sense of excitement.
After all, season one mostly involved clients in Salt Lake City; Spokane, Wash.; and somewhere in Indiana. Season two finally finds The Pod, as the team is known, in a locale worthy of its swagger.
"There is that kind of ‘Swingers’ vibe with The Pod," series creator Matthew Carnahan says by phone after the five-day shoot wrapped. "And they have so much fun in their recreational lives, as well as mixing business with pleasure. So it was really fun to put them in Vegas and see how these four interact with this playground."
The most obvious way is by interacting with the Strip’s liquor supply.
"That’s a thing that we’ve been told runs in line with what management consultants do, because they work so hard, so many hours, that the way they get out their stress, the way they unwind, is to drink," says Ben Schwartz, who plays womanizing weasel Clyde. "So this place is almost heaven. I think that all these characters in the show have been to this place 1 million times. … I think it’s a piece of their lifestyle."
Unlike other shows’ Vegas episodes, the filming of which usually involves a jaunt to the nearest Indian casino or throwing a beat-up slot machine next to a card table on a soundstage, it was important to Carnahan that "House of Lies" deliver the real thing.
"There’s a lot you can do now with virtual environments … but there’s nothing like just being there. There’s nothing like the Strip," he says. "To be able to put our characters in these strange, wonderful environments … it’s a real pleasure and a real privilege."
And he’s grateful to Caesars Entertainment Corp. for making it happen.
"It is financially prohibitive to bring an entire production" to Las Vegas, Carnahan admits. "We’re not on a feature (film) budget, we’re on a television budget. And they made it possible."
Besides Caesars Palace, the cast filmed at other Caesars properties, including Paris Las Vegas, Planet Hollywood Resort and Bally’s, which is standing in for the fictional Emerald casino.
"In a weird way, because everything seems so kind of glossy, it almost feels like you’re on a set," Josh Lawson, who plays awkward Harvard alum Doug Guggenheim, says of acting in a casino. "It feels like you’re in a studio. The bright lights, the colors, the people."
The cast and crew also ventured onto the Strip itself – tonight’s opening scene in front of Bally’s, for example, or a later one on the median in front of Bellagio where Doug is accosted by an Elvis impersonator – to show off the city’s famous landscape.
"For the actors, it’s great," Cheadle says, "because the environment is undeniably unique, and it’s really specific. And it helps us really be a part of a different world, much different than where we’re usually based in Los Angeles.
"But I think it’s kind of a logistical nightmare for the production having to work around," he adds. "Everything’s so vast and far away from everything else."
That was only one of several obstacles.
"Just any time we filmed on a casino floor was a challenge, because we didn’t control the entire floor," executive producer Jessika Borsiczky recalls. "So from noise and background and just the look of everything, we were somewhat at the mercy of reality."
She admits to being surprised by the sheer number of mobility scooters they had to make way for, and that at least one of them found its way into a key scene.
The other major surprise?
"When you’re working, and you’re in your very alert brain for 12 hours in a casino filming, the ongoing slot-machine sounds and the music and the smoke and the talking – it’s a nonstop assault on your senses," she says. "I was very surprised how mentally exhausted we all were at the end of the day by just having so much stimulation on a casino floor, all day long, without any drinks to take the edge off."
Lawson insists all those stimuli were never distracting.
"You would think. But we’ve all been very focused," he says, near the video monitors set up in front of Caesars’ Shania Twain store. "When we’re working, all we’re thinking about is work. At the end of the day, we go and find a table, maybe let off some steam, donate to the Caesars fund and then hit the hay."
Lawson, friends with the guys in Human Nature from their days in his native Australia, is no stranger to Las Vegas. Though he’s not much of a gambler, he says he’s drawn to the city’s nightclubs and pool parties, including an epic bash one Fourth of July at the Hard Rock Hotel.
"A part of me died in that pool," he jokes. "I lost my innocence that day."
Schwartz, who was making only his third trip here following a bachelor party and an NBA Summer League outing to see the New York Knicks, lamented not getting to see Cirque du Soleil’s "Love." But his trip wasn’t all work.
"Craps at least, when I lose money, it takes longer for me to lose money," he admits, still sounding dazed from his time at the tables. "Blackjack was just, it was just so quick."
Cheadle managed to sneak off to play poker during lunch breaks and won some money at the craps tables. But aside from nightly dinners and a celebration for his birthday, the 12-hour days didn’t allow for much in the way of extracurriculars.
Not that they didn’t try.
"Every night we’ve been here, we’ve all been out together at night after work. We really do have a closeness," Cheadle says of his co-stars. "It’s not a manufactured thing. We’re really tight."
The cast and crew could tend to some of that unfinished business when they return early next month to shoot scenes for the season finale.
But during their November trip, they were just thankful for the rare excursion outside Los Angeles – the first for "House of Lies" since filming its pilot episode in New York.
"It’s a pretty rare and exciting thing to be a part of," Lawson says of the trip. "I think we’re appreciative of that, and so it’s not like, ‘Oh, God. Vegas. Do we have to?’ It’s not like we’re in the middle of Alaska. It’s kind of a cool place to be."
Contact Christopher Lawrence at email@example.com or 702-380-4567.