You may not realize it, but Djimon Hounsou is a fantastic actor who has been called upon by some of the biggest and best directors working today to be in some pretty great films. Although it wasn’t his first film, AMISTAD was the work that brought Hounsou his first serious recognition (even garnering a Best Actor Golden Globe nomination). Since then, he’s been nominated for two Supporting Actor Oscars (for IN AMERICA and BLOOD DIAMOND), and he’s been featured prominently in such works as GLADIATOR, THE FOUR FEATHERS, CONSTANTINE, THE ISLAND, LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE, and Julie Taymor’s surreal take on Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST.
And his roster of upcoming films is impressive as well, including roles in the exorcism-themed THE VATICAN TAPES, the long-delayed SEVENTH SON, next year’s FAST & FURIOUS 7 and David Yates-directed update of TARZAN. And although Hounsou came to Chicago last week to promote his wildly entertaining vocal performance as the villainous Drago Bludvist in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2, I was hoping to get him to speak just a bit about his role as Korath the Pursuer in Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. His simple delivery of the word “Who?!” in every trailer and commercial I’ve seen for GUARDIANS cracks me up every time; he’s so full of confusion and frustration in that moment, that he reveals the tone of the entire film in a single moment.
Hounsou is an actor whose physical presence and booming voice absolutely command respect and authority in every role he plays. In person, well, he’s a warm-hearted man, still with that deep baritone, but it seems more soothing than commanding. He was a great guy to talk to, and I hope that comes across here. Please enjoy my talk with Djimon Hounsou…
Djimon Hounsou: Nice to meet you.
Capone: Nice to meet you too
DH: Well, thank you.
Capone: Working on an animated film, does it feel like a different kind of acting to you, or do you approach it more or less the same way you would a live-action role?
DH: Oh, no. I think generally you have to approach it the same way. It just seems a little more theatrical, which is quite liberating, because I think we come from a very animated world. That’s certainly the way I think we started communicating, starting with the verb and being so animated. The process at first would seem quite clinical, in a way, but during the production of it, eventually you realize that it’s quite rewarding and quite liberating to be in a room, and it’s just you and the director, and you have the full attention of the director. It’s like an extravagant approach to the character.
Capone: Do you tend to get physical in the booth? Do you move around a lot and break a sweat?
DH: Yeah, yeah. And that’s also again a problem, because you have to stay with the mic. You can do everything else, but when you come to deliver the line, you’ve got to stay with the mic, you know? So yeah that’s the whole part of it that’s a little bit clinical, and also you never really interact with any of the other actors.
Capon: Is a lot of the process just getting multiple versions of the same line, so they have things to choose from?
DH: Well, obviously they have a storyline, and that storyline is ultimately where where you’re heading with the story and your character. I’ve come to understand the process a little bit myself, but they have an organic idea of what they want to do, what’s the scene, how you’re interacting with the other actor, even though the other person is not there. So it’s a process of marrying the voices, and the feedback from that, and the intonation that you go back to try and finesse.
Capone: So, with a character named Drago Bludvist, you really don’t have any choice but to be a bad guy.
DH: I mean, no, listen. When I got offered the role, and I heard the name, the name was enough for me to create a backstory of this character. When you have a name like that, like you said, Drago Bludvist, I mean damn!
Capone: Were they able to show you what he was going to look like before you did the voice?
DH: I had a somewhat a outline of his physicality, of what he was supposed to look like.
Capone: Did that inspire you at all? Did that change anything about the way performed?
DH: No, I think the name really did it for me. And obviously, the notion that he’s you trying to form the dragon army by indoctrinating any dragon on the face of the earth. That in itself was pretty inspirational.
Capone: Was Cannes the first time that you saw the finished film?
DH: Cannes was the first time.
Capone: And it’s probably the first time you met most of the actors, too.
DH: It’s truly the first time we all met. “Oh, you’re in this? She’s in that? Oh really? Who does she play?” And again, at the end of the day, you get so enveloped by the story that you forget who’s doing what, and who’s the voice of that.
Capone: Were you a fan of the first film even before you knew about this one?
DH: Yes. I had seen the first one with my kids, and my boy was less than five when I started recording—he was maybe four when I started recording this, so he was with me a couple of times when I went to DreamWorks to record. There was nothing to see, and unfortunately he was like, “Okay, I’m going to be playing with dragons next door; I’ll see you later.”
Capone: They always say that no villain actually sees himself as a bad guy. Would you agree with that?
DH: Absolutely. Righteously, they’re going after what they think is right.
Capone: This guy’s pretty nasty, though.
DH: He is pretty nasty. But as nasty as he is, you’ve have to see that his default system must be as nasty, if not worse.
Capone: Is it easier to play it that way, if you think that in his mind he’s doing something that’s righteous, something that makes sense to him.
DH: Yeah, of course. It has to be right for him. It has to be dignified, that’s certainly the approach. But when you look at a character, it would be a disservice to the character to hinder or somewhat tone it down because it’s geared for kinds. No, a villain is a villain, and you can be actually looking like a parody of your own self playing these villains, but at the end of the day, they’re all driven by a very organic issue, and you’ve got to play it very organically and give your all, give all of yourself into the character. So I never really thought about making a film for kids.
Capone: He is a legitimately scary character who does something—one thing in particular that I won’t ruin—pretty horrific to one of the other characters in the film. Did you ever get a sense that that was a concern about it being too much for small kids?
DH: [laughs] No, because you can always tone it down if you have to, but I do think bad guys need to be themselves—kids or not kids. No limits at all.
Capone: Do you remember some specific directions [director] Dean DeBlois gave you about how to play the character?
DH: There was a lot of suggestions. But again, it’s part of our job when you get a role like that, you do a bit of, I always want to say “”soul searching” for the character. Who are you? What made you that way? It was a very nice character to play, getting a name like that and also wanting to be in a world where you control dragons. Somebody who lives with dragons, breeds dragons, day in day out, whether it’s for the good of the dragons or not. It’s still a force to be reckoned with if you can control dragons.
Capone: The world is flooded right now with posters and trailers and other promotions for GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. In that first trailer, your line delivery to Chris Pratt where you just say, “Who?” makes me laugh every time. It’s so funny because it’s serious.
DH: That is the craziness of James Gunn.
Capone: I was going to ask you, how much fun was it to work with him?
DH: It was great, it was great. He’s a great guy, and he absolutely has the brain to search and cultivate that world. He’s so creative. That world was all his vision, in a way, and to create all those galaxies and space stations and all that—unbelievable. He did an amazing job. I was looking at it thinking, wow, what a huge undertaking. Everybody’s somewhat of a creature. Even when you look like a human being, a normal human being, you’re actually a creature looking like a human being. So, he created a world for us that was absolutely unbelievable. I have yet to see the film, and I have yet to comprehend the level that he was able to create.
Capone: You much be so excited for people to see it
DH: I’M excited to see it. Never mind the people [laughs].
Capone: Starting with you.
DH: Yeah, I made this film. I’m excited to see that world that I read on paper, that I had such a hard time comprehending, because everything was so science fictional, including the terminologies and all that. “What world is this?”
Capone: I don’t know how much you can say, but other than that one scene that we see in every trailer, are you seen throughout the film?
DH: No, I’m seen throughout the film.
Capone: I’m aware from the comic books, your character’s connection to some of the other characters that are in the movie. When you first were given this role, did Marvel give you the materials about your character and have you read up on the comic book?
DH: No. They were more like, “You’re on your own, brother.”
Capone: That’s funny. Just the script?
DH: No, there was nothing to see, there was nothing to pick from, there was nothing to draw from.
Capone: Have you seen what the character looks like in the comic books? He looks very different.
DH: Yeah, no, completely different. But that’s the fun part of this.
Capone: You can reinvent it.
DH: Yeah, you can completely reinvent it. We kept the essence of the character, who is a killing machine.
Capone: People might not realize this is the first time that you’ve worked in the Marvel universe, because you did the animated series of “Black Panther,” which is such a great series. I have to wonder if they’re going to let you take a crack at that in the film, too.
DH: I hope so. Everybody wonders that, and everybody wants to see this come to life. Everyone wants to see Black Panther come to life, and I think it’s way overdo. And certainly I hope that in a short while we’ll see maybe a real superhero of Africa, of the African people. We all need a super heroes, to be connected to somebody, or to identify ourselves with someone. So it would be nice. It’s way overdo.
Capone: Have you heard anything? Have they given you any indication?
DH: No, no. Marvel is very tight with that stuff.
Capone: Secretive, yeah.
DH: Oh yeah, to even get my script for GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, I had to physically sign all sorts of things. They have a great way of approaching the material and developing their stuff. They obviously have a great model for it and are very successful with it. Film after film, it’s just blockbuster after blockbuster.
Capone: Speaking of blockbusters, you’re also a part of the next FAST & FURIOUS film for next summer.
DH: Next summer. It was supposed to come out for this summer, but...
Capone: Right, obviously.
DH: It surely is the first one I’ve been in, FAST & FURIOUS 7. We’re hoping to accomplish so much with this because obviously, knowing the drama that happened in between [with the death of star Paul Walker]. Yeah, we’re just about finished with it. I know they’re shooting right now in LA, and it’s good. It’s great.
Capone: Did you have any scenes with Paul Walker in what you shot? I don’t know anything about the character that you’re playing.
DH: No, of course. I did not have scenes with him. But again, the story lines are all entwined, and sometimes we’re in the same scene without ever necessarily being in contact with one another. Much like it was with me and the other actors recording HOW TO TRAIN A DRAGON 2.
Capone: And I’m also hearing that you’re going to be a part of the TARZAN film for the year after that .
DH: Yeah, I’m heading over to London in a little over a week to begin filming that.
Capone: Can you tell me who you play in that?
DH: I play a chief. I haven’t really dived into the character yet myself.
Capone: No soul searching yet?
DH: Yeah, no soul searching. [Laughs] Probably in a little. With any meaningful character, there’s always soul searching.
Capone: It sounds like they’re picking up the Tarzan story after he’s come back to London, and he’s called back to the jungle to deal with something. So that’s a little different take on what we’ve seen before.
DH: Yeah, it’s a more mature TARZAN.
Capone: You’re also in this VATICAN TAPES film, which Michael Peña and I talked about a while ago. What do you do in that film?
DH: Well, I play a priest who has some understanding of the occult, where exorcisms are concerned.
Capone: So he’s an expert in exorcism?
DH: [Pauses] Expert is a big word [laughs]. He knows something about it, yeah. He knows a thing or two.
Capone: Do you know about when that’s finally going to come out?
DH: I’m a little bit confused about that. I hear the end of the year, and then I hear sometime early next year [currently the film has a 2015 release slated]. So I’m not sure. I know that I still have to go back and do ADR.
Capone: It was really great to meet you. Thank you so much.
DH: Absolutely, absolutely. Thanks, it’s a pleasure.