Djimon Hounsou discusses his latest role in Julie Taymor's adaptation of William Shakespeare's classic play
Actor Djimon Hounsou first gained attention for his work in a string of successful movies including Stargate, Amistad and Gladiator, but it was his performances in the films In America and Blood Diamond that earned him his two Oscar nominations for best supporting actor.
Since then Hounsou has appeared in such popular films as Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life, Constantine, The Island, Eragon and Push. But soon the actor will take on a new challenge: Shakespeare. With his role in director Julie Taymor's adaptation of the classic play The Tempest. We recently had a chance to speak with Djimon Hounsou about the new film, his role, his fear of Shakespeare and working with Helen Mirren. Here is what he had to say:
Can you begin by talking about director Julie Taymor's unique vision for this film?
Djimon Hounsou: Well, it truly was her vision that got me attached to the project and got my manager and my wife pushing me to take the meeting. I had sort of shied away from Shakespeare since the first time I screen tested for it. I screen tested for it for with Julie in Titus, at the time. It left such a bad memory in my mind.
Can you tell us about that audition? What was it that put such a bad taste in your mouth about doing Shakespeare?
Djimon Hounsou: It was just difficult. I had just finished Amistad. I had just come to this country and just learned the language when I got here. I learned the language for the work. So obviously, my first early films in English were still very raw, but here, this time around my comprehension was much better. Yeah, when I did the screen test back then, I was really frustrated and it left a bad taste in me. After that, when I got the call from my manager, I said no. He said that I should really take the meeting and see what she has to say. I obviously hung up and my wife went off on me. So she drove me over there, pregnant, to the meeting and it was actually a nice meeting. Her concept got to me. As beautiful, intriguing and exciting as it may have seemed, it is only after the second make up test that I began to re-think things. It is one thing to past the language and aspect the challenge, I got past that. What's left is the make up, which is grueling. I didn't think I could survive five hours of make up.
So you had never played a role with heavy make-up before?
Djimon Hounsou: No never, never! So that was a lot. The only experience I had before that was make up tests for playing the life story of Nelson Mandela. That was just a little bit on the face and hands to change the pigmentation and that was a lot. I remember breaking out. This time around after the second test, I didn't know if I am going to be able to survive this. I was hoping the film wasn't going to be going anymore. But I am glad I did it. It was a struggle, but I am glad it was done and also that I dived into the Shakespeare world. I am very proud of that. It was absolutely a new experience for me. Like I said, the only time I dealt with that was when I tested with Julie back when I tested for Titus.
Can you talk about the relationship between your character, Caliban, and Prospera, played by Helen Mirren?
Djimon Hounsou: Well the relationship is very difficult with Helen's character where she plays the prospector and endocrines me and enslaves me and takes over the island. The only way she had to control me had to do with her spirit and her witchcraft. Being the men of the island, being a sorcerer and being the son of a sorcerer, I have a great understanding and sensibility of that, so that is a threat to me. Now I get an opportunity to meet other spirits, who are cold spirits, where I felt they were her spirits coming to haunt me and I plotted with them to get rid of her. I thought the choice with going with Helen to play Prospera was a great choice. It felt very contemporary for me. It adds to my dynamic with Prospera. In the original, Prospera was a male role, so you would understand a man trying to protect his daughter. The figure of a man is much more imposing. But here is a woman that is going to impose a certain figure and a mother's wrath is the thing I am scared of. It is the other side of the coin where you are using a woman. There are more women in sorcery than there are men. So we are talking about the mother scorn.
You've said previously that you really related to the witchcraft aspect of this material, what did you mean by that?
Djimon Hounsou: It helped me to really define my back-story as to who Caliban is and what limitations Caliban has. He has very little limitations. The only limitation he has is Prospera and that's the only notion that he has of others on his island. So therefore, you can understand the distance in Caliban from Miranda and for Caliban Miranda is absolutely obtainable. Caliban's natural state is very primal. So therefore he sees a woman he feels a need and a desire, so he goes for it without any preconceived ideas. I guess the other thing is that he doesn't understand why she has a problem with it.
Finally, what do you think are some of the themes of the story, that modern day audiences will be able to relate to?
Djimon Hounsou: Well Shakespeare's themes are so profound to our generation that they are still very vivid and they also define so many of us today. All that Shakespeare has written about human nature is very, very vivid in all of us. I really think in this day and age, Julie's concept will make it appealing to sit through and really enjoy Shakespeare because it is full of so much beauty. The words are so beautiful. The meaning of those words are so beautiful and multi-layered. It is a theme that resonates through generations, but it definitely is a story of today. It is a story of today, a story our human nature, a story of revenge and forgiveness. I think, people hear Shakespeare and think it is going to be a heavy load of words. This one is not that wordy and it certainly is, as far as Caliban is concerned is organic everything that he says. He also says it, "You taught me language." He could tell the difference between day and night. I hope people enjoy it. It was certainly a revelation for me. It was a revelation ... or what's a better word? It was such a rewarding experience and also I was so empowered by it. I feel so happy that my wife forced my hands into it in a way. It is regrettable not to have touched Shakespeare as an actor.