Djimon Hounsou still bears the scars from his Oscar snubs and would like to win one as a representative of his continent. Shilpa Ganatra talks to the African actor about his new role as Tarzan’s enemy
If there is one word to describe Djimon Hounsou, it’s intense. From his Steven Spielberg breakthrough in Amistad, to his Oscar-nominated Mateo in Jim Sheridan’s In America, to his signature role opposite Matt Damon in Blood Diamond, his steely smoulder is in no small part responsible for captivating audiences and simultaneously flustering us womenfolk. Meeting him on a rare sunny day in London, this intensity burns in the background as he holds out his hand and smiles.
The 52-year-old model turned actor is over from LA for The Legend of Tarzan, an action blockbuster which succinctly uses his forte for Chief Mbonga, Tarzan’s enemy after the death of Mbonga’s son — but an enemy with heart.
“I don’t see him as a baddie,” he explains in his curious accent, part West African, part French, part American. “Maybe that’s the advantage I had. I never looked at him like that: he was within his rights to seek reparation for what Tarzan had taken away from him.
“This is a fantasy person in a fantasy world, let’s fantasise without having to be limited to an idea of a king or chief.”
Starring alongside Alexander Skarsgard as the jungle-reared hero who returns to the Congo to secretly investigate the slave trade, but ends up falling foul of Mbtonga’s accomplice (Christoph Waltz), the film culminates in a fight scene between the musclemen. Djimon recalls the Swede as an inspiration.
“He was very driven, and it was contagious. It proved itself by the way I got in condition physically. We were filming, fighting and lifting weights at the same time.
Any flexing of the biceps at each other?
“I’ve passed that stage,” he laughs. “We’re not that infantile. This is a mature Tarzan, and he was a force to be reckoned with when I came on set.
“I thought Alexander’s training and his shape — he had a ripped shirt, and was popping out, his muscles were just... yeah,” he drifts off. “He was conditioned.”
The battle scene, like the movie itself, was shot in the decidedly unexotic location of Leavesden Studios in London, a place where he spent much time last year on Guy Ritchie’s forthcoming flick Knights of The Round Table, alongside our own Aidan Gillen (“He’s my dear friend in the story so we were always together, he’s wonderful”). Working waterfalls were erected, and a 100-foot long pier was built on the studio’s water tank, only to be destroyed again days later.
“When you’re doing a film about the Congo, people think we couldn’t possibly shoot it in London, but it’s the best place to shoot it,” he says. “I can’t really fathom all the cast and a crew, with that much equipment, going into the wilderness, where you can ruin the nature around you. So for conservation, this was the best way to make the film.”
Indeed, a part of the film’s draw for Hounsou was to shine a light on the Africa’s treatment from outsiders, whether it’s slavery, destruction of the environment or the hunting of wild animals: “David Yates highlighted some of the colonial issues back then, and also some issues that are still relevant today,” he explains.
What of New York Daily News’ idea that the film is racist? Their argument being that it’s a white-man-saves-the-black-man narrative.
“They (seemingly popular culture) forget. You create a fantasy and now you complain that you created a fantasy? Tarzan is so iconic, but it’s a fantasy you created in the past.
“When I said I was in this film, some people asked if I was playing Tarzan, but Tarzan is not about an African who is born in Africa. No, Tarzan is a westerner who got lost in the wilderness.”
One feels that Djimon has authority to speak on the sensitive subject. Born in Benin, West Africa, he moved to Paris for his education — where he spent his later months homeless - then made the move to Hollywood without a word of English to his name. So when I ask him whether he feels the well-reported lack of diversity in Hollywood has affected his career, he grins, knowing that moving from Paris streets to Hollywood red carpets implies few hurdles.
“How would I know if race played a part in my career?” he replies, diplomatically. “I know that I came very close to winning an Oscar a couple of times, and a couple of times it was insinuated that I was robbed,” he says. “That one time that I came out with Amistad — for that I was robbed probably because I didn’t even get nominated for it. Clearly it was a major faux pas there. No one says anything about it, everyone’s kept quiet about it, and I’ve never voiced it myself either, but if we’re speaking about it now…”
Does he think the Academy’s recent shake-up of its voters — now including more minority members like John Boyega, Emma Watson, and Idris Elba — is the way to redress the balance?
“It’s one way to do it,” he says. “It may go some way in creating some more diverse votes, but I don’t know. I’m hoping, because every step towards creating a better platform for minorities matters.”
More than recognition for actors, Djimon’s passion lies with the ways in which Africans are portrayed in media: unfairly, and through a western point of view. That’s why he’s battling the misinformation with a forthcoming documentary, In Search of Voodoo: Roots to Heaven.
“In movies, we’ve been portrayed with a westerner’s outlook, it’s their take, so the culture is not the culture I was born into, and the religion is not the religion I know – instead it’s belittled and trampled as satanic and evil. It’s very difficult to you make movies when it’s always another person who speaks about you and defines you. Where’s your voice?” So — as suggested by his prolific career that’s incorporated everything from Gladiator to Guardians of the Galaxy — his aim is to find a balance between being a high-profile actor and representative of Africa.
“I want to continue doing good work and get to a place where I win an Oscar for myself and my continent, then I’ll be content,” he says. “The fulfilment is that I’m a good actor and make a lot of money, but the social aid that I can bring — in terms of narrative aid work and charity work — is important too.”
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