Djimon Hounsou’s career needs little introduction. Born in Benin, West Africa, he moved to Paris at the age of 13 and began a career as a male model. He first rose to international prominence, though, with roles in Stargate, Amistad and Gladiator, his performance in 2002’s In America earning him plaudits from all corners of the media.
That role nabbed him an Oscar nomination. His role in Blood Diamond has gained him another, and Rotten Tomatoes UK is introduced to Hounsou on the day of that nomination. As he waited for the news we sat down with him to talk Africa, the illegal trade in conflict diamonds and Edward Zwick.
RT-UK: Was that a real diamond you were using in those scenes where your character finds it?
Djimon Hounsou: [Laughs] No! Are you kidding me? You think I’d be here?! [Laughs] It’s like putting a piece of fish on a table and asking a cat to look after it for you – you don’t do it!
RT-UK: Can you imagine what it’d be like to be in that situation?
DH: I can somewhat imagine but, joking aside, we were making a film that had so much to do with the greed of mankind so it wouldn’t be wise to do it with a stone like that because you’re putting your life in danger. Making this film involved so many people and so many entities that, you know, eventually somebody could get the wrong idea.
RT-UK: Having been away from Africa for so long, is there a certain part of you that did think, “This is Africa,” when you came back to shoot this movie?
DH: Of course, I had teary eyes before we even started shooting. I always hope for the better for the continent and what I know comes from Africa. Living in the West we feel like we’re so removed from the continent that we can somewhat shut off. And the news doesn’t necessarily help shine light on some of the issues that the continent is facing on a daily basis so it was harsh at times; I was all over the place emotionally.
RT-UK: Can you tell us about your relationship with Kagiso, who played your on-screen son? Did you shoot the emotional stuff at the end at the beginning of shooting?
DH: We did because of the location. We started the film in South Africa but a lot of it was taking place in Mozambique which was where my village, Solomon’s village is. So we had to shoot that in South Africa and that was pretty early in filming. I mean, needless to say, it was very difficult to do that and I certainly wanted to make Kagiso quite comfortable and having so many people around… to try and do that scene and tap into the emotions necessary for that particular scene it was very, very challenging to do.
RT-UK: How did you manage to get close to him?
DH: Well he’s a kid, you know. He loves to play, like any kid, and I was once a kid as well so… I spent a lot of time dining with him and just being playful. Not really having to talk about the scenes, necessarily, it was just about making him comfortable around me in a way that is playful in a way that could be about brothers or, indeed, father and son playing together. It wasn’t about going into the scenes at first. I think that did it, essentially, but either way it was a very difficult scene to do.
RT-UK: Did you play football together?
DH: Yeah, we did and he’s an amazing dancer so there was a lot of music talk and so forth.
RT-UK: You’ve had a long career, where do you place Blood Diamond? Is it important for you?
DH: Oh, very important. Probably quite high. I think Amistad and Blood Diamond are probably sharing the number one position. When I first heard about the story which happened to be an extremely powerful human story for me in the sense that it touches on so many issues that have been affecting the continent of Africa for so long and it’s so rare to have a film that, in dealing with the one issue, taps into so many different issues affecting the continent. So in that sense it was an amazing project for me and I was literally begging for the role.
RT-UK: Begging? You were camping out in front of Ed Zwick’s house?
DH: [Laughs] Of course not! I have a bit of integrity! But I wanted to do it and because I never got a clear “yes” from the studio and from Ed I was a bit concerned. It’s such a powerful story and I knew that there were several big actors in Hollywood who were looking for it.
RT-UK: You’ve played a wide variety of roles in your career; has that been the luck of the draw or have you been able to make those choices?
DH: Well thanks for saying that because some people feel like I’ve been playing the same roles! I mean I’m still trying to figure out exactly what they mean by that but, again, I think it’s very difficult when you’re in this industry because it’s supposed to be somewhat creative and I think we lack creativity somewhat in this industry. We’re so concerned about the economic factor of making movies so we tend to tap into the generic productivity in terms of actors. Whether the film does well or doesn’t do well, which actors can make the box office go up? And so I’ve struggled through that and eventually, slowly, it’s paying off.
RT-UK: Do you ever find yourself regretting any choices you make later down the line?
DH: Well not really. I look at some of the pictures that are out, certainly this year, and one of them is Last King of Scotland which is doing really well, you know, I couldn’t possibly imagine myself playing that role. So as much as we are of a certain talent and want to be creative we all have certain limitations and so it’s important to acknowledge that and know what you can do and you can’t do. I’m not quite sure what those limitations are, but when I read a story I always know if I don’t belong in it. I have to look at the character, the story itself and me within that.
RT-UK: Did you read Last King?
DH: I did, it was quite an interesting piece. Obviously I knew about Idi Amin and what I knew of him really was the deciding factor. Idi Amin was, by no means, a great figure for Africa.
RT-UK: We’re coming into awards season now; do you think this film will have an effect on people who’ll be turning up at The Oscars dripping in diamonds? Do you think it’ll make them stop and think?
DH: To be honest, really our idea and certainly my hope is not for people to stop wearing diamonds or to be self-conscious about wearing diamonds because at the end of the day it’s not productive for Africa and those countries that rely on diamonds for trade to sales of diamonds to cease. I hope Hollywood continues to wear their diamonds, in fact, but it’s the way they’re going about it and the way the diamond industry is going about it to ensure that the stone they’re wearing is conflict-free.
RT-UK: It’s clear that the film is touching a nerve, at least…
DH: Oh absolutely it is. First of all we made the film to entertain and to tell a tragic story about how unfairly some of these companies are doing business in Africa and so I think it did touch nerves and hopefully in a good way. Films, nowadays, are educating as much as entertaining and I hope that continues and that we’ve done that.
RT-UK: How was Leo to work with?
DH: If ever you go on a journey of this nature in such a deprived environment and such a harsh environment you hope you go with a great personality. Someone who’s not so much about himself but certainly is about the overall look of the picture and we were extremely lucky to have Leo and his personality and his coolness coming on set day in and day out without too much on his shoulders. He just came in and offered so much more than I expect any actor to offer. It was really about the whole film for him, not just his character or his performance, so he asked the right questions whether they had to do with his scene or any other scene, it really didn’t matter. He’s so much more aware than one would think. He’s a cool guy.
RT-UK: Your characters are at odds for most of the film; how does that dynamic work on set?
DH: Well that’s exactly the point; it’s very hard to do that and I found it difficult to be playing a character that had to be submissive for three quarters of the film. Even though it doesn’t have anything to do with you but rather the character you’re playing, it would still get to you and it always does. Thank God for Leo’s personality and his coolness because it wouldn’t be possible otherwise. You’d either kill each other or go mad. We survived it with a lot of respect and kindness.
RT-UK: Is making an Edward Zwick film as fun as watching an Edward Zwick film?
DH: Well it was fun but fun does not neglect that we’re working in very hostile environments and if you’re not careful you’re going to get hurt. There were some extremely challenging moments within the making of this film. The physicality of this film and the emotional content of it was just overwhelming day in and day out and not only that, you know, at the end of the day we were left with the livelihood of the people that were helping us create the film. It’s very hard to take in sometimes.
RT-UK: Do you feel a sense of accomplishment, then, when you come to watch the film and you see how worthwhile that effort has been?
DH: Absolutely. The first time you see the film it takes you right back to those times and those moments. It’s very difficult to be objective about the work because you really have to remove yourself and see it a couple of times before you can really involve yourself in the story.
Blood Diamond arrives in UK cinemas on January 26th. It is out now in the US.