Djimon Hounsou talks “Guardians”, “Tarzan” and the African tale he hopes to make

korathgotgGrowing up, first in Benin in West Africa and later in France, Djimon Hounsou had “no experience of comic books. I only came to them much later in life.”

So it wasn’t as if the two-time Oscar nominee was on the lookout for a role in a big comic book film franchise. Those rumors that he could take the 2010 animated version of the comic book “Black Panther,” which he voiced, to the big screen, are still only rumors.

But here he is, as Korath, warrior-hunter for the villainous Kree in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“I did this because I wanted my son (Kenzo, who is five) to say, ‘My daddy’s in ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy.’ Not exactly a superhero, but he’s in the movie, messing with the superheroes!'”

Hounsou describes the comic book blockbuster as “a new experience for me. Every day, after you’ve spent four hours getting made up, you come onto the set and you see 100 extras with even more makeup on. Strange creatures of every shape and color! Magical! Snake heads, crazy hair and headdresses, tattoos, green skin. You truly feel like you’re on a different planet, and we were just in a studio in London.”

It’s a different sort of acting, with all the digital sets, heavy make-up (“That bloody radio thing they had to glue to my skull every day!”) and added-later effects that make up the scene. “It’s a more liberating sort of acting — bigger, more theatrical. Kind of fun. You take a big swing and just go for it, and you hope (director) James Gunn’s vision will be as cosmic and vast as he is promising. The finished film made me shake my head. ‘We did all THIS?'”

It’s an ensemble action comedy that’s earning breathless praise from the planet’s movie critics, with The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern echoing others in saying “the people who made this movie must have had a swell time in the process.” Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista are the protagonists (along with animated versions of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel) and Hounsou is not the chief villain, but that villain’s henchman.

“Here’s what I look for,” Hounsou says. “My character has to be somewhat relevant to the story. I try to remove this fellow out of the script, while reading it, to see if the story still flows without him. If it does, my participation doesn’t feel as…necessary. That’s a problem. You’re ‘set dressing.’ If it doesn’t, if the tale comes apart without him in it, I’m interested.”

Since first gaining notice as a model performing in Janet Jackson videos, Hounsou has been hired for his exotic good lucks, deep voice and masculine-African presence. But fantasy and science fiction have tapped into how other-worldly he can seem. He was in “The Island” in 2005, and this past year, he filmed “Air,” set in a future where cryogenically preserved humans are guarded so that someday, they can repopulate the Earth. “Seventh Son” has Hounsou co-starring with Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore in a tale of sorcery, evil spirits and a sorcerer’s apprentice.

And then there’s ‘Tarzan,’ “which I have to say, is science fiction in a way,” Hounsou says, cryptically. The film has Alexander Skarsgard in the title role, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson. “It’s a more confined, compact movie than ‘Guardians.’ It’s sort of a ‘grown-up’ ‘Tarzan.'”

The movies can bring an actor fame. But fame moves to a new level when you’ve starred in a science fiction blockbuster, especially one based on a comic book. Ask anybody who ever played “The Dark Knight” or “The Man of Steel,” or even played a supporting character in a film about them. Hounsou has a perfect role model for how to handle that fanboy adulation on the set with him in “Tarzan.”

“I don’t have to ask Samuel L. Jackson about what is coming, or how to deal with it,” Hounsou jokes, wondering about conventions and the like. “I mean, just LOOK at him. He IS comic book movie cool. He owns it, and that’s how you handle that.”

Changing one’s profile by appearing in a fanboy friendly blockbuster isn’t a bad thing, especially if you want to get more stories set in your native Africa on the screen. Hounsou has this Somali pirate tale “The Lion’s Share” that he wants to make — an issues action drama, not unlike his Oscar nominated “Blood Diamond.”

“Stories about Africa are rare, so it’s always special to get a chance to play an African character in Africa. I look for those, and would love for an African story to be one that reached a lot of people, the world over, and be a success. Movies are still a great way to educate the world about a people, a place, a problem. People will learn

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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