The Oscar-nominated Djimon Hounsou has made an impact in high-profile dramas like "Blood Diamond," "In America," and "Amistad," but he joins a unique roster this weekend when "How to Train Your Dragon 2" opens: the animated blockbuster villain. The charismatic star sat down with us the day before his film's opening to discuss what it feels like to play the bad guy, the process behind voice acting, and even drop some thoughts on "Guardians of the Galaxy" and the fate of Black Panther, a Marvel hero he's been attached to at multiple times over the years.
How did you get involved with "How to Train Your Dragon 2"?
I can’t quite remember how it came about but I got a call from DreamWorks, asking me to come in and try out the voice of Drago Bludvist. Right then and there, on hearing the name of the character, that really kind of did it for me. I started flying around with that name and what could be the back story of such a character, such a torn soul. Right then and there, I started trying to pick him apart.
Playing an animated villain comes with such history because there have been so many iconic ones over the years. You’re joining a catalog of characters that give children nightmares. Did you think at all of the legacy of being a part of that roster?
It’s a part of most actors to want to be in an animated feature; to extend the legacy of your career. In that essence, yes, I did think about it. I was looking forward to one day having the luxury of being a part of something like that.
You’re such a physical actor. When I think of your work, it’s usually accompanied by a strong physical presence for your character. What does it mean as an actor for you to have that taken away and having to convey character purely through voice?
I didn’t quite understand the process up until experiencing making this over a year. It took a YEAR. Going back and forth with the voice. There were lapses in between but, at the same time, you were going in and revisiting some of the lines you already recorded and you’re never really interacting with any other actor. And, so, that side of it felt a little clinical at first. At the same time, I felt extremely liberated with the experience of just being you, the mic, and trying to be as theatrical as you can be. That’s the range with those animations.
So it gave you a lot of vocal freedom?
Yes, oh yes.
And another tool for an actor is a partner. You never worked with any other cast members?
No. Most of us only met for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival for the presentation there.
Mostly with my director, Dean.
How hard is that?
Again, it gives you some understanding of imagination. You let your imagination fly. You can surrender to that imagination and go a long way and far and do things that wouldn’t seem plausible at first—to be acting by yourself.
Do you think it opens up new tools for you as an actor as you return to live-action?
YES. Absolutely, absolutely.
Did they give you a sketch of the character?
I had an early sketch of the character but he was still being developed. I had an early sketch. But it was the name that really did it for me. The physicality didn’t really matter to me. It was the essence of a character of that nature, a man so in need to indoctrinate dragons to form an army; why would you form an army if not to conquer mankind?
Were the directors or you ever concerned about the character being "too scary"?
You know, I never once thought about that. I’ve heard the question since—a bad guy character for a children’s story, did you have to tone it down? NO. I went OFF. That’s the beauty.
Do you think sometimes maybe it’s good for children to be scared? Sometimes we coddle children.
Absolutely. Sometimes we coddle children. I think they are so much more ready than we think they are. It’s a dark film but it speaks loud and with so many educational attributes that speak for the kids these days. Kids, in our social world, have displaced families—a father who is displaced from his kids and wife. It deals with that and it deals with the understanding of the human world that we live in with animals, and having to have a thing for somebody who may be somewhat handicapped. It deals with that issue and living in a world with "normal people." Loving "normal people" and being loved back. Tolerance. All of that. I feel like the reason that this film speaks volumes is because it’s not just for children. What a wonderful thing to see: A child who has been displaced from his mother for his entire life who comes to find the mother. "Should I accept you or not accept you? How come you never came to see me?" All that. It deals with all of those issues. I think that’s quite a beautiful, educational tool.
Do you discuss these thematic issues with Dean before doing your part? Or was it purely plot and character?
It was not approached thematically. I did not see the whole script right from get-go but I sort of, eventually, came to it. It’s not necessarily something you talk about: "We’re working on this theme line in the film." We’re there to give essence to the story and be creative behind closed doors. You come in and lend your voice to it.
When I mentioned coming to talk to you, responses about favorite projects of yours ranged from "In America" to Paula Abdul videos. You have such a diverse resume. What are the projects you remember fondly as key moments?
The things that stand out for me are films like "Blood Diamond," "Amistad," "In America," "Four Feathers"—all those films speak of social issues and social change. I like stories that have a social impact and social attributes to them. That’s the whole reason we make films: to broaden our limited view of things and to see how life is evolving elsewhere. How they’re dealing with struggles empowers you.
Is that the first thing you look for with a new project? Something important thematically?
Yes and no. A lot of times we also have to live and work. You have to make money to pay rent. In that respect, I don’t think you can be so demanding. Those great stories are not the normal stories that come on a daily basis. It’s a struggle to land those roles. Everybody is looking for the good parts.
How excited should we be for "Guardians of the Galaxy"?
(Laughs.) We should be VERY excited. We should be very excited and I’m not quite sure how my director James Gunn…his mind is "Wow." I have not seen the final cut yet. But wow.
Is the Blank Panther ever going to happen?
Ya know. I think it’s WAY overdue. Disney and Marvel Comics: Come on, people. Let’s create a superhero for the minorities, the African diaspora and for the African continent. Come on. It’s about time.