The extraordinary story of Djimon Hounsou started within the 70s with a weekly hunt for 5 empty Omo detergent sacks. The prize on provide: one free ticket on the native cinema in Cotonou, Benin. The recycling scheme made the cinema the place to be each Wednesday, when Hounsou and his schoolmates had the afternoon off, so monitoring down the packages was a precedence: asking household, door-knocking neighbours and riffling by garbage. Regardless, each Wednesday afternoon, the cinema was rammed.
“You’d have the theatre packed all the best way to the lavatory; all children,” says Hounsou. “I keep in mind vividly: typically you’d be behind the theatre and also you couldn’t see the display screen. However you might hear it. These had been cowboy movies coming from America and all you might hear had been the footwear and the spurs. The sounds had been like a dagger; it actually pierced your inspiration.”
Hounsou started to dream of turning into an actor. “The dream was simply so massive that I went all the best way to America and forgot that I didn’t communicate English!” he says.
As we speak, Hounsou’s dream has introduced him to London to debate his newest function, the Wizard in DC’s newest superhero instalment, Shazam! Fury of the Gods. He’s 58, however his distinguished, gray goatee is the one mark of ageing. He sits on the couch with virtually regal poise, palms clasped in his lap. Earlier than we begin, he pulls the recorder nearer; he speaks with a tender, low rumble, at instances barely a whisper.
For Hounsou, realising his dream has been a relentless wrestle. His story wouldn’t be misplaced on the silver display screen, transferring from his household residence in Benin to dwelling on the streets of Paris to turning into the primary Black African actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. He has been a fixture of critically acclaimed dramas and big-budget blockbusters for greater than 25 years, however there may be the sensation that in a unique, extra open, period of film-making, he may need gone even additional.
Hounsou describes his adolescence as “not the very best childhood you might want for a younger man”. The youngest of 5 siblings, he was an introvert, however embraced the escapism of performing in class performs, all of the whereas preserving his grander thespian ambitions hidden from a household with extra middle-class aspirations.
Early on, his mom and father, each cooks, moved to Ivory Coast for work, leaving one in every of Hounsou’s brothers to boost him. At 12, it was determined that Hounsou would go to Lyon, France, to dwell along with his older brother Edmond, who had turn into a French citizen. “It’s a unique atmosphere that taught me a lot, however it additionally ripped me aside,” he says. “I used to be extraordinarily lonely. There was no one I may hook up with. You’re in a very international atmosphere, an atmosphere that’s seen to not care a lot in your sort.”
His brother was “simply barely surviving”; Hounsou, who had obtained a pupil visa, was typically left on his personal. “We ended up dwelling in a room half the dimensions of this” – we’re sitting in a modest lodge room – “simply with a slim mattress and no bathe and no toilet.”
By 19, Hounsou knew he was by no means going to work in an workplace – he wished to make motion pictures, or on the very least get into skilled boxing, his second ardour. He instructed his brother he was going to go away college. “Lengthy story quick, he reported again residence to our dad and mom.”
Hounsou was ordered to return to Benin (his dad and mom had since moved again) for a dressing down. He did, however made positive to get a return ticket. “I received off the airplane and I may see the face of my mum and I used to be like: ooh, that is about to be a tough three months!” he says. “They had been simply actually mad and disillusioned that they despatched their son all the best way to Europe, to white-men nation, and I got here residence with some fucked-up concepts about being a boxer or making motion pictures.”
Additionally they weren’t joyful about him insisting on going again to Lyon. “I actually needed to stand my floor and problem anyone to come back and get the return ticket off me.” When he did return, his boxing hopes had been rapidly extinguished after he endured a couple of knockouts. His relationship along with his brother soured and he was kicked out of the residence.
Hounsou didn’t cling round. He moved to Paris, however performing work was exhausting to come back by (“I felt the racism was fairly heavy on the market again then”). Earlier than lengthy, his pupil visa had expired. “Not solely am I homeless, however I’m additionally unlawful,” he says. “It was virtually inconceivable to dwell and to discover a job in France on the time. In order that’s how I ended up on the streets.”
He slept on park benches. Through the day, he would experience the Métro for heat, or hang around by the Pompidou centre, sleeping in its library. In the future, whereas within the adjoining sq., he was approached by “a really female gentleman, who was like: ‘Oh, you will have a cool look; I’ve a pal who’s a photographer who’s on the lookout for actually cool faces,’” says Hounsou. He took the person’s card, however he didn’t have the cash to make the decision. He was apprehensive concerning the man’s motives, however, when he got here again, “the determined must eat or to be in a heat shelter made me observe him”.
The person’s provide was professional. A shoot was organised the identical day; throughout the week, he was auditioning to be a mannequin in entrance of the legendary designer Thierry Mugler.
“He instantly noticed me and was like: ‘That is who we’re on the lookout for. That is the person.’” It was an alien, traumatic atmosphere. Mugler’s assistant took photos of Hounsou in several outfits, together with some leather-based underwear.
Did he really feel uncomfortable? “Oh, for positive, I used to be very uncomfortable and unsure if this was a disservice to my manhood,” he says. “However on the identical time, actually, Thierry Mugler may really feel I used to be very timid about this setting and was a gentleman who put me relaxed.”
Hounsou loved success as a mannequin in Paris. After 18 months of being homeless, sleeping tough even throughout his first few jobs, he lastly secured an residence. In addition to Mugler, he collaborated with the likes of Iman, Naomi Campbell and the celebrated photographer Herb Ritts. But it surely wasn’t his ardour. “I actually didn’t really feel like I belonged in that world,” he says. So, at 22, he moved to Los Angeles, regardless of his restricted English.
“All I knew methods to say was: sure, hi there, good morning, thanks, sure sir,” he says. A visiting pal mocked his Hollywood ambitions. “‘Performing? However you realise you don’t communicate the language?’ For someone else to level it out was like a slap in my face,” he says. “I used to be so damage; from that time on, I refused to inform anyone my goals.”
Undeterred, Hounsou continued modelling in LA and taking elements in commercials, to make sufficient cash to pay for his performing and diction lessons. He landed roles dancing in music movies for Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul and Madonna, in addition to selecting up small movie roles.
Then got here his audition for Amistad, Steven Spielberg’s 1997 historic drama about an rebellion on a Nineteenth-century slave ship. The casting director requested if he spoke any African languages. He did: his mom tongue, Goun. He was requested to ship the audition in it. “I used to be stunned, as a result of I had spent a lot time attempting to articulate this in English.”
Later, he was referred to as in to fulfill Spielberg. “And I used to be like: ‘Whoa, what the fuck!’ And my life modified dramatically after that.”
Amistad was Hounsou’s Hollywood calling card. The New York Times mentioned his efficiency gave the movie “a robust visible focus as he radiates extraordinary presence and fury”. However regardless of the widespread acclaim, one physique that failed to note his efficiency was the Academy. His co-star, Anthony Hopkins, was nominated for finest supporting actor, however Hounsou was neglected.
That should have been infuriating, I say. “Yeah. Perhaps I used to be early. If my motion pictures had come out right now I positively would have gotten an Oscar already,” he says.
Hounsou was not less than nominated for his later performances in In America (2002) and Blood Diamond (2006), though within the latter Leonardo DiCaprio acquired a nomination for finest actor whereas Hounsou needed to make do with a nod for finest supporting actor, regardless of the movie specializing in his character’s story.
“I felt significantly cheated,” he says. “As we speak, we speak a lot concerning the Oscars being so white, however I keep in mind there was a time the place I had no assist in any respect: no assist from my very own individuals, no assist from the media, from the business itself. It felt like: ‘Try to be joyful that you just’ve received nominated,’ and that’s that.”
He was pissed off with the restricted elements Black actors had been being provided. He performed a slave thrice in 5 years (in Amistad, Gladiator and The 4 Feathers). Does he nonetheless discover the business limiting?
“I’m nonetheless struggling to attempt to make a greenback!” he says. “I’ve come up within the enterprise with some people who find themselves completely properly off and have little or no of my accolades. So I really feel cheated, tremendously cheated, by way of funds and by way of the workload as properly.
“I’ve gone to studios for conferences they usually’re like: ‘Wow, we felt such as you simply received off the boat after which went again [after Amistad]. We didn’t know you had been right here as a real actor.’ Whenever you hear issues like that, you may see that some individuals’s imaginative and prescient of you, or what you signify, may be very limiting. However it’s what it’s. It’s as much as me to redeem that.”
Hounsou lives in Atlanta along with his associate Ri’Za and his one-year-old son, Fela (he has one other son from a earlier relationship). Since Blood Diamond in 2006, he has principally performed bit elements, sidekicks and henchmen in numerous motion and superhero franchises, together with Marvel, DC, Kingsman and Quick & Livid.
It isn’t how he would need it. The explanation for taking so many smaller roles, he says, is to claim himself as a “man of right now” and “to show that I can communicate the language. I could not communicate completely like an American with an American accent, however I don’t have to be all-American,” he says, slipping into a fairly good all-American accent.
It should be notably aggravating, contemplating how exhausting he has labored simply to get his foot within the door. “I nonetheless should show why I must receives a commission,” he agrees. “They all the time come at me with an entire low ball: ‘We solely have this a lot for the function, however we love you a lot and we actually assume you may carry a lot.’”
“Viola Davis mentioned it superbly: she’s received an Oscar, she’s received an Emmy, she’s received a Tony and she or he nonetheless can’t receives a commission. [She added a Grammy in February.] Movie after movie, it’s a wrestle. I’ve but to fulfill the movie that paid me pretty.”
However there are positives on the horizon. He’s crossing his fingers for a component within the Gladiator sequel, whereas he was given much more display screen time within the Shazam! sequel – within the type of comedic function he has hardly ever been given. “Out of all of them, the DC universe has a stage of respect,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot to the function at first and I did it and it was enjoyable. However the second time round it was a bit extra respectful.”
Lastly, Hollywood is beginning to worth him. “Now and again, they themselves make the purpose of claiming: ‘We must always give him extra, he’s a bit underappreciated.’ I believe they recognise that themselves,” he says, earlier than brushing it off. “Hey, it’s the wrestle I’ve to beat!” Contemplating what Hounsou has already overcome, you’d be silly to wager towards him.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods is in UK cinemas from 17 March