Djimon Hounsou The Blood Diamond Interview with Kam Williams
Blood Diamond (2006) Djimon Hounsou
Djimon Gaston Hounsou was born in Benin on April 24, 1964 but emigrated at the age of 13 to Paris where he was homeless, leading a hand-to-mouth existence, till he was discovered by a fashion designer who signed him on as a model. After stints on catwalks all across Europe, Djimon moved to Hollywood to take a shot at acting.
After a few bit roles, his big break came in Amistad (1997) where he played Cinque, the lion-hearted leader of a slave revolt. Next, he received critical acclaim for his work in Gladiator (2000) and The Four Feathers (2002), before landing an Academy Award nomination for his endearing performance as Mateo, an expiring AIDS victim, in In America (2002). Since, he's appeared in such pictures as Biker Boyz (2003), Tomb Raider 2 (2003), Constantine (2005), Beauty Shop (2005), and The Island (2005).
Here, he reflects on his new movie, Blood Diamond, where he portrays Solomon Vandy, a fisherman intent on escaping war-torn Sierra Leone with his family.
Kam Williams (KW): What interested you in this project?
Djimon Hounsou (DH): We made this movie to bring awareness to the trade of Diamonds, period. Because people are losing their lives over it.
KW: How'd you like working with Edward Zwick?
DH: It's been great support to have a great director to really kind of cradle you as you're moving along and trying to tell the story.
KW: And what is that story that Blood Diamond is relating?
DH: The backdrop of the story is the civil war in Sierra Leone, a civil war in a country having many minerals. And the minerals were used as a currency to buy more and more and more weapons. And my story, the story of Solomon, is within that canvas of the civil war.
KW: Tell me a little about your character.
DH: I'm a fisherman in this story, whose family was torn apart by the rebels from the civil war in his country. He was taken hostage to cultivate diamonds, and in the process of the chaos, my son was taken as a child soldier.
KW: What was it like co-starring opposite Leonardo DiCaprio?
DH: It's been a blessing working with him and having his support day-in and day-out. Filming this movie to its best potential could not have been accomplished without his help, and certainly not without someone with a personality that commands respect.
KW: How did you feel about having Sierra Leone's Sorious Samura [an award-winning journalist who chronicled his country's civil war] on this project?
DH: It's also been a blessing to have Sorious on this film. He was the only journalist left in Freetown [Sierra Leone's capital] at the time when all this went down, so obviously, he has been a great consultant for us.
KW: Being from Benin, what was it like to come back to Africa to shoot this movie?
DH: I was extremely grateful for the opportunity, even though this was the most difficult film I've ever been part of, and the most poignant, also, in terms of everything that's going on throughout Africa.
KW: Both you and Leonardo have been nominated for Academy Awards before, and are now again the subjects of Oscar buzz for Blood Diamond. How do you feel about competing with your co-star?
DH: I have to leave that to the studio to decide what we're doing, but certainly I don't want to go against my buddy, DiCaprio. So, if I go for Best Supporting while he goes for Best Lead Actor, that's fine. Whatever comes of it, will be a blessing. Certainly, it was more important to be able to tell a story that was that compelling, and true in its nature. I'm thankful that we accomplished that.
KW: How did you and Leonardo come to generate the chemistry and genuine sense of camaraderie we see between your characters up on the screen? Was that just natural?
DH: To be honest, when you get a story like this, there's a tremendous amount of homework that has to be done by him and by myself in the first place. So, by the time we got to South Africa to shoot, there wasn't so much that the director could ask for, because all the homework was done. At that point, you could only be there, and live that, and dive into those characters. It was all instinct, not a stretch of the imagination. We sort of sized each other up, and went on. Slowly, we got to know each other, and understand what we were making, in terms of the story. And, listen, you couldn't ask for a better script that was so compelling and amazingly written that there were very few questions to ask. So, I must thank the writer [Charles Leavitt] and the director, because they had such a great understanding of Africa and of what was going on within that conflict. It really touched me.
KW: What type of research did you have to do to prepare for this role?
DH: Research? We had extensive documentaries about the issue available to us. The rest was pretty much left to your own understanding of what is going on within that conflict. Hopefully, that would pull your heart into it, and let it take its own course, really.
KW: Do you feel a responsibility as an Africa-born actor to use your visibility to bring attention to the sort of dilemma addressed in Blood Diamond?
DH: Yes, of course, being African. Absolutely! But I think we all have a responsibility, as citizens of this world, to do what is really necessary to change the outcome of this trading issue. To do nothing is intolerable. And to just do something is certainly not enough. So, I think, as citizens of the world, we must do everything we can to bring awareness to everyone about the problems associated with the trading in diamonds. And being African, of course I feel a need and strong desire to be involved in films that deal with important issues impacting the continent. Also, I believe the movie industry has a responsibility to tell stories that mean something, that change our lives, and makes us reflect on the way that we conduct ourselves and treat one another, neighboring countries, and how we view people from different continents, and so forth.
KW: You say this movie was the most difficult film you've ever made. Why was that?
DH: Africa just demands so much of you. It didn't occur to me how challenging and heartbreaking making this movie was going to be. The physicality and emotional content of the story were overwhelming. So, day-in and day-out, you were just in it. And you couldn't necessarily get away from it when you finished shooting, because the environment and the people were quite deprived. You could see that throughout the whole continent people are living very challenging lives.
KW: Why didn't Blood Diamond portray more graphically the shockingly gruesome, mass atrocities perpetrated in Sierra Leone during the civil war?
DH: Let me say this. The violence in our story was toned down tremendously, because you couldn't possibly sit an audience down to watch a realistic duplication of what happened during that conflict. So, in order to bring the awareness out, we had to tone it down tremendously.
KW: Thanks for the time Djimon.
DH: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
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