Chasing Greatness

Actor Djimon Hounsou of 'The Island' has come a long way, but he's just beginning to show the world what he's made of.

July 26, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

WASHINGTON - Djimon Hounsou has the potent focus and poetic intuition to make his directors believe in the supernatural.

Hounsou, who co-stars in Michael Bay's current action extravaganza The Island, won an Academy Award nomination two years ago when he played a frustrated African artist befriending an Irish immigrant family in director Jim Sheridan's In America. (It was the first Oscar nod for a black African actor.) While auditioning Hounsou, Sheridan asked the 6-foot-4, powerfully built actor to concentrate all his strength and sensitivity on sussing out the spirit of the Irish family's dead son.

"That started out as an improvisation," Sheridan said, "but it led me to believe that in that film, I could, somewhere, on some level, create the invisible."

So In America became a movie about intangibles - the vibrations that connect children to their parents and parents to each other and all of them to a new land. And Hounsou - a man Sheridan describes as "the most grounded actor you've ever seen, a real John Wayne type" - turned himself into a towering human version of E.T.: a source of truth and heart for the Irish kids, even after he leaves Earth.

Hounsou (his full name is pronounced Jai'-mun Hun'-soo) actually has a John Wayne role in The Island. He plays the chief of a special-ops-grade security force who takes the job of tracking down and eliminating two runaways (Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson) from a mysterious colony.

But Hounsou doesn't feel like John Wayne when he enters a D.C. hotel room in the middle of a typical tour day that started at 7 a.m. and isn't scheduled to end until he throws out the first ball at a Washington Nationals game that night.

"I'm a bit exhausted," he admits, in his soft, French-accented English. But even at half-speed, his quiet containments draw you in. "Charisma" is an overused word, but no other can so aptly describe Hounsou. His magnetism derives from casual grace and generosity as well as intensity. Tell him that his character works in The Island because he makes you feel the humanity inside the terminator and he murmurs, "Thank you." Then he credits director Bay, a filmmaker not well known for helping actors fill out characters.

Hounsou is the opposite of ostentatious. Asked to relate his extraordinary life story, he says, "Let me quickly block it out for you." You have to beg him to slow down. The youngest of five children, he was born in the poor African country of Benin, previously Dahomey, part of French West Africa. In a scenario common to emerging nations dominated by colonial cultures, Hounsou grew up feeling that to accomplish anything he had to journey to the former empire. At age 12, he made the "huge" leap to Lyon, France, where he lived with two brothers who'd made the trek before him.

His family would have loved for him to become a doctor. But even as a schoolboy in Africa he'd realized that acting was his true vocation. Doing school plays and amateur theatricals in Benin, he discovered, "I could be expressive on-stage in a way I never could be as a shy person, in life." Deep down, he knew that after high school he'd break away and go to Paris.

He ended up panhandling and Dumpster-diving in the City of Light. But in the French equivalent of a movie exec finding a starlet at a Sunset Boulevard drugstore, fashion designer and photographer Thierry Mugler noticed him and pulled him out of the gutter and onto the runway. He became a sought-after presence on the catwalks of Paris and London.

On a trip to Los Angeles with Mugler to promote the designer's latest line, Hounsou realized that Hollywood was where he wanted to be: "It was the center of entertainment for the world."

He made his stand to become an actor. After studying with coaches whose lessons he couldn't take to heart, he enrolled with Harry Mastrogeorge - "my best, most inspiring teacher. His take on acting seemed so much more accurate to me than anything I'd heard before. Because at the end of the day, it's being willing to play and to make it believable."

He's not a Method actor intent on drawing from his own life. "As an actor, you're the instrument of what you do, so of course you do leave a bit of yourself or your persona in some of the roles you play. But you should be able to separate your life from your work."

Still, talking to Hounsou and thinking of his performing high points, you sense him calling on the deep wells of resilience and humor that he acquired in his rise from obscure poverty to international acclaim. His performance in Amistad is astounding both as a piece of acting and an epochal career leap.

By 1997, he'd gained experience only in small film roles and music videos. But Hounsou found himself playing the African hero Cinque, who rose up against slave traders, commandeered the Spanish ship La Amistad and kept his people unified even after the U.S. Coast Guard captured them and lawyers argued their case for freedom all the way to the Supreme Court.

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