Two-time Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou was born in West Africa and arrived in Hollywood a little more than 20 years ago, unable to speak English. He reportedly learned while watching television.
Following his breakthrough role in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” in 1997, he tested for Julie Taymor’s 1999 “Titus,” a stylized version of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.”
“It was rough,” Hounsou, 46, said during a recent visit to San Francisco. “I didn’t enjoy it because I was too consumed by Shakespeare’s verbs, and that took it away from me.”
Many years later, Taymor called him back, to discuss playing Caliban in “The Tempest,” a role he accepted. The new movie opens Friday.
“Shakespeare again,” he groans. “This time it was my wife who encouraged me. I was kind of shying away from it. It’s like a whole new language in itself, even for the ones that do have a great understanding.”
Unfortunately, the “Tempest” shoot had even more troublesome obstacles. First there was the makeup, which took 4 1/2 to five hours each morning, and he had to stand up while it was applied.
Plus, the makeup was done in cool place, so the actor wouldn’t sweat. “I don’t like the cold at all,” he says.
“Every time I was done with the makeup, I would come out just like Caliban. I was ready to tear anybody. It was tough.”
Even worse was the setting’s rough Hawaiian terrain. “I found I didn’t have the luxury of fully utilizing the environment,” he says. On the set, rangers were on hand at every moment to keep actors and crew from removing or even touching anything. Not being able to move freely was especially difficult for Hounsou, who has worked as both a boxer and a model.
One scene with Helen Mirren — playing “Prospera,” a female Prospero — was filmed atop a cliff of lava rock.
“Some of those things have sharp edges, needle edges. In one shot, I was so organically connected, and I just went off on Helen. I wanted to lunge at her. I made the move, slipped into a little hole, and got my whole toes cut. It even cut through my rubbery slippers.”
Despite the difficulties, Hounsou — whose Oscar-nominated roles include 2003’s “In America” and 2006’s “Blood Diamond” — says he developed a taste for the Shakespeare. “Until you dive into it yourself, you never really understand the wealth within those verbs, layer after layer,” he says. “It resonates through time. It’s something you can really chew.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina, Djimon Hounsou, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Alan Cumming, Ben Whishaw, Felicity Jones, Tom Conti
Written and directed by Julie Taymor
Running time 1 hour 50 minutes