When Touchstone unveils Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest” Dec. 10, filmgoers will not only see Helen Mirren at the peak of her formidable powers playing the sorceress Prospera, they’ll also witness Djimon Hounsou in a gorgeously intense performance as Caliban, her slave. The actor went through grueling physical stress to make that performance work — starting with “five to five-and-a-half hours a day of makeup, standing up.
“It was quite awful,” he admits, “standing there every morning being painted, having things glued to the body, you know, and you also have to be naked for the most part. No matter how wonderful the day was, no matter how you felt when you began, after five hours of this, you’d end up eventually just being in a bad mood. I came out ready to explode, to blow up at something or someone. So, given the nature of this character, I used it for the part.”
In Taymor’s dream-like interpretation of the island-set tale of magic and revenge — which cast member Tom Conti calls “Shakespeare’s ‘Lost'”– Caliban is nature personified. Hounsou took weeks of lessons in Butoh, an ancient form of Japanese dance that represents nature, to help himself prepare. He moves around like an animal, muscles tensed, in the film that shot in remote volcanic locations in Hawaii.
“You couldn’t give Caliban any limitations. He’s a creature of his environment. He was born wild on this island and he’s still wild, basically,” says Hounsou — an Oscar nominee for “In America” and “Blood Diamond,” who certainly warrants Academy attention again this year. As for Caliban’s attempted rape of Prospera’s daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones) that led to his enslavement, the actor feels, “He saw a woman and he attempted to acquire the woman for himself. He didn’t feel limitations. In that sense, he’s absolutely raw. I don’t know how to better put it.”
The magical aspect of “Tempest” felt familiar to Hounsou, “being from Africa, a country like Benin, which is the source of voodoo and all of those things.” It helped him define in his mind Caliban’s mother, a witch, and his “half nature, half human aspect, his life and the look he has. All of that was pretty powerful.”
Powerful, too, was the Bard’s 400-year-old dialogue, which the actor found a steep challenge. “With Shakespeare, no matter how many times you do it, no matter how well you say it, no matter how well you’re understanding the text, there are so many phrases that have double meanings, that imply so much, and there’s so much depth in his work — you look back and think, ‘I could do it again. I could do it differently,'” he says. “I obviously didn’t want to read it like a formal Shakespearean. I tried to do the best job I could possibly do.” And he did, delivering something extraordinary and fresh.
We caught up with the actor between camera calls for his currently-shooting film, “Special Forces,” which he describes as “sort of like the French version of ‘Black Hawk Down.'” The team is shooting in Djibouti in East Africa, after having spent a month in the wilds of Tajikistan. He has “about two more weeks” to go on the production.
“I’m so looking foward to seeing my kids, my wife,” he says, referring to Kimora Lee Simmons, their son Kenzo and her two daughters with former husband Russell Simmons. “Being away from them has been the hardest part of this. So I think it will be awhile before I think of doing the type of action film that takes you to very remote places where you can’t even have your family.”
After all this, perhaps a light comedy would be in order? Hounsou laughs. “That would be lovely.”