Djimon Hounsou plays bad guy Drago Bludvist, "a madman without conscience or mercy" in How to Train Your Dragon 2 from DreamWorks Animation. We sat down in Washington D.C.'s new Capella Hotel to talk about creating a character with a voice, what acting classes get wrong, the most important message in the film for children, and what advice he would give an actor cast as a villain.
He talked about exploring the character of Drago. "I actually am still continuing to develop Drago's backstory. It is complex. He is not trying to kill dragons or wipe them off the face of the earth. He is building a dragon army. But for the sake of what? All of that plays into how he became what he became. It is his pain that I need to understand. One side comes from his experience with humans and the other comes from animals, the creatures we revere so much." And it made no difference that it was a film for children. "It never occurred to me to soften it or tone it down because it was for kids or because my kids would be seeing it, other than the fact that I didn't want them to hear my voice and say, 'Oh, that's Baba!'"
When Hounsou began work on the film, he had only seen a preliminary and incomplete picture of what the character would look like. All he had to base his performance on was the writing and all he had to perform it with was his voice. "It was such a beautifully written story. What really did it for me was the name. Drago Bludvist, more than the appearance. The dialog was organic, so you can really connect without having to have all the extras, the look, the gestures. You can do so much with the voice." The bigger challenge was each of the actors worked alone. "That's the part of making this that is a little bit clinical, just you and a microphone and the director guiding you. You're never really interacting with anyone on a set. That throws you off a little bit but at the same time it is quite liberating, you find you can be free and theatrical."
Hounsou studied acting when he first came to Hollywood to help him with his English. But he found some of the techniques in the classes got in his way. "This notion of teaching acting throws me off a little bit. We're born with it, inherently. Some are more theatrical than others, but it inherent in all of us. If you let yourself go, you do not have to do that substitution they teach you in acting class. The question is, are you willing to play? If your character has a son who is hurt you should not have to find a similar emotion in your past. If it's organically awakened, you can tap into it very quickly. It does not have to happen to you for you to understand the pain. Substitution work is too limiting. You have to understand the value of your imagination and how much you can gain rather than relying on previous emotions. It's so much more engaging to teach people to feel what the character is feeling instead of finding a substitute."
He was taken aback when his superhero-loving son told him he wished he was white so he could be Spider-Man. Hounsou responded by showing him episodes of the animated Marvel Knights: Black Panther series, where he provided the voice of the superhero. (He is also rumored to be under consideration for a live action Black Panther and has been quoted as saying, "I'd be honored.") "It's a diverse world and we all need heroes."
He especially appreciated the portrayal of different kinds of families in How to Train Your Dragon 2. "It's an amazing theme that speaks loudly about families forced to raise their kids separately. Kids have moments of searching and questioning and so it is good for them to see stories like this one."
He enjoys playing the bad guy and would recommend it to other actors. His advice for playing the villain: "Let your imagination run. Let it bloom. You have such a liberty of exploiting that theatrical approach. A good guy is always limited by rules. A bad guy can go beyond that. There are no limitations. "