Lauren’s interview with Djimon Hounsou for ‘How To Train Your Dragon 2’

Published 11:10 am Saturday, June 28, 2014

by Lauren Bradshaw

Based on the box-office and critical success of the first “How To Train Your Dragon,” it’s easy to see why the studio green-lit a sequel! Thankfully, “How To Train Your Dragon 2” takes after its predecessor and along with being a great, entertaining story, also shows off extraordinary animation and 3D technology. Usually I hate 3D, but if you want to see this film in all of its splendor, 3D is a must.

Five years have passed since Hiccup’s (Jay Baruchel) encounter and adventure with his faithful dragon Toothless. Now, instead of dragon-bashing everyone in Berk has dragons of their own. In fact, raising dragons is a huge aspect of the village’s thriving economy. There is peace throughout the land, a fun, dragon-centered game that resembles Quidditch, joy rides through the clouds with Hiccup, etc… Now all Hiccup has to worry about his annoying father (Gerard Butler), who is pressuring him to become his successor. However, the stakes are soon raised even higher when Hiccup encounters a group of dragon trappers, who in turn try to capture Toothless and his dragon friends. These trappers are doing the bidding of Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a menacing, ruthless villain, who is growing a dragon army to take over the world. In order to save his dragon friends and secure Berk, Hiccup and the gang, including Valka, a mysterious woman from his past (Cate Blanchett), must counter Drago head-on! Will they have what it takes?

Although Djimon Hounsou plays the villain of this film, in real life he is a playful, nice, funny guy. I was really excited to talk to him about his role in the franchise, his favorite animation, his upcoming projects (“Guardians of the Galaxy” and T”arzan”), and much more! Check out a slightly edited interview between Djimon, John Hanlon and I below!

John Hanlon: I have a question about the character’s back story because obviously he has negative experiences with dragons. Did you come up with the back story for your character? Does it matter why your character had such issues?

Djimon: You create that back story… Obviously, part of you having a better interpretation of that character — the character you’re playing ­­— is having a better understanding [of] his default system [and] how he was brought up. What dragged him down so low for him to be in need of indoctrinating dragons directly? [To] sort of control mankind? So it’s great. That’s the part that enriches your interpretation of the character.

John: But did you wonder what happened with him and dragons?

Djimon: Of course. Of course.

John: Like in the back of your mind, are you thinking something specific happened or are you just like ‘I know he has this experience. I’m going to build off of that.’

Djimon: Yes, something happened to him. That’s why he’s where he is today and behaving the way he is today. Yes, you do think about those things and you think about the worst case scenerio. How he was brought up or what made him become Drago Bludvist as we know him today so all those things help enrich your interpretation of the character. It’s inevitable almost.

Lauren: Can you talk a little bit about the voice of Drago. Did you try out different things? Was something too scary?

Djimon: Obviously. Of course I was thankful that they called me in to play Drago but more importantly, the minute I heard Drago’s name — Drago Bludvist — the name says so much. The name was almost…. hints to the back story.

Lauren: He knew he was a villain right off.

Djimon: Right off. Yeah. With a name like that, something happened.

John: How do you react to the other actors if you’re not in the same room?

Djimon: It was funny. It was interesting, this was the first time that we were screening the film for the Cannes Film Festival. This was the first time that we all came together. I ran into [Gerry Butler] on the street while we were making it. It was like six months into making it. We were going back and recording everybody individually… and I ran into him and said, “We’re doing How To Train Your Dragon 2 together.” He said, ‘Really?’ (Laughter) And I said ‘yeah.’ He said ‘What character are you playing?” I said, “Drago.” [Gerard said,]”’Yeah I’ve got to fight with you” and I said “Yeah. We have a fight together.” That was it. Yeah, it’s quite interesting and so you rarely meet, but again, at the same time, I guess the upside is it’s quite liberating to be in there by yourself and trying out all kinds of crazy stuff. It’s very artistically liberating.

John: Are you hearing the other dialogue that comes before yours?

Djimon: Yes, you kinda have to.

John: So someone else reads it.

Djimon: Yes, someone else reads it but again you still have to work on your story. The way you process the work in any normal feature, where you’re kind of in a scene with a bunch of people, you kind of have an idea of what everybody’s saying. You have to know textually everybody’s line but in learning your line… trying to better comprehend your character also, you kinda have to know how you’re interacting with everybody else.

Lauren: Did you see the character of Drago? Like the actual drawing before you shot the character?

Djimon: I saw a little bit of it. I saw some sketches of Drago, yeah. It was not finished yet. It kept evolving.

Lauren: I feel like once they heard your performance, I’m sure they tinkered with things.

Djimon: Probably. When you can imagine, we just go and lay our voices down. But then the whole process… I mean creating all those characters, giving them so [many] organic manners… mannerisms. It’s a lot. And we created such an amazing world of dragons and so many cool dragons. It’s beautiful. I love the Alphas. They just look like a world apart. No?

John: What’s the one thing you’re looking for in every role you do cause you do a lot of smaller movies and you do a lot of high-budget movies?

Djimon: Nothing (Laughter). The one thing I always hope to see is a transcending message that speaks to humanity. I guess that’s the reason we tell stories sometimes.

Lauren: Besides “How to Train Your Dragon 2” of course, what’s your favorite animated movie?

Djimon: It might’ve been — I don’t know why — but it might’ve been Roger Rabbit.

Lauren: That’s a good one. That’s a good choice.

Djimon: I don’t know. Maybe it’s cause I was fascinated with Jessica Rabbit. (Laughter) I was like wow. I’d like to meet her in real life.

Lauren: I think a lot of guys would.

Djimon: I’m still looking for her.

John: What was the highlight of making this movie?

Djimon: Going there to the recording studio with my son.

John: Oh, you went with him?

Djimon: Yeah, many times.

John: Did he enjoy it?

Djimon: I don’t think he really cared. He cared going with me. He wants to be everywhere with me. That, yeah, he cared about. I don’t think you’re alone in a room, dark and you’re making all kinds of sounds. ‘I’ll be in the room next store. I’ll be playing with dragons. The studio, the producer Barney, the director, Dean. They all gave him dragons to play with. form the first one obviously so he was playing with dragons coloring dragons and so while I was recording but he knew I was doing something. He knew it was important so he was also anticipating cause he saw the first one. He had seen the first one so when I told him I was doing the second one, he said oh. Nice. Can I come? And but there’s nothing to see and there’s no animated mage to see so when the first time he saw the fikm was when it premiered in Cannes.

John: Did you tell him you play the bad guy?

Djimon: Yeah, I told him before we went in and I told him it’s just kinda the way we play at home. You’re the superhero and I’m the bad guy and here I’m the bad guy. It was very clinical. Very cliched. So we went in and my voice didn’t scare him cause he’s heard it when I went to the studio. I never yell at him like that but he’s heard me scream in the studio so he was like oh yeah. that’s why you were screaming. okay. So yeah, it was fun.

Lauren: Can you talk to us at all about your character from “Guardians of the Galaxy?”

Djimon: I’m just playing a really bad, bad…I mean, I’m a machine!

Lauren: Worse than Drago?

Djimon: Just about. I don’t know how to compare them, but just about. Actually, it could be a standoff.

Lauren: Yeah? Who do you think would win in a fight?

Djimon: Well, the other one is a machine so I’m guessing he would win.

Lauren: But Drago has dragons!

Djimon: Yeah! Dragons against machines.

Lauren: That would be a good movie.

Djimon: You run with that and let me know… for casting! I’ll be available for a role.

John: So what projects are you working on right now?

Djimon: Well, I’m promoting this and I go from here, next week, to London to shoot “Tarzan” with David Yates. That should be fun.

Lauren: Who are you playing in “Tarzan?”

Djimon: Shhhh. Don’t you start. I’ll tell you later.

Lauren: I can’t pull that out of you?

Djimon: [laughing] You’d have to pay a lot, a lot. No, it will be a nice surprise. Next time we will have something to talk about. Let me discover what I’m playing in Tarzan, and we’ll talk about it. I haven’t gotten my head around it so I can’t talk about it but it should be fun and David Yates is an amazing director so I’m in good hands. He’s a great, visionary director.

Lauren: I’ve heard sometimes when you’re filming these animated movies, you record it over 2-3 years, so you’ll go record you voice, then go film “Guardians of the Galaxy,” then come back…

Djimon: Then you come back and you have to dive into the back-story of the character again and try to find his voice again.

Lauren: So is that how it was with “How To Train Your Dragon 2?”

Djimon: Yeah, it was kind of like that. You come back and it takes a bit of… you have to shift yourself and find Drago Bludvist’s voice again.

Lauren: So would you do [the voice-over work] on a week or day basis or how does that go?

Djimon: Yeah, it could be a couple days in a row. It could be… you never film, even if it’s on a weekly basis, you never film every day. Especially, as you know, we are all flying dragons so we really have to be yelling at each other across the field. Yeah, I think it’s tolling on your vocal cords. Even on a weekly schedule, you are going in every other day.

Lauren: Did you like doing this voice work better than regular acting?

Djimon: Yeah, because this is very theatrical. It’s extreme and I like that. The variety is good and to really push the range of your ability is nice.

Lauren: Would they make you repeat lines hundreds of times?

Djimon: You may have been saying it 20 times by the time you finish, but not in one go. You record this time, and then they play with the other character you’re interacting with to see how organically syncing.

You and I are having a conversation now and it sort of seems so normal and organic, so you try to get that. There may be a line here and there that you may go back and redo.

John: When did you watch the original film?

Djimon: I’m not sure if I watched it when it actually came out. It could have been because my girls… they were already very grown by them. I might have been to the theater with them to see it. We saw it so many times at home too. It was a film that everyone loved and I had no idea I was going to be in a second one.

Lauren: Since we have a little more time, I absolutely love ‘Blood Diamond” and I was wondering if you could talk about making that movie. How did you first come across the project and was the social message a big reason why you chose it?

Djimon: Oh yeah, huge. My agent told me about this great project that Ed Zwick was filming in South Africa about diamond trade. As they were saying “blood diamond,” I remembered when I was filming “Amistad,” I had just finished, and some of the actors actually came from the country Sierra Leone, where blood diamonds came from.

After we had finished, they went back home to Africa and to my surprise, they were back and the civil war had started.

I couldn’t really quite understand the “blood diamond” at the time. I don’t think I had ever heard it was called the blood diamond civil war. All I knew was they were chopping people’s limbs for the sake of diamonds. So, almost 12-15 years later, there we were and the project was circulating in Hollywood. I was like, “I’ve really got to go for it.” So I went to Ed Zwick, and told him how passionate I was about the story.

John: When did you know that you wanted to be an actor for the rest of your life?

Djimon: That’s a big question. Like any kid, we all fantasize about things.

John: Was there ever a moment where you thought, “This is what I want to do?”

Djimon: I remember, before leaving Africa I had that moment… before I was 12. To say that moment has any relevance today, I don’t know. It would be like, “since I took my first breath I wanted to be an actor. The moment I was born, I knew.”

Lauren: You knew you were destined…

Djimon: Yeah, I come out of the womb, “I play in Blood Diamond. I Drago Bludvist.” No, I don’t know. Some moments tells you, “Oh wow, this is nice.” But it was just a thought. Moved away, was raised in France (Lyon), and in Lyon came to see more a variety of films. All I know is, before I became a model, I wanted to act.

That was very clear. I got into modeling accidentally because I was looking for ways to get into acting. I was like, “What am I doing here?” So yeah, but again… when did I realistically know? I really don’t know. I couldn’t be accurate. Certainly, I do remember the early days when I did my first play. At least that was a hint.