Djimon Hounsou
Djimon Hounsou Credit: Getty Images

Djimon Hounsou just had a birthday. The acclaimed actor turned 53 a few days before we spoke to him a couple weeks ago, while he was doing press for “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” He’s led quite a life: Born in the African republic of Benin, he lived in poverty, even after he emigrated to Lyon, France. His life changed on a chance encounter with a photographer, who helped him become a model. He soon became an actor, too, and he’s spent nearly the last three decades balancing serious fare, like “Amistad” and “In America,” with blockbusters, including “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Furious 7.”

Still, even when Hounsou does something like the new “King Arthur” — in which he plays Bedivere, one of our hero’s most trusted accomplices — he does it for reasons beyond fame. For one thing, the huge franchise-starter takes a classic story and gives it a diverse cast, including a multicultural Knights of the Round Table. We spoke to Hounsou, who’s as soft-spoken, thoughtful and friendly as you’d imagine from his performances.

Happy slightly belated birthday! How was it?
It was great. You know, as we age in our later years, the celebrations become slightly diluted. You don’t want everyone to remind you how old you’re getting. But I don’t really have that issue. It was nice, though. I don’t do much, because I was born in a place where wishing someone a happy birthday is unthinkable. When you come from a third world country, the need to feed one’s self on a daily basis is a constant challenge. It doesn’t leave room to fantasize about tomorrow or other things. But birthdays are nice.

I, too, am at an age when I’m no longer excited about them.
Now we have social media, and people post about it whether you want it or not. “It’s your birthday! You’re going to celebrate!” Why are you happy I’m so old? [Laughs]

Instead we can think about how bad the world is right now. Even something like “King Arthur” has a demagogue who boasts about ruling through fear.
It’s one of those stories I came across when I was growing up. I thought, ‘Wow, this story is similar to some of our kings.’ When you look at the continent of Africa, unfortunately you have a lot of those kinds of rules, who want to be king for eternity. You have good ones, but those are the ones you see more of, because they go to enormous lengths to prove and to affirm their existence, to affirm their place on the throne. And those can easily turn into dictatorships, just like that. 

It happens a lot, far more than we in the West often notice.
Obama made a case about African rulers, saying to them, “Most of you were president when I was still on the bench in high school. And here I am, many years later, and you’re all still president.” It says something about inequality, that something is unfair.

And here in America we elected someone who clearly was in it just for power.
If you’re running to just to be a ruler, you want it for the wrong reasons. Just as if you’re trying to be an actor just to be famous. The vocation should be about the passion you have for the job, the passion you have for executing it. Because once it’s done, it's done, you move onto the next thing. If you come to Hollywood to be famous right off the bat, there’s no instrument that will lead you to the fame. You’re starting off on the wrong foot. If you’re going to Hollywood because you’ve been a great performer, a great actor, a great actress, a talented human being, then it’s a proper vocation.

I often get the sense that when you do huge Hollywood films, it’s really not for the fame or the money. There’s always a strong idea underneath them. In “King Arthur” and “The Legend of Tarzan,” it’s about taking very old stories and not updating them, but making them reflect our times.
To reflect our times, to refer to this contemporary period in our existence, to have a social impact. Here, for the first time we had an amazing, diverse cast. That speaks to the way the Western world likes to view itself sometimes.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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