Djimon Hounsou had that kind of awkward father-son talk just before last month's world premiere of How to Train Your Dragon 2 at the Cannes Film Festival.
Kenzo, his 5-year-old with ex-partner Kimora Lee Simmons, was thrilled about dad's first animated film. But Hounsou had to explain he wasn't the hero. In fact, he voices the horrifying villain Drago Bludvist in the hit sequel, which opened this weekend to $50 million in box office.
"I told him, 'You know the way you and I play? And you're the superhero and I'm the bad guy? Well it's the same here. But I'm pretending to be a bad guy,' " says Hounsou. "I had to get him ready for it."
More of these talks may be in order for Hounsou, 50, who has become known for playing honorable roles, in films such as 1997's Amistad, 2000's Gladiator and 2006's Blood Diamond, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. (A second supporting-actor nomination came for 2002's In America, where he played a disturbed artist with AIDS.)
His soft-spoken accent — the result of early life in Benin, West Africa, before he emigrated to France — is unrecognizable as the low-voiced Drago in Dragons 2. His next role will be the menacing Korath the Pursuer, a humanoid assassin in pursuit of Chris Pratt's Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, out Aug. 1.
Djimon Hounsou in "Guardians of the Galaxy," which hits theaters August 1, 2014. Jay Maidment, Marvel, Courtesy of USA Today
"It's nice to dive into the dark side that lives in each and every one of us — there is so much flavor to it," he says. "You have to be lovable at times, yet cunning. It's limitless the number of dimensions you can try."
Dragon 2 writer/director Dean DeBlois says the low-key Hounsou makes a seamless transition to the dark side as the mysterious Drago, who has a power that enslaves all dragons. On his first day at the recording studio, Hounsou gave "gentlemanly, polite" greetings to the crew, then suggested they turn off the microphone as he warmed up his voice.
"He let out the most incredible scream. I couldn't believe it," says DeBlois. "It was so intimidating. He unleashed hell."
Fortunately, DeBlois kept the microphones running. That first yell was incorporated into the film when Drago summons a dragon beast. But he also told Hounsou to pace his use of the guttural "growl" and save further yelling for the end to spare his voice.
The strange accent, which creates a sense of mystery, comes completely from Hounsou's imagination and is something that could be explored in future installments of the franchise.
"I guess that's a spoiler," says DeBlois. "But put it this way, there's much more to learn about Drago going forward."
In Guardians. director James Gunn loved the idea of playing against Hounsou's good-guy persona and getting his impressive physique into the film.
"When we saw how he looked in the makeup, with the blue eyes and the metal coming out of the head, we were blown away," says Gunn. "Besides, Djimon brings a humanness to the part, which was needed."
Gunn was able to use Hounsou's athleticism for the humanoid fighting sequences that Hounsou describes as "a martial arts mixture of wrestling and boxing." Impressive, but it could mean more explaining for Kenzo.
"Actually, you know what, he's only 5. He's probably not going to see that for a long time," says Hounsou, brightening. "So I have a little time on that."