If Robin Thicke's wife Paula Patton is having a busy time weathering the controversy around her husband's recent stage antics with Miley Cyrus, her latest on-screen character will be having a far smoother time of it.
Patton stars in rom com 'Baggage Claim', in cinemas now, as a woman in search of a husband. Patton’s Montana Moore is under pressure from her five-times married mother to settle down and embarks on a crazy mission to find Mr. Right.
Who does she meet along the way? Smoothie Quinton Jamison, played by equally slick Djimon Hounsou, double Oscar nominee, former Calvin Klein model, humanitarian and generally somebody who probably won't be twerking any time soon.
Paula Patton and Djimon Hounsou co-star in 'Baggage Claim'
To mark the release of the film, Hounsou speaks here about how even taking part in a rom-com is a serious business for an African who got his first break on a Paris street as a teenager...
What interested you about the role?
“Quinton Jamison is a prominent and successful businessman. Part of me wanting to take this role was really to try to paint a different image of Africans in the Western world. I have been in America for 23 years now, and I have found that over time, the image people have of Africans is a bit of a concern. There is still a lack of understanding and a failure to see Africans, not just as indigenous people, but who they are as people. I feel like Africans are too often portrayed as people on the National Geographic channel: the image is of an African man in a loincloth chasing a gazelle. It’s not intentionally racist; I wouldn’t call it racist at all. It’s a lack of understanding another culture. Africa is a continent that provides so much for the existence of the rest of the world. We go around the world and cultivate so many things.”
Do you identify with Quinton at all?
“Absolutely. From his point of view, he and Paula’s character are two beings coming together and wanting to enjoy each other’s company before getting married. She wants marriage, but you have to start somewhere. You have to start with having fun, before you can think about marriage. She is thinking, ‘here is somebody I dated briefly, some time ago. I’m looking for marriage.’ She wants to know if Quinton is husband material. I identify with Quinton because, in his perspective, you do have to take the time to enjoy somebody’s company before you are propelled towards marriage.”
Djimon Hounsou in 'Baggage Claim'
You have experienced marriage yourself. Is that something you would do again?
“Oh yes. I have everything that I need in life materially but for me to even think about marriage, I have to find the fun and the companionship. It has to be worth something for me to engage in marriage talk (laughs).”
What was it like working with Paula Patton, your leading lady?
“Paula is quite delightful to work with. She is bubbly and fun, which made the entire experience wonderful. And I loved the story. It’s a very simple, beautiful story that reminds us never to lose hope, and certainly never settle for less than you dream your life can be.”
What were your boyhood dreams?
“As a young boy, I had strange dreams of affecting people and somehow being instrumental in changing the makeup of Africa and helping to improve life there. That is why my film, 'Blood Diamond' (2006), which looks at the horrors inflicted on Africa, was so important and special to me.”
Hounsou played Juba in 2000 epic 'Gladiator', co-starring with Russell Crowe
You’ve achieved phenomenal success in your career, and you didn’t start out with much. How challenging has your journey been?
“I was homeless once I finished school [in Paris]. It was not good. I’m thankful I kept my reveries and my dreams. One of the things I find extremely challenging about the continent of Africa is that when the immediate needs and the social needs of people are not met, that kills dreams, and it’s all about survival.”
Is it true you got out of homelessness when you were discovered on the streets of Paris?
“Yes, by Thierry Mugler [French fashion designer]. It wasn’t actually him, at first. It was somebody else who saw me and said, ‘ah yes, you look cool. A friend of mine is looking to take pictures, and you have a cool face.’ Of course I didn’t trust him, but then I saw him again a couple of days later in the same area. I used to sleep on the bench at a street corner in Centre Pompidou in Paris. To cut a long story short, the second time I saw him he said, ‘Listen, my friend is excited about you. Do you mind if I call him now? You can go and see him.’ I didn’t have anything to lose. I thought, ‘ok if this is one of those situations again (laughs), I think I’m tall enough and big enough to kick some ass if there’s trouble.’”
Hounsou received his big break on the streets of Paris, where he was spotted for his "cool face"
“Sure enough the guy took a couple of snapshots of me and said, ‘we should do another photo session and spend a whole day doing this.’ Anyway, the photos were sent to a modelling agency, and the modelling agency sent me to Thierry Mugler. Thierry looks at me and says, ‘I’ve been looking for somebody. I’ve been looking for you I guess.’ I was 21 years old.”
Did you know you were going to be a successful star?
“Hell no! I don’t necessarily think it was just a physical thing because the first thing I did for Thierry Mugler was to open his fashion show. Right after the show he cornered me and said, ‘listen, what are you doing in life?” I said, ‘nothing really.’ He said, ‘ok, so where do, you live?’ I couldn’t answer because a part of me wanted to say, ‘I live on the streets. I need help.’ He felt like I was being a little secretive, so he said, ‘you have such charisma and I would encourage you to keep doing this.’ Suddenly I’m doing the whole campaign with them all over the place. They [Mugler and his team] were the first people I came to America with.”
The fact you managed to keep your dreams intact is extraordinary.
“It truly was extraordinary. It is truly a dream come true for me, and I have yet to find strong enough words to describe how it feels to look back at the days when I started acting and before that. For a long time, I was filled with so much doubt and uncertainty about my presence and position in Hollywood and what I wanted to do and achieve. I had a great drive, but I had so much doubt that I was uncomfortable even talking to anyone about what I was doing and what my dreams were. Only looking back now I wonder how I was able to keep visualizing. There are so many aspects of me being here today that were challenged, even by my own friends. I came to California with a dream and then I got here and I was so excited. My friends made comments like, ‘hang on a second. You don’t speak English. Can you formulate a phrase?’ They would tell me that.”
With Leonardo DiCaprio in 2006 drama 'Blood Diamond', for which Hounsou received his second Oscar nomination
You’ve acted with a lot of Brits over the years, any favourites?
“Anthony Hopkins was the first British actor that I worked with on AMISTAD. He is wonderful. I can’t necessarily articulate some of the things I’ve learned from those guys. Helen Mirren is such a gracious lady. Oh wow.”
Do you consider Paris to be home?
“No, here is home [LA]. I’ve been living here for so long, and this is my base. I really don’t have a home. The world is a playground. I get tired of every place fairly quickly, because I’ve been so used to hopping around so much. My son grounds me. My kids are a grounding factor. They’re 13 [Ming Lee], 11 [Aoki Lee] and 4 [Kenzo Lee]. Being a father is wonderful.”
How fulfilling is your career right now?
“You are always striving or looking for something. Eventually, you’re just going to keep on striving and chasing and looking and never getting there. Fulfilment has to come from within. I’m just at a phase where I’m trying to really find myself. I am trying to be content with myself. It has really been a beautiful journey for me realizing my dream, and I feel like I’m only just starting. It’s only the start of the beginning (laughs). I feel like I have so far to go.”
'Baggage Claim' is released through Fox Searchlight, and is in UK cinemas now. Watch the trailer below...