Djimon Hounsou plays Caliban in Julie Taymor's adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. He explained to us the challenges of translating Shakespeare, the difficulties of his makeup, and why making Prospero a woman made the play feel more real to him.
We recently had a chance to talk with Djimon Hounsou about how his role in Julie Taymor's new adaptation of The Tempest, one of William Shakespeare's final and more fantastical plays. Hounsou portrays Caliban, the mysterious, partially feral son of Sycorax, the wicked woman who ruled the island before Prospera's arrival. He is now the unwilling servant of the sorceress Prospera and her daughter Miranda, but he dreams of rebelling against the women that he so despises.
Caliban has easily the most evocative look of any character in the film - Hounsou wears nothing but a loincloth in the role, with complex makeup that looks like an otherworldly mix of partial albinism and mud baked onto his skin. It took a long time every day to get that look - Hounsou revealed he spent four to five hours every day in makeup. As he wryly observed, "That's the part where I second guessed myself as to what led me to accept this job."
Hounsou explained that Caliban's natural state is very primal, and indeed that he is the most primal character in the play. Part of that is revealed in his connection to the island - Hounsou believes Caliban is the character most closely linked to the island, an idea supported by the fact that Caliban is the only character in the play who doesn't eventually leave the island.
Still, for all his supernatural origins - Caliban's father is supposedly a demon - and primal nature, Hounsou made it clear that the only way to play the character was to find a human connection with him. Any character, no matter how strange or otherworldly, has to have some quality that we can relate to, and finding the human side of Caliban was essential to the role.
This is Djimon Hounsou's first appearance in a Shakespeare adaptation, and he admitted he wasn't particularly familiar with The Tempest before he got involved with the film. Before this, his knowledge of Shakespeare was largely limited to seeing the major classics, plays like King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. He acknowledged that it does take a lot of extra time to come to grips with the dialogue, partially because Shakespeare is essentially written in a foreign language and partially because Shakespeare's use of language is so complex:
"That's certainly part of the process and how I approached it. I felt I had to bring what I was saying to today's language to somewhat understand totally what I'm trying to say. And from there, you have the layers of double meanings and so on and so forth, and yeah you do have to approach it like that. And that's the only way to really learn it - [Shakespeare] treats verbs as so powerful and so multi-layered. He's written for generations. Generation after generation, we are still discovering Shakespeare and discovering the beauty of his writing. This experience really opened my avenues about Shakespeare.
There are some tricky connotations to the Caliban character, a feral, dim-witted beast-man who also happens to be the only non-white character in the play. (Director Julie Taymor also had to deal with this in her earlier adaptation of Titus Andronicus, where Aaron, the only black character in the play, is perhaps the most brazenly evil character Shakespeare ever created.) But Hounsou didn't quite see it that way, arguing those who dismiss Caliban as a stereotypical savage are reading too much into the character. To him, Caliban is all about being closely connected to nature, not simple savagery.
Indeed, Hounsou argued the movie's reversal of Prospero's gender helps with this potential problem. The fact that Caliban has to deal with a woman instead of a man makes the dynamics between them a little different, particularly that Prospera obviously can't physically overpower Caliban. This means her control of him is purely magical in nature, without any hint of physical intimidation, and Hounsou felt this puts the magic front and center. Prospera is powerful because of her magic, and Caliban primarily understands the world in terms of magic and the supernatural.
Hounsou also praised the decision to change Prospera into a woman because he felt contemporary culture has a far greater understanding of witches than sorcerers. In particular, he connected Prospera to the folklore of his home country, the west African country of Benin:
From where I come from, we understand the value of a witch and we understand the power of a witch. And here a woman playing a sorcerer made sense to me, it is what it is today. You find, in the occult world, the people who are into sorcery are mostly women. My understanding of sorcery and this western world is completely different, somebody like you who was never born in Africa, who doesn't know much about what takes place there, so in that respect for me it made it even more contemporary.
The Tempest is currently in limited release. Here's a clip showcasing Djimon Hounsou's work as Caliban: