Samantha Morton and Djimon Hounsou have much more in common than meets the eye. Both have the kind of screen presence that is so intense they can disarm you in the smallest scene. They share the ability to play a deeply suffering character without a trace of sentimentality, with such honesty and compassion that, rather than be frightened by their emotional rawness, we are drawn to it. Coincidentally both actors have been given plum roles by Steven Spielberg, which helped bring them squarely into mainstream audience's awareness—Morton in Minority Report, and Hounsou in Amistad. Now appearing together in Jim Sheridan's In America, they offer the kind of rich dramatic performances that they seem built for.
Morton plays the wife of a struggling Irish actor (Paddy Considine) who moves with their two daughters to New York City to pursue his dream. Haunted by grief over the death of her son, Morton's character eventually befriends her neighbor Mateo (Hounsou), an enigmatic artist whose intimidating exterior hides the kind of warmth that perhaps only someone facing his mortality can offer. The tenderness that develops between these two strangers seems a lesson in adult friendship, in the rich understanding that can develop between two people when they are willing to open themselves to each other during the most vulnerable moments of their lives.
Born in Nottingham, England, Morton began appearing in British television dramas at age 13. American audiences might first remember her for her Academy Award–nominated performance as Sean Penn's mute sidekick Hattie in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. Her adept performances in a series of smaller films have proven no less interesting: Alison McLean's Jesus' Son, Lynne Ramsay's Movern Callar, and her widely praised debut in Carine Adler's Under the Skin. She will next be seen with Tim Robbins in Michael Winterbottom's Code 46.
Hounsou's breakthrough role came in Amistad, in which he played rebel slave leader Cinque, earning a Golden Globe nomination. He later appeared in Gladiator as Juba, the fiery warrior who becomes a friend to Maximus. Born in Benin, West Africa, Hounsou moved to Paris at age 13, where he struggled on the streets until he was discovered by fashion designer Thierry Mugler, who began featuring him in design campaigns. Hounsou next become a favorite subject of photographer Herb Ritts, which led to being cast in music videos by Fight Club director David Fincher. He eventually moved to Los Angeles to break into acting, teaching himself English in the process.
Back Stage West spoke with these two actors about their stunning work in Sheridan's film, as well as their experiences as abundantly talented actors whose careers have nonetheless required an uncommon amount of determination.
Back Stage West: With In America, you were playing characters that Jim Sheridan had written somewhat autobiographically, people straight out of his life whom he had known quite intimately. I wanted to hear what that was like, whether the process was any different, or whether you felt any added responsibility toward the story being told.
Djimon Hounsou: It's quite different. Obviously you are working with a director who has a clear understanding of where he is going with the story and what he's going to tell. And due to the fact that it's his life story, you approach the project with a bit of care. But the process is still the same.
Samantha Morton: I didn't want to approach it knowing that. To me, yes, it was his life story; however, I didn't want that responsibility. I wanted to approach it from an innocent sense, the way I would any other script, and the minute I started to feel a responsibility inherent in performing his life, or the accuracy of it, I wanted total freedom. I wanted to serve the project, however, perform my vision, the thing that I saw when I first read the script, which was quite different from some of the ways he initially thought it was going to be. But he saw it and encouraged that. I think Jim is very good at making blueprints, like a negative, and then he will feed it, and then you might come up with something, and then he'll feed you some more, and then you work off each other.
Hounsou: I think he's come from a great understanding of actors given that at one point he also tried to follow his dream and that dream was being an actor. So he has a great affinity with actors. And as Samantha said, you must approach a story as the story is written. You can't be thinking about who you're portraying. If you become too analytical, it will just take you away from the elements, from what you're there for.
Morton: I don't know about you but I find that a lot of the time interviewers ask me, "What was it like to play this?" Or, "How did you approach this?" And I always come up with the same answer, which is: I don't analyze the people I play. I have to be in the moment. You can't be thinking too much about why they do what they do, or why they go where they go, because therefore your performance is premeditated to a point that it's about power and you are not serving an audience. To serve an audience, I think, you have to give it to them. You have to go, "Here it is," whether it's a small performance or a big performance, and then it belongs to somebody else to analyze. I don't want to.
Hounsou: Most of the work of how you prepare a character is done at home. So once you do the homework, build a foundation, you have to let it go.
Morton: And not dwell. Often people think playing a character is about telling the truth. I also think it's about knowing when your character is lying. A lot of the time actors will be searching for the truth, or, What does this moment mean? What am I trying to make this other person think or feel? What is my objective here? And I think a lot of that is bollocks. I think a lot of human beings are living in denial. A lot of them are waiting to speak—they're listening, but they are waiting to get their point across. But the way I approach people—the first thing I do is look in a script and look at when they are lying to themselves, get my head around that.
BSW: That's fascinating. I've never heard an actor say that.
Hounsou: Same here. I've never thought of that.
BSW: You both seem to be very careful about the projects you choose, and yet you've both been offered great roles. You've both worked with Spielberg; you've both had the opportunities to show off your acting chops. How do you weigh whether a project is right for you, and what drew you to this project in particular?
Morton: It's changed since becoming a parent. I used to have a thing where I mainly did art films, low-budget, friends' films. I'd just come out of film school, and I would do anything. And it's gotten to the point now where a friend asked me to do a film, and I said, "You know what? You can only pay me 250 quid a week. I can't do it. It's an incredible script, give someone else the opportunity. Or let's go and try to raise some money." Now I have to look at all sorts of things, and without sounding too cynical, thank goodness I'm working. A lot of my friends who are actors aren't working at the moment. The British film industry is in a really, really bad way, so we come here to work. We're used to being very grateful for the work we have and working very hard.
Hounsou: With respect to this film, my attraction to the story obviously is pretty clear. In some way I came here to live the American dream, as well, so that was the one thing that really drew me to story.
BSW: How often is it that you're offered a role that really seems like something interesting?
Hounsou: The fact of the matter is, the studio isn't going to think about you. Every once in a while they'll call you if the role is somewhat suitable. The roles that I really want to play, actually nobody wants to see me in those roles. A lot of it is the way you come out—that's the light they see you in. Because I came out in a slave film, that's all they're going to think of me as. I've taken meetings where they thought that I needed to come with a translator and didn't speak a word of English. And they were wondering why they were just taking a meeting with me. So my early years, especially after Amistad, it was an education. I was learning firsthand that nobody knew that I didn't just come off the boat to play this character. It's challenging. So therefore you have to go the other way. I've started finding my own material and optioning certain things, and I'm trying to put them together and produce them. I look for good writers—young filmmakers who are hungry. I'd team up with someone to do a co-story.
Morton: Same as Djimon, I don't get offered very much. So I set up a production company two years ago where I've written, and I'm directing my first film at the end of this year. And I'm in the process with a company called Revolution and Company who did Movern Callar. I have optioned numerous books. But it got to where I was constantly being told I wasn't attractive by the studios. My teeth weren't right. My forehead was too big. Certain executive producers were constantly coming up with excuses. And I was like, You know what? There aren't any excuses. And I'm not going to take it personally anymore. I get offered a lot of roles that are roles I've done before—people with a little bit of angst. Because I have no inhibitions at all, these things get thrown at me. But I'm 26 now, I've settled down, I'm at peace with it, and I want to do something different—the kinds of things that are constantly on offer in independent films or the London stage. Though you get to the point where you want people to see the things you're in.
It's like doing Morvern Callar. We won awards all over the world; however, a company picked it up to distribute it and then decided they didn't want to market it. So I set up a company with a friend of mine who ran a record label. We did our own premiere. I got in touch with a company that did press and publicity, and we did it all off our backs with our own money to get people to see it. BBC films gave us a print of the film for the premiere. I found someone to sponsor it. My point is that you don't need money. You need love and you need to believe in what you are doing.
BSW: You seem to have a real sense of faith in yourself and an understanding of who you are and what you want as an actor. Where do you think that comes from?
Morton: I actually took a year off acting when I was 19, because I was, like, Is this going to make me happy? What is this about? What is my ego about? My personal journey? And what is this search for with drama? And actually it was to understand people and understand myself greater through playing other people, learning things about myself that I didn't know already, or about human nature, and how what we do affects other people. I made a concerted effort to have my financial outgoings to a tiny minimum about six years ago, so that I was free—free of the burden of wanting to be a star or wanting to support something that I felt shackled to. I made that decision, and it meant that I sacrificed certain elements of what other people expected of me—agents or whatever—to make sure that I kept pure. You have to keep your spirit alive. And I think it's very hard, and it's ongoing. BSW