Exclusive: Djimon Hounsou talks Air and playing in the Marvel Universe

djimon hounsou interview

It’s been a solid year for low-budget genre films. Films like Ex Machina and It Follows have captivated audiences despite their modest budgets, and Air could be another film to join that distinction. It stars The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus as Bauer and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Djimon Hounsou as Cartwright, two engineers who are in charge of keeping the world’s greatest scientists alive during a post-apocalyptic world where breathable air is nonexistent. 

When the air on the outside is deemed breathable for healthy living, the scientists would be woken up to repopulate mankind. Bauer and Cartwright wake up twice a year, with two hours of supplied oxygen, to run the diagnostics of the scientists that are cryogenically preserved and the facility that houses them to make sure everything is okay. The film is full of old-school thrills and taps into the paranoia of being alone, in the dark, and trusting your life to others. I spoke with Hounsou about Air and the possibility of returning to the Marvel Universe.

Air has this emphasis of mood and atmosphere. In a short time span, you could really feel what it was like to be two lonely people with this awful job. The film’s budget strips away a lot of the extra production costs, but what remains is a compelling story. 

Djimon Hounsou: We were after the life conditions of those two people. Can you imagine there being only two people left to save humanity, to care for the seeds? That notion itself is so much more appealing than to have a story told with special effects and set dressing. You can still tell a great fictional story without a lot of money, which we tried to do.

What Air reminded me was how scary the dark can still be. What was it like working in those conditions?

DH: [Laughs] Those conditions were almost as real as you ever wanted them to be. If that happened today–I hope it never does. Certainly not having to find ways to cope [in that environment or situation]. I don’t ever want to be a guardian for humanity, that in and of itself is tough. I hope it never comes true.

There’s a lot of physical scenes for you, getting into a contamination suit, crawling around in a dark air duct and lonely tunnels. Was it as claustrophobic as it appeared?

DH: Oh, extremely claustrophobic. I had my nephew visit when we were filming in Vancouver. He saw me going through the tunnels with that suit and the mask. Everybody felt uncomfortable when I was struggling. It’s probably a fear for a lot of people, to be restricted and confined to such a limited space, a space that’s not comfortable to you or for how you’re built. 

Cartwright is one of your more subdued characters, where you didn’t have to use a guttural voice. Talk about the design of that character and how you came to that performance.

DH: If things are breaking down around them, Bauer [Norman Reedus] doesn’t know if he’s going to care about the seeds of humanity. He’s more about self-preservation. Cartwright looks at their work more from the scientist point of view; he’s more driven to save humanity in the sense that he comes from the scientists’ setting. He’s pro-life and pro-creation.

We didn’t have much time; we had an idea and jumped on the idea of creating something and see how it turns out. We had little money, little tools to tell that interpretation of the story, which limited us. We had very little time to think. It was a bit of guerrilla filmmaking. We just did with what we could find right there. 

You’ve played in the Marvel Universe twice. Once voicing the Black Panther, for the 2010 animated series on the BET channel, the other was Korvath in Guardians of the Galaxy. Would you like to return to the Marvel Universe in any shape or form?

DH: Yeah, that’s fun, ultimately that’s why we come into the business is to play house and play fun.

Is there another character you’d like to play?

DH: Oh there’s so many! Whether it is no reflection of me, it will be nice to see Black Panther on screen.

Having immersed yourself in that world before, is there anything you think the film has to do to get Black Panther right?

DH: Well I wouldn’t tell you that because [Marvel Studios] would say, “Hmm, Djimon said this?” [Laughs] But no, it would be nice to see what they’re going to come up with. Mind you, this is a fictional story, this is all unlimited resources of imagination, whatever they do we’ll go along with that. It’s still going to be great. They have a way of creating a fictional world that is exciting! 

Air will see limited theater release, digital and On Demand on Aug. 14 and is the first feature of director and co-writer Christian Cantamessa, who comes from the videogame world having written games like Red Dead Redemption and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. It is produced by Robert Kirkman and David Alpert.

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