Las Vegas Sun

July 31, 2014

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Q+A: Djimon Hounsou & Sean Faris:

Actors elevate fight film with plot you know

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Courtesy Photo

Sean Faris (left) and Djimon Hounsou star in the action-packed drama “Never Back Down.”

“Never Back Down” capitalizes on the mixed martial arts craze.

So it makes sense that the film’s stars — Djimon Hounsou and Sean Faris — came to Las Vegas to promote the film and attend an MMA fight.

The film, which opens today, glamorizes and glorifies the violence, aiming for an audience of young, testosterone-fueled males.

But this strictly-by-the-numbers formula is so predictable that you know within a dozen minutes what is going to happen during the next hour and a half. The only reason to stick around is to watch the heart-pounding action of the choreographed battles. It combines all the brutal elements of “Fight Club,” “Rocky” and a cockfight.

It’s “Karate Kid” on steroids, with Hounsou playing Pat Morita’s part as the mentor and Faris as Ralph Macchio’s counterpart. Too bad the clear message — don’t fight unless you have to in order to protect yourself or your loved ones — will be drowned out by the adrenaline rush from the violent scenes.

Still, Hounsou and Faris manage to rise above a humdrum script.

That’s no surprise from Hounsou. The 43-year-old actor — born in Benin, raised in France — brings an element of dignity and depth to every role he plays, whether it’s Cinque in “Amistad,” Mateo in “In America” or Solomon Vandy in “Blood Diamond.” He was nominated for Oscars for the last two films.

But he first caught widespread attention when he starred in “Amistad,” directed by Steven Spielberg. “He was amazing,” Hounsou said. “I still hope to have another opportunity to do another film with him.”

On the other hand, Faris is a relative newcomer.

He looks so much like Tom Cruise that he could be Cruise’s son — only taller — and he landed a minor part in “Pearl Harbor” shortly after arriving in Los Angeles. Since then he has appeared in several TV series (“Reunion,” “Smallville,” “Life as We Know It”) and a few movies (“Yours, Mine and Ours,” “Sleepover”).

The two actors recently talked to the Sun.

DJIMON HOUNSOU

What motivated you to do the film?

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  • Djimon Hounsou addresses the notion that mixed martial arts is a sport that promotes violence.

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  • Djimon Hounsou talks about the evolution of mixed martial arts from its relative obscurity at inception to the mainstream popularity it enjoys today.

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  • Djimon Hounsou talks about why he chose to do the film "Never Back Down."

I kind of like, you know, say money comes first and then you start to contemplate, to look at the story and whether it resonates. In this case it really did resonate for me because I have boxed for many years, in France, before coming to America. I also have done kung fu, so I have a strong affinity for sports, for martial arts. I wanted to do a movie that highlighted the mixed martial arts of today, and this was the chance.

Mixed martial arts has become a very popular sport.

Yes. It’s huge not only in Las Vegas but everywhere. At first a lot of people who were watching it were a little intimidated by the outlook of the sport — some thought it was extremely barbaric, but I think it’s the least barbaric of the martial arts in the sense that it is a combination of all sports. It’s truly a chess match on the ground. I have high respect for the sport.

The film is aimed at young people. Does it concern you that they may focus more on the violence and excitement in the film rather than the lessons that should be learned?

The one thing I learned early on when growing up in France is that it’s vital for youth to do sports like that. Again, when you’re a young man you have so much in you that you want to get out, things you want to say but don’t have a way to express it. (In )sports like this, or any sport for that matter, you empty yourself into a sport. Over the years it has taught me a great amount of mental and spiritual conditioning. I think the sport helps enhance people’s lives, really. I think by doing the sport I find myself so much less aggressive. I think most people, once they do sports — martial arts or any sport of this nature — it gets to a point where they don’t really talk about (violence) anymore. They avoid at all costs getting into a confrontation on the street because they know what it takes to hurt someone. A lot of people that do sports of this nature have a better demeanor.

You’ve been associated with some great films. Is this film, aimed at a young age group, a major departure for you?

Depending on what you call a departure. But I think, in a sense, maybe it definitely gives some breathing room, some distance, for the tougher movies I have done until now. This is kind of refreshing and fun, with a bit of wisdom of “The Karate Kid,” maybe, coming across.

Sort of “The Karate Kid” on steroids?

Yes. It’s geared toward being entertaining to watch.

SEAN FARIS

This film has a message for young people, but do you think the audience might focus on the violence rather than the message?

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  • Sean Faris talks about how the violence plays an importatn role in "Never Back Down" as a catalyst for his character's evolution.

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  • Sean Faris discusses what he looks for in a script when deciding whether or not to do a movie.

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  • Sean Faris discusses where he would like to go next in terms of his acting.

That is a concern, I’m not going to deny that. What I hope is, I hope they see it more than once because I understand the fight scenes can distract the audience the first time around. If you’re a true moviegoer, a true movie fan and not easily distracted by the eye candy and the action, then the story is true. It’s right there in front of you. The message is pretty clear. You need to fight for the right reason, to defend yourself and the ones you love. My character tries to walk away but can’t. And I hope they (the fans) don’t get caught up too much in the fight scenes — because they are really cool. I hope they pay attention to the message, to what makes the fights happen.

Did you and Djimon become friends during the filming, or was it just another job for you?

I’ve got the utmost respect for him. He’s an incredible actor. He has an incredible presence — he’s so intellectual, such a smart guy. He’s got a lot of love in his heart, and that comes off on-screen as well as in his presence. He helped me through a lot of tough times on the set, like when I’m getting beat up and they’re really hitting me. He’d say something like, “Hey, don’t kill your lead actor.” Actually, he broke my back in one of the scenes. He didn’t even know it at the time. He had wrapped (his part of the filming) by the time he found out. It was pretty painful, some small bone that comes off your lower vertebrae. It was like breaking a rib. They put me in a brace in between scenes. I was on a lot of painkillers.

What do you look for in scripts — lots of action or something with depth?

Originally I was always just looking for a job, but as I got deeper into it and started getting offers it was about doing something to help my career. “Never Back Down” is a big-budget commercial film, a great script about coming of age. “Forever Strong” (to be released this year) is also a strong film with lots of action, and one that requires a lot of acting. Where I’m heading now, I really want to do a true actor’s piece, really deep. I got an offer for one recently — the character is very much “Leaving Las Vegas.” This project is an art house independent. We want to do it, but we want to make sure it’s the right one to do. If “Never Back Down” does what it potentially can do, what everybody hopes it will do, then my next film is very important. I need to do one for respect in the industry, one that has them saying, “We can’t deny that this kid can act and can handle any role we can give him in his age range.”

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