The King's Man's Djimon Hounsou And Rhys Ifans On Portraying The Series' Biggest Badasses [Interview]

Matthew Vaughn's "The King's Man" is a stunning shift in the "Kingsman" action-comedy-spy franchise, both for being the series' first prequel and for portraying fictionalized versions of very real historical characters as central figures in the villains' machinations. Set in the throes of World War I, the film sees the Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) partner with his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson), Polly Wilkins (Gemma Arterton), and the tough-as-nails Shola (Djimon Hounsou) to thwart a villainous plan that holds the fate of Europe in the balance. It introduces Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) as a charismatic and dangerous foe (a fictionalization of the "Mad Monk" himself), loaded with charisma, danger, and a unique fighting style that makes him a strong match for the fledgling spy organization. It's an interesting prequel that introduces considerable new dangers for the organization, provides fertile ground for additional prequel spinoffs, and launches some of the series' most memorable characters yet.

I sat down to speak with Djimon Hounsou and Rhys Ifans about the series' about their stunning combat sequences, the influence of the real Rasputin, and whether or not we'll see some of these exceptional characters' return in potential future "Kingsman" entries.

"I think Rasputin would be a big Instagrammer if he was alive today."

My first question I guess is for Djimon. So, Shola: a total, all-purpose badass, really.

Djimon Hounsou: Right.

Talk to us about the character and what drew you to the role.

Hounsou: What drew me to the role of Shola... Certainly first, the idea of finally working with Matthew Vaughn was the ticket drawer. [I've] just been wanting to and was in the hopes of working with him one day. So this presents itself, the offer came in and, of course, immediate yes! But Shola happens to be a descendant of Africa who befriended the Duke of Oxford when he was on charity work in Africa, and he was sort of like a witness first-hand to a dramatic loss to the Duke. That created quite an organic connection between the two of them, which led to him coming to Europe and becoming sort of like a chaperone to the Duke of Oxford. Interestingly, he becomes instrumental in the formation of this independent secret agency.

Absolutely. I thought it was cool to center him so pivotally in the foundation of the organization. Rhys, for you, so the nigh unkillable, mad monk, Rasputin... I have read that you've had an interest in his historical counterpart, and I wanted to see if you could tell me about that and how you shaped your interpretation of the character.

Rhys Ifans: I was aided by the real Rasputin, because he is a figure that is, regardless of whether he appeared in a "Kingsman" franchise, was this fantastical figure who kind of loomed large over Russia and Europe at the time, and still does today. He holds this kind of place of real mystery, and fear, and intrigue, and curiosity, and he's a divisive figure still. Of course, he was a monster. He was someone who found himself in the position that could start and end wars, but he is a fascinating figure, larger than life, [and] a huge physical presence, hypnotic. All the photographic evidence I gathered of him showed that, even in the early days of photography actually, Rasputin was acutely aware of the power of the image. All the photographing, he's really looking right ... almost through the lens of the camera into the soul of the photographer. So he's aware even then. I think he'd be a big Instagrammer if he was alive today.

[Laughs] So, yeah, all these things ... he ate like a pig. People would gather to watch him eat. He had the sexual appetite of a rabbit and a rat combined, all these things. So of course all these things are butter on my toast when it comes to bringing him alive in a Matthew Vaughn film. That's what we did! And then coupled, of course, with the great addition of the exquisite fight I have with Djimon primarily, where we discovered that Rasputin his own kind of physical language which is this twisted amalgamation of Russian dancing and kung fu, and jiu jitsu, and any number of Eastern disciplines.

"When Djimon was hitting me, I felt very safe."

To talk about that fight sequence particularly, I wanted to ask you two what was it like choreographing that? What stunt work and training did you do?

Hounsou: Yeah, it was a lot of work going into that. There was obviously, as you would may not know, but as you look at this sequence, it goes on for a long time. And so the need to be somewhat physically apt to that sort of like a whole day of basically fighting. It would take ... it took us weeks, months in preparation and weeks in filming, and this was probably the most challenging fight sequence I ever had to shoot.

Absolutely. Was there any particular part of the shoot that was particularly dangerous for either of you?

Ifans: Well, Djimon is doing every possible style of combat throughout the film, and besides the fight I have with him he has many more brilliant moments, you know. Djimon's a master at his craft in that field. I was an action virgin. This was kind of new territory for me. The fight actually wasn't dangerous because it was so well rehearsed and prepared for, we felt very ready to do it. But of course, when you're doing anything, any kind of physical assimilation of violence, there's always a risk that things go wrong. I mean, I felt more scared for the people I was working with because this isn't my field of expertise, you know? So when I had to hit Djimon, that's when I was most scared, because I thought 'I don't want to hurt Djimon!' You know what I mean? But when Djimon was hitting me, I felt very safe, because this guy knows what he's doing you know?

That's perfect. One final question ... this is for you both. So Rasputin, we see him die but he's impossible to kill. And Shola, he's clearly pivotal. Do you think there's room for your characters respectively to return on film?

Rhys Ifans: Personally, I don't think Rasputin can really [return]. I think he went off with a bang and let's leave it at that. But I mean, absolutely for the other guys, I think there's so much more mileage to [go]...

Djimon Hounsou: It would seem there's so much from this look back on [this] history, from that time in World War I to today, and to the present installment that had had great success as well. I would think that there is quite a bit of a journey to be fulfilled ... so we hope that it comes to life again.

"The King's Man" hits theaters December 22, 2021.