IF it’s a truism that everyone in Hollywood comes from somewhere else, then Djimon Hounsou may well have come the furthest. Born in Benin, a French-speaking, key-shaped country on the underside of western Africa, the 6-foot, 2-inch (not 6-foot-4, as some profiles have it) actor first glimpsed his destiny in the Gary Cooper and John Wayne westerns that filled the small rural cinema of his youth.
Still, many of his roles have been tethered by African roots -- “Amistad,” “In America” and now a prominent supporting role in Edward Zwick’s “Blood Diamond,” a political thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio and set in the illicit African diamond trade against the backdrop of the 1990s civil war in Sierra Leone. There is growing speculation that his turn as Solomon Vandy, a Mende fisherman forced to labor in the Sierra Leone diamond fields, may be the one to deliver him Oscar gold.
Of course, Hounsou came close in 2002, when he was nominated for best supporting actor in the role of Mateo, the West African-turned-East Harlem artist dying from AIDS complications in Jim Sheridan’s “In America.” In the interim, there have been half a dozen journeyman parts as mercenaries (“Blueberry,” “The Island”), guides (“The Four Feathers,” “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life”), a voodoo barkeep (“Constantine”) and even a romantic lead (Queen Latifah’s handyman squeeze in “Beauty Shop”).
“He’s very considered,” says Zwick, finding the precise word to describe the 42-year-old actor’s peculiar mix of intensity and reflection. “He’s West African and a phenomenal actor, the right age and all of those things. But if you look beyond that, you find someone that is deeply, deeply soulful. Having spent so much time now in Africa, I feel like everything there is about the ‘and.’ There is so much that comes at you at once, and as an actor, he seems so capable of inhabiting that ‘and': There is fury and grief, longing and fear.”
Hounsou, the youngest of five children in a family where both parents were cooks, went to live in Lyon, France, at age 13 with his brother Edmond, who was studying law. There he gave up a promising boxing career in deference to his mother but couldn’t meet her demands that he become a doctor.
Heading for Paris instead, he spent his 20th year homeless, sleeping beside the Jean Tinguely sculptures in the Stravinsky Fountain outside the Pompidou Center, where he harbored fantasies of becoming an actor. (Perhaps admirably, he has retired this anecdote from his autobiography: “I understand that it’s an interesting spin and a hopeful story to hear, but enough,” he says. “I’ve done 20 films now. I’m not homeless anymore.”) Instead, Paris and the fates had their own plans, and Hounsou was discovered by a freelance photographer who brought him to the attention of fashion designer Thierry Mugler.
In quick succession, he became a major runway model, was photographed by the likes of Herb Ritts (most notably with an octopus on his head), moved to Los Angeles, became a Gap model, transitioned to music videos (Madonna, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul) shot by future A-list directors (David Fincher, Michael Bay), then was chosen by Steven Spielberg to star in 1997’s “Amistad.”
“Living in France and auditioning for modeling jobs,” says Hounsou, “countless times I heard, ‘You’re too dark-skinned’ or ‘You’re too African-looking, your nose is too flat, maybe you want to redo your nose and make your lips smaller, bleaching your skin would help.’ I’m thinking, ‘What of me belongs to this industry? If every single thing you see about me from the outside is so wrong, what exactly is it that you like?’ It’s not something that I curse, and I was very grateful to have the spoils of it, but when I had the opportunity to move into something I liked doing, I took it.”
That move was into film. With his breakthrough performance in “Amistad,” chronicling an 1839 uprising aboard a slave ship, for which he learned to speak Mende (his fifth language; his only words in English were, memorably, “Give us free!”), he briefly faced the ridiculous situation of taking meetings at agencies and studios where his hosts routinely expected him to arrive with a translator.
But with his role in “Gladiator” three years later -- also at the behest of Spielberg -- Hounsou began working regularly, albeit invariably as characters with African roots.
Now, having lived in Los Angeles for 18 years -- longer than he’s lived anywhere else -- he is again seeing his distant origins and improbable career path play to his advantage.
By happenstance or inevitability, “Blood Diamond” joins a growing number of social dramas this season set on the African continent, each with its own potential Oscar contingent. Warner Bros. seems committed to a best supporting actor campaign on Hounsou’s behalf. Phillip Noyce’s “Catch a Fire,” about a South African oil refinery foreman and model citizen turned anti-apartheid terrorist, stars “Antwone Fisher” discovery Derek Luke sporting a note-perfect township accent. And in “The Last King of Scotland,” Forest Whitaker as the Ugandan regent-madman Idi Amin finally delivers a career-best performance that seems to justify his star-making cameo in “The Color of Money” 20 years ago.
BUT unlike his contemporaries, Hounsou has had several extra decades to internalize the lessons of his material. Although “Blood Diamond” focuses specifically on the forced labor and quantified greed of the trade in so-called conflict diamonds, it seems an apt metaphor for the rapaciousness and abandon with which Western colonialism has always treated this resource-rich continent.
A final note refers to the “200,000 child soldiers in Africa,” and a villager tells DiCaprio, “Let’s hope they don’t discover oil here, then we’d have real problems.”
“The continent of Africa has provided so much for the world -- it was the cradle of life, civilization and so much wealth,” says Hounsou. “And yet malnutrition, famine, health problems, the genocide in Darfur -- if it’s not in someone’s explicit interest, it doesn’t get dealt with. It’s as if you’re leaving a piece of fish for a cat to watch.”
Hounsou participates in the ONE Campaign to combat AIDS and eradicate global poverty and makes appearances on behalf of Oxfam, the former Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, which also targets entrenched poverty. And through his production company, Belly Serpent (named for the mythological origins of Dahomey, the antecedent of his native Benin), he is actively seeking to “tell African stories through the eyes of Africans” -- among them “Instant in the Wind,” an interracial romance set in South Africa in the 1950s, and “Voice of My Heart,” about a man once set on fire during the war in Rwanda who ultimately represented his country at the Olympics.
“For some of us who don’t have the luxury of traveling outside the country and seeing other cultures,” he says, "[film] is one of the best tools ever for understanding ourselves. It’s instrumental -- vital -- to our evolution as human beings.”
Hounsou seems no less enthralled with his present circumstance -- if not so much with the perks and protocols of fame (his one concession is a weakness for motorcycles, custom-built Harleys and speed bikes, which he calls “crotch rockets,” that for him seem to fall somewhere between trophies and therapy), then at least with the proximity to greatness his qualified celebrity affords him. He is quick to praise his castmates: Of “Blood Diamond’s” Jennifer Connelly, he says, “She’s very, very kind. And in my experience, at her level, she really doesn’t have to be.” Of director Zwick, he says, “We’ve spent way too much time emphasizing the great director who has all the answers. We forget that great directors are great communicators, and you can’t possibly be a great communicator if you’re not a great listener.”
And of DiCaprio -- for which “Blood Diamond,” even more than his concurrent performance in “The Departed,” marks a transition to adult leading man status -- Hounsou is positively effusive. “What a great young man,” he says. “I’ve learned so much from him. There are so many things he did that I think most people around us had no idea of.”
Expanding his comments to incorporate DiCaprio, “In America” director Sheridan and others who have crossed his path and left a mark, he leavens firsthand experience with a patina of grace: “I like to be a sponge in any environment,” he says, “soaking up information and people, to register all of that. What I have to say, whatever I have to convey, is not that important. It’s much more important for me to hear people and to swim in the pool of their energies, charisma, vibe, and to receive whatever they can impart to me.
“The one thing I regret in this business is that, between actors, directors, producers, there are some amazing people -- just as human beings. And because we all have a journey, and we’re all driven, those people are just there for a moment, and the moment needs to be cherished and embraced.”