Djimon Hounsou is a critically acclaimed film star from Benin, West Africa
He first captured the world's attention with his performance in 1997's 'Amistad'
Before becoming an actor, Hounsou was a successful model in Paris
Hounsou is also an outspoken campaigner in the fight against climate change
From scavenging for food through garbage and sleeping in the streets, to becoming an international fashion model and a Hollywood A-lister, Djimon Hounsou’s journey to stardom has been an astonishing one.
The Benin-born actor, one of the most prominent film stars to come out of Africa, has appeared in blockbusters such as “Gladiator,” “Amistad” and “Blood Diamond,” and has worked with Hollywood royalty like Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio.
His role in the film “In America” made him the first black African man to be nominated for an Oscar, while his performance in “Blood Diamond” earned him a second nomination.
It’s a long way from where the soft-spoken actor imagined he would be while growing up under difficult conditions in the West African country of Benin.
“I was just a very torn child, very wounded in so many areas, with no family support,” recalls Hounsou, who grew up without his parents, who had moved to Ivory Coast.
“I happened to the be the fifth child of my family,” he explains, “so everybody was already grown and had left home already.”
For Hounsou, who finally met his father for the first time around the age of 10, this was a “very lonely” period of his life. “The dream was to escape that surrounding,” he says.
At the age of 13 he left Benin to move to Paris with his older brother – but the hardship continued.
“The rocky time came right after I left school,” remembers the acclaimed actor. “I spent a lot of time at night navigating the streets of Paris trying to find something to eat,” he says.
“I was not anymore legal because I’m no more a student and I could not work. So I was left out on the street, I couldn’t walk around too much because obviously if you get caught, noticed or get stopped by the police you’re deported immediately.”
Hounsou’s good looks, however, did get noticed by a Paris photographer, who invited him to audition as a fashion model. There, Hounsou met famous French designer Thierry Mugler and soon established himself as a successful high-fashion model.
The collaboration with Mugler also took Hounsou to the United States for the first time, where he quickly started working toward realizing his dream of becoming an actor.
He made his foray into the industry by appearing in music videos and went on to feature in Roland Emmerich’s 1994 film “Stargate.”
But the break-out moment in Hounsou’s acting career came three years later with Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” where he appeared alongside Hollywood legends Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman.
“It was one of the most powerful stories about Africans that define African Americans’ legacy and that a lot of people were shy about wanting to hear, wanting to see,” says Hounsou of the film.
Another defining moment for Hounsou was his performance in 2006’s “Blood Diamond,” where he won rave reviews for portraying a fisherman forced to work in a diamond mine after being captured by rebels.
The film was set in Sierra Leone in the 1990s – a time of civil war and a period when more than 4% of all African diamonds were sold on the black market.
“My passion is more about bringing the stories out from the African continent mixed with the West,” says Hounsou.
Hounsou, who is married to former fashion model Kimora Lee Simmons, is also an outspoken activist and a prominent campaigner in the fight against climate change.
His desire to make a difference has seen him working with charities such as Oxfam and SOS, while in 2009 he spoke at the United Nations’ Summit on Climate Change in New York – a far cry from his early days as a lonely child in Benin.
But despite all he’s achieved so far, Hounsou says his remarkable life journey is just starting.
He says: “It was a great journey, but I strongly feel like I’m still at the beginning of that journey”.