Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Djimon Hounsou: 'Blood Diamond' star's remarkable journey

From Isha Sesay, CNN
April 10, 2012 -- Updated 1528 GMT (2328 HKT)
Djimon Hounsou is a film star from Benin who has appeared in movies including "Amistad," "Blood Diamond" and "In America." Djimon Hounsou is a film star from Benin who has appeared in movies including "Amistad," "Blood Diamond" and "In America."
Djimon Hounsou's film career
Djimon Hounsou, the family man
Blood Diamond
Djimon Hounsou, the activist
The Tempest
  • 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

(CNN) -- 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.

See also: The best of African film

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.

Djimon Hounsou's lonely upbringing
Djimon Hounsou: Homeless to Hollywood
Djimon Hounsou: Actor and activist

"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.

See also: The evolution of African cinema

My passion is more about bringing the stories out from the African continent mixed with the West.
Djimon Hounsou

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".

Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1140 GMT (1940 HKT)
The veiled female rapper tackling Egyptian taboos head on
Meet Mayam Mahmoud, the 18-year-old Egyptian singer tackling gender stereotypes through hip-hop.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Gikonyo performs a medical check-up for one of her patients at Karen Hospital in Kenya.
Leading pediatric surgeon Betty Gikonyo reveals how her life changed at 30,000 feet and her mission to save the lives of countless disadvantaged children in Kenya.
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
Biyi Bandele
As a child, Biyi Bandele immersed himself in a world of literature. Today he's taken that passion and turned it into a career as a celebrated writer, playwright and now director.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Sanaa Hamri in Los Angeles, 2011.
Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri shares her story of how she made it from the streets of Tangier to the big film studios in the United States.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 0934 GMT (1734 HKT)
African Voices meets James Ebo Whyte a passionate storyteller with a series of successful plays to his credit.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has become a new critics' darling after her breakout role in last year's hit movie "12 Years A Slave."
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Celebrated designer Adama Paris reveals how she was tired of seeing "skinny blonde models" on all the runways, so she did something about it.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
Packaging can change how people see things. And when it comes to sex, it could maybe help save lives too.
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1106 GMT (1906 HKT)
Global perceptions of the tiny country in east-central Africa are often still stuck in 1994 but local photographers are hoping to change that.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
A Silverback male mountain Gorilla sits in the dense jungle canopy on the edge of Uganda's Bwindi National Park in this 29, January 2007 photo. Bwindi, or the 'Impenetrable Forest' as it is known to many tourists is home to the majority of Uganda's rare and endangered mountain gorilla population where plans are underway to habituate two more gorilla family groups to counter growing demand from a flourishing gorilla trek tourism business, a major source of income for the Uganda tourism Authority. AFP PHOTO / STUART PRICE. (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)
Meet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the woman from Uganda trying to save critically endangered mountain gorillas before its too late.
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
Lightenings strike over Johannesburg during a storm on December 14, 2013.
Ending energy poverty is central to a resurgent Africa, writes entrepreneur Tony O. Elumelu.
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 1045 GMT (1845 HKT)
A group of young students have taken stereotypes about the continent -- and destroyed them one by one.
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.