Originally published in
May 2010
This Benin-born, Los Angeles-based movie star proves you can take the man out of Africa, but you can’t take Africa out of the man
Djimon Hounsou is battered and bruised. On location in Bangkok making the martial arts action film Elephant White with Kevin Bacon, filming has required him to go into combat every day for the past four weeks and it’s taking its toll. “I’m beyond tired but it’s okay,” he says gracefully as he fights to keep his eyes open. The film deals with child prostitution in Thailand and his character, an ex-child solder turned mercenary for hire, has it hard both physically and emotionally. “It’s been a bit heavy and painful to film but I like [director] Prachya Pinkaewm’s vision and am excited to be here.”
It’s unbelievable that we’re treating this planet as if someone is going to one day come and save us.
Photography: Jenneth Cappello

Reclining on his hotel bed after a particularly grueling day’s work, Hounsou may be down but he’s not out. He radiates an inner calm that suggests this acting malarkey can’t ruffle his finely groomed feathers. And not even extreme exhaustion can deaden his enthusiasm for talking about his plans once filming ends. Namely, heading to the World Cup. “I’m really looking forward to it. Africa has never been granted anything of this magnitude before so it’s going to be a historic event,” he buzzes. “South Africa is so beautiful and probably the one country on the continent with the facilities to host it. I’m going there for the whole event if I can. The World Cup will bring a lot of positive change to Africa.”

His home team Benin failed to qualify, so he’ll be routing for the six African nations that did make the grade. “Nigeria has some of the most decorated players. As hosts South Africa has to prove itself but I hope the team stays in long enough to get the home fans going. Ghana has great technical players. Cote D’Ivoire has Didier Drogba of course and Algeria should make it through well too. But I’ll probably put my money on Cameroon. It’s done very well in the World Cup before and I have huge admiration for Samuel Eto’o. I’m hoping he does well.”

For Hounsou though his trip is not just about the love of the game. As a spokesperson for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), he’s joined forces with Puma to promote 2010 as the International Year Of Biodiversity. The Play for Life campaign focuses on Africa and aims to raise awareness about environmental conservation among football fans with the Africa Unity kit, sales from which will fund biodiversity programmes. “Deforestation and climate change in Africa is scary so it’s important to make people aware of it,” he says earnestly. “It’s unbelievable that we’re treating this planet as if someone is going to one day come and save us. We’ve got to keep talking and putting pressure on leaders to take action.”

Before acting, football was Hounsou’s first love. Born in 1964 in Benin’s capital Cotenou, he made his early reputation on the pitch. “In America the first thing kids do is grab a basketball. In Africa it’s a football. I was one of the best players in the region and kids from other neighbourhoods would give me money to player for them. I could have been a great player.”

His parents had other plans however and sent him to Lyon aged 13 to get a good education. “I was excited to find a better life in France but at the same time I was leaving all that I knew and my brothers, who I went to live with, were much older than me so they left me alone for most of the time. I found it difficult. Also even with an education opportunities for black men were limited in that country back then.”

Determined to plough his own path, he left for Paris in 1987 and lived rough until he was scouted by a model agency. The agency sent him straight to meet renowned fashion designer Thierry Mugler who cast him for his Africa-themed show. It was a case of right place, right time, right attitude. “That man turned my life around. After the show he pulled me aside and said ‘You have charisma, I’m taking you to the Sahara to do pictures with Katoucha and Iman.’ I was extremely intimidated by the fashion industry and couldn’t see myself staying in it but I learned a thing or two.”

The following year he travelled with Mugler to the USA. Remembering his boyhood, when every Wednesday afternoon he’d pack into to Cotenou’s Vogue Cinema to watch Westerns with his mates, the visit rekindled his Hollywood bug and within a few months he moved to Los Angeles. “It’s where I wanted to be, the movie state, so I thought ‘Yeah, let’s go for it.’ At the time I didn’t speak any English but it only occurred to me later, ‘how the fuck am I going to operate?’”

His outstanding physique (which the whole world later admired when he became the first African Calvin Klein underwear model in 2007) soon made him beefcake for hire in music promos for the likes of Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson and Madonna and he also posed naked for Herb Ritts, famous for his iconic black and white, statue-like photography. Small TV and film roles in the early 1990s followed but his big break came when Steven Spielberg cast him in the 1997 blockbuster Amistad. He portrayed revolt leader Clique in the true story of a mutiny aboard a slave ship on its journey from West Africa to Cuba. “People thought I’d been picked from Africa for that role and then sent straight back home rather than an actor who’d been struggling for years to make it Hollywood,” he says, laughing about it now. “It was a tough role to play but one that was easy to connect with. It also took me to the next level.”

In 2000 Ridley Scott’s epic Gladiator further raised his profile and took him to Morocco for filming alongside Russell Crowe and the late, great Oliver Reed, who died during production. Jim Sheridan’s In America, in which he played a Nigerian artist living in New York who suffers from Aids, earned him an Oscar nomination in 2004 for Best Supporting Actor. And three years later he was nominated again for Blood Diamond. The story is set during the 1996-1999 Sierra Leone Civil War and addressed issues of conflict diamonds, genocide and displacement that speak to so many across Africa.

“I was crossing my fingers I’d get that film because when I was shooting Amistad the civil war had just broken out and my character came from Sierra Leone. We had people working on the film, one of whom taught me the native language I had to speak, who once filming finished were going back home to face the war. So ten years later when I read this script it was poignant for me. Delivering Blood Diamond alongside Leonardo di Caprio was a beautiful opportunity.”

For his second time in the hot seat at the Oscars, his nerves got the better of him. “When they read out my category alI I can remember is putting my head down to hide my face and hearing Jack Nicholson, who was sitting on my right hand side, telling me ‘Keep your head up’. By the time I looked up, the winner was announced - that was it. After that I went party hopping around the city.”

It was on that night that he met his future wife Kimora Lee Simmons. He got chatting to the model, Phat Fashions CEO and Reality TV celebrity at the last party of the evening and her self-styled ‘fabulosity’ proved instantly contagious. “We talked for about 30 minutes, exchanged numbers and then she was gone. First thing the next morning I called her. I hadn’t even got out of bed.” So no playing by The Rules and waiting a few days? “Hell no! We had a date straight away and it was wonderful.”

They were married at a traditional ceremony in Benin in 2008 and their son Kenzo was born last May. “She’s such a powerful, great lady. She’s elevated my spirits to a different level and I have a high regard and love for her. Kimora and the kids (Lee has two daughters with ex-husband Russell Simmons) are what keeps me going,” he gushes. Four weeks away from his beloved is surely making him yearn for home. “Here I am in Bangkok and yes it’s an exciting place but it’s lonely. Every day I go to the set, work, go to the hotel room stare at the TV, eat and go to sleep. It’s no fun for me but I have enough respect for my wife to not be fucking about. The quieter life you live, the better it is.”

Hounsou’s future projects include the 2010 big screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (he’s Caliban to Helen Mirren’s Prospera), a French film about the conflict in Afghanistan called Special Forces and Taxi Wars, a Forest Whitaker film set in South Africa.

So much for quietude, then. But what his current itinerary lacks in peacefulness, Hounsou makes up for in personal fortitude and tranquility. “Life is not about being a movie star for me, it’s about doing good work, having privacy and enjoying my family.” Sweet dreams Djimon, sweet dreams.