- The Washington Times - Monday, September 23, 2002

NEW YORK
Djimon Hounsou's first big break came playing a slave in a historical epic. His next high-profile role was as a slave in a historical epic.
His latest film? A slave in a historical epic.
It's a pattern that hasn't been lost on Mr. Hounsou, who fears Hollywood wants him only portrayed in chains.
"I've come to terms with it. I've come to terms with my fears about the industry," he says. "I can't take those things personally anymore. The reality is that you are being offered a job."
Mr. Hounsou first gained fame for his Golden Globe-nominated portrayal of Cinque, an African rice farmer who leads a rebellion of 53 captives aboard a 19th-century slave ship in Steven Spielberg's "Amistad."
That led to another captivating role in Ridley Scott's sword-and-sandal epic "Gladiator." Mr. Hounsou played Juba, a slave who befriends Russell Crowe's character, Maximus.
Two big roles, two slaves.
"Listen, I'm from this period. I want to play this period," he says. "I'm a regular guy. I just want to play a regular guy. I want to play a cop. I want to do comedy. Different things."
First, though, Mr. Hounsou must return to the role of a slave. In "The Four Feathers," he plays a Sudanese captive who helps English officers fight a Muslim rebellion during 1875. He plays opposite Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley and Kate Hudson.
Mr. Hounsou (his full name is pronounced JI-mon OHN-soo) infuses his character with the same qualities that made him so watchable in his other films: A sense of wisdom, dignity and pathos.
Director Shekhar Kapur, who directed the 1998 film "Elizabeth," knew he had found the actor who could fill the tricky role of Abou Fatma after viewing Mr. Hounsou in "Amistad."
"If Djimon walked in right now and sat with you, he'd be laughing and joking," Mr. Kapur says. "Somehow, in front of the camera, he becomes so totally centered in the way he walks and the way he speaks. Totally centered."
Mr. Hounsou, 38, earned that quality through a life that resembles a movie script. He has been homeless in Paris, an international fashion model, a music video extra and now a Hollywood actor.

Born in the West African nation of Benin, Mr. Hounsou's love affair with film began early. He would join hundreds of other children at the local movie theater every Wednesday, thrilled to see the same Gary Cooper movie each week.
"I remember it being a cowboy movie," he says. "I remember the sound. I couldn't really see the images because it was packed and I was literally parallel to the screen," says Mr. Hounsou, whose name means "strong blood."
"I remember just the legs, the images were just legs moving. And all you hear is the sound of those boots with the spurs: chink, chink, chink. It was commanding so much respect. Just the sound of it and the allure I was hooked."
At age 13, Mr. Hounsou's parents sent him to France for school. He bunked with an older brother in Lyons, but dropped out and headed for Paris, where he slept on the streets and bathed in fountains.
Of those days, Mr. Hounsou is reticent. "I don't want to talk about that. It gives me a headache. The reason I don't want to talk about it anymore is that we all hit lows, every single one of us, in one fashion or the other. Mine may seem hard for some people, but mine is actually nothing next to some others."
Discovered walking through Paris by an associate of fashion designer Thierry Mugler, the muscular, 6-foot-2 Mr. Hounsou was soon transformed into a runway model.
The photographer Herb Ritts also was smitten, featuring Mr. Hounsou in several books.
After moving to Los Angeles, Mr. Hounsou appeared in videos including Janet Jackson's "Love Will Never Do (Without You)," Steve Winwood's "Roll With It," Madonna's "Express Yourself" and Paula Abdul's "Straight Up."
All the while, he was learning English by watching the Learning Channel, A&E; and sports. The Discovery Channel was a personal favorite, offering documentaries of animals he had left behind in Africa.
Mr. Hounsou is currently appearing in Gap commercials and earlier this year narrated HBO's "The Middle Passage," the harrowing story of the slave voyages to the New World. It seems, though, Mr. Hounsou has finally broken those chains.
Roles in his next three films Jim Sheridan's "In America," "Tomb Raider 2" and "Biker Boyz" opposite Laurence Fishburne don't involve either chains or a historical epic.
"I definitely want to navigate from period pieces to modern and futuristic projects, as well," he says. "Past, present and future. Why not?"


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