The striking 42-year-old native of Cotonou, Benin, plays Solomon Vandy, a fisherman living with his family in war-torn Sierra Leone who is captured by the Revolutionary United Front and forced to work under horrific conditions in the diamond fields.
Best actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, an ex-mercenary from Zimbabwe who meets Solomon in prison and offers to help him find his family in exchange for the diamond.
Hounsou, who was previously nominated in this category for his tender performance as an artist dying of complications of AIDs in 2002's "In America," received the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures supporting actor award for "Blood Diamond." Besides the Oscar nomination, he also earned nods from the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. and the Screen Actors Guild Award.
The tall, muscular actor immigrated to Paris with his brother at 13 where he lived on the streets until he was discovered by fashion designer Thierry Mugler, who made him a model. Hounsou made his film debut in the 1990 film "Without You I'm Nothing."
That same year, he appeared with Antonio Sabato Jr. in the Janet Jackson video, "Love Will Never Do (Without You). "
Hounsou has made indelible impressions in several movies including Steven Spielberg's 1997 historical epic "Amistad" and Ridley Scott's 2000 best picture Oscar winner, "Gladiator."
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Is this Oscar nomination sweeter than the first?
I think it is sweeter. You look for great jobs and great characters in very powerful stories, and the chances of that happening and you ever getting a nod again for an Oscar -- it is not given every day. Every day is not Sunday.
The second time around it is a little bit stressful because from the first time I know not to get overly excited and the second time you are nominated it doesn't look like [the first nomination] was an accident.
Since working with Steven Spielberg in "Amistad" 10 years ago, you have collaborated with an eclectic strong group of directors like Ridley Scott, Ed Zwick and Jim Sheridan.
I have been quite lucky. I never dreamed of it like this. It is definitely mind-blowing.
How do you approach your roles? Do you work with acting coaches as a lot of performers or do you work instinctively?
Generally, I don't think you need a coach if you spend the time looking at the story overall. And that is the first thing you look at. You must spend a lot of time understanding the story and all the nuances before you deal with your character. But I think you can do all the homework by yourself.
Most of it also has to do with our imagination, so using an acting coach or getting a certain technique to approach the work . . . . it can help you with a couple of movies, but I think your imagination is definitely good enough and will carry you far enough.
Where did your imagination take you with your character of Solomon in "Blood Diamond"?
For me personally, I have to feel the character internally. I feel a lot of it has to do with understanding the character and embodying the character before heading to the set and then have the director guide you along the way.
What was Zwick like as a director? Did he give you a lot of freedom? Were there a lot of rehearsals?
Mostly we didn't deal with any rehearsals -- sometimes I don' t enjoy the rehearsal process. With Ed, he gives the freedom to have an understanding of the character. Great directors always give you the benefit of the doubt on your understanding the text yourself. There are plenty of questions you can ask [of the director], but at the end of the day, it has to deal with you.
Your scenes with DiCaprio are especially strong and emotional. How did you work together?
We feed off of each other regularly on a daily basis. First of all, the body of work for Leo is quite amazing already. He is a great co-star to work with. He's not so concerned about his character, but your character and the whole movie, the overall look of the film. In that sense, the rapport working with him was quite amazing and very challenging.
I got nervous working with him the first couple of days; I couldn't even get my lines out of my mouth. I knew he had a certain respect for me and I was afraid of disappointing him, disappointing my director, so I became a little paranoid the first couple of days.
I know you left your African homeland of Benin for Paris when you were 13. Do you get to go back home? And what do they think of your nominations?
I go back there every year. I still have relatives there. They are thrilled especially back in my country -- the country is screaming over the nomination.
So much has been made of the fact that this is the international year of the Academy Awards.
America is the melting pot of people from different parts of the world. I always felt like Hollywood would eventually become receptive [to international themes]. That is what defines America.