Djimon Hounsou's best career move might have been his worst.
He had already auditioned for the lead role of "Amistad," Steven Spielberg's movie based on a true-life uprising on a slave ship in 1839. He had even survived a screen test. In fact, it looked like Djimon Hounsou (pronounced ZHI-mon HON-soo), a former fashion model who had so far appeared only fleetingly in forgettable films, might actually stand a chance of playing Sengbe Pieh, the Mende tribesman who led 52 of his fellow Africans in a mutiny against Spanish slave traders.
Then came Spielberg's loaded question.
Two days after being called in to audition, Hounsou was sitting across a table from the great man himself. "He asked me [if I thought] I ought to be speaking a different language in portraying this character," recalled Hounsou during an interview in New York in November.
Hounsou, a native of Benin who speaks three African dialects (not to mention French and English), did not know how to speak Mende.
And Spielberg knew it.
"Deep inside I wanted to say to him, 'Yes,' so I could get the job," Hounsou continued. "But he's no fool either, sitting across from the table from me." Hounsou told Spielberg that he thought Sengbe -- who was called Cinque by his Spanish captors -- should speak Mende in the movie. Spielberg asked Hounsou if he thought he could learn a brand new language in a matter of weeks. "I said to him, 'I can give it a try, and we can see from there.' "
Spielberg wound up casting Hounsou in the pivotal role of Cinque, after considering more than 150 actors for the part (including Will Smith and Cuba Gooding Jr.). And Hounsou immediately got cracking. "I found someone from Sierra Leone who was a professor from a university over there," explained Hounsou, stretching his long, leather-clad legs across a hotel coffee table and taking a sip from a bottle of Pellegrino water. "Two weeks prior to shooting, he started translating the script for me phonetically and recorded it on tapes. I began to study maybe 10 days prior to shooting. A week before the date of shooting, I couldn't read one line."
If Hounsou was struggling with the language, filmgoers will probably never know it from his performance. He is already being praised for his quietly compelling portrayal of Cinque, with Variety recently calling his performance a "dignified portrayal of a man of outer strength and inner peace."
Visibly exhausted after a two-day meet-and-greet marathon, Hounsou answered questions softly, in a whisper inflected with the lilting accent of his native country. It was clear that life was changing and that scripts were beginning to arrive in a volume befitting an exploding young star. "I'm busier reading scripts, yes," the 33-year-old actor admitted. "But now comes the crucial time to really be careful in choosing the next job."
Even though Hounsou started work on "Amistad" in a whirlwind -- was first called to audition last December and cameras started rolling in New England in February -- he is no overnight sensation. He's been living in Hollywood for eight years, studying acting and trying out for parts; he garnered a small role in "Unlawful Entry" and was also seen in "StarGate."
Indeed, until this week, Hounsou was probably best known for his striking face and tall, lithe body. In 1986, at the age of 22, he was discovered on the streets of Paris by a representative for a fashion photographer; soon, Hounsou was posing for the likes of Herb Ritts. He became a favorite of designer Thierry Mugler and went on to appear in music videos for Steve Winwood, Madonna, Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson.
But anyone who assumes that Hounsou's road has been a charmed one is sorely mistaken: Although he found success in Paris, it was there that he became estranged from his family. When he was 13, he had been sent to France to live with an older brother and gain an education. But one year away from graduation, he abruptly quit school, incurring the wrath of his parents and the brother back in Benin who had saved up money to send Djimon to Europe.
Cut off from his family, Hounsou took to the streets of Paris, bathing in the city's famous fountains and delving into garbage cans for food. Clearly the risk he took in breaking from his family's plans for him, even the difficult year of scrounging, has paid off. Does his family understand now?
"Maybe, because I'm basically feeding them," he said sharply, fixing a level gaze on his questioner. "I'm taking care of them, so probably now they understand better than before."
Hounsou's father, who works as a chef (his mother died in 1989) doesn't quite grasp who Spielberg is or the importance of a movie like "Amistad." "When they watched the Academy Awards [last March], they thought they were going to see me. So when I called, they said: 'We didn't see you. Why didn't you go to the Academy Awards? We were looking for you, trying to find you.' I said 'It doesn't work like that. It takes a long time.' I had to tell them it takes a hell of a picture to get there."
Whether "Amistad" will get there is open to question. But regardless of accolades or box-office performance, Hounsou was clearly awed that a filmmaker of Spielberg's stature would take on a story that has been obscure for so long. "Maybe some people will think a black man should have directed it, because it's a black and white conflict," he said. "Really, it doesn't matter. But definitely a powerful man needed to bring this to the attention of the American people."
Even though Hounsou didn't grow up with Spielberg's movies -- the theaters in Benin played mostly vintage Westerns, and his brothers' insistence that he stay home and study didn't afford Djimon too many matinees at the movies -- he has become an unabashed fan of the director since moving to the United States. "What a man," he said, shaking his head. "I've admired him for a long time, but especially through this. Truly, his work is his love made visible."
Pub Date: 12/11/97