Although his family sent him to France at age 13 to pursue a better life, the Benin-born Hounsou soon dropped out of school and ended up homeless on the streets of Paris. A chance meeting with a photographer led to an introduction to fashion designer Thierry Mugler, who, taken with the teen's impressive physique and exotic features, turned him into a model. In his twenties, Hounsou decided he wanted to add acting to his résumé, so he relocated to the U.S., popping up in a number of early '90s music videos (Madonna's "Express Yourself," Paula Abdul's "Straight Up") and small movie roles (Stargate). Then in 1997, Hounsou exploded onto the Hollywood scene as the leader of a slave-ship mutiny in Steven Spielberg's historical drama Amistad. (Coincidentally, Hounsou played an identical role in the little-seen indie Ill Gotten Gains, which was inspired by the same events.) For his searing and scary performance in Amistad, Hounsou earned an Image Award and a Golden Globe nomination. For the next few years, he alternated between the big and small screens, turning in unforgettable work with a recurring role on ER as a tortured African immigrant seeking political asylum, and a stoic supporting turn as Russell Crowe's friend and fellow fighter in Gladiator. In 2002, Hounsou was finally recognized by the Academy when he earned his first Oscar nod for his role as an AIDS-afflicted painter in In America. Although he went unrecognized for many of his subsequent high-profile projects (Biker Boyz, The Island), his intense turn as a poor fisherman searching for salvation in the form of a pink gem in 2006's Blood Diamond earned Hounsou his second Academy Award nomination. Concerned with the impact of global warming, particularly on Africa, he opened a summit on climate change at the United Nations in 2009.
Was sent to France by his parents at the age of 13 to live with his older brother and get an education.
After dropping out of school and spending a year living on the streets of Paris, was spotted by a fashion photographer who helped him secure a job modeling for French designer Thierry Mugler.
Appeared in several high-profile music videos early on, including Madonna's "Express Yourself," Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" (both directed by David Fincher) and Janet Jackson's "Love Will Never Do Without You."
In 1990, landed a minor role on Beverly Hills, 90210 and made his feature-film debut with a small part in Sandra Bernhard's little-seen Without You I'm Nothing.