Djimon Hounsou is worked up. And the 6-foot, 4-inch actor, who stars alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in “Blood Diamond,” Ed Zwick’s movie about the dirty world of African conflict diamonds, is no 90 pound weakling. “I am still trying to corner Ed so I can punch him,” he mock-threatens, referring to a brief scene in which he hauls a wounded DiCaprio up a steep mountain peak over his shoulder. “Ed made me carry Leo for so long, for so many days, and here the only thing he used is that little portion,” he says. “Leo is not a small guy.”
Though in reality Hounsou adored his co-star (“Leo is the funniest guy to hang out with,” he professes in his lilting, French-accented English), he is truly angry about the desperate state of Africa and feels no need to hold his tongue. “The continent is torn apart by conflict and widespread corruption,” says the Benin native, who was sent to France at age 13 to get his education before becoming a fashion model and eventually moving West to pursue acting in L.A. “It’s unbelievable to know that we can do this to our own kids and enslave them and push them to be killers,” he says. “I still think that the Western world does not have a clue about it.”
As for the diamond firms that are nervous about the impact of the film on their business, Hounsou’s red message bracelet reading “Blood Diamond Clean Diamond” says it all.
“I have yet to see what the benefit is for the countries that have diamonds and have been cultivating diamonds for 20, 30, 50 years,” he says. “Hopefully this will get to consumers that when you go and buy a diamond, you are endorsing the way the company does business.”
The 42-year-old bachelor, who returns to visit his family in diamond-producing Benin several times a year, has no qualms about the sudden Hollywood obsession with Africa. He himself is involved with both Bono’s ONE campaign and Oxfam and is happy to be part of a big-budget adventure flick cloaked in political messages. “I think it’s a good thing,” he says. “I guess that nowadays movies are used as an instrument to educate people, and it’s a plus any time you have that opportunity.”
This story first appeared in the December 11, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Hounsou was deeply affected by the five months spent researching and filming “Blood Diamond” in South Africa and Maputo, Mozambique. “Any time you go to Africa, no matter where you go, it has a very special love story,” he says. “It changes your perspective on life and alters something in you. It was very difficult to get away from the story because of the state of the people helping us to make the story, who were also very deprived.”
But the world Hounsou is now in the thick of could not be farther away from the mountains of Africa: Gucci suits, dinners at Le Cirque and the race for awards. His performance as Solomon Vandy in “Blood Diamond” earned him a National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actor last Wednesday — a good indication that his name will again be on the list of Oscar nominees come January (he also got a nod for 2003’s “In America.”). But he shrugs off these trappings. “You have to surrender to the outcome of the course of awards season,” he says quietly. “The work speaks for itself.”