Out of Africa

updated 01/12/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

Once, all of Hounsou's heroes were cowboys

DJIMON HOUNSOU'S VILLAGE IN West Africa's tiny Benin may have had no indoor plumbing, but it did have a Wednesday matinee. With no movie money at his disposal, however, the young Hounsou had to rummage through garbage cans for detergent box tops, trading five every week for admittance to a John Wayne or Gary Cooper cowboy flick. "Once you were in, you couldn't move," Hounsou says. "Every space was filled with people. That's when I knew I wanted to be an entertainer."

People are now packing theaters to see Hounsou, 33, in Steven Spielberg's historical drama Amistad. As Cinque, the leader of 53 Sierra Leone captives who took over a Spanish slave ship in 1839 and were later tried for murder in the U.S., Hounsou has already earned a Golden Globe nomination for best actor. "Djimon's perfect," costar Morgan Freeman told The New York Times last month. "He'll be on people's minds for a while."

For his role in Amistad, Hounsou, who speaks two Benin dialects as well as French and English, had to learn Sierra Leone's Mende, subtitled in the film. The emotional story of the slave rebellion was also new to him. "My character's life was so horrifying," he says. "There were times I was close to tears." Anthony Hopkins, who plays Cinque's defender John Quincy Adams, comforted him with hugs between takes. He credits Hopkins and Freeman with his performance. "They put you in a trance, and you somehow forget that you are acting," he says.

The actor's rags-to-riches saga began in 1964 in Cotenou, Benin, where he lived with his mother, Albertine, three older brothers and a sister while his father, Pierre, worked as a cook in Ivory Coast. Though Hounsou was captivated by westerns ("I wanted to have those boots that when you walked went jing, jing, jing"), his parents insisted he continue his education. "No one seemed to be listening to me," he says. When he was 13, he was sent to Lyons, France, to live with his older brother Edmond, then a law student, and study medicine. But he was bored by school and at age 20 dropped out and headed for Paris. Without work papers he soon was rummaging through garbage cans again (this time for food), sleeping in the subway and bathing in public fountains. "At times," he says, his family "thought I was dead. Nobody knew where I was."

One day a passerby noticed his 6'2" physique and striking good looks and said that a photographer he knew would like to take Hounsou's photo. "I never pictured myself that good-looking," Hounsou says, but "I had nothing to lose." The offer was legit, and when agents at a model agency saw the photos, they sent Hounsou on jobs. Designer Thierry Mugler hired him to do a new ad campaign. Soon he was traveling the world for runway shows, trading his subway bench for five-star hotel rooms. "It was all such an accident, a shock," he says. In 1990 he moved to L.A., where he appeared in videos for Janet Jackson ("Love Will Never Do Without. You") and Madonna ("Express Yourself"). He learned English by watching the Discovery Channel, and started acting classes. Eventually he won bit parts in 1992's Unlawful Entry and 1994's Stargate. "People think Spielberg came to Africa and discovered me," he says, "but I've been studying acting for eight years."

When not working, Hounsou loves to ride horses and work out, but now that he's in Amistad, everyone at the gym wants to talk to him. "I'm there for two or three hours before I get to do my running," he says. His eight-year, on-again-off-again relationship with screenwriter-actress Victoria Mahoney, 31, is on again. (They share an L.A. apartment, but he rolls his eyes and says "No-o-o-o" about marriage.) He has also made amends to his family, once hurt over his dropping out of school and out of sight. "Now," Hounsou says with pride, "they admire my courage."

CAROL DAY
IRENE ZUTELL in Los Angeles

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