''Early on in my career, I was offered a lot of action roles,'' says Djimon Hounsou. As a former model, the Benin-born actor was in excellent physical condition when he chose to pursue acting, but he never wanted audiences to focus on his physique. ''I obviously wanted to do things that were heartfelt with strong emotional content.'' Hounsou has had small-to-decent parts in films as diverse as Gladiator, Biker Boyz, and In America (for which he received a Supporting Actor nod in 2004). But in Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond, the actor found the proverbial best of both worlds: a harrowing, physically demanding story in which his character happens to be the emotional core. Hounsou, 43, plays Solomon Vandy, a West African fisherman whose son is kidnapped by violent rebels who exploit their own country's diamond trade to fund military activities. When Vandy finds a sizable gemstone, he enlists a hardened, untrustworthy smuggler, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, to help him track down his boy before it's too late.
The film graphically dramatizes strife-ridden Africa, with gunfights erupting in blighted city streets and villages torched by child marauders. But it is Vandy's descent into crazed desperation that best illustrates the horrible reality of families being literally torn apart. His red-eyed hysteria at the prospect of losing his son is gut-wrenching, especially in contrast to DiCaprio's character's cold, mercenary machismo. Zwick understands that it is a role very few working actors could play so earnestly. ''He is a West African man,'' says the director of Hounsou. ''He understands a lot about the behaviors, attitudes, and odd protocols [of] that place. He understood something intuitively about their relationship that I didn't even have to explain.'' It's a case of being from the right place at the right time.