From Benin to the streets of Paris, and now to Hollywood. Martyn Palmer meets Djimon Hounsou, the latest next big thing
Djimon Hounsou seems the part. In designer black, he carries off the look of an extremely well-heeled man about town with the effortless ease of a former model who is now one of the most talked- about young actors in America.

His performance in Amistad, Steven Spielberg's epic about a bloody revolt on a 19th-century slave ship has set his career on a roll. "Yes, this is a very good time for me," he says with a voice so soft it barely raises above a whisper. "I want to make sure that what I do next is the right thing. And I know it will be hard to find another Amistad."

It will indeed. In the film he plays Cinque, the leader of the illegally enslaved Africans, with what Spielberg describes as "dignity and power". For the director, the casting of Cinque was central to the success of the piece. "We were very fortunate that in the middle of the casting process we came across Djimon," says the director. "Without that piece of casting I couldn't have gone forward with the production."

The gamble paid off. And Hounsou, who is originally from the tiny west African state of Benin, has been swamped with offers as a result of his powerful and moving performance.

Home is now a swish Los Angeles apartment, there are agents and PR people to cater for his every professional move and his friends are the likes of photographer Herb Ritts and Matthew McConaughey, his co-star in the film. The transformation is complete. A transformation all the more remarkable when you learn that this 33-year-old spent more than a year living rough on the streets of Paris.

"When I was 13 years old I left Benin to go to France for a better education," he says. "I can remember feeling strange that there was concrete everywhere you walked, and buildings and more buildings. It was fascinating, but I was also in awe of the place. "

Djimon settled down to school in Lyon, won a place at university to study psychology, but then dropped out. I found my way to Paris because I didn't want to be on those streets where I grew up, I didn't want other kids who knew me to see me on the streets living in a box or something. "

With virtually no money to his name, he found himself living rough.

"I was very shy and I didn't have the mentality of a street boy," he says. "I couldn't hustle in the way that some of them could. I would wait until it was night time, when it was really dark, and then I would go to the apartment buildings and go through their garbage and find bread or anything that had been thrown away, to eat."

Today, sitting in the five-star splendour of the Regency Hotel in New York's famous Park Avenue, it's hard to believe. But in his soft, gentle tones he continues his remarkable story.

"I was 22 when I first started living on the streets. It was very hard, very, very hard. Deep inside I had a strong conviction that I would get out of it and maybe one day have a better life."

Too proud - and guilty - to turn to his family for help he continued his life on the streets of Paris for more than a year."

His life was to change radically . He was approached by a man who asked him if he was prepared to be photographed and earn some money for his time.

"I had no idea who he was; I didn't really know what he meant. He just said that I had an interesting face and body that could photograph well, and would I be interested? Well, of course I was. I was interested in anything that could help me escape the streets.

"My body was pretty much built up, and even though I wasn't eating very well, I was fit and I guess the guy saw that I had this physique."

The man was an assistant to the fashion designer Thierry Mugler. Hounsou was taken to meet him and asked if he would appear in one of Mugler's shows as a model.

"I know that I am very lucky to have met someone like Thierry. He inspired me and he pushed me in the fashion industry. After I did the first show with him he said to me, `You should definitely stay longer in the fashion world because you have a strong charisma.' "

As Hounsou began to build his career as a model, he re-established contact with his family. At first his mother was deeply suspicious of his new career. "When I first started modelling I sent them pictures and they couldn't understand it; they were really quite confused by it. I think my mum thought that white people were betraying me and abusing me. But I think she now understands better what I do."

His luck continued when he was spotted by the director David Fincher, who cast him in three music videos. In the last few years, he has scaled down his modelling and built up his acting career. He won small parts in the thriller Unlawful Entry and the sci-fi movie Stargate.

But nothing had prepared him for his meeting with Spielberg. He was told to go to the casting sessions for Amistad and admits that he believed it would be just one more of the countless auditions young, hopeful actors have to go through.

"I was nervous at the time, but I didn't think too much about it. Deep inside I wanted to play the role, but I didn't really think that I would get it.

"But I was passionate about the character. Cinque is a man who has gone through so much and feared nothing in order to gain his self-definition and freedom. It's about this man's incredible journey and his refusal to give up.

"All this was in my mind when I did the reading. And at the first meeting Steven [Spielberg] sat across from me and said `I'm very impressed with you, you are a great actor and now we can make this movie...' What better compliment could you want?"

"I really hope that people will go to see this film and educate themselves about history and appreciate it and understand it. But not to feel bad about it. I don't want white people going around saying `What have we done?' I want people to go and see it and learn a piece of history and understand who we are now, who we were then and move on."

Hounsou himself has moved on - a lifetime away from the dustbins and streets of Paris.

"I guess I've been blessed," he says simply.