• A HERO'S JOURNEY
Not unlike a certain medieval legend, the origins of two-time Academy Award nominee Djimon Hounsou are humble. Born in what is now the African country of Benin, Hounsou immigrated to France at the age of 13 and lived on the Paris streets for stretches of his teenage years. "Because I come from a very odd background, I did not know any of these [King Arthur] stories," he says, though he was quick to see their appeal. "It's one of those fictional stories that you can tell from many different angles, given the fact that you're dealing with a king—a king that came from nothing."
• A WELL-ROUNDED TABLE
In director Guy Ritchie's film, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is backed by a diverse Round Table, including Hounsou's Bedivere, whose status as a black knight in medieval England is treated as matter-of-fact. "This tale is about understanding the king through his knights," Hounsou says. "We live in a world that's multicultural. I think we're trying to convey that, and it was a great idea to approach it that way."
• ANSWERING THE CALL
Hounsou got his start as a model—fashion designer Thierry Mugler discovered him in Paris—but acting had been a passion since childhood, when, despite being "quite shy," he appeared in school plays in Africa. "I felt that acting got me out of my skin," says the 53-year-old. "There was something fulfilling about trying to emulate other characters." By 1989, feeling "suffocated in France," Hounsou was ready for a change. To him, America was where people went to "fulfill that ultimate dream," and early parts in music videos for Madonna ("Express Yourself") and Paula Abdul ("Straight Up") led to a supporting role in Stargate (1994) and then Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997). "Amistad really confirmed my career for me," says Hounsou, who received a Golden Globe nomination for his role as a noble slave.
• SEARCHING FOR GOLD
Six years after Amistad, Hounsou became the first black African man to receive an Oscar nomination for acting, playing a photographer dying of AIDS in Jim Sheridan's Irish-immigrant tale In America. He racked up another nom with 2006's Blood Diamond, portraying a father desperate to save his son from Sierra Leone warlords. "To be lucky enough to be part of a story that [generates] social change, where you had performed decently well [in order] to be recognized, it's absolutely mind-blowing," he says. Still, he's not resting on his laurels. "What would put the icing on the cake would be getting an Oscar," he says. "Being an African man in Hollywood, I think it would be greatly appreciated for me to win."