A commanding supporting player who excels at portraying strong but wounded souls, Benin-born Hounsou endured a real rags-to-riches story off screen. Although his family sent him to France at age 13 to pursue a better life, he soon dropped out of school and ended up homeless on the streets of Paris. A chance meeting with a photographer led to an introduction to fashion designer Thierry Mugler, who, taken with the teen's impressive physique and exotic features, turned him into a model. In his twenties, Hounsou decided he wanted to add acting to his résumé, so he relocated to the U.S., popping up in a number of early '90s music videos (Madonna's "Express Yourself," Paula Abdul's "Straight Up") and small movie roles (Stargate). Then in 1997, Hounsou exploded onto the Hollywood scene as the leader of a slave-ship mutiny in Steven Spielberg's historical drama Amistad. (Coincidentally, Hounsou played an identical role in the little-seen, low-rent indie Ill Gotten Gains, which was inspired by the same events.) For his searing and scary performance in Amistad, Hounsou earned an Image Award and a Golden Globe nod, plus the inevitable Oscar buzz, although ultimately he didn't receive a nomination. For the next few years, he alternated between the big and small screens, turning in unforgettable work with a recurring role on ER as a tortured African immigrant seeking political asylum, and a stoic (not to mention sexy) supporting turn as Russell Crowe's friend and fellow fighter in Gladiator. In 2002, Hounsou was finally recognized by the Academy when he earned his first Oscar nod for his role as an AIDS-afflicted painter in In America. Although many of his subsequent projects were high-profile but unchallenging (Biker Boyz, The Island), his intense turn as a poor fisherman searching for salvation in the form of a pink gem in 2006's Blood Diamond earned Hounsou his second Academy Award nomination.