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He emigrated to Lyon in France at the age of thirteen with his brother, Edmond.Soon after arriving in France, Hounsou dropped out of school and became homeless for a time.A chance meeting with a photographer led to Hounsou being introduced to fashion designer Thierry Mugler, who encouraged Hounsou to pursue a modeling career.Hounsou's film debut was in the 1990 Sandra Bernhard film Without You I'm Nothing.
He had television parts on Beverly Hills, 90210 and ER and a guest starring role on Alias.
Hounsou captured a larger role in the science fiction film Stargate.
Hounsou received wide critical acclaim and a Golden Globe Award nomination for his role as Cinqué in the 1997 Steven Spielberg film Amistad.
He gained further notice as Juba in the 2000 film Gladiator.
In 2004, Hounsou was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for In America, making him the fourth African male to be nominated for an Oscar.
In 2006, he won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Blood Diamond; he received Broadcast Film Critics Association, Screen Actors Guild Award, and Academy Award nominations for this performance.