Though perhaps most famous for his work with director Jim Jarmusch, distinguished African-born actor Isaach de Bankolé actually spent his first 20 years onscreen building up a formidable resumé of collaborations with many maverick filmmakers, from Claire Denis to Julian Schnabel. That fact alone qualifies de Bankolé as something of a stalwart of contemporary independent cinema, a status helped to no small degree by his individualistic onscreen presence. Born as the tenth of 16 children, de Bankolé grew up in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan. As he reached his 17th birthday, he quickly made plans to move to Paris, enroll in university, and establish himself as an engineer. de Bankolé spent the next half-decade earning a degree in mathematics and a noncommercial pilot's license, but acting soon beckoned, much to the dismay of his family.
Never one to be daunted, de Bankolé landed one of his first major roles soon thereafter, with a memorably complex lead in Claire Denis' Chocolat (1988). In that film, the actor played Protée, an intelligent and cultured African servant erotically drawn to his married Caucasian master (and she to him), but bound by the confines of a bigoted colonial society. de Bankolé then won a Best Actor César for his performance in Black Mic Mac (1986), which opened numerous doors for him. The actor subsequently teamed with some of the world's hottest contemporary directors, including Jarmusch, with Night on Earth (1991, as a put-upon Parisian cab driver), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003); Nicolas Roeg, with the telemovie Heart of Darkness (1994); Marc Forster, with Stay (2005); and Michael Mann, with a small role in Miami Vice (2006). In 2007, de Bankolé essayed a small supporting role in Schnabel's offbeat drama The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.