Up Close & Personal
French Award-Winning Actor
Samba is another
wonderful film from The Intouchables writer/director
team of Eric Toledano
and Oliver Nakache. Courtesy photo.
mar Sy is one of those gifted actors whose presence lights
up the screen. American audiences saw this French actor
for the first time in The Intouchables, for which he won the
French Cesar Award for Best Actor in 2012. The film was also
nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award. One of
France's top actors, he has crossed the pond, acting in two blockbuster
films: X-Men: Days of Future Passed and Jurassic World.
Sy's latest film is Samba, in which
he plays an illegal immigrant in trying to stay under the French
government's radar. Written and directed by the same team who made the
unforgettable The Intouchables, Eric Toledano and Olivier
Nakache, the film co-stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar
Rahim, and Izïa Higelin. He recently sat down with a
select group of journalists where he not only discussed the film, but
also talked about his personal story and family life in America.
He has a charming French accent so the following has been edited
for content and phrasing.
In the film "Samba," your character
portrays the struggles of illegal aliens living in France. What attracted
you to the role?
Omar Sy (standing) and François Cluzet co-starred
in the award-winning film, "The Intouchables." Courtesy
Sy: I'm connected to the subject because my parents
are immigrants from Senegal. When it was decided to do a movie
about it, I was happy and proud to be a part of it. I know how the writing/directing
team of Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache tell stories
from my experience with them in The Intouchables. They
are precise and close to the truth. We did a lot of research. I watched
a lot of documentaries and read a lot of material on immigration laws.
I also had stories from my parents, but it was in the 60s and it was
a different time for France and a different time for immigrants. All
the things I knew from my parents were not true for today. So I met
with people who told me their stories how they came to France,
what their goal was, how it was to live in France as an illegal, and
what the journey was like to become legal. I learned a lot from that
How has the current political party shaped the
attitude towards illegals?
Sy: I don't like to make comments on political issues
because for me the most political act I can do is making movies. I don't
want to fight against political stuff with a speech. So doing a movie
is stronger than a sentence or a speech against the current party. It's
really difficult for me to talk about that because I don't want to talk
about them. When I'm not interested in something, I just ignore it,
so for me the best thing is doing movies. Showing a movie like Samba,
shows what happens when people come together and help each other. For
me, it's the best way to solve issues in my country.
You're now in Hollywood making blockbuster movies.
What is the main difference between working in France vs. working in
Omar Sy on Jurassic World: "Some
of my lines came out in French because it was the only way I could them."
Sy: For me the most different part is the language.
When I act in English, it's really different because in France
I have more freedom to act because I'm not thinking about language.
That's why in Jurassic World some lines came out in French
because that was the only way I could do it.
Are you working on your English?
Sy: Of course. I hope I will be fluent one day and hope
I will be able to act in the same way in English as I do in French.
I am working on it and it's my goal.
Was there one scene that you found difficult during
Sy: The scene in the trash factory was really difficult
because I met workers there. They were so courageous and I felt something
really deep. I was more motivated to do this movie after shooting that
scene because the movie is about them. It shows how brave they are and
how determined they are to make a better life. It's not that easy because
of some politics.
L-R: Omar Sy as Samba, an illegal immigrant living
in Paris, falls in love with Charlotte Gainsbourg's Alice, his case
worker in "Samba." Photo Broad Green Pictures.
Sometimes illegals marry to get a green card.
Can you talk about that vis-à-vis your relationship with Charlotte
Sy: That's why it was important for the directors and
I to show the real relationship between Charlotte's character
and Samba because there's a real connection a real love
and we didn't want people to think he was after her for a paper.
I know there is a stigma when you see a mixed marriage; you wonder what
the real reason was that they married. That's why I love this love story
and I hope people will understand that can happen. If you think someone
is way different from you, if you look behind the obvious, you can see
someone like you and can be inspired by someone who looks different.
L-R: Both illegal immigrants, Tahar Rahim as Wilson
with Omar Sy as Samba try to help each other. Photo Broad
Do you hope that this movie can break down some
of the stigma attached to being an immigrant?
Sy: That's the idea. I hope it will. That's why we do
movies like this, just to break down the stigma that divides people.
The best way to fight it is with a movie, which shows people helping
Omar Sy as Samba discusses his plight with case
workers (L-R) Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Cire (Izïa Higelin,)
in the French film "Samba."
Photo: Broad Green Pictures.
Did this film open a dialogue in France?
Sy: Yes it did, but not how I expected because at the
time there were a lot of things going on in France. We had chats
with people but not a government reaction. The subject of immigration
in France is a huge issue and there is always a chat starting
when an election is coming. It's always the same process, but I think
it's better if normal, regular people think differently because then
they can vote and react to the immigrant more positively.
Did you have any difficulty with agents or managers
Sy: No. Actually I was very welcome in the U.S.
and things are going very fast here. For three years now I did a lot
of big things. I'm very happy and surprised with my opportunities as
it's beyond my expectations. The doors are way open here. The funny
thing is in France I'm known for playing certain roles, but in
America, I'm the French guy and the bad guy. (Laughter)
Here in the U.S. I can play a bad guy but in France, I
never got those roles. It's a new opportunity for me to show another
side of my work.
Is there one Hollywood actor who you admired and
Sy: Yes. One day I met Samuel L. Jackson. I love
this actor. He's amazing. He looks like a good guy and I love that he's
done many different roles. It was last year and I was on the back lot
waiting for my car. I saw a car coming and Samuel Jackson shouts,
"Hey Omar, how are you? How's it going with X-Men?
I couldn't believe he knew my name. Then he said, "Goodbye, see
you later." I didn't have the time to say how much I admire him
because it was quick.
Hollywood has welcomed the French film star
Omar Sy who has appeared in these two blockbuster films.
Did any special feelings come up for you while
you were making X-Men: Days of Future Passed and Jurassic World?
Sy: You know as a child you fight make-believe dragons.
I had the same feeling doing those two films. You have to have the same
imagination and freedom you had as a kid.
Speaking of kids, you grew up with seven siblings.
What was life like in your household?
Sy: (Laughs) Busy. It was a very busy, noisy
house. I have really good memories of my childhood. It was a lot of
joy and a lot of fun. I realized as I was growing up and going to high
school far from the house, in a richer neighborhood, that people thought
my life was difficult. I never thought about it before because for me
it was my life, which was easy and fun. In their eyes, they were thinking,
"Oh poor guy." But, we were happy.
I never cook and can't imagine cooking for so
many people every night. How did that work?
Sy: (Laughs) My mother was an amazing woman.
Besides taking care of all of us, she also worked. That's why I love
working on movies because it's teamwork and at home, it was teamwork
too because with seven brothers and sisters, and the parents working,
everyone had something to do to help the others. The oldest helped the
youngest and it was like that all the time. You always had something
to do for the family. I grew up like that and I think it helped me lot
in my life.
You shot a scene at Comic Con. How was that experience?
Sy: Wonderful. I'm a video geek and had always hoped
that one day I would go Comic Con. I was there for the first
time for work and it was amazing.
Was there one seminal moment when you knew you
wanted to be an actor?
Sy: I admired a lot of French actors, but I remember
being really young and seeing an actor in Champagne, which
shocked me in a really good way. It gave me a sense of how deep you
can act. Of course, I admired Gérard Depardieu and François
Cluzet, who I co-starred with in The Intouchables.
You grew up in France and I'm assuming your wife
Hélène and your four children were also born in France.
So, besides the language, what's the biggest adjustment living in Los
Sy: There's nothing that's a big adjustment besides
the language. The kids were immediately happy here for one little thing.
In France, the schools have a cafeteria for lunch. It's indoors
and the food is prepared, but here in America, they have a lunch
box, which is an amazing thing for them. They bring their own food made
by their mommy or daddy and they eat outdoors. That is something really
good and amazing for them. The school experience in France was
different in another way. In France, waking the children up in
the morning to go to school was met with some resistance, but here they
jump out of bed. That's a big difference and it's really funny. (Laughter)
Will they be going straight through college here
Sy: I don't know yet. The big question in our home is,
are we going to stay in America or not? We're having a lot of
debates, but we haven't decided yet.
Omar Sy with his wife Hélène attended
the 2012 César awards where he received the Best Actor award.
What do you do in your free time?
Sy: I love hanging out with my wife and my kids. When
I have the time and the chance, I bring my brothers and my friends over
from France. That's how I spend my free time.
What's next for you?
Sy: Adam Jones with Bradley Cooper.
We shot that movie in London last summer. It's about a chef.
I love cooking and play the sous chef. It's a comedy I'm the bad guy.
It will be released in October.
By the way, do you know Derek Luke?
Well, there's a great resemblance between the
two of you, so if you ever need someone to play your brother, look him
Omar Sy on where the family will live: "The
big question in our home is, are we going to stay in America or not?"
It's been a pleasure and I certainly look forward
to your next film.
Sy: Thank you.