Omar Sy is one of those gifted actors whose presence lights up the screen. American of 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 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.
Sy 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?
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 research.
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 America?
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 the shoot?
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.
Sometimes illegals marry to get a green card. Can you talk about that vis-à-vis your relationship with Charlotte as Alice?
Sy: That’s why it was important for the directors and I to show the real relationship between Charlotte’s character and Samba. 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.
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 each other.
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 in America?
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.
Was there one Hollywood actor who you admired and have met?
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.
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. 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 Angeles?
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. 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 in America?
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.
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 and I’m the bad guy. It will be released in October.