What kind of roles does Hollywood give Omar Sy, the star of “The Intouchables,” the highest grossing French film in history?
“Because I’m French it’s often the bad guy,” Sy tells us, laughing. “It’s my accent. When I speak everybody knows I’m French. I’m the French guy, and the French guy is always the bad guy.”
That’s odd considering the movie that made him an international superstar. In “The Intouchables,” Sy plays Driss, a French-Algerian hired to be the caretaker to a grouchy businessman (Francois Cluzet). A bundle of energy and good vibes, he coaxes his employer out of his shell. It’s a starmaking role, one that netted Sy a Cesar, the French Oscar, and made him one of the nation’s most popular stars.
Since then Sy, who moved to Los Angeles three years ago, had a small role, mostly fighting and making faces, as one of the mutants in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” He had a bigger, though not terribly substantial, one as one of the luckier dino-wranglers in “Jurassic World.” Neither was remotely close to the fun Driss in “The Intouchables,” which isn’t that far from the real Sy, as friendly as he is tall, sitting in front of us in a swanky hotel on a hot Manhattan day.
Then again, Driss isn’t like the role he has in “Samba,” directors Oliver Nakache and Eric Toledano’s follow-up to “The Intouchables,” and their fourth film with Sy. He plays the title character, a Senegalese immigrant in Paris who, thanks to a bureaucratic screw-up, may get deported. He’s a more emotionally complex character than Driss; he doesn’t dance, he’s moodier, more prone to screw-ups and temper tantrums, though he’s still a warm and engaging presence, belying Sy’s effortless charisma.
It’s a movie Sy had to go back to France to make. “There are some movies I can’t do here,” Sy says. “I have a lot of stories to tell. I’m not so aware of the social issues in the U.S. But in France it’s different. I grew up there. I’m really aware of what’s going on.”
The subject of “Samba” hits very close to home. Sy is the son of immigrants, who came to France in the 1960s, when there was a greater push to bring people from the outside into the country to do jobs no one else wanted to do. “Now they want to stop people from coming in. That’s why you have more illegal people in France. Now people need work, but there’s no more work. That’s why they don’t give out legal papers,” Sy explains. “It’s still an issue. We didn’t solve it. And we need to think about it.”
It’s not exactly the same as what’s happening in the U.S., but it is similar, he says. “A lot of immigrants do the tasks no American would want to do. They need those hands, but they don’t want them to come. It’s kind of stupid, because they would not do the job,” Sy says. “A country’s a big machine. We need someone to make it work.”
One difference, though, is France will make you pay taxes even if you’re not a legal resident. “They take your money anyway,” he says.
When his parents saw “Samba” they reacted differently to anything he’d done before, even “The Intouchables.” “They would always say, ‘Good job, wonderful, you’re the best.’ That’s it. After ‘Samba’ we had a chat about the movie,” he recalls, saying they were most struck by how things have changed. “That’s why I love movies. You can have a drink after and talk about it. I had that with my parents for the first time.”