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.”
The role is more serious too, and required other things, like speaking with an African accent and doing his first on-screen romance, with Charlotte Gainsbourg, as a kindly but agitated social worker.
The more serious side “wasn’t a u-turn,” Sys insists, though. Sy actually started out in comedy, and was part of a comedy duo Omar and Fred with Fred Testot. Every film he’s done with Nakache and Toledano has increased in size and complexity. “I did it in steps. I took my time. It’s not a big transition,” he says. He’s loyal to the two filmmakers. “They raised me as an actor. Each time I make a big move it will be with them.”
Of course, he’s still making major transitions in American films; among his forthcoming films is a big role in the comedy “Adam Jones,” starring Bradley Cooper, and another one of decent size in “Inferno,” Ron Howard and Tom Hanks’ third go at a Dan Brown thriller. He’s been working on his English for three years and is mostly fluent, though he says the language is harder for the French than, say, the Germans.
“In France at the theaters we don’t have subtitles. We have dubbed movies. We watch them in French,” Sy explains. “In Germany they have subtitles. They’ve been listening to English since they were young. That’s why Germans’ English is really good. We have a lot of difficulty with the accent. We learn how to write it, how to read it, but speaking is different.”
He even remembers hearing Sylvester Stallone’s real voice for the first time after spending his whole life hearing the French dub of it: “It was like a different guy. They were like different movies.”
His not-yet firm grasp on English is one reason he can’t do comedy in Hollywood. “My humor is based on language, playing with words. I can’t do that in English, for now,” he says. “I’m not ready to make them laugh. I hope to soon.”
Speaking of which, the Hollywood remake of “The Intouchables” has been in development hell since it came out in 2011. The film did moderate business in America, though it drew criticisms for its racial politics, namely having a poor black guy help a rich white guy — criticisms Sy has routinely defended, pointing out that France doesn’t have the same racial history as America. But he understands where the criticisms are coming from.
“If they want to do a remake they have to change it, because it’s not the same,” Sy says. “My character would have become a Hispanic guy, not a black guy. Black people in the U.S., it’s not the same history as in France. It’s a different story.”