Why He’s On Our Radar: French actor Omar Sy did the unthinkable earlier this year: he beat Jean Dujardin at his own game. Days before “The Artist” swept the Oscars and snagged Dujadin the gong for best actor, Sy beat him in the same field at the 37th Cesar Awards, France’s equivalent to the honor. The win came as a surprise to North Americans who had yet to see Sy’s film “The Intouchables,” but to anyone in Europe, chances are they saw this coup coming. Sure “The Artist” was an awards juggernaut at the time, but it didn’t have “The Intouchables”‘ firepower at the European box office, where it grossed a staggering $281 million ($166 in France alone). The public had spoken, and Sy got his just reward for his crowd-pleasing turn as a rowdy Senegalese caretaker who befriends a handicapped white millionaire (“Tell No One” star François Cluzet). Ironically enough, the phenomenon opens Stateside this Friday in select theaters via The Weinstein Company, responsible for “The Artist”‘s success.
More About Him: “The Intouchables” doesn’t mark Sy’s first time onscreen, but it does mark his first time taking lead duties. He played supporting roles in two features from the directors responsible for his breakout, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toldeano (“Tellement proches” and “Those Happy Days”), and appeared in a string of films includin “Micmacs” from Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Amelie”).
What’s Next: Sy told Indiewire that he’s one month into filming Michel Gondry’s latest, “Mood Indigo,” in which he stars alongside two of France’s biggest names, Audrey Tatou and Romain Duris.
Given how this marks your first lead role and the fact that the film’s exploded the way it has over the past year, how would you characterize your run so far?
This year has been incredible, overwhelming, and full of change…a lot of positive change. Overall it’s been an excellent year.
Does it feel weird doing press in America as a relative unknown after becoming such a known name overseas in such a short span of time?
No it’s normal. It’s extraordinary to have the opportunity to be here and have the film open here. You know, even though it has a smaller niche here, the film was a very French movie to begin with. The fact that it’s been able to transcend these borders has been great. I don’t expect it to be a blockbuster here. But the fact that journalists like yourself are taking interest in it, proves that it has a life here. I’m flattered.
The essential thing is to have the opportunity to show it. We’re confident that the film will win over the public here because the values that it conveys are rather universal. The film will live pretty much by word of mouth.
Prior to acting, you got your start on radio, correct?
Yes. I began in radio in 1997 on a radio show hosted by a now very famous comic, Jamel Debbouze. I would fake call listeners.
Was acting always on your radar while doing this line of work?
The beginning in radio was actually quite accidental. I was just filling in for somebody! So no, I didn’t have this huge career objective. But there was this snowball effect that started to happen after I got my start, that led from opportunity to opportunity. I never predicted that I’d be a comedian, but it was something that came so naturally to me. I just felt good doing it.
So you’re big break seems to have occurred due to happenstance.
Yes it wasn’t planned or calculated. You can use different words to describe what happened to me, be it chance, destiny or luck. But I call it life.
Do you see the success of “The Intouchables” as a sort of luck? Or did you, in initially reading the script, know that the film would cross over the way it has?
First of all, just the fact to be offered a lead role was enormous. Also the script itself was funny, touching and gave me the opportunity to work opposite one of our greats, François Cluzet. I knew the our scenes together would soar. Already that in of itself was a big deal.
Then as the film was being made, I could tell something special was going on. The making of it was pretty exceptional.
You have quite the history with Eric and Olivier. They’ve worked with you before on two other features and cast you early in your career in one of their shorts. What kind of a relationship have you three fostered over the years?
From the onset, I was doing little interstitial pieces on Canal Plus. They were just these little humorous sketches. Eric and Olivier saw them and approached me to be in their short film. I told them, “Guys, I’m not an actor.” But they told they weren’t directors either [laughs]. We made this first project together. The relationship started there and continued as they gave me more opportunities through the years. Now with this film we’ve furthered our relationship of trust based on the work we’ve done together.
Working with them now is like being home. For the future, I hope we continue to collaborate. I admire their finesse and their intelligence. If they made other films and didn’t offer me a role in them, I’d be hurt. I want to continue this big project we’ve started together.
I’m noticing in speaking to you that you don’t need the translator to understand my questions so your English can’t be that bad. Is there any future for you in the English language market?
[Laughs] Thank you for noting that! Yes, evidently. I’m very eager to learn English better so that I can respond to questions directly. I’m very interested by what could happen here. Who doesn’t want to make it in Hollywood? It’s like the Grand Prix here. But you have to be completely comfortable with the language, otherwise it’s not possible. I’m not there quite yet. I have to be able to express myself completely. I’m an actor who acts on instinct.
To have gone from radio to Hollywood would be an incredible journey.
One of the early reviews to come out of the States, from Variety no less, slammed the film for being racist. Were you surprised by this type of reaction overseas, or did you expect it?
No, I didn’t. But I’m only really half surprised. It’s a film that was written in France, for the French, and therefore the context is inherently French. It shows how the French society functions. So when the film travels abroad outside of France, it has the function of explaining what people don’t know about France. So yes, inherently the viewer doesn’t always understand because they don’t know.
American society functions in a very different way. In America, you have a bigger community aspect to cities. You have the African American neighborhood, the Asian…cultures seem to be very segmented. In France, there’s the suburb, the banlieue. In that banlieue, everyone of the same economic, social slice is mixed together. You can be North African, Arabic, Asian… When they told this story, originally my character in the screenplay was North African, but they modified it to accommodate me. The move was not a big deal. But in America if you switched a Hispanic for African American, all of sudden you’d be making a very different socio-economic statement. That’s kind of what the film communicates in many ways. The problem with France is not so much the race, but the social and economic aspects of the banlieue and the conditions in which all of these people are living together.
Obviously if this film had any racist connotations I would have not starred in it, nor come all the way across the ocean to defend it.