Sy challenges the long-standing industry belief that black stars don’t sell overseas. One
of the major reasons why he was cast in “Jurassic World” is because he is one of the biggest
movie stars in France, and Europe overall, and his presence in the film would be good for
the its overseas performance – which it was.
France to 2 immigrants (from Senegal and Mauritia), he started his
career in high school as a comedian on radio, later forming a comedy act with a
partner, and eventually became a welcomed regular on television specials, series and
stage shows, and even doing voiceover work for animated films.
acting in 2000, and in the 15 years since then, has appeared in nearly 50 movies
and numerous TV commercials, both in Europe and the U.S., eventually winning
the Cesar Award for Best Actor for his role in the global hit film “The
moved on to Hollywood films, appearing as Bishop in “X Men: Days of Future Past,” and
this summer, in the biggest movie of the year, “Jurassic World.” He currently now divides
his time between L.A., and with his wife and four kids just outside of Paris.
His new film “Samba,” which opens this month, is a departure for Sy – a straight drama in which
he plays an illegal immigrant in Paris who, after being arrested, starts to
develop a friendships, eventually becoming something deeper with his case worker, played by
Last week Sy
was on a press tour for “Samba” and I had an opportunity to meet with him to talk
about the film, as well as what impact the success of “Jurassic World” has had on him and his upcoming film “Chocolat.”
SERGIO: Well first of all, let’s deal
with the elephant in the room before we get to your new film, “Samba.” Of course
I’m referring to “Jurassic World” which is the biggest grossing film in the U.S.
and the biggest grossing film worldwide. When you were making it, did you have
any idea that it would blow up so big?
SY: Of course not. It’s so hard to imagine that before.
But for me, just being in that movie was huge, so with this success
it’s so exciting and I’m happy. And I’m really, really happy for the director, Collin Trevorrow, and for Chris Pratt and Bryce
Dallas Howard; they worked very hard on it and they all did an amazing job.
SERGIO: But you worked pretty hard on
SY: Yeah (laughs) I hope so.
SERGIO: So how has the film in any
way affected your life and career?
SY: Well the big difference is that now, in the U.S., I’m being recognized, and it wasn’t like that before. Yes, there was “X Men” but
people couldn’t recognize me because I had that outfit and all that makeup on, and I’m in the film for a quick moment, really really fast. Before, some people in
the U.S. had recognized me from “The Intouchables;” but now with “Jurassic World” it’s happening all the time.
SERGIO: By the way, has anyone told you
that you get the biggest round of applause at the end of the film?
SY: No, really?
SERGIO: Yeah when you appear in the
final scene in the film, all the black people in the audience gave you a huge
round of applause. “The brother made it until the end,” and
we know how extremely rare that is.
SY: (Laughs) That’s good! I love it!
SERGIO: In fact when I saw it, a white
guy I know turned to me and asked me why they’re applauding you, and I had to
tell him that he was simply too white to understand that the brother made it. That
hardly ever happens.
SY: (Laughing out loud) Yes I love it! Wonderful! Thank
SERGIO: So let’s get to ‘Samba,’ which
will surprise people who know you because, though it does have some humorous
moments, it’s a serious drama. It reminds of the old quote that “dying is
easy, comedy is hard”. Do you find that’s true – that comedy is harder to do than
drama, or there is no difference?
SY: There is no really big difference for me because it
involves the same work, and there always is some comedy in dramas and some drama
in comedies. There is always a mix of those things, so I find it more a question
of balance, and that I liked working with Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano (the
directors of ‘Samba’) because they work like that. But being a
dramatic character was more difficult for me because it’s new. It was a new
thing that I explored because it was challenging. But I love to challenge myself
and different things.
SERGIO: One of the fascinating things
about “Samba” is how it goes into detail about the daily lives of undocumented
immigrants. How do they survive on a day to day basis? How do they make money
to live? How do you maintain a personal relationship with someone knowing that
any moment you could be arrested and
kicked out of the country?
SY: Yes, that’s why the movie is really interesting and
important to me, to talk about a huge universal issue and political one, and to
try to show the personal side of it, of these people as human beings. We talk
about immigrants, but we never talk about it from the personal side and how difficult
it is for them to work, to get paid, and even just travel in the streets.
SERGIO: Of course I don’t need to
tell you that immigration is a huge issue here, but what people who are so upset
about it never take into account, is that, without immigrants, this whole country would
collapse, economically. They
like to say that they take jobs from American citizens, but they’re doing the jobs that no person in the country would want to do.
SY: Of course, and that’s why we wanted to show
that people don’t understand that we need them. At the same time, it’s kind of
appropriate because we need them, but we don’t want them. They’re sort of like
ghosts in a city and that’s why we wanted to make a film that shows their lives
and what they do to survive and also how people take advantage of that.
SERGIO: Now you were born in France
from immigrant parents, but could you relate in ways to the characters, what you
and people you know have experienced?
SY: Oh yes, from my background and people I knew and
people who I met who prepared me, to be more precise. But everybody has been
affected by immigration because we know someone, or have had personal contact
with immigrants, or are immigrants themselves. Yes, it is a huge issue, but at
the center of it are human beings, people who are trying to make a better life
for themselves. Each one has their own story, and in telling one of those stories
we can learn. And one can see from the character how he is just like
everyone else, going through ups and own, just to make a better life.
SERGIO: Did you have a situation when
you were making “Samba” when you told the directors that this particular scene or
sequence of scenes wasn’t right, coming from your own experience, and changes had
to be made? Because the film avoids the usual clichés you expect in a film
SY: That’s why I did it the film with Eric and Olivier, because the main goal for them was to be
realistic. They did a lot of research and spent a lot of time talking to people
about their experiences, and as they wrote the script, we had a lot of discussions
about it at each step of the way.
SERGIO: Which brings up the larger
issue – when you read a script, what do you look for that makes you say, “yes I’m on
board,” or “no that is not for me”?
SY: I read something and I see if I’m sensitive to the
subject, not just if I can do it, but if I can “help,” if you know what I
mean, and if it is something that I would
want to talk about afterwards, and in a good way. That’s what I’m looking for.
And just like when I read something, I can also say I can’t do this. It is not true to me
SERGIO: But now that you’ve worked in both big budget Hollywood studio projects and smaller European films, what’s the
biggest difference that you have noticed, if there are any?
SY: For me right now is the language (laughs), because
acting for me in English is still somewhat difficult. It takes a lot of focus, so for now, it’s the only difference that I can see. And from one project to
another, the other big difference is the director and their way of doing it. It’s
not the budget or the country or the set; each director is different from
another, so the difference is the connection with the director and the way I
work and communicate with him.
SERGIO: I also have to ask you about
your upcoming film “Chocolat” (opening in France on February 2016) in which you play
Rafael Padilla, who was a famous comedian and performer in France during the
early 20th Century (HERE), which must be a very important film for
SY: Oh yes, it is because, in France, it’s part of our
history and we have lost all of Chocolat’s documents and archives. We have lost
all of his traces and I was wondering why we have never learned about him. I’ve
only just learned about him recently and immediately wondered why have we had not
ever heard of him before. It’s a fascinating story – born a slave in Cuba and
became this famous clown in France, and at the same time, there was this “human
zoo” where they would display black people and how that affected him politically. So his path was very interesting to me.
SERGIO: But if there are not archives or
records of Chocolat, how did you begin to prepare for the role?
SY: I spent a lot of time with a historian who has worked
a lot on researching his life, and he has written a book or him, so that’s how I
SERGIO: And finally, my last and favorite
question: what do you know that you wished you knew before you got into
SY: Wow that’s a good question. I’ve never thought of
that before (pause). I know that you can make useful movies, movies that
can help people and I didn’t know that before.