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.
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.