Actor Omar 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.
Born in 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.
He started 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 Intouchables.”
He’s now 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 Charlotte Gainsbourg.
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 it yourself!
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 you!
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 like this.
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 (laughs).
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 you.
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 did it.
SERGIO: And finally, my last and favorite question: what do you know that you wished you knew before you got into this business?
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.Tags: Omar Sy