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Omar Sy

Up Close & Personal With
French Award-Winning Actor
Omar Sy

Inside Hollywood
Beverly Cohn

postr for the movie 'Samba'
“Samba” is another wonderful film from “The Intouchables” writer/director team of Eric Toledano
and Oliver Nakache. Courtesy photo.

mar Sy is one of those gifted actors whose presence lights up the screen. American audiences saw this French actor for the first time in The Intouchables, for which he won the French Cesar Award for Best Actor in 2012. The film was also nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award. One of France's top actors, he has crossed the pond, acting in two blockbuster films: X-Men: Days of Future Passed and Jurassic World.

Sy's latest film is Samba, in which he plays an illegal immigrant in trying to stay under the French government's radar. Written and directed by the same team who made the unforgettable The Intouchables, Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, the film co-stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, and Izïa Higelin. He recently sat down with a select group of journalists where he not only discussed the film, but also talked about his personal story and family life in America. He has a charming French accent so the following has been edited for content and phrasing.

In the film "Samba," your character portrays the struggles of illegal aliens living in France. What attracted you to the role?

Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet in a scene from the movie 'The Intouchables'
Omar Sy (standing) and François Cluzet co-starred in the award-winning film, "The Intouchables." Courtesy photo.

Sy: I'm connected to the subject because my parents are immigrants from Senegal. When it was decided to do a movie about it, I was happy and proud to be a part of it. I know how the writing/directing team of Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache tell stories from my experience with them in The Intouchables. They are precise and close to the truth. We did a lot of research. I watched a lot of documentaries and read a lot of material on immigration laws. I also had stories from my parents, but it was in the 60s and it was a different time for France and a different time for immigrants. All the things I knew from my parents were not true for today. So I met with people who told me their stories – how they came to France, what their goal was, how it was to live in France as an illegal, and what the journey was like to become legal. I learned a lot from that research.

How has the current political party shaped the attitude towards illegals?

Sy: I don't like to make comments on political issues because for me the most political act I can do is making movies. I don't want to fight against political stuff with a speech. So doing a movie is stronger than a sentence or a speech against the current party. It's really difficult for me to talk about that because I don't want to talk about them. When I'm not interested in something, I just ignore it, so for me the best thing is doing movies. Showing a movie like Samba, shows what happens when people come together and help each other. For me, it's the best way to solve issues in my country.

You're now in Hollywood making blockbuster movies. What is the main difference between working in France vs. working in America?

Omar Sy in 'Jurassic World'
Omar Sy on “Jurassic World:” "Some of my lines came out in French because it was the only way I could them." Courtesy photo.

Sy: For me the most different part is the language. When I act in English, it's really different because in France I have more freedom to act because I'm not thinking about language. That's why in Jurassic World some lines came out in French because that was the only way I could do it.

Are you working on your English?

Sy: Of course. I hope I will be fluent one day and hope I will be able to act in the same way in English as I do in French. I am working on it and it's my goal.

Was there one scene that you found difficult during the shoot?

Sy: The scene in the trash factory was really difficult because I met workers there. They were so courageous and I felt something really deep. I was more motivated to do this movie after shooting that scene because the movie is about them. It shows how brave they are and how determined they are to make a better life. It's not that easy because of some politics.

Omar Sy with Charlotte Gainsbourg in a scene from 'Samba'
L-R: Omar Sy as Samba, an illegal immigrant living in Paris, falls in love with Charlotte Gainsbourg's Alice, his case worker in "Samba." Photo Broad Green Pictures.

Sometimes illegals marry to get a green card. Can you talk about that vis-à-vis your relationship with Charlotte as Alice?

Sy: That's why it was important for the directors and I to show the real relationship between Charlotte's character and Samba because there's a real connection – a real love – and we didn't want people to think he was after her for a paper. I know there is a stigma when you see a mixed marriage; you wonder what the real reason was that they married. That's why I love this love story and I hope people will understand that can happen. If you think someone is way different from you, if you look behind the obvious, you can see someone like you and can be inspired by someone who looks different.

Tahar Rahim with Omar Sy in a scene from the movie'Samba'
L-R: Both illegal immigrants, Tahar Rahim as Wilson with Omar Sy as Samba try to help each other. Photo Broad Green Pictures.

Do you hope that this movie can break down some of the stigma attached to being an immigrant?

Sy: That's the idea. I hope it will. That's why we do movies like this, just to break down the stigma that divides people. The best way to fight it is with a movie, which shows people helping each other.

Omar Sy in a scene with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Izia Higelin in a scene from the movie 'Samba'
Omar Sy as Samba discusses his plight with case workers (L-R) Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Cire (Izïa Higelin,) in the French film "Samba."
Photo: Broad Green Pictures.

Did this film open a dialogue in France?

Sy: Yes it did, but not how I expected because at the time there were a lot of things going on in France. We had chats with people but not a government reaction. The subject of immigration in France is a huge issue and there is always a chat starting when an election is coming. It's always the same process, but I think it's better if normal, regular people think differently because then they can vote and react to the immigrant more positively.

Did you have any difficulty with agents or managers in America?

Sy: No. Actually I was very welcome in the U.S. and things are going very fast here. For three years now I did a lot of big things. I'm very happy and surprised with my opportunities as it's beyond my expectations. The doors are way open here. The funny thing is in France I'm known for playing certain roles, but in America, I'm the French guy and the bad guy. (Laughter) Here in the U.S. I can play a bad guy but in France, I never got those roles. It's a new opportunity for me to show another side of my work.

Is there one Hollywood actor who you admired and have met?

Sy: Yes. One day I met Samuel L. Jackson. I love this actor. He's amazing. He looks like a good guy and I love that he's done many different roles. It was last year and I was on the back lot waiting for my car. I saw a car coming and Samuel Jackson shouts, "Hey Omar, how are you? How's it going with X-Men? I couldn't believe he knew my name. Then he said, "Goodbye, see you later." I didn't have the time to say how much I admire him because it was quick.

'Jurassic World' poster
'X-Men: Days of Future Passed' poster
Hollywood has welcomed the French film star Omar Sy who has appeared in these two blockbuster films.
Courtesy photo.

Did any special feelings come up for you while you were making X-Men: Days of Future Passed and Jurassic World?

Sy: You know as a child you fight make-believe dragons. I had the same feeling doing those two films. You have to have the same imagination and freedom you had as a kid.

Speaking of kids, you grew up with seven siblings. What was life like in your household?

Sy: (Laughs) Busy. It was a very busy, noisy house. I have really good memories of my childhood. It was a lot of joy and a lot of fun. I realized as I was growing up and going to high school far from the house, in a richer neighborhood, that people thought my life was difficult. I never thought about it before because for me it was my life, which was easy and fun. In their eyes, they were thinking, "Oh poor guy." But, we were happy.

I never cook and can't imagine cooking for so many people every night. How did that work?

Sy: (Laughs) My mother was an amazing woman. Besides taking care of all of us, she also worked. That's why I love working on movies because it's teamwork and at home, it was teamwork too because with seven brothers and sisters, and the parents working, everyone had something to do to help the others. The oldest helped the youngest and it was like that all the time. You always had something to do for the family. I grew up like that and I think it helped me lot in my life.

You shot a scene at Comic Con. How was that experience?

Sy: Wonderful. I'm a video geek and had always hoped that one day I would go Comic Con. I was there for the first time for work and it was amazing.

poster for the movie 'The Intouchables'
Courtesy photo

Was there one seminal moment when you knew you wanted to be an actor?

Sy: I admired a lot of French actors, but I remember being really young and seeing an actor in Champagne, which shocked me in a really good way. It gave me a sense of how deep you can act. Of course, I admired Gérard Depardieu and François Cluzet, who I co-starred with in The Intouchables.

You grew up in France and I'm assuming your wife Hélène and your four children were also born in France. So, besides the language, what's the biggest adjustment living in Los Angeles?

Sy: There's nothing that's a big adjustment besides the language. The kids were immediately happy here for one little thing. In France, the schools have a cafeteria for lunch. It's indoors and the food is prepared, but here in America, they have a lunch box, which is an amazing thing for them. They bring their own food made by their mommy or daddy and they eat outdoors. That is something really good and amazing for them. The school experience in France was different in another way. In France, waking the children up in the morning to go to school was met with some resistance, but here they jump out of bed. That's a big difference and it's really funny. (Laughter)

Will they be going straight through college here in America?

Sy: I don't know yet. The big question in our home is, are we going to stay in America or not? We're having a lot of debates, but we haven't decided yet.

Omar Sy with his wife Helene at the 2012 Cesar awards
Omar Sy with his wife Hélène attended the 2012 César awards where he received the Best Actor award. Courtesy photo.

What do you do in your free time?

Sy: I love hanging out with my wife and my kids. When I have the time and the chance, I bring my brothers and my friends over from France. That's how I spend my free time.

What's next for you?

Sy: Adam Jones with Bradley Cooper. We shot that movie in London last summer. It's about a chef. I love cooking and play the sous chef. It's a comedy I'm the bad guy. It will be released in October.

By the way, do you know Derek Luke?

Sy: No.

Well, there's a great resemblance between the two of you, so if you ever need someone to play your brother, look him up.

Omar Sy
Omar Sy on where the family will live: "The big question in our home is, are we going to stay in America or not?" Courtesy photo.

It's been a pleasure and I certainly look forward to your next film.

Sy: Thank you.

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Let Bev know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Thanks so much for those lovely tourism photos, especially of Ireland. I certainly enjoyed all the places you suggested, and am working towards my next vacation. Don’t forget Cuba. That’s an exciting place.

Rosalie, Los Angeles

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Enjoyed your article on Mira Sorvino. Such an interesting background – family, education, career and now human rights activist. I'm not a gossip mag fan so getting more meaty news about movie celebrities from you gives me hope that there are some inteligent life forms in Hollywood.

Peter Paul, Pasadena, CA

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Thank you, Bev. This reminded me to go see the movie, "An Education," which I had already almost forgotten about, having seen the preview a few weeks ago. I enjoy this actress quite a bit--she has a uniqueness about her and she pulls me in. I enjoyed this.

Sandeee, Seattle, WA

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Thank you Beverly,I really enjoyed reading about your intimate conversation with Forest, of whom I am a great admirer. I look forward to seeing the film "Our Family Wedding."

Yoka, Westlake Village, CA

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Thank you for the sending me the beautiful article you wrote about Ireland. We will use your recomendations for hotels in the Southern part. We plan to also go to Dublin and some other Northern cities so I will get some recommendations for these from others. After reading your article, I am getting more excited about going. I think we will be in Ireland for 8 days altogether.

Leah Mendelsohn, Santa Monica, CA

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Very much enjoyed Ms. Cohn's article about Munich, especially the visuals. Though it has been 25 years since my last visit, the piece brought back countless pleasant memories of the city and the people!! Many thanks.

Lawrence, Los Angeles

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Marianplatz and that general area is truly one of the best Christmas celebrations in the world. Between that and Oktoberfest (which I can only imagine) Munich is one of the greatest cities in the world for major annual events.

Christopher Dale, New York, NY

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Hi Bev, you have done some wonderful pieces on some great celebs...Great work. The travel articles are just wonderful too.

Scott Mueller, Huntington Beach, CA

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Your great Zurich article makes me want to go there for the holidays! I love the photos, too, especially the ones of you in the sleigh, the view over the houses and the zoo!

Anna Marie, Santa Monica, CA

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Lovely article! As a European, and having been to Zurich (albeit in summer) I can vouch for this lovely city. Great pictures, too!

Helene Robins, Santa Monica, CA

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Hi Bev,

Nice review, nice seeing you, nice website interface "...Talk to Bev" - Enjoy your Thanksgiving!

Richard D. Kaye, Marina del Rey, CA

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Hi Bev,

Your interview with John Cusack is very interesting. I always wondered why these actors/actresses always get top billing when really, if you think about it, the real work come from the animators, writers and tech whizzes who spend far more hours on the movie than those actors. I know, I know, it's the all about marketing. The names of these actors are what bring in the big bucks. Still, I think these actors are way overpaid for the "little" that they do.

I remember that once upon a time, the early animation classics never mentioned the voices behind the characters. I think it was only later when Walt Disney tapped into the voices of known celebrities like Walter Matthau in the Jungle Book or Zsa Zsa Gabor in The Rescuers that the voices became a marketing magnet.

Keep up the good work. I enjoy your interviews as you peer into the lives of the Hollywood celebrities.

Peter Paul of South Pasadena, CA

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