In some ways, Omar Sy is France’s Eddie Murphy—a familiar TV comic turned big-screen star. But, as TheWrap's editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman pointed out during a Q&A with Sy on Tuesday night, you could really see him as France’s Sidney Poitier. This year Sy became the first black actor ever to win a Cesar, for the international hit “The Intouchables,” which is getting its share of awards-time attention on this side of the Atlantic, too.
Sy told a packed crowd at the Landmark Theatre that it’s “fantastic” to be the first to break the race barrier for French cinema accolades, but “hopefully there will be a time when that denomination --the ‘first black’ or ‘first North African’ -- will be meaningless and it doesn’t matter who it is. That’s the hopeful place to look forward to.”
Class clearly strikes Sy as a more provocative topic than race, and at the Wrap’s screening, he eagerly addressed how he believes “Intouchables” -- the second highest grossing film in French history -- deals with separatist taboos rarely taken on in French cinema.
He plays Driss, a down-on-his-luck inhabitant of the projects who takes on a job as a live-in caretaker for the insanely wealthy Phillipe (Francois Cluzet), who became paralyzed from the neck down in a paragliding accident. Theirs becomes the kind of unlikely, fraught-with-comedy friendship that gives the buddy movie a good name again, so it’s no wonder the Weinstein Company has an American remake in the works.
The dramedy is based on a true story, and when Waxman asked if Sy had been nervous about how the two real-life models for the lead roles would like the film, the actor said he’d only been concerned about getting one thing right: “They gave the right to make the movie on one condition: make people laugh. That’s the only condition. They saw the movie and… they laughed.”
The largely mirthful tone goes a long way toward disguising any medicine that might be going down, but Sy is dead serious when it comes to the rapprochement he believes the film can help foster in a divided country.
“It’s two Frances,” he said. “I come from the suburbs, the banlieues, and now I know the [upper class areas] and I’m welcome there. It was not true a few years ago. In the movie you see the two Frances meet and love each other. My hope is that, one day, the two Frances can live together. But before that, they have to know each other. If you don’t your neighbor, don’t know what he’s thinking, what’s behind him, you can’t advance. A lot of the struggles of France are about that incomprehension. You may be on the same team, but if you don’t know each other, you can’t play ball. Our strength with this film is that it’s a true story, so nobody can say it’s not possible. It’s happened.”
TV comedy and dramatic film are typically separate realms, too, but Sy has easily navigated the leap. “I had a little TV show in France—two minutes every single day,” he said. “It was a lot of work and a lot of responsibility to make people laugh every day. Eric (Toledano) and Olivier (Nakache, the two writer-directors) came to me ten years ago, and they asked me, ‘Do you want to play in our movie?’ I tell them, ‘But you know, I’m not an actor!’ They say, ‘It’s okay, we are not really directors.’ We start like that. But for me, it was not a project to be an actor.”
It helped that he became good enough friends with the filmmakers over the subsequent years it took to bring the movie to fruition that “they wrote the script for me. It was tailor-made.” Though many of the comedic interchanges in the film seem spontaneous, the directors “know me so well, I didn’t need to improvise. There’s much less improv in this film than in any other film I’ve made before.”
Playing off of one of France’s most revered actors, was predictably intimidating, at least at first. “He’s one of my homeboys,” said Sy, getting a laugh. “When they say to me ‘You’re going to play with Francois Cluzet,, I say, [nervously] ‘…Okay, it’s good.’ I was scared. Because I’m like an intern!
“But I met François and he give me a real key. He said, ‘You play for me, I’ll play for you. We are equal.’ That was the key. He removed all of the misgivings or fears. He was saying he needs me, just like I need him… One of my fears was that I didn’t have any formal training as an actor and would be at a disadvantage relying on my instincts. But I discovered that François also worked very closely with his instincts, and therefore it was okay, because even though I was less experienced, we were operating on the same level.”
Cluzet isn’t the only actor playing a lead character who has no mobility from the neck down; the same is true of John Hawkes in “The Sessions.” Sy was particularly aware of the challenge Cluzet faced “because François is like a volcanic person, so it was very difficult for him to play that. But he’s a very brilliant actor, and he used to say, ‘It’s not difficult to do nothing.’ That was his answer.”
Though he got to use his entire body, Sy faced his own challenges in making Driss an utterly lovable character without piling on the saintliness, and there’s plenty of evidence on view that the character has a criminal past and is not the most responsible family man.
“For me, this character was very good because it’s the first time in a French film that you can see a character from the suburbs of Paris and he carries positive values—but we have to be careful and be accurate and tell the truth. Because you can be tender and have love for people, but you have your background, you have your sadness, you have your violence. People are very complex. So you have to link the chains.”
“The Intouchables” has been a game-changer for Sy, to say the least. “I can’t leave this movie! But I have to go on and move forward.” He mentioned four films that have either come out already in France or will be out before April, including “Mood Indigo,” a French-language film from U.S. favorite Michel Gondry.
But “this movie changed my life,” he said, “and now it’s a part of my life. I’m here in Los Angeles. I speak English!” he exulted. As recently as this past summer, he would only answer interview questions in French, using a translator—but at the Wrap’s Q&A, he only responded in French for about a fourth of his answers.
But it’s not just spending time in Los Angeles doing promotion and the Oscars circuit that’s made a difference for Sy. “Something changed after the movie. Before the movie, people came to me and said, ‘Ah, cool, you’re the guy. Bye bye!’ After the movie, people came to me and say [deeply] ‘Thank you.’ It was very touching, and those thank-yous actually showed me that the work I did could transcend and have a special significance for people. It really made me aware and brought to my consciousness the responsibility that came with it.