International Star Omar Sy on Immigrant Tale Samba, the Call of Hollywood and Finding Humor in Tough Times

The lost art of screen presence has not been lost on France’s biggest star, Omar Sy, the charismatic movie star who won the Cesar for his moving work in 2011’s The Intouchables and returns this month as Samba, a down-on-his-luck, undocumented Senegalese immigrant living in Paris and facing deportation. Like his award-winning earlier turn, Samba‘s Sy turns up the warmth and wattage opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg as an empathetic caseworker who sees the man, not the statistic.

Sy, every bit as magnetic in person, is in Chicago to promote Samba, and we sat down for a post-film Q&A with a captive audience, suspended by the actor’s charm, emanating from what might be the best smile in the movies today, a most welcome French export.

Recently relocating to Los Angeles, Sy scored featured roles in 2011’s X-Men: First Class and this summer’s Jurassic World, his Hollywood movie career on the uptake while he continues to make movies in his native France, co-producing Samba with directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, who also directed him in The Intouchables and two other pictures.

A working class kid from suburban Paris who found is route up in comedy, parlaying his improv skills and natural affability into hit television sketch comedy shows, humor is the DNA for the heartfelt actor who plays hardscrabble men with eternal optimism.

During our discussion, we talked about Samba’s social value, immigrant struggles, Sy’s trajectory and Hollywood forays, upbringing and outlook on his work both in France as well as stateside and his incandescent co-star, Charlotte Gainsbourg. When the talk concluded, the capacity crowd rushed to meet him. I got out of the melee and observed Sy graciously accommodate every last selfie-seeker.

He’s that kind of guy.

Samba could have been just a well-intentioned “issue” movie, but it’s actually a polished piece of entertainment due to the humor in the film. I wonder if you might talk a bit about infusing that character with such humor and empathy.

It is a movie, and the first purpose is entertaining people. And I think when you talk about something heavy and important, it is better when you put a lot of humor in it because people will connect easier with the topics and subject. They directors wanted to tell a story about life. In life you have humor. And the more a situation is dramatic for me, the more you can laugh with it.

One of the things that the movie does effectively is it kind of argues for a cross-cultural understanding of immigrants through the relationship between Alice and Samba. And I think she would not have come to the point she did without knowing him personally; I don’t think you can understand. For myself, I unexpectedly ended up becoming close to two undocumented immigrants in my family and going through the immigration process. There is nothing like sitting at a desk with an immigration officer who can stamp a passport and either give your family a future—or not. I know when you were coming up as a younger guy you worked in manual labor jobs and had immigrant experiences with people you met along the way.

I had to, because I was born and raised in France, so I never had illegal issues, so I don’t know how things happen for them. My parents are immigrants, but it was a different time and easier to be legal because there was a lot of work. But I met those people and spent time with them, and they told me how difficult it was to be illegal in Paris, how it was to get work, how you get paid, how it is to cross the street and all of the things they have to do not to be noticed by cops.

Your directors, Eric and Olivier, spent a lot of time actually involved with immigrants much like Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in the film, to really get a first-hand experience. Certainly that part of the film is very authentic. I think you also did some research preparing for this film by working with the undocumented community as well, correct?

Yes, we had to. But Eric and Olivier always do that. They spend time with illegal people and volunteers for months, and they went to the hospital to meet people who went through burnout. And after that, they gave me the work and I spent time with those people and we had to learn all of the lows concerning immigrants in France to be aware and that we would tell the truth.

Were you surprised by anything you learned, perhaps something you had not known?

Yes, something I didn’t know and thought was really weird and even stupid. For an illegal person in France, if you want to be legal one day, there is a way to be legal—you have to prove that you cheated for ten years, and you can be legal. Okay? Back off!

The idea of work in the film is quite important. Certainly with Alice it is made clear through her own perspective and the toll it has taken on her. And then of course, Samba’s character derives his own worth through work in a very different way. But the idea of work giving meaning to life is all through this film.

Yes, of course, because the movie is also about the working class and we are not used to seeing them in movies, so that was interesting for them to put the light on those people who work in our country. And also, when you see the character of Samba, who will do everything to work and Alice, who is getting sick working, just thinking about where we put the work in our lives and if work makes us happier. When you see that, you can wonder if in our society today we put the work in the right position in our lives.

So if we look at this film and The Intouchables, of course you’ve done a lot of other characters as well, both of these guys are sort of down on their luck in some sense. Yet you play these characters in an effervescent, open and very warm way, or for lack of a better way to describe it, sort of happy way, or even optimistic way. You are never defeated by the odds. I think a lot of this comes from you as a person because another actor might have played that a different way with the same exactly dialogue. I think you play lightness in darker circumstances.

Yes of course, because it is my way to see things. I think the more things are dark, the more you have to put some light, because that is how I- it’s my way of life and how I live and became who I am today. Because where there is nothing else, there is just you. So you have to keep hoping and moving forward. I think when you want to explain how difficult and tough things are, when people come to see movies they want to be entertained, and I think to explain something important it is better to use humor. Humor is the easier way to connect with people.

Speaking of people wanting to see entertaining things, you recently did X-Men: Days of Future Past and now this summer, Jurassic World. It’s very interesting when we look at the two films we have been talking about and then these American films; it is almost like you are an immigrant in American cinema, in a way.

Yes, exactly!

Not to take anything away from those movies, and you were appropriately frightened in Jurassic World, but you know, are those types of roles- I mean, no one certainly wants to turn down a role in a blockbuster American movie, but they are kind of like the other side of the coin from the stuff that we’re talking about that I think you do so well. Tell me a little about these Hollywood adventures, and what you want to do, exactly. I know you live in L.A. now also.

Yes, I live in L.A. And it’s a good opportunity for me to work in the U.S. in these blockbuster movies. And don’t forget that I’m an actor, so I want to do movies! (laughs) Last year was the perfect year for me. In the winter I was shooting Samba and during the summer I was shooting Jurassic World. It was the perfect year for an actor moving from one project to another and doing different things. As actors, we like to do different things. It is always nourishing to do different things. I think as an actor and a man it is good. Life is beautiful! (laughs)

I am here for three years now and traveling a lot, but in Los Angeles it is a sea of immigrants. All people are immigrants. It is really difficult to find a real Californian in L.A. I felt really good from the first minute because we are all immigrants. And when you are in L.A. and you ask someone, “Where are you from?” it is normal. And if you say that in France, it is kind of insulting people. So it is really different.

I’d like to ask you about working with Charlotte Gainsbourg in this picture, certainly one of the most prolific French actresses and also one of the very best. Her style is somewhat different than yours. We might not think of pairing the two of you together. She actually said she would be intimidated doing improv with you because of your sketch comedy background. But there is a scene in the film at about the fifty-minute mark where you are sitting in a restaurant together just sort of talking and it goes on for six or seven minutes. And it’s just sort of a two-shot back and forth. It’s a very interesting thing, and not the kind we see in American movies because there is not a lot of talk! But there are a lot of dinosaurs…

But the dinosaurs talk—they speak French!

They are dubbed in French? (laughter) So I wonder if you might talk a bit about working along with Charlotte and the dynamic there. I thought that scene was really striking.

Yeah, especially that one. Exactly. I was intimidated too, because you know Charlotte started really, really early, so I used to grow up with her movies. She is really, really good. I was really intimidated, but we found a way to work together and I learned a lot watching her work during the scenes that we did together. As an actor, specifically for this scene, having a partner like Charlotte makes things easier, because you just have to react because she is so deep and true. There is no other way. You just trust her, then it is easy. It was a real pleasure. I love acting with other actors in those kinds of scenes. It was special and a really enjoyable night when shooting that.

And certainly Tahar Rahim as well.

Yes!

We are dealing here with- the four lead actors in the film are Cesar winners. This is a really top flight cast, and everybody is playing against type in a way.

Exactly.

In Tahar’s case, we think of A Prophet and other films where he is a brooding, tough guy. But he is more comic in this film as well, and you have a really interesting chemistry as friends here.

Yeah. Tahar is my friend in life, and we never had the chance to work together and we had it for Samba. It was interesting because we know Tahar for all of those dark characters and the drama that he has done. For Samba, we switched places. He was the comedian and I was the darker one. I was really happy to see him like that, because in real life he is a really, really funny guy. I was really happy to see him doing comedy. I was wondering, ‘Why are you still like that—dark, blood, tears? You make people laugh sometimes.’ And it was really good, and he is really good. I love him.

Going back to Samba, I think one of the really compelling sequences at the beginning of the film is the immigrant detention center sequence where you are incarcerated.

Yes.

And I’m not sure if the audience knows about some of the dynamics that go on in those places, but for example, you might be an immigrant who is pulled over for some kind of routine traffic violation and you get imprisoned, and the most horrific human rights violations go on in those places—unbelievable types of abuse, years of waiting to get out and you might never get out, children separated from parents who are in there—lot of things that you can’t even imagine. You are stripped of everything when you are in there. I thought that was authentically depicted in the movie and I understand it must be the same kinds of conditions in France as in the United States. That sequence certainly has a lot of grit and substance.

Yes, we shot in in a real one, so I could feel the vibe of what can be, and we were discussing with the cops and they were telling the stories of what happen there, and when I talked with the immigrants, they said it is worse than jail. There are maybe four or five in a small room with no space, and it is so loud there. The planes are really close and take off every two minutes; really loud. They don’t speak the same language. It is hell, really.

So you have learned English now. 

Yeah, I’ve tried. (laughs)

How long now?

Three years.

And is that a product of working in American movies and that was the idea?

Yes. The idea is that I will be as free to act in French as in English.

You grew up in the suburbs of Paris, and then had a very famous comedy show and were known as a comedian on French television. Did you always know you wanted to do this, or was there a particular point where you said, as a kid, ‘This is what I want to do’?

No, actually no. My parents are hard workers. My father was a manufacturing worker and my mother was a maid. So for them, a job had to be in an office or hospital—doctor, lawyer or something like that. So for me it was like that too. And I never dared to dream of it because it was so far from me and what I could see around me. One day I started to make jokes on radio. It was chance. And then during it, I said, ‘I want to do that.’ But never before. I couldn’t. We grew up with the idea that nothing was for us.

But you knew somehow that you could make a living at that. You saw that?

Yes, later. Even when I started I thought it was just for two or three years having fun and going back to real life.

You mention them, and I think we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about The Intouchables, which was a huge international hit. It’s a movie that made $426 million dollars around the world and is the biggest box office champ of all time in France. And I have to ask you why you think that is. Why did that movie become an international sensation? Of course, you went on to win the Cesar for it as well. But why that movie?

It’s difficult to understand when something has happened. But I think it is because the movie is talking about friendship; it is talking about love and again, this movie is giving a lot of hope to people. I always say that with Eric and Olivier’s movies- for me, in France, there are a lot of different Frances. As you see in The Intouchables, there is the part of Driss living in one France and Philippe in another. And for me, it is interesting when you take two characters like that and you make them meet and see what happens, and what is happening so it can be a wonderful friendship. For this one, Samba and Alice live in different Frances and it can be a wonderful love story. And I think that if all of the Frances would start to meet each other coming together, I think we could be happier together. I know it’s kind of cliché to say that, but I’m okay to say it because I believe in it. And I will always try to do movies like that because I want people to start thinking the same.

Actors sometimes wait their whole careers to get crowd-pleasing scenes like yours in The Intouchables. There is, of course, the scene that everybody talks about, which is the dance sequence. But the scene that really strikes me, and I have seen this scene over and over again, is the final scene of the film. I don’t know if you can articulate any thoughts about shooting that particular scene that takes place in a restaurant and outside of the window. But you have a similar expression near the end of this film when you are saying goodbye to a character in this movie. That scene has always really struck me. I wonder if you could- do you have any recollections of that?

The what? (laughs)

Shooting that scene. Any thoughts on shooting that scene?

No, I don’t remember. It’s the moment. When you do that, it’s difficult to explain how- because I didn’t understand the question! I’m sorry. (laughter)

That’s my fault! It’s a dumb question. What’s the best part about your job? I’m moving on!

No, please, please. Let’s try it! (laughter)

Okay! I essentially said I love the scene at the end of the movie. I’ve probably watched it a hundred times. And you know, a lot of it has to do with your performance in that scene…

Thank you.

And I just wanted to know if you had any thoughts on shooting that scene! 

What was in my head?

I think it’s hard to explain that as an actor when someone says, ‘What is the process?’

Yes, there was no process for me. I try to react to what is going on. That’s why my partner, for me, is really important- to really connect with my partners.  Because of that. I want to- there is a cycle. You give it to me, I give it to you!

I’m going to ask you one more. What’s the best part about your job?

This. All of it. Meeting people. The crew. All of the actors. The directors. And this part, coming and talking about the movies with the audience. I come from the stage, so I miss the audience. And with the movies, the only way to see the audience is to come talk about it. So all of that. I think all of the job is wonderful. I’m so happy!

Thanks for coming with us tonight!

Thank you! Thank you very much.

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