In just a few years, Omar Sy, a French-born actor of Senegalese descent, has starred in the biggest French film of all time, The Intouchables, won a Best Actor César Award for the role, co-starred in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (as Bishop), and is appearing in what is now the third-biggest (and still climbing) film of all time: Jurassic World (as Barry, the raptor trainer).
Sy (pronounced “see”), who first gained fame in France as an TV improv comedian, has also re-teamed this summer with his Intouchables co-writers-directors, Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, to play the title role in Samba. It’s an engaging, entertaining, often funny and moving French film about a positive-thinking, hopeful Senegalese illegal immigrant living in Paris, whose efforts to avoid deportation bring him together with a lonely, burnt-out former corporate lawyer named Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Another writer and I sat down with Sy in Chicago last week to talk about Samba.
Samba is now playing in select theaters.
There’ so much in the film about the nature of work, between working-class immigrants like Samba and Alice and her executive-level burn out. What did you bring to this movie personally in terms of your attitude towards work?
Omar Sy: Because of my own experience from my parents and some of my friends and some of my family working in manual labor, I took from that. When I was younger, I used to do things like the sort of labor Samba does. So I tried to relate through that. The movie brings the question for me of, “Where are we putting the work in our lives? How important is it to work?” The opposite thing with the character of Samba is that he’s ready to do anything in terms of working, including the tough labor. And Charlotte’s character Alice has a different type of work and gets sick working. This balance shows how society is divided and complicated in our relationship to our work.
Sy: Embracing work because you have no choice. On the other hand, if you chose it, and because you chose it, it’s supposed to make you happy because you had the choice. But the other side has no choice, you do it to live and survive. There’s no question about whether or not you enjoy it or it makes you happy. The connection we have with work are different and where we put that in life is interesting, how we do our work, not everyone has the chance to choose what they do in life.
At the center of Samba is the unique relationship that your character has with Gainsbourg’s Alice. What did you learn from working with her–what was different in how she prepared for performances compared to what you do?
Sy: I learned from her way of focusing on things. Coming from a comedian’s background, my way to focus is always to get away from the scene. The more serious the scene, the more I need to do some jokes to be alive before scenes like that. But she’s so quiet and focused on what she has to do, and it’s so different. So maybe I’ve learned to come down before doing a scene now. She is so intense and so in the moment that it made things easier for me, just to look at her and her eyes, and see how truly into it she was, and I just have to react. She is an amazing actress. It was easy to be in the moment with her.
Sy: The directors wanted to have a kind of awkward love story, and I think life helped us because she was kind of intimidated, and I felt the same. We maybe used that in our characters to give that feeling. It was something special for me to act with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the fact that the directors and I were already a team, so she was new in the group, maybe that helped in the beginning. And we kept that until the end.
You play Samba with a lot of hope, but there’s always this sense of his darker past, for example the scars on his back. Was it important to keep that in there?
Sy: Of course. I had to because even if we wanted to add some comedy in it, we tried to tell the truth. The truth is sometimes really hard, and dark. And the fact that I spent time with people who went through that before shooting, I had the responsibility to represent them in a realistic way, so I couldn’t avoid the dramatic side of their life, and how it is hard for them. I had to consider that and take it, and try my best to show that. Which is why the scars are there.
Sy: It was a challenge for me as an actor to play someone far from me. That’s why it was interesting for me to meet those people, and to take on this responsibility to try to be like them, and to show how different from me they are. Their way of talking, walking, and looking at other people. It’s difficult for them, to look someone in the eyes for a long time, their eyes are always going all over, because they didn’t feel comfortable focusing here. It’s difficult for them to feel at home, even after ten years. It was interesting as an actor to try to show that and find that balance.
They see things very differently, like a train station, for example.
Sy: Of course. For us, a train station just means travel. For them, it’s danger. And maybe the last minute in the country because they could be arrested at any moment. It’s a lot of stress.
How does working on a set with Toledano and Nakache set differ from those of bigger blockbusters, like Jurassic World and X-Men: Days of Future Past?
Sy: There are no dinosaurs [laughs]. It’s different mostly because I know Olivier and Eric really well, and we’re used to working together. It’s also a French-speaking set, so it’s really different. I haven’t done that many American movies. But the sets have the same way of working. They have the passion and fun to do what we want to do, and we are really happy to do what we do in life. We are trying to enjoy each moment.
Sy: Yes, of course, and I think that’s why I think it was the right time for them to do Samba, because of the success of The Intouchables. They could finance the movie and have time and the money to do it very well, and have this good cast. I’m really happy for that. I think Olivier and Eric are so generous and so smart. After Intouchables a lot of directors could take any subjects or commercial film – but they decided to do this. That’s why I was excited to do it — I think it was a good, good move.
We’ve heard about immigration in France, and around the world, since we were young. We all come from immigrant parents – my parents come from Senegal, Eric’s parents come from Morocco, and Oliver’s parents come from Algiers. We are part of it, and it was important for us, and a lot of people, to talk about that, and explore the personal side of that political issue, because I think everyone is affected by immigration. These are just people trying to have a better life, so we want to learn about them and give them names.
You’ve mentioned previously that for the past three years you’ve been living in America, and learning the English language. What perspective have you gained about how Samba‘s issues of race and class play out in America?
Sy: It’s difficult to compare, because it’s a different story. For example, the United States doesn’t have colonies; a lot of immigrants in France are from colonies, so it is a different type of immigration. The race issues are different also, because black and white here with slave history.
Along with the idea of trying to blend in, there’s an idea about identity within Samba. There’s a particularly intriguing scene in which Samba is told by his uncle what he should be wearing so that he can fit in, to not look like an outsider, but to look like a regular citizen. As an actor, what is most important to you when it comes to creating an on-screen identity?
Sy: I think for me, the fact that being an actor is that you have to let the space for the audience to decide. That’s why you have to stay behind your character, because it’s the space for the audience to decide what they want to see. The thing with art, the audience has to find its space. When you see a painting or a photo, if you don’t find your space, or the artist is saying what you have to see, it’s not art. So for me, it’s just letting the space. I don’t say, “I want do that, I wanna be that,” I let the audience decide. At this moment, what I want to say and talk about now, there are no plans. Even if I wanted to do plans, it’s a difficult to be predictable because things change very fast. It’s just in the moment to try do what I want to do, and I have the luck to different things. So, I want to do all of that.