Omar’s acting lessons from school of life

Intouchables star on return to his African roots and working in Hollywood

by Richard Mowe

Out of Africa: Lionel Basse and Omar Sy in Yao
Out of Africa: Lionel Basse and Omar Sy in Yao Photo: Wild Bunch

When lofty Omar Sy strides in to the subterranean depths of veteran director Claude Lelouche’s luxury screening rooms on the Avenue Hoche in Paris, he almost touches the ceiling. He is here to press the flesh of international film buyers who have just seen a special preview of Yao, directed by Phlippe Godeau, which Sy helped to co-produce and was screened as part of the 21st Unifrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema.

Omar Sy and his young co-star Lionel Basse on the interview circuit in Paris
Omar Sy and his young co-star Lionel Basse on the interview circuit in Paris Photo: Wild Bunch

Outside in the bustle of Paris Sy, standing 6ft 3in, figures on virtually every bus shelter with a poster to promote the imminent French release of the film. Dedicated to his father Demba, it has many personal echoes. His parents were immigrants from West Africa who came to live in France some 50 years ago when Sy grew up a family of seven siblings. In Yao he plays a famous French actor who comes to Dakar in Senegal to promote his new book and to explore his roots in the company of a young fan (played by newcomer Lionel Basse).

“The story is directly linked to the two of us and besides my father the film is also dedicated to director Philippe Godeau’s father Jacques. They nourished the script but we also wanted to look at the kind of fathers we were as well. I have never been quite as involved in any project previously and that is why I feel so close to it,” he said.

Sy was surprised to discover that he had a certain celebrity in Senegal, even away from the main cities. “I met some wonderful people, and I seemed to merit their seal of approval which was important to me. The idea was to film me in an African setting for the first time - and in the land of my ancestors after so many years of being away. It was shot in the year when I had turned 40 and drew on all the things I had experienced. The film seemed to have chosen its own timeframe and I think it was the right moment.”

All aboard: Omar Sy beside a poster for his new film Yao at a Paris bus stop
All aboard: Omar Sy beside a poster for his new film Yao at a Paris bus stop Photo: Wild Bunch

He and his wife Hélène and four children now base themselves in Los Angeles where the actor has relished breaking in to such blockbusters as X-Men: Days Of Future Past and Jurassic World. Despite that he is always ready to return to France to work for directors he knows well such as the team who propelled him to fame in the international hit Intouchables, Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. Sy won a French Best Actor César award for his performance as an ebullient young man from the a poor background who is hired to care for a wealthy quadriplegic (played by François Cluzet).

After Intouchables, Toledano and Nakache tempted him back from LA with the title role in Samba, about an immigrant from Senegal who is living illegally in Paris. A young woman, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, agrees to help him. Sy, who wanted to prove himself further as an actor, changed his hairstyle and gained weight for the role. He was motivated to do the film because it threw the spotlight on an enduring social problem. “It shows what happens when people come together and help each other. For me, it's the best way to solve issues in my country,” he said.

He appreciates the special relationship that has developed between him and Toledano and Nakache. “They trust me and they came to me and said, ‘Do you want to act in our movie?’ It was for a short movie. I said, ‘I’m not really an actor,’ and they said, ‘We are not really directors.’ So, we started like that. It was funny. They are very talented. They are very good writers and they are able to write the truth, so it was easy for me to act because it’s easy for an actor to act reality. I never took any drama school, so it’s just the school of life.”

When he is working in English he feels a sense of freedom because he is not thinking about the language although he admits his accent leaves room for improvement. It has not held him back, however, and he has relished the opportunities that have come his way. In the States he is offered bad guy roles that somehow were denied to him in France. “There are new opportunities to show another side to my work,” he beams. He also likes the familiarity of bumping in to such heroes as Samuel L Jackson at the studio - even if he did not have time to engage him in a proper conversation. He was too taken aback that Jackson actually recognised him.

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