Interview: Actor Omar Sy Tackles Immigrant Issues in ‘Samba’

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CHICAGO – The situation with in-country immigrants is not just an issue in the United States. The new French film “Samba” focuses on the ongoing status of immigrants in Paris, who often do menial jobs while surviving under the radar of immigration laws. French Actor Omar Sy portrays the title character with insight and humor.

This is Sy’s (pronounced “see”) second film with co-writer/directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, after the well-received “The Intouchables’ in 2011. The French born actor – of parents who emigrated from Senegal in Africa – has an background that is similar to the characters he has portrayed for Nakache and Toledano, and he adds a touch of realism, in addition to redemption, to these roles. He recently broke into American films in a huge way, with prominent appearances in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and this summer’s “Jurassic World.”

Omar Sy
Omar Sy is the Title Character in ‘Samba’
Photo credit: Broad Green Pictures spoke to Omar Sy during a promotional stop in Chicago for “Samba,” which opens here this week. His perspective on the character is close to his experiences growing up in France, and part of his show business story. Since you applied yourself similarly in your role in ‘Samba’ and ‘The Intouchables,’ what do you think the characters of Driss and Samba have in common as human beings?

Omar Sy: I think it’s their sense of humor, making sure it was used even in difficult situations, and of course both of the characters have African roots. This is your fourth film with Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano. Describe the type of scene in Samba that you think could not have been done the way it was, if you didn’t have your collaboration and trust with the filmmakers?

Sy: Kissing a girl in the movie. [laughs] And also playing that type of dramatic character, it would have been harder if I was experiencing it with a director for the first time. It was a huge advantage that they wrote the part intending for me to play it. Your co-star in the film is the magnificent Charlotte Gainsbourg. When you are acting together with someone consuming her high level character, how does it help your performance?

Sy: Mainly because she is an experienced and amazing actress. She has a lot of intensity in her performance, so acting with her is easier, because when you are face-to-face in a scene with her you just have to react to what she is doing. ‘Samba,’ like ‘The Intouchables,’ deals with the forgotten and fringe persons dealing with their employment and immigration status. What do you think that kind of fear does to a person’s mental state, and how does it make their lives and the lives around them more difficult?

Sy: You live day-to-day in the same country with everyone else, but you live in a different way. I’m happy to play roles like this – I believe it provides more of an understanding of the situation. Samba can’t even cross the street in the same way other people in Paris can, and that affects the way he acts and the way he works. When people realize that, maybe they can view a person like Samba in a more sympathetic way. It also felt like a person like Samba was more exposed, whenever he was trying so hard not to be noticed. You are shown to be almost irresistible to women in the film. Do you think that characteristic in Samba’s life helps or hurts his efforts in the context of the story?

Sy: It was an interesting characteristic for Samba, because in the context of the film he has no time for it. Even though he’s young and likable, there was simply too much to deal with in his life. It was also interesting to see the change once he meets up with the character of Jonas, who has a girlfriend, which got Samba thinking again about that part of life. It emphasized how lonely he was, after he had never thought about it before. You began in show business doing comedy. How does sketch work make you a better actor, and what type of movie comedy would you like to do if given the chance?

Sy: When you do comedy – and the show I had in France was performed nightly – I was doing three to five different characters for those shows. Playing these different characters meant I had to find little things that made them work very quickly, which is great training for an actor. My favorite comic director is Judd Apatow, and I’d love to work for him. You are hugely popular in your native France, even winning Best Personality in 2012. What has this popularity done for you personally, and how has it broke down barriers in a country that struggles with immigration issues?

Sy: For me, I was really proud of that award, especially when I showed it to my mother. [laughs] I really think it showed how things had changed in France. It showed also that someone that came from the housing projects, as I did, could show another side. It was important to reach people beyond all the negative news that came out of those poorer neighborhoods. I hoped my ‘personality award’ was about connecting to people no matter where they come from, to find out how they really are.

Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Omar Sy with Charlotte Gainsbourg in ‘Samba’
Photo credit: Broad Green Pictures How closely have you’ve been able to explore your African heritage? What do you think people most misunderstand about the people of Africa, and what they contribute to the culture of the world?

Sy: I have seven siblings – and that’s a lot of kids – so we would go back to Africa in shifts, every other year. Half of my brothers and sisters one year, half the next. Could you ever switch?

Sy: No, you always had to go with the same group. [laughs] Culturally, I think outsiders see Africa as just one place, and it has some many differences in tribes, culture and languages. And with colonization, the borders of countries shifted frequently, so there would be a totally different type of person and language there, who used to be from another country. It would be like taking part of Italy, Switzerland and France and saying, that’s a new country. It’s complicated, and people don’t realize it from the outside. You have crossed over into American-produced films. What did you find absolutely insane about the scope and size of films like the ‘Jurassic World’ experience, as compared to filmmaking in France?

Sy: It was really fun, like being in an amusement park. Lots of camera work and huge crews, it was really interesting to see. And the food! You could order anything. [laughs] It was crazy. It was a good feeling for me, to experience it, because no matter how big a movie set gets, everyone there is creative and act like kids. The movie set is like a huge child’s toy run by adults. Americans recently have been dealing again with race relations. What do you observe about African Americans that make them different from their African brothers and sisters in other countries?

Sy: I don’t think I’ve spent enough time here to analyze that question properly. It’s a completely different experience for Africans in the United States. They entered the country as slaves, so along with the differences in skin color that part of their history is in the mix. Finding the balance here I think is difficult. I was born and raised in France, legally, and I knew of my Senegal roots. Africans here are disconnected from that, it happened so long ago and far away, plus they didn’t come here in the first place because they wanted to, so it’s a different and more complicated situation.

”Samba” continues its limited release in Chicago on July 30th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Omay Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Isaka Sawadogo and Héléne Vincent. Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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