Americans may not be familiar with him yet but, at this moment in time, Omar Sy is the biggest movie star in France.
“I remember having coffee with him one day in Paris a little while back and we were talking and engrossed in the conversation — and we looked up and there were 150 people on the other side of the window, looking at him,” says director Olivier Nakache, who is at least partly responsible for the phenomenon that is Omar Sy.
Not that Sy wasn’t a star already — at 37, he’s been a familiar face on French television since 2001, when he was half of the title on “Omar et Fred,” a sketch comedy show he did with longtime partner Fred Testot.
Since 2011’s “The Intouchables,” directed by Nakache and partner Eric Toledano, Sy is the most popular film star his country has. He won the Cesar Award for best actor (the French Oscar) and was given supporting parts in a pair of Hollywood studio films (“X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Jurassic World”).
Now he’s reteamed with Nakache and Toledano for “Samba,” which opens in limited released Friday (7/24/15). The film is already a hit in France, though it represents a change of direction for the creative team. Where “Intouchables” was a comedy with a dramatic thread, “Samba” is a drama, through which is threaded human comedy.
Sy, 37, was born in France to African immigrants to the country. In the film, he plays an undocumented immigrant who, despite 10 years of work in the country and a career path to being a chef, is being forced to leave France. His life is changed by help he receives from a business executive doing volunteer work (Charlotte Gainsbourg), even as he changes her life as well.
That life of the undocumented immigrant — living in fear of discovery while trying to adapt to a radical shift in culture — is one Sy can empathize with.
“I was born and raised in France — and there’s a big difference between that and coming later as an immigrant,” Sy says in a phone interview. “”You have to learn the language, you have to learn the rules. It’s simple: Either you’re legal or you’re not. To be not legal is a big issue if you’re trying to live decently.”
Growing up the son of immigrants who eventually were naturalized, Sy says, “I was aware of what that life was. But in preparing for this movie, I discovered a lot I didn’t know. There are a lot of things you can’t learn by reading the newspaper or watching the news.
“To me, born and raised in France, walking on the street is normal. Your head is up, you’re free. You can go wherever you want. But for a guy like Samba, just crossing the street is a nightmare that maybe ends with him being sent back to Senegal.”
Sy began as a stand-up comic and, even as a TV actor, could walk around Paris unnoticed, in order to do the kind of people-watching that is fodder for the comic mind. That’s no longer possible: “I used to like to people-watch for hours,” Sy says. “Now I have to travel to do that.”
The reason is “The Intouchables,” the most successful film in French history. In its first year of release, it sold 20 million tickets in France — a country of 60 million people. But neither Sy nor the directors had any hint ahead of time just how successful the film — about a rich quadriplegic (Francois Cluzet) who hires an unemployed African to be his personal attendant — would be.
“It changed everything for us and it changed nothing,” Nakache says. “Eric and I have been working together for 20 years. So what we won was freedom. And as for Omar, well, it’s fun to walk around with him and watch the way people contort themselves to try to take a picture without him seeing them.”
“That’s one reason it’s easier for me to walk around in New York,” Sy says. “Although there are a lot of French people here who recognize me.
“‘Intouchables’ completely changed my life. I started learning English. I won the Cesar. I moved to Los Angeles. It’s really different. Everything’s changed. I want to just keep having fun.”