International star Omar Sy learns the language of Hollywood

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

LOS ANGELES (AP) — If you live in the United States, you probably don't know Omar Sy by name. But chances are, you've seen him.

The tall, handsome French actor has popped up in a few small roles in major blockbusters over the past few years. He played the energy-wielding, dreadlocked mutant Bishop in "X-Men: Days of Future Past" and Chris Pratt's fellow velociraptor trainer in this summer's box office smash "Jurassic World."

But this isn't just any international transplant working his way up the Hollywood ranks; he's already one of France's biggest stars.

In 2012, Sy became the first African to win a best actor Cesar — France's equivalent of an Oscar — for "The Intouchables," a comedy-drama about a quadriplegic and his caretaker (Sy). It became one of France's highest grossing films and earned over $426 million worldwide.

His latest, the immigrant drama "Samba," out Friday in limited release and expanding in coming weeks, takes him back to his home country and his "Intouchables" directors, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano.

Despite his recent foray into international stardom, a career in the movies was never a given for Sy, who gained fame in France as one half of the sketch comedy duo Omar and Fred.

Access to movie theaters was difficult in his childhood, and most of his entertainment was relegated to what was on television. While he never dreamed of acting in movies, he did drop out of high school to pursue comedy. The decision baffled his parents.

"They thought I was losing my mind leaving high school to be a comedian," he said. "My father was a manufacture worker, my mother was a maid. For them work was hard labor. It was difficult for them to understand working and having fun at the same time."

Success came relatively easy for Sy once he hooked up with his comedy partner Fred Testot. They had a popular television show and things were going well.

Then "The Intouchables" changed everything. He was now recognized as an individual, separate from his Omar and Fred origins. He also began thinking about his career differently.

"I started to consider myself as an actor after 'Intouchables,' not before," said Sy. "I was a comedian. It was different."

He relocated to Los Angeles with his wife and children and took meetings with agents to see what he could do in Hollywood. He also had to learn English in the process, which remains an ongoing challenge.

The transition hasn't been seamless, or easy. Sy might have had his pick of parts in France, but he essentially has to start over in America. He has a bit of a leg up on the competition because of his international clout, but he still has to audition and fight for parts — even the small ones.

"I don't want to be blase when I come back to France. I don't want to think that it's normal what I have in France," he said. "Working hard here makes me work harder when I come back to France. It reminds me to stay grounded."

With credits in "X-Men" and "Jurassic World" and a role in the upcoming Dan Brown series "Inferno," opposite Tom Hanks, Sy recognizes that the films he does in the U.S. are quite a departure from those he gets to do in France. For him, that's a good thing.

"I can't do a franchise in France. That's why I have a good balance doing franchise movies here and other movies in France," he said.

"Samba" is one of those "other movies" that he'd only get the chance to do in France at this point. Sy plays a Senegalese immigrant struggling to work and skirt deportation.

"We wanted to introduce an immigrant to people," said Sy, whose parents are immigrants. "We're talking about immigrants but we don't know them. The movie can maybe help us to learn who they are."

He's also working on "Chocolat" about Cuban artist Rafael Padilla and has a part in the Bradley Cooper chef movie, "Adam Jones."

Though comedy is in his blood, Sy doesn't necessarily want to go that route in U.S. films until his English has improved.

Sy insists that he doesn't have any specific goals for his career as he takes his place in the Hollywood ecosystem.

"Having precise goals is the best way to be disappointed. I do that to protect myself," said Sy. "I just hope for a lot of things and wait for a good opportunity and try to not miss it."


Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: