June 2, 2012, 5:50 p.m.
The two are in the lobby bar of a Paris hotel a few days after the Cannes Film Festival. Ratner has dropped by to persuade Sy to star as the French half of the infamous lip-syncing pop duo in a Universal Pictures movie that he’s directing. The Hollywood filmmaker clasps Sy’s hand, leans in for a man-hug and a moment later whisks out the door with his entourage.
It’s like that for Sy these days. A minor French television star for the last 10 years, the 34-year-old has suddenly become the toast of European cinema. Autograph seekers hound him on the street. The French media compare him to Eddie Murphy. (Like the American comedian, Sy is a black actor with a broad grin and a gift for physical comedy.) Brand-name directors come calling.
The reason is an unlikely hit film called “Untouchable,” which offers a reminder that, even as Hollywood digs its tentacles deep into multiplexes around the globe, non-Hollywood blockbusters are still possible — and can transform a workaday actor into a marquee star.
A modestly budgeted French-language production, “Untouchable” is about the friendship between a rambunctious Senegalese immigrant Driss (Sy) and the wealthy paralyzed man he is hired to care for, Philippe (Francois Cluzet). The film became a box office sensation when it opened in France in November as audiences responded to the blunt and freewheeling Driss and to the friendship he forms with Philippe, who had a similar maverick spirit before a paragliding accident. The men bond as they share their divergent interests and backgrounds; Driss introduces Philippe to Earth, Wind & Fire, while Philippe turns on his caregiver to Vivaldi.
By late winter, “Untouchable,” directed by the little-known tandem of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, had sold the second-most tickets of any French movie in the country’s history. The Cesars, France’s equivalent of the Oscars, handed Sy its lead actor prize over Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”). Sy became the first black man to take the prize in the nearly 40-year history of the awards.
Nor was the film just a Gallic phenomenon. The dramatic comedy played big in Germany, South Korea and elsewhere; it’s racked up more than $340 million worldwide. The film, retitled “The Intouchables,” was released by the Weinstein Co. in Los Angeles last weekend. A U.S. remake from the company, starring Colin Firth as Philippe, is also in the works.
When queried about his explanation for the film’s popularity, Sy noted that he thought moviegoers found something refreshing in the notion of a comedy with a handicapped person at the center. Then he added, “I think there is a message of hope in this movie, of harmony. We are all tired of the racial fighting.” (French law prohibits census-takers from collecting religious or racial data on its 65 million people, but the government estimated four years ago that about 20% of the population were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Tensions between immigrants, many from North Africa, and whites reached a boiling point in 2005 and again in 2007, when racially charged riots broke out.)
Born in France to a Mauritanian mother and a Senegalese father, Sy was raised in a bleak public housing project about 20 miles west of central Paris, one of eight children in a small apartment. He speaks knowingly of “two Frances” — the stratum of the country that is wealthy and has access to the arts and the largely immigrant working class that does not. “The thing about this movie,” he said proudly, “is that it brought them together. People from one France came to the theater not knowing anything about the other France and they left having learned a lot, having sat together and laughed at the same jokes.”
Sy’s mother was a housekeeper and his father a factory worker. Though he came from a two-parent home, Sy said he saw a lot of strife and challenges; his upbringing, he noted, wasn’t all that different from his character’s.
“When Driss’ mother locks him out of the house, I know what that means because I saw it happen to a lot of my friends,” he said, referencing an event in the film. “When Driss’ little brother says Driss let him down by not being there, I’ve seen that too.” He said this childhood made him not take anything for granted and has given him an appreciation for his newfound celebrity in a way he imagined a middle-class background would not.
Asked if Marcel Marceau and other classic French comedians were favorites growing up, Sy shook his head. “That was the other France,” he said with an acid laugh. He watched contemporary commercial stars like Murphy and the French-Moroccan comedian Jamel Debbouze, the latter of whom he would come to work with.
Sy’s parents didn’t exactly encourage acting, wishing instead for a legal or medical career for their children. “If I wasn’t going to wear a nice shirt and a tie, they didn’t think it was a real job,” he said. “It was a really immigrant mentality.”
But an office life wasn’t in the cards. In high school, a friend asked Sy to be on a local radio comedy show, playing the character of a retired Senegalese soccer player. The segment killed, and soon Sy had a deal with the broadcaster Canal+ and, eventually, had created “Omar et Fred,” a weekly comedy-sketch show with his friend and comedy partner, Fred Testot. (The show is a riff on contemporary news and pop culture, often through the lens of race; think a French spin on “In Living Color” or “Chappelle’s Show.”)
On the big screen, Sy has had bit parts in a host of French films, such as the action thriller “Le Boulet” and the art-house picture “Micmacs.” He also had supporting parts in Nakache and Toledano’s shorts. When they graduated to features, they took him with them, casting him in films such as the 2006 comedy “Nos Jours Hereux,” then actually writing their fourth feature, “Untouchable” (which is based on a true story), with Sy in mind.
“We were going to do it only if Omar could,” Nakache said. “It didn’t make sense with anyone else.” None of them had any idea they were working on anything more than a modest comedy about an improbable subject.
Despite its blockbuster status, however, “Untouchable” hasn’t been universally accepted. American critics have asked why Nakache and Toledano wrote Driss’ character as black when the real-life caregiver was Arab and have accused the movie of a larger racism. A Variety critic said that the backgrounds and cultural interests of the movie’s leads amounted to “the kind of racism one had hoped had permanently exited” movie screens a long time ago.
Sy said he is confounded by the criticism. He believes the distinction between Arab and black is “irrelevant” in France, where all immigrant groups face similar challenges. As for accusations that the film traffics in cultural stereotypes — a scene in which Driss demonstrates dancing to Philippe has been cited by critics frequently — Sy said: “Why can’t a black guy show a white guy how to dance? I mean, it happens in real life.”
The objections also strike Sy as odd given his own trajectory; “Untouchable,” after all, has helped establish him as a leading man, something that’s still a rarity for black actors in France.
At the moment, Sy is winding down the latest season of his TV show — it concludes at the end of June — and he will likely stop working on it after this season to concentrate on his film career. He recently visited Los Angeles for about a week but said it was vacation, not a work or meeting-filled trip. Sy is a married father of four, and he said that even though his wife occasionally rolls her eyes when people stop him on the street in France to take a photo or tell him their feelings about “Untouchable,” “we get tables at all the good restaurants now, so she’s made her peace with it.”
The actor says he’d like to come to the U.S. to work on Hollywood films, having witnessed how actors like Dujardin and Marion Cotillard have been able to gain acceptance across the Atlantic.
“I think Omar has more universal appeal than any French actor, even Jean Dujardin,” said Toledano. “He can adapt to anything.”
Indeed, Sy radiates a kind of magnanimous charm that makes him likable even when he’s doing obnoxious things, as he does often in “Untouchable” or running his motormouth on the screen, as he does in many of his parts.
Sy, who speaks poor English, said he will take language-immersion courses next year so he can land heavily verbal roles in Hollywood films.
“I need to be able to talk in my parts. That’s where a lot of my comedy comes from,” he said. “A role where I’m only required to speak broken English” — he gestured to the Milli Vanilli script — “is fine. But people don’t only want to see me smile. At least I hope they don’t.”
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