Playing the Bad Guy, Meeting Samuel L. Jackson: Omar Sy on his Hollywood Life

In France he’s perhaps best known for his role in the much-loved Intouchables. Americans would more likely know him from his small part in Jurassic World. An expat in Hollywood since 2012, Omar Sy generally keeps a pretty low profile — but that’s changed in recent weeks as he begins to promote his new film Samba, coming out today in the US.

Relaxed and smiling, he answered in English and without hesitation questions posed by a small group of journalists who came to interview him at the chic Montage in Beverly Hills.

Advertisement

The most obvious hurdle for any French actor in Hollywood is language, of course. When it comes to English, Sy readily admits his is a work in progress. “That’s why in Jurassic World some of my lines still came out in French!” he exclaims. “I’ve been taking English classes to perfect my skills and my goals is to one day be bilingual.”

Apparently it doesn’t faze Hollywood, which has Sy involved n a number of films since he landed on the West Coast. Besides Jurassic World, Sy appears in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and in 2016 he’ll appear alongside Tom Hanks in Inferno, the third installment in the Da Vinci Code saga by Ron Howard.

“Things are moving very fast. I’ve done a lot in three years. It’s getting to be much more than I expected!” says Sy, “What’s funny is that as a Frenchman I always have to play the bad guy! It’s giving me an opportunity to explore another aspect of my range as an actor.”

Sy takes on a much more serious role in the latest film from the duo behind Intouchables, Eric Toledo and Olivier Nakache. In Samba, he plays an illegal immigrant from Senegal living and working in France.

“Of course I feel connected to this story since my own parents emigrated to France,” says Sy, “But their story goes back to the 60s and it was a very different reality then. As a result, I had to read a lot, I did research and I spent three days with illegal immigrants trying to understand what they’ve experienced.”

Some particularly difficult scenes, one of which was filmed in a recycling plant, made a big impression on Sy. “These people are so dignified and courageous,” he says, “it moved me very much and made me want to do more films like this one.”

When it comes to the tempting juxtaposition between big Hollywood and small, socially-engaged France, Sy rejects a reductive vision of his parallel careers. “For me, each set is unique,” says Sy, “It’s all about the director.”

“Of course, here, the experience is different. when I act alongside super heroes or dinosaurs I feel like I’m being sent back to my childhood when I played at fighting dragons!” Sy exclaims before adding,”As an actor in the United States, I feel the great freedom of a child.”

Through all of his success, Sy’s approach to life remains down-to-earth. In Los Angeles he isn’t really part of the star system. “What I’m most interested in when it comes to the actors I admire is simply getting the chance to work with them,” he says,”In my free time I’d rather have fun with my wife and children, or have my brothers and friends visit me.”

That isn’t to say that meeting celebrities hasn’t been exciting for Sy, especially when it comes to his favorite star, Samuel L. Jackson. “It was last year at ComicCon in San Diego,” he remembers,”I was in the parking lot and I saw a car come up. Samuel Jackson got out and said, ‘Hey Omar,’ and gave me a hug. It happened really fast. I didn’t even have the chance to tell him that I admire him. I couldn’t believe he knew my name!”

Omar Sy and his family have quickly adapted to life in Los Angeles. “My kids love having their lunches made by mom and dad rather than eating French cafeteria food!” he says, “Every morning they’re happy to go to school!”

But this California life may just be a brief stint, as the actor is already thinking of moving his family back to France, in particular for the sake of his children’s schooling. That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s crossing Hollywood off his list.

This fall he’ll appear in the Anglo-American comedy Adam Jones produced by the Weinstein brothers with Bradley Cooper playing a formerly-Michelin-starred Parisian chef who’s trying to get back into the game by launching a restaurant in London. “Once again, I’ll be playing the bad guy!” say Sy, bursting into laughter.