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Omar Sy of 'The Intouchables' vaults from workaday to marquee

A minor television star in France, he is the toast of European cinema, proving that stars and blockbusters can be made outside of Hollywood.

June 02, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Actor Omar Sy
Actor Omar Sy (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

PARIS — Omar Sy's life has changed quite a bit recently. One sign? "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner is standing in front of the French actor. With a pitch. For a movie about Milli Vanilli.

"You are the man," Ratner says in English as Sy flashes his million-euro smile. Ratner gestures to a script on a nearby table and says, "Read it and write me. Write me right away. Write me in French and I'll translate."

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.

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