In the past year, Omar Sy has gone from being a French comedy writer and actor, to a star known internationally for his dramatic performance in The Intouchables. In February of this year Sy won the Cesar Award (France’s Oscar) for Best Actor, beating out a group of actors including his co-star, legendary French actor Francois Cluzet, and Jean Dujardin for The Artist. Since then, The Intouchables has since spent the year playing all over the world, and has become the highest-grossing French film of all time. The Intouchables, from writing and directing team Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, is the story of an unlikely friendship between Philippe, a wealthy quadriplegic (Cluzet), and Driss (Sy), the young man from the projects hired to be his caretaker. While The Intouchables could have easily felt like an after-school special, the filmmakers and cast infuse every scene with so much humanity and humor that The Intouchables is one of the most genuinely heartfelt and uplifting movies of the year. I recently had the chance to correspond with Sy, and talk about crafting such a moving film. Here’s what Sy shared with me about working with an acclaimed French actor (Cluzet), how his own experience in the projects informed the character, and how he found the comedy in tragedy to help create The Intouchables.
Jackson Truax: The Intouchables is one of the highest-grossing films worldwide not in the English language. Why do you think the film resonates so deeply with audiences all over the world?
Omar Sy: I think it is at its core a very simple, human story that transcends culture and politics. Each of us has advantages and disadvantages in our lives, and to see these unlikely people helping one another through it, with warmth and humor, it strikes a chord. In a time when life has become difficult for a lot of people, when they have become very isolated, it’s nice to see a story about triumph and friendship.
JT: This is your third film with co-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. How has your collaboration with them evolved over the course of making several films?
Sy: When we first worked together many years ago, none of us had done anything. When they asked me if I wanted to act in their first film, I said “I’m not really an actor,” and they said “That’s okay, we’re not really directors.” Now they are amazing directors, and since we have done a few films together, there’s a lot of trust between us.
JT: You have a prolific background as a writer, mostly in comedy. What does your experience as a writer add to your collaboration with Olivier and Eric, in particular while making The Intouchables?
Sy: Writing and acting are tied together. In both you are asking the same questions. “Who is this character? Am I being true to them? How would they act in this situation?” But the nice thing in this case is Eric and Olivier had already written a beautiful script, so I could just focus on the acting.
JT: Your character of Driss is based on a real person, but not a famous person that’s in the public consciousness like Abraham Lincoln, for example. Was it important for you to capture the voice or physicality of the real person at all, or did you approach building the character as you would on a more fictional script?
Sy: It’s funny. In doing my research, I wanted to meet with Philippe, on whom Francois’ character is based, but I didn’t want to meet Abdel, on whom Driss is based, until after we shot. I thought it was important that as an actor I gave myself a space that I could inhabit. I thought that if I met him, I would put all my focus into trying to speak and move like him, and then I wouldn’t be paying attention to the connection between Francois’ character and my own. But I did spend time in a place that trains caregivers learning the ropes.
JT: You and Francois Cluzet play the central relationship in the film, and the movie really hinges on your chemistry. Did you two spend a lot of time together before shooting, formally rehearsing or talking about your relationship and how it would evolve over the course of the film?
Sy: Unfortunately we didn’t have the luxury. Francois was shooting another movie. But he did have everyone over to his house to read through the script a few times. The most important thing he did for me, though, was the first day of shooting, when I was very nervous to be acting with this legendary French actor, he looked me in the eye and said “I will act for you, you act for me.” It was amazing, because with those few words he gave me an incredible amount of confidence and allowed me to stop worrying about my qualifications and just be Driss. It all just flowed from there.
JT: Driss starts out as being a character that’s in many ways very unlikeable. Was that a concern of yours? As you were building your character, did you try and make him more likeable?
Sy: I wasn’t worried about if people would like Driss, because I felt that at his core he was very likeable. He’s a guy who came from a difficult background who was just trying to get by. That led to some unlikeable decisions, but that didn’t make him an unlikeable person. If anything, I thought he had an admirable way of seeing beyond circumstances. People to him were people, not what they did or what they had, but who they were. The ability to see that is a gift. I believed that would come through.
JT: Driss comes from living in the projects, which from what I understand is your background as well. What did having that shared background with Driss bring to your performance?
Sy: It helped that I could understand the circumstances, and how it affects both your emotions and your decisions. It allowed me to see the humanity in Driss.
JT: The film walks a fine line between the funny and the tragic, with Driss saying some and doing some politically incorrect things in regards to physical disabilities. How did you know what you could get away with while playing for comedy and how far you could take it?
Sy: Driss is never mocking of Philippe. He has no pity because he doesn’t feel superior in any way. So long as he was true to that, I didn’t think it would be offensive. If anything, he’s the one character in the movie who sees beyond Philippe’s disabilities. Politically incorrect things become offensive when they come from a place of judgment. Driss doesn’t judge.
JT: Driss evolves over the course of an interesting character arc, of caring for Philippe more than he ever thought he would. At the same time, that arc builds slowly throughout the film, and goes back-and-forth at times. I’m thinking, for example, of the scene when Driss beats up the guy taking Philippe’s parking space, which is a major turning point, Then, in the following scene, there’s almost a regression of sorts, with Driss making fun of the art Philippe is observing. How did you navigate what that journey would be, and how caring or sarcastic you would play certain scenes?
Sy: Driss has a very ingrained sense of what is right and wrong. It’s not just that the man was parked where he was, it’s that parking there was showing disrespect to someone who had become a part of his life. It’s an important moment because Driss’ violent reaction, which is involuntary, surfaces because he has begun to care about Philippe and he is protective of those he cares about. The scene in the gallery isn’t a regression so much as an extension of the same feeling. It’s as if Philippe was being taken advantage of by the art dealer. But that’s because Driss doesn’t understand modern art. That part of Philippe’s world is still a mystery to him. It’s important because it shows that, while they’re starting to connect, their worlds are still very different.
JT: When the credits roll on The Intouchables, is there anything in particular you hope audiences might be thinking or feeling?
Sy: I just hope they are smiling.
JT: If The Intouchables were to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, or you were to be recognized by the Academy in the Best Actor race, what would that mean to you personally, and to the French cast and crew who made the film?
Sy: Awards are wonderful in that they can help get people to go see a film they might otherwise overlook. Our little film has already been on a journey that’s gone beyond anyone’s expectations. And we’re all so proud of it.