Rising Star Omar Sy Talks 'Samba', 'Jurassic', 'X-Men: Apocalypse'

"It's not that easy to kiss a girl in front of everyone."

Actor Omar Sy attends the Samba premiere during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on September 7, 2014 in Toronto, Canada. (Source: Jemal Countess/Getty Images North America)

"Help me with my English, here." Omar Sy asks me the American term for a landfill here in the States. "The dump." I tell him. And so goes the eternal struggle of learning the endless idiosyncrasies of the English language. But Sy, the French star of The Intouchables, is getting the hang of it. "I want to be able to act in English as I do in French." He says.

Sy (pronounced "See") reteamed with his Intouchables directors, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, for his latest movie, Samba, and this time he's sharing the screen with French treasure Charlotte Gainsbourg. The two begin an unlikely romance when Samba (Sy), a Senegalese immigrant living in Paris, is discovered by Immigration after 11 years in the country. His life is destroyed and Alice (Gainsbourg) does her best to help him as his social worker, while also falling in love with him. Sy is typically excellent, sensitive and charismatic. He seems destined for more and the early signs are he's on his way.

Sy can also be seen in the year's biggest hit, Jurassic World, as Chris Pratt's raptor trainer buddy. And he's got a superhero to his credit already. He was Bishop in last year's X-Men: Days of Future Past. Roles like these aren't easy to come by, and Hollywood has taken careful notice of Sy. It was no fluke he beat out Oscar winner Jean Dujardin for France's equivalent of the award for his Intouchables performance. The future is bright for the actor and we were excited to speak to Sy about Samba, X-Men, Jurassic, and a host of other topics.

Omar Sy in Samba. (Gaumont)
Omar Sy in Samba. (Gaumont)

How did you prepare for the character of Samba? Do you know anyone like him?

To prepare I went to meet with some people who lived in that situation in Paris. We spent time together and they told me how it was to live in Paris as an illegal, how it is to cross a street, how it is to connect with family and the environment in the city. I learned all that. I had a connection with Immigration because my friend is an immigrant and learned what it's like today.

During interviews for The Intouchables, I heard you talk about bringing together "two kinds of France" and I wondered if you saw similarities in this movie? Do you see Alice and Samba as similar or very different people?

It's exactly the same for me. Two Frenchies coming together, communicating and connecting, and inspiring each other. It's the same subject for me and that's the hope, my dream for France. Different people coming together and inspring each other.

That's an ambitious dream.

(Laughs) yeah, I know, but we have to hope, and we have to work on it.

Sy and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Samba. (Gaumont)
Sy and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Samba. (Gaumont)

Do you see filmmaking as a way to inspire hope, especially Samba?

Yeah, I hope people come out of the theater with a new way of looking at things, and a new way of looking at immigrants. I think we need that today in our world.

Could you talk about working with Charlotte Gainsbourg? Was it intimidating or natural?

It wasn't natural because Charlotte is a huge star in France. She started when she was really really young and I grew up with her movies. So being on set with her wasn't normal for me at all. So I was, of course, intimidated in the beginning, but the more we worked and got to know each other we found a way to work together. It was an amazing experience to work with an actress so talented. It was really good for me.

Did you rehearse?

Yeah we did. We had readings and it was fun to work together and see how different our approaches were. It was nourishing.

I thought you guys had great chemistry. It's a pretty serious film, but you provide some of the comic relief, and I wondered what the set was like? Was it similar to The Intouchables?

It's the same directors so we have a kind of routine. It's a lot of fun, a lot of focus, and a lot of work. We were very happy to work together again.

Tahar Rahim and Sy in Samba. (Gaumont)
Tahar Rahim and Sy in Samba. (Gaumont)

What was the hardest scene to film?

For me, kissing Charlotte, because I'm modest. And it's not that easy to kiss a girl in front of everyone. Charlotte is attractive and cute, but it was hard for me. 

Did you get it in one take or were there multiple takes?

Multiple takes of course (laughs). I think it was funny for Eric and Olivier to shoot that. But we did what we had to do (laughs).

I wanted to ask you about your American work as well. Since I saw you in The Intouchables, I thought you would be popular in the States and hoped you could talk about making the big budget stuff like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Jurassic World, and compare them to the work you've done in France.

It's difficult to compare, but for me, when I'm doing Samba and when I'm doing Jurassic, I do my job. There is no difference except you tell a different story and of course the budget is different so the crew is bigger on Jurassic. But there's not much difference. It's another director, another story, that's the only difference I can tell today. And maybe because of the language, concentrating on my English is hard work. I focus only on my lines in English so that is probably the biggest difference.

Are you finding English hard to learn?

I think it's going well, but not as fast as I would like. I want one day to be able to act in English as I do in French. You use different muscles in your mouth and they're all sleeping. I have to wake them up (laughs). 

Sy as Bishop in X-Men: Days of Future Past. (Fox)
Sy as Bishop in X-Men: Days of Future Past. (Fox)

So who was the most fun to work with on X-Men: DFP?

It's difficult to say the names. Maybe it's my background living in projects, I have trouble with names so I would say everybody (laughs).

Are we going to see Bishop in X-Men: Apocalypse

No, I'm not in it. I hope so, for another one, but not this one.

What about Chris Pratt, did you like working with him on Jurassic?

Yeah, even if you don't know, you'll learn quick he has a comedy background because he's so funny and so nice. And he's a very hard worker so he deserves everything. I'm very happy for him and Jurassic. We had a lot of fun on set and in Paris for the premiere. I was really good to see him again.

I also wanted to ask you about a couple of my favorite directors who you've worked with: Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Gondry. Could you talk about those guys, any similarities between the two?

You can see some similarities in their movies but the way they work is completely different. Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a very organized guy. When you come to set you see all the storyboards each day. He knows exactly what he wants to do and how to do it. It's very precise. And Gondry's the opposite (laughs). Everything's a mess. But they both have a common poetry. I don't know how to say it, but it's magical. I hope I can work with them again. I learned a lot.

Sy and Chris Pratt in Jurassic World. (Universal)
Sy and Chris Pratt in Jurassic World. (Universal)

Are there any American directors, in particular, you'd like to work with?

Yeah there are a lot. I always have a problem with names, but the guy who directed (The Place) Beyond the Pines. I was completely moved. 

Derek Cianfrance.

Yeah, he did Blue Valentine. I loved the way he tells stories and how he works with actors.

What else have you liked that you've seen recently?

Boyhood. As a father, I loved that. Also Whiplash and Mommy. The director (Xavier Dolan) is so young, so smart. Maybe one day we can work together. 

Great choices. Alright Omar, thank you very much and good luck.

Nice to speak with you.

Rising Star Omar Sy Talks 'Samba', 'Jurassic', 'X-Men: Apocalypse'
Managing Editor, Zimbio — entertainment writer, critic, and reporter since 2011. Bay Area. Origin: Shark City.