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Exclusive: Omar Sy Talks Race and Representation in Hit French Comedy "The Intouchables"

by Jasmin Tiggett
May 25, 2012 8:08 AM
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We chatted briefly with actor Omar Sy about the film that has seemed to stir racial controversy as well as win international acclaim, French comedy The Intouchables.  Set for U.S. release today, May 25, the movie has already become one of the highest grossing French films of all time, but has nevertheless been criticized for its handling of its interracial leads.

In it, Sy stars as Driss, a young man from the projects who becomes caregiver of a wealthy white quadriplegic.

Find Tambay’s review of the film HERE.

Sy gave his thoughts on the racial dynamics of the film, his career, and his experience winning the Cesar Award, France's highest honor in acting.

S&A: What was your reaction to winning the Cesar, and being the first black actor to do so?

OS: I didn’t expect it at all. I hadn’t prepared a speech, and already the nomination was an award in itself. But I was touched, because it recognized the work that I had put into this role. And it was recognition and love, which I was happy to receive.

Later on, people started saying, “Yes, you’re the first black actor who has won a Cesar,” and that’s a great thing. But it would be even better if for the next black actor to receive the Cesar, it would be a non-issue, if it wouldn’t even be noticed. That’s kind of my goal – just to be recognized as an actor.

S&A: The Intouchables has received harsh reactions from American critics who’ve essentially called the film racist. What’s your response to how the film has been received thus far in the United States?

OS: I was a bit surprised to hear the criticism, because it’s a film that I believe in, I defend the film, and I would never be involved in a film that has racist overtones. It’s a French movie and it has to be read in the context of a French society. If you look at it with a different set of criteria you can come up with a different meaning.

In France, the banlieues is a completely different environment than what you have in the United States. It’s not as racially segmented. The people from the banlieues, be they from Hispanic origin or black origin, they’re in the same socio-economic slice. In America, [people of color] may have ancestry tied to slavery or immigration.

So the context is very different, and there’s a point of view in how you read the film. If you read it uniquely from a United States point of view, then you can draw your own conclusions. But I think part of the film is trying to communicate the context that actually exists in France. And in that context the meaning is not racist at all.

S&A: Are misperceptions about race, based on cultural differences, a continuing concern for you as more of your films open in the United States, and as you presumably begin to star in more American films?

OS: Yes, one of the things when I first read the articles, was to question myself to try to understand how this film could elicit this kind of response. And as I start to explore projects in the United States I have a heightened awareness of what is the context of the role that I’m reading for.

I’m very aware that film is entertainment, but it also transmits messages whether you like it or not, and I really want to try to understand for myself the context in which the film is operating. Actually there’s a great opportunity there - that yes, it does transmit a message, and that’s a motivation for me to make or not make a movie. So yeah, I’m aware of the issue as a black actor, but any actor has a responsibility toward the message that’s inscribed in the movie.

S&A: Can you tell us what you’re working on next, and whether you plan on a move to the U.S.?

OS: Right now I’m actually filming Mood Indigo, and while I shoot a film I try not to read too much. I like to do one thing at a time. Next, I’ll be open to reading. I actually have time, I’m not in a rush, and I’m really looking forward to something new to do and to say, regarding the message of the film. So after this film I’m open to either Europe or the United States.

Intouchables opens in the USA today from The Weinstein Company.

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  • Jazz | May 27, 2012 8:51 PMReply

    I really enjoyed his performance and am looking forward to what's next from him. So much heart!

  • gautier | May 26, 2012 6:15 AMReply

    intouchable est un bon film ,mais j,espère qu,il ne marchera pas au usa .Pour le cinéma français ce ne serait pas bon. le risque ,ce serait que les cinéastes français se mettent a faire des film qui soit perçu comme politiquement correct pour les américains .Nous n,avons pas" français et américains "les meme valeurs.Je pense que le cinéma français devrait ce contenter du marché francophone .

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