Movies
11:03 pm
Wed June 27, 2012

In France, A Star Rises From An Oft-Neglected Place

Originally published on Thu June 28, 2012 11:34 am

Frenchman Jean Dujardin may have won this year's Academy Award for best actor for his role in The Artist, but in France he was beat out for the country's most prestigious acting award, the Cesar, by a new acting sensation: The 34-year-old son of African immigrants, Omar Sy.

Sy's movie, The Intouchables, was a hit across Europe and is now playing in theaters in the U.S. It's a feel-good buddy comedy about a quadriplegic white aristocrat who hires an unemployed black kid from the projects as his personal aide. Despite the differences in age, race and background, Philippe the millionaire (renowned actor Francois Cluzet) and Driss (Sy) form a deep bond. The film confronts racism, poverty and infirmity, while Sy illuminates the screen with his rapid-fire banter and infectious laugh.

Speaking through a translator, Sy says he thinks the film struck a chord "because it's about two different Frances meeting each other, liking each other and forming a powerful relationship. That's the problem in France today. There are worlds living side by side yet completely apart. People don't know or understand their neighbor. That's why people are scared."

Like the character he plays, Sy hails from a France far from the glittering boulevards of Paris. The fourth of eight children, he grew up in one of the gritty suburbs with high immigrant populations, known as banlieus, that ring the French capital.

Sy's Senegalese father worked in a factory; his Mauritanean mother was a cleaning woman. Sy is an idol to young kids growing up in the banlieus, who say that his story gives them hope: If he can make it, they can, too.

Immigration has loomed large on the French political landscape lately. Even many second-generation immigrants said they felt stigmatized by the toxic, anti-foreigner, anti-Muslim rhetoric of the recent French presidential race. Sy, who's Muslim himself, says his background has been an asset.

"I feel completely French," he says, "but it's true that as the son of immigrants I struggled with my identity, especially in my teenage years. But I've been able to take aspects of both French and African culture and I'm all the richer for it, even if it does mean I have a little more baggage than most people."

Sy got his start several years ago doing impersonations on a radio comedy show. Then followed a wildly popular TV comedy skit that still airs today.

But it was The Intouchables that launched Sy into real stardom. It became France's second-highest grossing film of all time. A third of the French population has seen it.

Intouchables also swept Europe, spending nine weeks as the No. 1 film in Germany. But some American critics have had harsh words for it, saying it deals in cliches and smacks of Uncle Tom racism.

Sy disagrees.

"They saw it through an American lens," he says. "You can't compare France and America. They are completely different in every way. The point is: My character could have been Arab, or white, because it's his housing project culture and world that permeate and define him. A kid from the projects is marked, no matter what his color."

Sy has since left the projects — though he says he will always carry them within. Those who know him say he goes back often, and he doesn't forget anyone.

Watching him leave the TV studios, it's not hard to believe: Sy seems to have a kind word and a warm smile for everyone, especially the security guards and the cleaning woman.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A Frenchman won the Academy Award for best actor this year. Jean Dujardin took home the trophy for his leading role in "The Artist." But in France, Dujardin was beat out for the country's top award by the new acting sensation Omar Sy.

Sy is a son of African immigrants. His movie "The Intouchables" was a hit across Europe, and is now playing in theaters here. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF CESAR AWARDS)

UNIDENTIFIED PRESENTER: Omar Sy.

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Thirty-four-year-old Omar Sy took the stage to receive France's most prestigious acting award, the Cesar, in February, in a televised ceremony in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF CESAR AWARDS)

OMAR SY: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Sy was chosen for his electric performance in the mega hit comedy "Intouchables," based on a true story.

SY: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: "Intouchables" - "The Untouchables," in English - is a feel-good buddy comedy. It's about a white, aristocrat quadriplegic who hires an unemployed black kid from the projects as his personal aide. Despite the difference in age, race and background, Philippe - the millionaire, played by renowned actor Francois Cluzet - and Driss, who is played by Sy, form a deep bond. The film also confronts racism, poverty and infirmity, while Sy illuminates the screen with his rapid-fire banter and infectious laugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INTOUCHABLES")

BEARDSLEY: In an interview with NPR, Sy says he thinks the film struck a chord.

SY: (Through translator) Because it's about two different Frances meeting each other, liking each other and forming a powerful relationship. That's the problem in France today. There are worlds living side by side yet completely apart. People don't know or understand their neighbor. That's why people are scared.

BEARDSLEY: Like the character he plays, Sy hails from a France far from the glittering boulevards of Paris. The fourth of eight children, he grew up in one of the gritty, heavily immigrant suburbs known as banlieue, that ring the French capital. Sy's Senegalese father worked in a factory; his Mauritanean mother was a cleaning woman.

Sy is an idol to young kids growing up in the banlieue, like this group of boys whose parents immigrated from Arab countries and Africa.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: I love you, Omar Sy. I love you. Because he's very, very good actor and...

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: He's dramatic and natural, they say, and he represents us. We're proud, and he gives us hope. If he can make it, we can, too. Immigration has loomed large on the French political landscape lately. Even many second-generation immigrants say they felt stigmatized by the toxic anti-foreigner, anti-Muslim rhetoric of the recent French presidential race. Sy is also a Muslim. He says his background has been an asset.

SY: (Through translator) I feel completely French. But it's true that as a son of immigrants, I struggled with my identity - especially in my teenage years. But I've been able to take aspect of both French and African culture, and I'm all the richer for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SHOW)

BEARDSLEY: Sy got his start several years ago, doing impersonations on a radio comedy show. Then followed a wildly popular TV comedy skit, that still airs. But it was "The Intouchables" that launched Sy into real stardom. It became France's second grossing film of all time. A full one-third of the French population has seen the film. "Intouchables" also swept Europe, spending nine weeks as the number one film in Germany. But some American critics have had harsh words for it, saying "The Intouchables" deals in cliches, and smacks of Uncle Tom racism. Sy disagrees.

SY: (Through translator) They saw it through an American lens. You can't compare France and America; it's not the same. They see the French story. And the point is, my character could have been Arab, Chinese, or even white. It's his housing project culture that defines him. A kid from the projects is marked by the projects, not his color.

BEARDSLEY: Sy has since left the projects, though he says he will always carry them within. Those who know him say he goes back often, and doesn't forget anyone. As he leaves the TV studios, Sy seems to have a kind word and a warm smile for everyone, especially the security guards and the cleaning woman.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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