The Intouchables star Omar Sy stays true to his roots
French actor now based in LA has moved on from worldwide hit of 2011 to play the lead in a gritty drama about a Senegalese immigrant struggling to get by in France without proper papers
French actor Omar Sy has come a long way from the gritty Paris suburbs where he grew up. But sitting in a five-star Beverly Hills hotel, he has clearly not forgotten his immigrant roots.
And the same goes for his career - weeks after starring in the record-breaking Jurassic World blockbuster franchise, he will be on US cinema screens in his latest French film, Samba. "Last year was the perfect example: during the winter, I was shooting Samba, and during the summer, I was shooting Jurassic World. And for me that's the perfect year," he says.
"To travel to such different projects in the same year … If it can continue like that, it will be a dream," says Sy, who lives outside Los Angeles with his wife and four children.
The 37-year-old, whose parents were immigrants from West Africa, has long been known in his native France both for television and film work. But he was catapulted to international success by 2011's The Intouchables, about the relationship between a quadriplegic millionaire and a caretaker he hires from a poor Parisian suburb.
Directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano - with whom Sy was reunited for Samba - The Intouchables became the biggest-selling French film overseas of all time. Sy, who also earned a Cesar - France's equivalent of an Oscar - for The Intouchables, says the film's astonishing success doubtless made it easier to produce Samba.
"A movie like Samba is difficult to release, because of the subject, difficult to finance in France because of the subject. But after the huge success of The Intouchables all the doors were open," he says.
Samba tells the story of the title character, a Senegalese immigrant struggling to get by without proper papers, and Alice, a burnt-out executive (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) helping him as part of her recovery process.
Sy says the film - which came out in France last year - is "100 per cent" realistic in terms of its depiction of the daily struggle of immigrant life. "That's why I'm so proud of it, that's why I love working with [the directors], because they're telling the truth," he says.
The issue has hit the headlines in Europe in recent months because of boatloads of mostly African immigrants streaming across the Mediterranean, sometimes losing their lives in the process.
"It is an unfortunate coincidence," Sy says of the film's release at the same time as such tragedies. "But in Europe and in France especially, we have the immigration issue … we heard about it since we were young, all the politicians talk about immigration and immigrants," he says.
"Of course, we have our own sensitivity. My parents come from Senegal, Eric's parents come from Morocco and Olivier's come from Algeria, so we are sons of immigrants, so we wanted to talk about it, so that's why we did it."
The actor moved to LA three years after making The Intouchables.
In addition to Jurassic World, he has appeared in the last X-Men movie, and will co-star with Bradley Cooper in a comedy, Adam Jones, out in the US in October.
Sy says he is very happy with this combination of doing Hollywood movies and working back home - noting that the LA movies, while more high-profile internationally, actually put less pressure on him.
"To have the … responsibility I have in films in France, [contrasting with] something a little lighter, where I am not the lead and I am in a supporting role with a little less pressure and a little more freedom, it's a perfect balance," he says.
That said, Sy - whose English has come a long way since he moved to California - doesn't rule out taking lead roles in US movies in future.
"Why not?" he asks.
"If I have the opportunity, if it's the right time, the good opportunity and if I feel able to do it, why not?"
In any case, he doesn't plan to give up his French film career anytime soon. "There are so many movies to do in France, there are so many stories to tell, there are so many useful movies we can do. There is no reason to stop," he says.