An ‘Intouchable’ Q&A With Omar Sy—The César’s First Black Best Actor

After winning France’s Oscar, the actor is set to transcend all stereotypes.

Omar Sy holds a sheet up in front of François Cluzet in The Intouchables

Omar Sy's Driss comes to the aid of the quadriplegic millionaire Phillippe (François Cluzet) in The Intouchables. (Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

You’d be forgiven for mistaking the title of the new film The Intouchables for “The Improbables.” Nearly nothing about the French culture clash comedy could have ever been expected.

Based on the true story of a wealthy quadriplegic who forms a deep friendship with his wily caretaker from the streets, The Intouchables has become a box office smash in advance of its American bow, taking in more internationally than The Hunger Games and earning its lead actor, Omar Sy, the first César Award (the French Oscar equivalent) ever awarded to a black actor in its 36-year history. Still, the title is there for a reason.

“There are a lot of young talents from the projects. They’re confronted with a lot of  closed doors. But maybe those doors actually don’t even exist.”

“It really was our task to deconstruct the clichés to transcend them and just become two people without prejudice–equal to equal,” Sy tells TakePart through a translator. “When you can get to that point, a solid relationship becomes possible and hence the word ‘intouchable.’ ”

The relationship that may have had the most impact on the finished film may not necessarily be what develops onscreen as the two characters overcome issues of race and mobility, social and otherwise. Just as important is the bond between codirectors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano and Sy. The codirectors first cast their star in a 2002 short film, and gave him larger and larger roles as they grew into making features.

With The Intouchables, Nakache and Toledano offered the comic-turned-actor his first leading role, a part they wrote specifically for him. All three collaborators took some creative license in turning Abdel Sellou, the real-life Algerian domestic assistant to the wheelchair-bound millionaire Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, into the Senegalese-bred Driss, who hails from the projects just as Sy did.  

“This is where I come from, my little brothers still live in the projects. My friends still live there,” says Sy. “Now I have a special responsibility to not fall into the traps of racism and to not betray the people I’m actually representing through this character. That was a lot of the challenge, but also the great opportunity to transmit a positive value.”

Sy brings a dignity to Driss to go along with his swagger, both of which his boss is in desperate need of after a paragliding accident leaves him emotionally and physically handicapped.

The two characters help broaden one another’s horizons. Driss matches a suggestion he listen to Vivaldi by recommending Earth, Wind and Fire to his boss. The employee takes up painting after being introduced to the world of art collecting, resulting in what Sy describes as a transformation that wasn’t limited to the character he plays.

“For me, [the film] was also an opportunity to repair some of the things I needed to work on from my own history,” Sy says. After winning a César (over Oscar winner Jean Dujardin from The Artist), the actor has made new history, though he hopes he’ll be remembered more for the film than for breaking a color barrier.

“If I’m seen as the first black actor to get a César, for me, that’s secondary,” says Sy. “My hope is that it becomes something normal, a non-issue. There are a lot of young talents from the projects that are black and all other colors. They’re confronted with a lot of  closed doors. But maybe those doors actually don’t even exist. The message in winning this is that it is possible.”

What are some “closed doors” that still need to be opened? Open them up in COMMENTS.

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