Constant dollars

The formidable charm of Omar Sy

Sy continued, “I think it gave us strength. And openness. Today we talk about diversity, all of these things. But I grew up with it. Going from apartment to apartment in the building where I lived, I traveled the world.

In late spring, Sy and I were talking again, on Zoom. He was driving to the Alps from a house he owns in the south of France. “He really knows how to live,” his French agent, Laurent Grégoire, told me, remembering the summer barbecues with dozens of guests and Sy at the grill. Sy had stopped somewhere near Orange to recharge his Tesla and was sitting in the driver’s seat, side-lit by the rays of the evening sun. He spoke enthusiastically about ancient civilizations: the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Mayans. A friend had recommended a documentary about them and he had fallen into a rabbit hole. “It challenges our understanding of history a bit,” he said. Finally, we started talking about her past and I asked about the incidents that had made the most privileged wince.

“I remember the very racist neighbors we had – they threw their dogs at us! Sy said. “We took everything for a game, as a child takes everything for a game, with a lot of innocence and without really seeing the harm. So we had fun trying to be the one who doesn’t get bitten by the dog. Sometimes they would play hide and seek and come across things in a cellar: guns, syringes, unsavory people.

In the second episode of “Lupine”, Assane studies a letter his father wrote to him from prison, before allegedly hanging himself. This is ostensibly an admission: Assane’s father admits to having stolen a priceless necklace from the eminent Pellegrini family, for whom he worked as a driver, and asks Assane to forgive him. But Assane, warned by unusual spelling mistakes, detects a message. This suggests that he might learn more from his father’s prison mate, so Assane goes to the prison and persuades an inmate to swap places with him. The episode was shot for several weeks in a Bois d’Arcy prison, a few kilometers north of Trappes. Louis Leterrier, the director of the episode, said the actors interacted regularly with those incarcerated there. Sy, it turned out, knew several from his old neighborhood. “There was a lot of emotion,” said Leterrier. “It was reality which was very, very close to fiction, and fiction which was very, very close to reality.”

In high school, Sy intended to become a heating and air conditioning technician. A good student, he had been attracted to aeronautics, but was pushed towards a professional path. “When you grow up like me, you have to be able to make a living quickly,” he once said. The world. “I told myself that if things got complicated, I could always go to work in Senegal.

Sy also started spending time with Jamel Debbouze, the older brother of a longtime friend. They made a strange couple: Debbouze, whose parents had immigrated to France from Morocco, was small and speechless. At fourteen, he had definitively lost the use of an arm in an accident at Trappes station, yet he carried on with confidence, cultivated in the theater-improvisation workshops run by a neighborhood group. Sy and Debbouze were obviously horrible at football, and as the rest of their friends ran up and down the field, they stood and made jokes. They pushed themselves to be funnier, to go further. Debbouze, who is now one of France’s most famous artists, later recalled: “Even if we hadn’t had the luck we had, we would have been the best in any other discipline. We would have been the best astronauts, the best government ministers, or even the best thieves. “

According to Debbouze, Sy was a teenager of unusual dignity: “Omar, he was impeccable. Always the perfect presentation. We all went behind him when we wanted to get in somewhere. His famous appearance served as a useful diversion; his friends were slipping candy after following him to a store. In French, a Trojan horse is a trojan horse. Sy, a friend later joked, was the Trappes horse.

In the mid-1990s, Debbouze began hosting a show on an alternative radio station called Radio Nova, and he invited Sy to make an appearance. “He was funny and he was the only one with a driving license,” Debbouze remembers. They were joined by Nicolas Anelka, a friend of Trappes, on his way to becoming a professional footballer. Sy’s mission was to pretend he was a Senegalese player who had started farming after a career-ending injury. “Really, it was just a favor,” Sy said of his participation. “It was all a joke.” The stakes were so low that Sy put in an incredibly relaxed performance. “We were a little with family, “he said.” I wasn’t really paying attention to what was on the air. I was just there with two pals, acting like an idiot.

“If you’ve ever thought about breaking up and starting a new life, this is your chance. “
Caricature by Frank Cotham

The managers of Radio Nova invited Sy again. At the station, he meets Fred Testot, a young Corsican interpreter with gentle manners. They form a comic duo, Omar and Fred, and begin to make occasional appearances in a weekly show that Debbouze had landed on Canal +, which asserted itself as an incubator for a new generation of more diverse French talent. In 2000, the channel made Omar and Fred regular guests on their flagship talk show. Bruno Gaston, then an executive of Canal +, remembers a young Sy posing with lobsters and “telling bad jokes”. He added: “What was clear was that he was tremendously likeable.”

In 2005, Omar and Fred created the number that will make them famous: “Service Après-Vente des Emissions”, which will soon appear every evening in “Le Grand Journal”, one of the most watched evenings in France. In the segment, one of the two would play a customer service agent, running a bank of phones in a scarlet blazer. The other would appear, in a box at the top right of the screen, as a wacky caller, often wearing an odd combination of sunglasses, sequins, hats, and masks. Cult figures included Doudou de Sy, an enthralling amateur crooner with a large African accent and a leopard-print scarf, and Francois le Français de Testot, a self-glorifying patriot dressed in blue, White, red. In their most famous part, they took turns posing as swingers calling the hotline, recounting their flowery, lamenting two-way nightly exploits, in what has become their signature slogan, “You’re not coming anymore. at parties “. The duo were so popular that the fast food chain Quick named burgers for Omar and Fred. “They were our Monty Pythons,” Achour told me. “Lame songs, lame accents and, at the same time, clever. For me absurd humor is when you have two intersecting curves, the silly and the serious, and that was perfect.

“Of the jokes that made us famous, ten percent would still be on TV and the rest would be canceled,” Sy told me. “I don’t know how they still show our old stuff.” During the lockdown, Sy dusted off Doudou by posting a video on social media in which he performed the hit song of the same name by Aya Nakamura, one of France’s most popular singers. (“It was too tempting,” Sy wrote.) This time Doudou was not universally loved. Many viewers, especially young people who had never met the character before, saw an unflattering caricature of an African woman. (Sy says Doudou is a man.) “All to make white people laugh,” wrote one Twitter user. Sy defended her prerogative to ‘pay homage’ to Nakamura, retorting, “Real life happens outside of Twitter, just like real actions that make a difference. “

I asked Sy if he regretted any of his old jokes.

– No, nothing, he said. “Because I know why we did it. And, most importantly, I can see the effect it had. It relaxed things, made people less inhibited.

With the success of Omar and Fred, Sy began to present offers to appear in films. He refused most of them. “I was getting offers for roles as gangsters and suburban guys,” he said. The Express. “I had no desire to try the cinema only to serve as a support for clichés. No more than I want, now, to be fashionable black. “He was however receptive to working with Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, a couple of young filmmakers who, in 2002, chose him as a camp host in a short film. Sy eventually appeared in four of their films, becoming a kind of muse. “We grew up together in the movies,” Toledano told me. In 2009 they told Sy they wanted to write a movie just for him. “I’m not an actor,” he said. “Well, we’re not directors either, so perfect,” they retorted. Sy signed for what has become “The Untouchables”.

Comment here

placeholder="Your Comment">