Interview: The Intouchables ‘ François Cluzet & Omar Sy


Last November, a tiny French character dramedy called The Intouchables opened in France and over the next few months, it became one of the country’s biggest blockbusters, grossing $166 million in French territories and then it doubled that amount when it opened in other countries.

Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano who had already made a number of movies in France, though none that got any sort of attention here, the movie was based on the relationship of tetraplegic millionaire Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and the Algerian immigrant from the projects he hired to be his unlikely caretaker.

That true story has been converted into a hilarious and heartwarming comedy starring veteran French actor François Cluzet (Tell No One) as Philippe, joined by French comic Omar Sy as Driss, a Senagelese man from the projects who is just looking for his unemployment benefits after spending six months in prison for robbery. To Driss’ surprise, he’s hired on a one-month trial basis and as he learns the job and enjoys living in the lap of luxury, the two men become close friends as Driss helps Philippe to learn how to love living life again.

It’s a wonderful film–you can read our review here–and it’s absolutely no surprise that the film has become such a huge hit with European audiences. Earlier this year, had a chance to speak to the film’s very different stars in separate interviews when they came through New York City–Cluzet when he came for the annual “Rendezvous with French Cinema” series at Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, and Omar Sy a few weeks later. Unfortunately, both interviews had to be done through a translator since both actors were more comfortable speaking in French.

First we have Cluzet, a veteran French dramatic actor who has been making films mainly in France for nearly three decades and who is already a huge star in France due to his role in films like the action-thriller Tell No One, for which he won the Cesar award. How did the directors approach you about doing this movie and was it very obvious from the script what they could do with it?
François Cluzet:
The script was very well-written; it was a really original kind of story. The dialogue was very witty, there was a lot of humor in it. It was also possible to see how the adaptation worked from a documentary (“A La Vie, A La Mort”) that had been made on the two characters when they had reunited.

CS: Because Philippe is based on a real person, as part of your preparation, did you want to meet him or spend any time with him?
I did meet him and I really did want to meet him, because I wanted to see what I could steal from him for the character. I think the thing that was most remarkable about him was his joie de vivre, his joy of life. He’s somebody who really suffers a great deal but he hides it, and what you see is this joie de vivre.

CS: Were you able to meet him with his original caretaker Abdel?
No, he lives in Morocco, Philippe. The interesting thing about him was that he said, “If you want to live your life as a tetraplegic, that you can just die from the worry and from the problems of being paralyzed.” What he was really interested in was having a life interacting with other people and making them interested in him and the way to do that was through humor.

CS: By the nature of playing a tetraplegic, you have to remain very still, did you have to do a lot of preparation for that or to get into that head?
It may sound modest, but it’s really not that difficult to be still. There’s a very specific head position that the character has and it’s kind of a convention in films that if you say you’re a quadriplegic or a tetraplegic, it’s believed until you prove otherwise.

CS: I’m not sure how easy it is to keep still–I know I can’t do it–so I wondered if you had some form of meditation to get into that head.
What’s interesting for me is that I generally consider myself to be more of a physical actor, and I’m somebody that doesn’t really want to use the dialogue but prefers to act through my body, and then sometimes when I have a script, I look and kind of throw away the dialogue and I just look at how I can expressive it through my body. Here it was totally different, and I was very concerned about it being tiring for people to just see me sitting there and not doing anything. I realized that once I allowed myself to accept that I wasn’t going to be moving, that I wasn’t going to be conveying the strength of my body, that an additional dimension was added. I disappeared into it, but that added the additional dimension.

CS: Does playing a role like this make you appreciate small things like being able to get up and not having to be confined to a wheelchair?
Of course. It’s a funny thing. While we were shooting the film, whenever I was in the wheelchair, I would see people moving away from me, and I really had that experience of what a handicapped person in a wheelchair feels like, which is that people don’t want to approach you. They feel that this is somebody who is suffering and they’re inapproachable. Maybe there’s something contagious about them, and so they stood away from me. At the end, when I was able to get up and get out of the chair, I was glad because at least now I was able to interact with them.

CS: That’s very interesting because you’re very well known in France and when you walk down the street, I’m sure people know who you are, so was it weird being in this situation where people weren’t approaching you when you were out in public?
I think that my idea is that when I’m shooting a film, I like to be both invisible and present at the same time to capture those two qualities. I look more for the interior than the exterior and as an actor, when I’m shooting the film, I don’t have that need to be filmed, and I’m more concerned about being a good partner in the filmmaking process. Ultimately, it’s really the director who decides what is filmed and what isn’t.

CS: That leads me to asking about Omar, because he’s a force of nature and almost a scene-stealer, so how hard is it to perform with him where you have to sit there unmoving the whole time and watch him do his thing.
I think basically when people come to see a film now they’re not really looking to see the roles that the actors are playing, they’re coming to see the film and particularly a successful film. They’re not there to see a particular actor, and I think what’s important is the duo between the two characters and in a way this is like the classic clown sketch where you have the White Face and the August Clown–you have the very serious straight man and the comedian–and it’s the interplay between the two that’s interesting to those people, and I think in order to make the film succeed, we really had to make this duo work, and I realized that for me, I was there to be the straight man and for Omar to play off of me. I was there to encourage him, because he really needed that to get his humor across and to be effective.

CS: So his whole goal was to make you laugh?
Yes, we really decided right at the beginning that “I would be acting for you and you’ll be acting for me,” and I found really quickly was that I became an audience and I was there and I was enthusiastic and I was really helping him to get that extraordinary humor that he has across. That was my goal.

CS: I don’t get the impression you do that many comedies, so I think that’s why it works because pairing the serious dramatic actor with him doing the comedy made the mix of the two things work so well.
The directors here had worked with Omar before, they had worked with him on three other films, and this film was written specifically for him, and what they were looking for in casting the person who would play opposite him was someone who would be a good partner, someone who would be able to help him to come to the fore, to show him off, someone who would be acceptable and also somebody who would be willing to do some preparation work before the shooting actually started. I think in a sense you may be correct that maybe they were looking for someone who was a little bit more at ease in a serious dramatic role, but the real person on whose book this film is based, the author of the book, he insisted on giving the rights to his film tha he would only do so if the film were made as a comedy.

CS: Even though your role isn’t physical, there are physical moments where he has to carry you around. How did you and Omar get comfortable to do those scenes?
It was somewhat delicate for him because he does have to carry me around when he takes me in and out of the wheelchair or in and out of the bed, and he really had to do so and train to develop his back muscles, because he’s putting his arms around me when he’s picking me up in that way so he did have to do some training in order to be able to do that. I couldn’t help him because my character, I had to be almost as if I was a dead body, it’s a dead weight, and he had to move me, and I wasn’t able to help him by making it any easier.

CS: Did you at least do other scenes first to get comfortable with each other before he started carrying you around?
No, we just went in and did it.

CS: This film has obviously been a huge hit in France and seeing the movie I can understand why, since it’s a movie you want to see over and over because it’s so wonderful. You were already a pretty well known star in France so has it made it even harder to walk around?
Perhaps a little bit but I’ve always dreamed of being a celebrity, and I think that if that’s something that you want, you have to accept that public recognition like that is going to happen.

CS: On the other hand, do you like coming to a place like New York where you might run into some French people on the site, but you can also walk around without being disturbed?
I was in New York about 20 years ago shooting the film “‘Round Midnight” and I was with the crew at the Mayflower Hotel and the barman said to me, “There are a number of people outside who would really like to see you, so could you go outside because we can’t really accommodate everyone in here?” So I went outside and I saw seven or eight people there and I was thinking to myself the stage manager for the film had put them up to it. I went and I signed everybody’s autograph and I wrote “Thank you Albert for setting this up for me” and the next day all the people came back and said, “No, we just want you to sign your autograph.”

CS: Where do you go from here after having this huge hit in France? Have you explored doing more Hollywood movies since it’s been some time?
No, to be really modest, they’re not clamoring for me to come and make films in the United States. I’ve shot a few films here, “‘Round Midnight” being one of them which I shot in English, but for the most part, I think it’s something that’s really a cultural thing for me. I think there’s a kind of love relationship between an actor and an audience and this is something I really feel with the audiences in France. Even though the audiences in general may be smaller in size than they used to be, I still feel comfortable with that kind of relationship as a cultural thing.

CS: “Tell No One” was one of the bigger French films here and I have a feeling this one will be even bigger.
I think that in France, we really admire American films, we admire their drive, we admire the modernity and ellipsism in the film and the writing and the style of acting and we look at them perhaps in a way to see what we can steal from them, too, to make our own films more modern. I think in my generation of actors, which would be the generation of Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, we used to watch them a lot to see what was it in their style of acting that was modern compared to the French actors that we were used to at that point. So now what we’re trying to do is send you back some of our modernity so you can see what that is. I think that what’s important is when people see a film they don’t want to see an actor acting, they want to see an actor living.

We wouldn’t have a chance to talk to Cluzet’s on-screen partner Omar Sy for another couple of weeks, but we sat down with him at the noisy Mercer Street Hotel lounge to talk about the performance that won him the coveted French Oscar, the Cesar, defeating The Artist‘s Jean Dujardin, thought by many to be the favorite. Midway through the interview, Harvey Weinstein, who picked up the U.S. rights shortly before the Cesars, possibly knowing that American audiences would love it as much as others, stopped by to give Sy his regards and it’s pretty clear he has high hopes The Intouchables will be his company’s next French hit. I spoke to the directors who you’d worked with before, so how did they approach you about doing this?
Omar Sy:
I already had made three films with these filmmakers before this and every time my role got bigger and they were always comedies and the last one we made before this, they had given me a scene within the comedy where I was supposed to have a different kind of reaction, I was supposed to get angry at that point and show a different range of emotions that they weren’t familiar with, so when they saw me play that role–I’m known for being a comedian–and when they saw I could pull off a more dramatic part, they said, “We feel like giving you a role where you can really go all-out and show every facet of your talent and we want to do the script.” Then they came back to me and told me about this project and they told me, “We want to work on this story. If you are on board, we’re going to write this script. If not, we’re not going to do it.”

CS: And it was based on the real relationship between these two people…
When they pitched the project to me, they actually showed me a TV documentary on the two characters and that’s how they shared the project with me.

CS: Did they have your input while they were writing the script?
Yes, we did get to talk back and forth now and then about my character. What I was able to contribute was more my direct experience of life in the poor suburbs in France and the way the social dynamics work in those neighborhoods–relationships between brothers and sister and family structure–so I could provide them with more specific and precise details on my personal experience growing up there in that environment, or I could just come up with little ideas of how to make the character more likeable. It wasn’t an enormous amount of talking, but we did talk and they did come and see me three or four times at key points in their scriptwriting process and there was a little bit of back and forth that way.

CS: At what point did you find out that François was going to play the other role?
I actually learned that very early on. It was probably first or second draft of the script, so it was very soon into the project. That was even more significant because that made me want to be in the project even more and it was a true gift. This movie has brought me so many gifts and so many surprises and that’s probably where the surprises started.

CS: Did you want to spend any time with François beforehand to rehearse and get comfortable or was it better for the movie to keep you apart before shooting your first scenes?
No, we don’t really rehearse as such. The method that we follow with Eric and Olivier was that we’d do readings. We actually all sit around a table and we go through the material, and we see what comes up and we notice if there’s any blockage, any difficult passage, and whenever that happens, there’s questions and explanations back and forth so that when we get on set with the real shooting, we’re free to really work on it. So if there are any questions, we ask them beforehand, so the four of us just sat around a table and just went over the material.

CS: Did you do any research about caregivers or was it again important not to know that much about it for your character?
Yes, I did spend a few days in a hospital in the section where they deal with handicapped people, and I did less than a week of training. I learned how to massage people with a physical handicap or how to lift them up and handle them, so I did that so I could look credible, and also so I wouldn’t hurt myself or François.

CS: This ended up being a fairly physical role, having to lift François in and out of the wheelchair, so did you two have to practice? When was the first time you actually carried him around? Did you do those scenes later in the filming?
No, actually, we filmed them in the early part of the shooting, because as I said, I worked on preparation, I had gone to the hospital, and I’d gone to the gym to strengthen my back. I really wanted to be in solid physical condition so I could do the scene over and over without there being any problem. I wanted to do the scenes early on so that we could get them over and done with it, because I was concerned about them so I just wanted to get them out of the way initially. As I said, I wanted to be free to not worry about the physical part so I could use all my energy to really concentrate on what was going on between the two of us on set. It really worked out very well given all the training and François helped the effort by losing weight.

CS: Even though you had done readings and preparation, was there room to do any improvisation? Did they give you the freedom to come up with some ideas and try things while shooting?
A little bit, but not a lot. In earlier films, there was a lot more of that, but this time the script was so tight and it was so well-written–and it had been written just for me–that it really didn’t need any additions.

CS: I can’t remember if it was François who told me this or Eric and Olivier, but they said that you were deliberately trying to make François crack up and mess up takes, and that you were similar to the character in that way.
I’m kind of like that, that’s the way my personality is. I really like to kid around and it’s my own way of concentrating. In order for me to be able to feel better and concentrate, I need everybody else around me to be relaxed.

CS: The dance number was pretty amazing so was that mostly your moves or did you work with someone to choreograph it?
No, this idea was inspired because the filmmakers know me very well since we had already done films together, and during those films we partied a lot, so they’d seen me dance at these parties, so they knew that’s what I do and I like it, so together, we just chose the right music and then I decided to just let go. I didn’t have preset stuff or choreography. I just let myself go and did what I like to do, and they were very good in the way they filmed me. They really made me look good, but it’s really what I like to do – I really like to move.

CS: This movie’s been a huge hit in France and you’re already a comedy start from your television show, so does that make it impossible for you to walk anywhere in France at this point without being recognized?
Yes, it is like that, but I don’t hide at all. I’m actually very happy that this is happening to me. I’m very proud of what this has brought me, so I don’t hide at all. I really take it in, I enjoy it.

CS: I don’t know how long you’ve been in New York City, but has it been nice to walk around and not get recognized.
It’s nice to be able to take a few steps without people recognizing me.

CS: I thought I heard there’s already a talk of doing an English language version of this, and that’s something that’s becoming fairly common. Is there any American actor that you’d want to play your part?
I have a very good answer for that now… Meryl Streep.

CS: That would be a real challenge for her.
She’s capable of doing anything.

CS: What have you been doing since making this movie? I assume you’re still doing the shown in France?
Yes, until the end of June.

CS: Has there been a lot of pressure to try and learn English to do more American movies?
Yeah, already doing interviews now, it would be so much better if I could speak English so that I could speak to you directly but I’ll definitely work on it.

CS: I understand you’re working with Michel Gondry. I spoke to Audrey Tautou about a month ago when she was here for “Rendezvous with French Cinema,” so have you already started preparing for that and when you might start shooting?
We’ve already done all the prepwork in terms of the costume and we actually already shot a small scene that was supposed to take place in winter so we got that out of the way. Audrey was not there for that particular scene but we’re going to have a lot of scenes together. I’ve already talked to her two or three times, and I’m really looking forward to being on this movie. Having said that, I like to do a lot of preparation by myself. I like to get to the point where I show up on set and I’m really very well prepared.

CS: I know the general premise that she’s sick and she has something growing inside of her, but who do you play and is it very different from what we’ve seen you do?
I’m a chef. I already cook but I just have to make small movements that make me look like a true chef, but I just wanted it to look authentic.

CS: Romain Duris is also in the film and he’s done both comedy and drama, so do you have a lot of scenes with him?
Well, I know him as an acquaintance – we just say “Hello” when we meet in the street, but he was there for that little scene we already shot in the winter and it worked out really well. It was a really good start, so I think we’re all very excited to be on this project.

CS: Your role in “The Intouchables” was based on your own personality and you were able to bring a lot of yourself to the role, but are you looking for roles that are very different, either more dramatic or different from what people might expect from you?
Of course, that’s the goal. I really want to play all kinds of roles and they can be close to me or not close to me. I just want to try it all and now I have the great opportunity to be able to actually take these projects on so I’m definitely going to throw myself into it.

CS: Do you generally lean more towards doing comedy? Is it more fun to do that for you?
Well, I’m definitely more at ease with comedy–that’s where I started out–and so it’s my first love, so to speak, and I have more of a sensibility for it and more familiar with it. Having said that, I also want to be open to everything else.

The Intouchables opens in select cities on Friday, May 25. Look for our interview with directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano later this week.