SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Lupin,” streaming now on Netflix.
When Netflix’s “Lupin” filmed its premiere episode heist sequence overnight in the Louvre, the cast and crew had ample time to roam around and take in the art in between setups and shots. Actor Omar Sy even found himself alone with the Mona Lisa for almost 20 minutes. It was an experience that gave him a new appreciation for a place he had previously visited as a child on a school trip, and one that he says he will “never forget.”
That sentiment doesn’t stop there, though. Working on “Lupin” also allowed Sy to re-experience and reflect on Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin novels that he read as a child. “Lupin is so French that you cannot grow up in France and not know who is Arsène Lupin,” Sy tells Variety. Between the books, the shows and the manga based on the character, Sy grew up with a great awareness of who Arsène Lupin was but says, “to be honest, I wasn’t a fan.”
It wasn’t until he was doing research for his new series, reading everything about the original character and Leblanc, that Sy says he gained a new understanding of both the character and the writer.
Sy was already working with Gaumont Télévision, which produces “Lupin,” and was asked, “What do you want to play?” which he admits is the “best” position in which to be as an actor. “My answer was Lupin,” he says. “If I was English I would say James Bond, but Lupin is the best character for that: he’s fun, funny, very elegant; there is action. Lupin is just the perfect character to cross [off] everything on the bucket list. You can do everything with that character. It is the perfect role.”
In the end, though, Sy did not end up playing Lupin himself, but something of a disciple of the literary hero: Assane Diop, a gentleman thief in his own right whose father gifted him with an Arsène Lupin novel when he was at a formative age. “Lupin,” which was created by George Kay, is not a traditional adaptation of Leblanc’s 20th Century novels, but instead uses the original works as a source of inspiration for its own leading man, as well as the events and locations of the first 10 episodes. (The first five episodes launched Jan. 8, with the next five set to debut at a later date, but together those 10 episodes were built as “the origin of how Assane came to be here,” Kay says, “so it’s the first chapter of a bigger show.”)
Arsène Lupin’s story and character, within the world of “Lupin,” was a tether from Assane to his father, Babakar, who was accused of stealing Marie Antoinette’s necklace from the wealthy Pellegrini family, whose employ he was under as a chauffeur. Babakar was arrested and later found dead in his cell, leaving Assane on his own when he was just a teenager. Arsène Lupin also provided Assane a moral code, not unlike Robin Hood, in only stealing from those who have already done things wrong, as well as a road map to “justifiable revenge.”
“There’s this French establishment story [within] it, so you see in the first episode that Babakar takes the Arsène Lupin book off a quite traditional bookcase in a quite traditional house. He could have picked ‘The Count of Monte Cristo,’ he could have picked a lot of other French books, [but] that’s the one he chose for his son in that moment and it becomes a guidebook for an attitude for life,” Kay explains.
In bringing to life the style and tone of the Arsène Lupin novels for screen through a new character who happened to be a fan of the source material, Kay knew he wanted to keep the sense of “mischievous, adventurous crooks and criminals intersecting establishment,” but he felt it was equally important to “take everything we loved in the books, subvert it, update it and create a really modern story through the heart of it.”
“Technically he’s a criminal but he’s charismatic, he’s fun, he has winky ways to do his crimes,” Kay says about Assane. “You want him to steal stuff, and of course massively central to that is just Omar’s likability. His smile is king. Omar is a modern hero, someone that men and women and children all love in France, and he’s a diverse French actor in a country when there aren’t many of those figureheads. He’s charming and has all of the modern appeal that a modern Lupin should have.”
The heart of the story here is Assane not merely as a thief who decides to steal back Marie Antoinette’s necklace when it resurfaces for the first time in more than a decade, though. It is also him as a father. He has a son who is on the cusp of turning 14, and although he has mastered many criminal elements, such as disguises, he still struggles with how to parent, in great part because of how emotional that job is.
“The more he’s in danger, the more he’s going to be calm,” Sy says. But, when it comes to his family, “he cannot hide those feelings; he cannot be someone else; he cannot play.”
Assane isn’t entirely keeping his dual lives separate: He gives his son the Arsène Lupin novel ahead of his birthday as a way of trying to form a bond with him and, according to Sy, help his son “guess” who his father really is.
“The book itself, as an object, comes from his dad, so giving it to his son is him becoming a dad,” Sy says. “It’s opening a world to his son and sharing some knowledge, for sure, because what it is to be a dad is just to teach your kids what you know. The thing he knows the most is Lupin, so he wants to teach that to his son.”
But, bringing the two parts of his life closer together makes Assane vulnerable.
For the majority of the first five episodes, he was “always three steps ahead; he’s untouchable in that way,” Kay points out about Assane’s life as a con man and a thief. Being able to compartmentalize the pieces of his life means he could trick common city criminals into thinking he is hard-up for cash and convince them to help him steal Marie Antoinette’s necklace, only to double cross them in the end. He also was able to infiltrate a prison; kidnap the Pellegrini patriarch, who set up his father for the original necklace theft; go on national television to call out the corruption involved in the case, and fight off everyone without using lethal force. (Assane took a page out of the Arsène Lupin books once again here, because Lupin never kills. “He has knowledge of martial arts and the martial art is hapkido, [in which] you use the force from your adversary, so you never give, you just send back. It’s very, very, very precise,” Sy says.)
In the fifth episode, when Assane realizes he is being tailed on the train his family is taking to his son’s birthday surprise, he is able to subdue and set up the man who wants to do him harm. But while he is focused on that, his son ends up going missing, and the lone police officer who has been drawing connections to Arsène Lupin because he, too, is a fan of the fictional thief, ends up right in front of Assane.
“He’s on the run but at the same time he’s primarily concerned to honor the fact that it’s his son’s birthday and he’s got a blind spot,” Kay says.
More than how Assane will handle coming face-to-face with the cop that has been chasing him, Kay says the cliffhanger of the first five episodes is really about where Raoul, his son, is. “That episode really is about the pledges you make when you realize you’re going to become a parent and then taking another reading of it when he’s 14 years old and how good are they on those pledges now? As he’s being brought into the world in the backstory, he’s being taken out of it in the present.”
Sy adds that in order to figure out where his son is, Assane will have to learn to approach problems in a new way. “His main tool is his head; he has difficulties working with his feelings — his heart and belly. So now his son is in danger [and] he will have to work with his instinct, and he never did,” he explains. “It’s the same tool that you become a dad: You cannot be a dad just with your head. So, for me, it was a way for him to become a dad. He’s not really in the first episodes, but he will become it, and this is the way of it.”
This shift in perspective will also create a more reflective Assane in the next batch of episodes.
Through the character of Benjamin, who was first a school friend of Assane’s but has been his “sounding board” in his more recent years, as well, Assane will discuss “what’s important [and] where to go next,” Kay says. “These are pretty victimless crimes in the sense that he’s often stealing from very wealthy precincts that he’s trying to infiltrate — it’s all about pricking the bubble of establishment in France — but his criminal life catches up to undermine his family.”
From its episode-specific sub-genres to its larger anti-establishment theme and view of modern fatherhood, “Lupin” offers the audience a lot to think about. Sy also hopes the show inspires viewers to engage with the original source material, though, much in the way it did for him.
“I hope it will maybe invite people to read more,” he says. “Sometimes reading can change your life.”