Known for starring role in “Lupin,” French actor Omar Sy is also a politically-minded producer. Before becoming a global star with “Lupin,” Sy started developing “Father and Soldier” with Mathieu Vadepied, a cinematographer-turned-director he met on the shoot of “Intouchables.” The passion project, written by Vadepied and Olivier Demangel (“Atlantics”), sheds light on the Senegalese Tirailleurs, riflemen who belonged to the French army’s colonial infantry during WWI and WWII. Over a decade later, “Father and Soldier,” directed by Vadepied and handled by Gaumont, world premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, in the Un Certain Regard section.
In a rare dramatic role, the actor plays Bakary Diallo, a man whose peaceful life in rural Senegal is shattered after his 17-year-old son Thierno (Alassane Diong) is forcefully recruited by the French army. Bakary sets off to bring his son back home and enlists himself in the army. The movie underscores Sy’s drive to produce socially relevant movies and his desire to nurture a rising generation of film talent, notably in Africa.
Gaumont will release “Father and Soldier” in France on Jan. 4. Produced by Bruno Nahon’s Unité (“A Good Doctor”) and Sy’s production vehicle Korokoro, the movie will debut two days later with a premiere in Senegalese capital Dakar, which Sy plans to attend. In Paris for the holidays, the elegant French actor spoke to Variety during a junket at the Peninsula Hotel while he played with his white dog.
How did the idea for “Father and Soldier” came to you?
Mathieu Vadepied, who was a cinematographer on “Intouchables,” talked to me during the shoot about his desire to direct a film. He had this idea of making a movie about the Tirailleurs from Senegal during World War I. My first reaction was, ‘Wait, is that even possible?’ I realized that I didn’t know much about the Tirailleurs and had always associated them with World War II. I thought we had to make a film to bring a little knowledge about this topic and these men.
Why did you produce the film, as well as star in it?
I became a producer on it while working on this film. I didn’t decide to be one, it just happened organically.
I learned so much watching the film. Growing up, there were no mention of Tirailleurs in French textbooks.
It was the idea — to spark some curiosity and pay tribute to Tirailleurs. When we think of patriots and soldiers who fought for France, we think of the “Poilus” (the nickname for often-hirsute French soldiers during World War I) because that’s what we learn in school. I’d like to put the Tirailleurs on an equal footing because they fought on the same front and for the same cause as the “Poilus.” So it would be fair to treat them equally.
Yet, this is more than just a war movie.
Yes, it’s a film about the war, but it’s not a war film. There’s been so many movies about World War I and what interested us was to tell the stories of these soldiers, show what conditions they fought in, what sacrifices they made, what they left behind to fight an enemy they knew nothing about. We want to stay very close to the characters and that required us to shoot the war differently, to be almost as real as a documentary. It actually shook me during the first few days of the shoot.
Do you want to keep producing movies?
I hope to produce more and more films. And now there are many projects that I’ve developed a bit by myself, which are going to come out next. Producing gives me other possibilities. What I like with this job is to tell stories and producing is a way to tell stories in which I can’t be involved in as an actor, and express another aspect of my sensibility.
What kinds of stories interest you?
Stories coming from all over the world. There’s no limit. Obviously I have more things to say about Senegal and France, but it could be from anywhere. It’s also about meeting filmmakers whose vision and ideas I want to support and work with.
It must also be exciting to work with emerging talents like Alassane Diong, the young actor who plays your son in “Father and Soldier.”
Totally, and aside from him there are so many other talented young actors in this film. Besides Alassane Diong, there’s also Bamar Kane, Jonas Bloquet and Alassane Sy who are wonderful. We’re very happy to give this opportunity to actors who are talented, promising. Alassane is my nephew! He’s been having a career on his own. I put him in touch with an agent, told him to do some casting calls and was like ‘every man for himself!’ but then I saw him in a short film and was like, actually I need him for this movie. He was perfect for the part. So I spoke to Mathieu who auditioned him for the role and really wanted him in the film, too.
Were you concerned that a movie about Black soldiers is being handled by a white filmmaker?
No, it was never an issue because Mathieu Vadepied was the first person to talk to me about this. And it’s not only a film about Senegal. It’s a movie that talks about the bond between Senegal and France. It’s about the Tirailleurs who came to France to fight, so it’s very symbolic. I find it very interesting to have Mathieu, who is French and white, paying tribute to the Tirailleurs. That’s meaningful.
What’s your involvement in the new film school Kourtrajmé, which just opened in Dakar and is intended to provide opportunities and instruction to filmmakers from diverse backgrounds?
Yes, I had a project to open a school there and Ladj Ly (the director of ‘Les Miserables’) did too, so we figured that we weren’t going to have two schools. He already had the model of the Kourtrajmé school in Paris so we just had to adapt it to Senegal. I introduced him to the right partners, and I became the godfather of the school.
A lot of major media companies, including Pathé and Orange, are investing in Africa, including in Senegal. What do you make of that?
Yes, because a lot of things are happening there. It’s the youngest continent in the world. Young people there are better informed than they used to about what’s going in the world, their tastes have changed and they get to travel without moving thanks to social networks and the Internet. So it’s a territory with lots of potential. My idea, and Ladj’s school there is to give new tools to this young generation so that they can express themselves without having to wait for financing that comes from abroad, or a festival or some sort of contest that happens every two to three years. What I want is to help them tell their own stories. Today, in Senegal, directors learn to tell stories that are aimed to festivals in Europe or elsewhere. But it would be good to have stories that are told primarily for Senegalese audiences, too. And if they travel afterwards that’s great.
Yes, I have a deal with Netflix, so I’m developing movies for Netflix and I’ll be showing them first. If they want a project they take it, and if they don’t, I pitch it to another partner. I have a similar deal with HBO Max for series projects.
So far you haven’t delivered a project with either, right?
Hold on. Be a little patient. It’s coming, it’s coming! It takes time, but I have several things in development.
You’ve starred in huge U.S. franchise movies like “Jurassic World,” “Transformers” and X-Men.” What’s the craziest thing that happened to you on these sets?
I’ll tell you that the craziest thing that happened to me was that I got to meet many actors I’ve admired since I was a child, and I always succeeded in pretending that everything was normal. I stayed cool as they say. But then in the movie I just wrapped, “Shadow Force,” directed by Joe Carnahan with Kerry Washington I have a scene with Method Man. He is not just an actor, but also a rapper I listened to so much when I was young. And I totally lost it. I was dead nervous, I couldn’t remember my lines, I was miserable. I blamed it on the English, like ‘Oh damn, the English!’ But the truth is that I was impressed. He was in my ears every morning on my way to high school and there he was in front of me. I think it struck me in a place that could not overcome, as if he had brought back the teenager in me. He has no idea but he’ll find out reading this interview!