One of the unexpected perks of starring in a Hollywood blockbuster, according to French actor Omar Sy, is US studios’ extraordinary ability to make tourists “disappear’’.
Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, for instance, was closed to the public for an entire day while director Ron Howard shot a pivotal sequence for his latest mystery thriller, Inferno, featuring Sy, Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones.
“While you were waiting to shoot your scene, you could not be bored because there were so many things to see,’’ says Sy who is best known for his role in the breakout French hit The Intouchables (2011).
“But I was fooled. On my days off, I wanted to do touristy stuff. And when I went back (to The Hall of 500), I was surprised to see so many people there!”
As well as affording him the opportunity to scrutinise some Italy’s most famous historic monuments without interruption, Inferno was educational in a professional sense, too.
“I never took a dramatic class, I never went to cinema school, so when I am working with people such as Ron Howard and Tom Hanks, I am learning as I am shooting.
“It was like going back to school. It was a great masterclass for me.”
Sy and his seven siblings were raised in the working class suburbs of Paris by their Mauritian mother, a cleaner, and Senegalese father, a factory worker.
The actor divides his career into two parts.
The Intouchables, a life-affirming comedy about the unlikely friendship that develops between a rich quadriplegic and his ex-con caregiver, is the cleaver.
“After that movie, people started to look at me as an actor,” he says.
“Before that, I was a comedian.”
Although he still works regularly in France, Sy moved to Los Angeles with his family four years ago to take advantage of the diverse range of scripts that came his way after the success of The Intouchables, which broke box office records across Europe.
“’It’s always a pleasure to work on Hollywood movies because they don’t know me as a comedian as they do in France,” he says.
“I get to play characters that are very different from me.”
Characters such as the mutant Bishop in X-Men: Days of Future Past and a dinosaur wrangler in Jurassic World.
In Inferno, which is based on the fourth book in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, the actor has been cast as the leader of the European Centre for Disease Control’s paramilitary SRS unit.
“He’s kind of a soldier and a bad ass,’’ says Sy, clearly relishing the chance to change his spots once again.
But if acting in another country has been liberating, acting in another language has proven to be more of a challenge.
“There are limits because I am not as free as I am in French as a comedian where I have that ability to improvise or play with words. I don’t have that in English yet.”
Sy’s next role, in the French film Demain Tout Commence, marks another change of direction.
“It’s the first time for me to play a dad and to have an 11-year-old girl for a partner.”
Since the actor has four children of his own, one might have expected this character to come easily.
“For me, it was really, really difficult because when you play a character you are always comparing your life to that of the character. You are always questioning yourself. So I was questioning myself as a dad.
“But of course there is no perfect parent. We just do the best with what we have.”
With the recent announcement of a US remake of The Intouchables starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, Sy’s career has almost come full circle.
“I can’t wait to see it because I want to see how they will tell this story,’’ he says.
“In that movie, there are a lot of cultural references. I want to see how they will translate it within a US context.”
But for every successful American remake (Birdcage, with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane) there’s a complete flop (Dinner for Schmucks, featuring Paul Rudd and Steve Carell).
Sy intends to withhold his judgment on this one until the film comes out.
Like the French actor, pre-Intouchables, Hart is known primarily as a comedian.
“He’s a really funny and talented guy so he might do something spectacular and amazing,” says Sy. That’s why we have to wait and see.”
Inferno is now screening.