Omar Sy on Making Netflix Hit 'Lupin' Under COVID Lockdown

'Lupin'
Netflix

Netflix says 70 million viewers worldwide watched its French hit series 'Lupin.'

The French star discusses shooting the show in Paris amid changing restrictions, how the series shows "France as it is" and why Netflix is "the Olympics of TV."

Omar Sy is in a good mood.

"I'm in Paris! Do you want to see a bit of Paris?" the jovial Sy says, as means of introduction on our Zoom call, before jumping up, pointing his phone out the window of his hotel room to show off the view: "The Eiffel Tower!" "The Champs-Élysées! Paris. My hometown."

Sy is back in the city he grew up in thanks to Lupin, the French-language crime-comedy series that has become a monster hit for Netflix.

The show, inspired by Maurice Leblanc's early 20th century novels about gentleman thief and master of disguise Arsène Lupin, sees Sy play Assane Diop, a second-generation Senegalese immigrant who re-creates some of Lupin's famous capers, using his Blackness as an invisibility cloak around his white upper-crust targets, who only see him as "the help."

Lupin has been a global smash for Netflix, with 70 million subscribers worldwide watching the series in the first 28 days of release, according to the streamers' own figures.

The five-episode season 1 ended with a cliffhanger, gearing up fans for season 2, set to bow this summer.

Omar Sy spoke to The Hollywood Reporter's European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough about why he picked a French classic for his Netflix debut, what it was like to shoot the series under Parisian lockdown, and what the show's success has meant for French talent. "Netflix is like the Olympics, this was us planting our flag," he says.

You started in French TV, with sketch comedy, but have been exclusively a movie actor for a decade now. Why did you pick Lupin for your return?

Omar Sy: We were talking about making a show with Gaumont, the show's producer, and they asked me: "what would be your dream role?" And it didn't take long for me to say Lupin. It's a classic book for us, he's the guy, you know? And for an actor, he's like the best toy you could get. Because you can do anything with him. A TV show is like a very long movie and I don't want to get bored. That was my main concern: don't get bored. But you can't get bored with this guy because he's a character playing all these other characters [with his disguises].

It gave me the chance to do everything. I can be funny. There's drama. There's action. All with the same character. At the same time, it's a good way to describe society, because Lupin is a very fine observer. This was our chance to say: "this is what France looks like today."

Were you a fan of the original Lupin novels?

You know when I was young, I wasn't really interested in the classics, in classic literature. I was familiar with the manga version of the story [Lupin III], because, you know Lupin is very, very famous in Japan, and I loved reading manga. I love comic books. It was only when I started working on this project that I read all of the original, classic, novels. Now I'm a fan.

What was the experience like of doing television again?

It was funny because it brought me back to my start when I was doing sketch comedy on TV. Because I had to do a lot of skits, I had different characters to play every day. It was a lot of fun for me, and it was good training, to get back to that again. Doing action was also very interesting because I love the action movies I've done in Hollywood [Jurassic World, X-Men: Days of Future Past] but I've never done an action movie in France.

Making the show felt like making a different movie every week. One week we'd make an action movie. The next it would be funny, a comedy. The week after that it would be intense and dramatic. It was a lot of fun. At the same time, I had the feeling I was renewing my skills, getting them back in form.

Did you make the series in lockdown or in-between COVID-19 lockdowns in Paris?

Both. We started before lockdown and we finished in lockdown. It was back and forth. Of course, it was a big change when we came back and had to shoot with all those masks and restrictions. It was new, and weird, for us to work like that.

And instead of all working together at the same time the restrictions meant different departments couldn't be in the same room at the same time. So lights would come in first and set up. Then they'd leave and the camera team would come it. It took time to adjust to that, it was weird not being together all the time.

But we were so happy to be able to come back. There were a lot of shows that didn't continue after the lockdown. We were really worried we wouldn't be able to finish the series, to do all 10 episodes [of seasons 1 and 2]. But we finally did it.

You've been a big star in France for a while, but this is the first show of yours that has also been a hit in America. You live in L.A. Have you noticed a difference — do fans recognize you now?

I think we'll have to wait until after the pandemic to see. When I go out now, it's always with the mask. So no one recognizes me!

Has the show's global success had an impact?

Oh yes. I get a lot of messages coming from countries like Brazil or Colombia, which is very interesting and it's very pleasant to have. We knew that a show like that could travel. That's why we worked so hard on it. We had that focus. I used to say: "Netflix is like the Olympics for TV shows." This was us planting our flag. We were very conscious of that.

That people from other countries watch the show and love it, makes me very happy. And very proud. I'm so happy to have done this with Lupin, which is a classic French character. He is one of our own. And I'm really happy to be able to show Paris in a different way than it's often shown. This is my hometown. I know the people here. I'm proud to be able to show them to the world.

In this show, and in pretty much all the films you've done, you play decent, good people. Is it important for you that the characters you play are strong role models?

Well, I'm open to anything. But it's true that I'm interested in characters that have some light in them, some hope. Because those are the characters I love, those are the ones I want to watch. That's very important for me. I love watching those kinds of stories.

I think that the best thing you can share with people is some hope. When you're an actor, you're also the lawyer for your character. You have to defend him all the time. It's easier for me to be the lawyer with a character like Lupin.

No spoilers, but what can we expect from Lupin in season 2?

I don't know if I can answer that, because I'm not allowed to say anything. But I would say it is not a game anymore. In season 2, it's no longer a game.

Interview edited for length and clarity.