BEING A NICE GUY DOES PAY OFF SOMETIMES. JUST ASK THE INFECTIOUSLY FRIENDLY SOULEYMANE SY SAVANE. BORN IN CÔTE D’IVOIRE, SAVANE WORKED AS A FLIGHT ATTENDANT, A BARTENDER AND A RUNWAY MODEL BEFORE MAKING THE LEAP TO ACTING WITH 2008’S CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED “GOODBYE SOLO.” NOT ONLY WAS IT HIS FIRST MOVIE, IT WAS ALSO HIS FIRST LEAD ROLE — AND ONE THAT GOT HIM NOMINATED FOR AN INDEPENDENT SPIRIT AWARD. NOT TOO SHABBY. HE FOLLOWED THAT UP WITH 2011′s “MACHINE GUN PREACHER,” IN WHICH HE STARS ALONGSIDE GERARD BUTLER IN A TRUE STORY OF A REFORMED BIKER BUILDING ORPHANAGES IN THE SUDAN. WE GOT A CHANCE TO SPEAK WITH HIM, AND HE HAD SOME FASCINATING THINGS TO SAY ABOUT DEVELOPING AN ACTING CAREER, AVOIDING TYPECASTING AND — HARD AS IT MAY BE — SAYING NO TO QUENTIN TARANTINO.
TEXT Ned Ehrbar
DIRTY: TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FIRST FILM, “GOODBYE SOLO.”
SOULEYMANE SY SAVANE: It’s a wonderful, wonderful film. It was written and directed by Ramin Bahrani — that was his third feature. I play Solo in the thing, opposite Red West, who was like Elvis Presley’s childhood friend and bodyguard, like the last member of the Memphis mafia. I mean, he’s been acting since 1958, in all of Elvis’ movie. And it’s a wonderful story. And actually, it was one of the best movies of 2009. It’s still got, like, a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. We won a prize in Venice with it, I was nominated for a Gotham Award for breakthrough actor, I was nominated for the best lead category of the Independent Spirit Awards — I lost to Jeff Bridges. That’s the year he won everything. I mean, for me it was beautiful. It was my very first movie, and so I was really coming out of nowhere, nobody knew me. And because it was a lead role and the story was like a full story, it gave me the opportunity to show a big range of emotion. So the display really extended what I can do, and I think that’s why I got so much good feedback from it. I got an agent, all these things. So it was a really, really good first thing.
D: AND FOR YOUR SECOND FILM, YOU DID “MACHINE GUN PREACHER.” NOT BAD.
SS: Not bad at all. It’s interesting because when we came here to Toronto with “Goodbye Solo,” it was actually sold here for the U.S. markets. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we came here on our own money. We rented a room, paid for our own tickets, got a room not very far from [this hotel]. We actually came here because it looked like where business would happen. We were like lost — no publicists, nothing. I said, “Hey let’s walk around, maybe someone will see me and say, ‘Hey, do you want to be in my movie?’” (laughs) We walked around and I remember we walked into the lobby and saw Ed Harris, and we saw Viggo [Mortensen] in a different hotel, and we thought, ‘Wow man, that’s cool, this hotel.’ And for me to be in this hotel now, a couple years after, it’s really a perfect illustration of the difference in the next step that I’ve taken.
D: YOU READ FOR QUENTIN TARANTINO’S NEW MOVIE, “DJANGO UNCHAINED,” RIGHT?
SS: I read the script. There’s two roles that I was up for. I turned it down, not because the role was small, but man. In one I was supposed to get eaten alive by a dog. And it takes place during slavery, so it’s already a very sensitive subject, and I don’t want to end up getting eaten by a dog in the thing. It’s such a difficult job because there’s the art part of it, and then there’s also another part where you have to kind of be careful a little bit of just choices in a way. It’s a difficult subject. Already it’s a difficult subject. I don’t want to be eaten alive by a dog in that. So I have to call my agent and be like, “I hate to do this — I don’t do this a lot — but I have to turn this one down.”
D: THAT’S A TOUGH DECISION TO MAKE.
SS: Especially with a Tarantino movie, and you know it’s going to be a blockbuster because it’s funny. I read the script and it’s funny. I mean, it’s great. It’s raw. Tarantino is really… he’s written controversy everywhere on this movie. He says it as it is. He’s very graphic, you know what I mean? Like getting eaten by dogs. It’s like, whoa. You know, as an actor, you want to be in project like that, but you want to be a different role.
D: YOU WANT TO BE DJANGO.
SS: Oh yeah! And I mean, I could see playing Django, man. Oh man, so bad, but it’s OK.
D: DO YOU GET OFFERED A LOT OF ONE TYPE OF ROLE BECAUSE YOU’RE AFRICAN?
SS: Yeah, you know, and I find it to be expected. I just finished shooting with Ira Sachs, and it’s a very interesting project. It’s like a big gay love story. I play one of the gay friend’s boyfriends. But the plot is a very graphic gay love story, and they’re having sex every five minutes. So you know it’s going to be raw. But I like it for two reasons. First of all, it’s an edgy subject, it’s an edgy filmmaker. And it’s different for me, you know — not an African cab driver or an African soldier. I play, like, a cosmopolitan character, someone living in New York who actually is a regular guy and wears a suit to go to work, goes to restaurants and stuff like that. And I like that, and I think right now this is also something I need to be seen as being able to play because there’s a whole other market it opens up.
D: CASTING PEOPLE CAN GET LAZY. THEY SEE YOU DO ONE THING, AND…
SS: And that’s it, yeah. That’s it. But sometimes I try to think about it a little bit, and I think wow, if I had to produce a movie and I had to put I don’t know how many millions of dollars in there, what would I do? I think I would probably take someone that I’ve seen do something because I’m like, “OK I know he can do that. You know what? All I want is my money back.”
D: BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT ACTORS WANT.
SS: Exactly. You know, we want to have fun. We’re big kids. We want to be like, “I want to play this way.” But I guess you have to work your way to that privilege.
D: SO TYPECASTING IS A PROBLEM?
SS: It kind of becomes, like… I don’t want to say a curse, but the more successful you are in something the more… You know, you did a good job playing this role, and instead of being like, “Oh wow, he’s very good, I want to see what else he can do,” they think, “Oh wow, he’s so good that there’s no way he’s playing. It has to be him.” Especially with your first movie, they don’t know you. “Oh, that’s him.” That’s something I liked in “Machine Gun,” because even though it takes place in Africa or is an African story, it’s a completely different character [from “Goodbye Solo”]. This guy has cracked maybe two smiles the whole movie. It’s a different context. So I’m very happy about that because it really allows me to show a whole different side to him.
D: HOW WAS THE RED CARPET?
SS: Oh, man. That was fun. I was like, “OK man, red carpet. What do I say?” They ask you those questions. You get the same questions over and over, it’s true. But at the same time, especially when you’re like me, kind of starting out, you don’t want to say the wrong thing because you’re not used to it that much, you’re not that media-trained. It’s like, “Oh my God, OK, what’s the correct thing to say?” So there’s like a lingering thing, like hopefully I’m not going to say the wrong thing here or stuff like that. But it’s fun, though. I love it.
D: WHEN DID YOU START TO MAKE THE TRANSITION INTO ACTING AND MOVE OUT TO LOS ANGELES?
SS: I met my wife in 2004. Before that, I was throwing the idea around. I was in New York, working in restaurants. I was doing some modeling on the side, just side jobs. I was mostly like a runway-type of model, so it was just Fashion Week. I started working here and there. And then I met my wife, and she was more established modeling, and we started having this conversation. So she was very encouraging of me stepping into it. So in 2005, I started training in New York with this lady called Dr. Ruth Kulerman. I trained with her for about two years, and right after that I got “Goodbye Solo.” It was weird, it went kind of fast for me. I did what I did and in the process I moved to L.A. And then still it wasn’t that easy because after “Goodbye Solo” and the reception, I was a new guy in the business, like, “That’s it, I’m set. I’m being offered, like, a three-movie deal.” (laughs) And that didn’t quite happen. I was very happy when this one came along, and I really feel fortunate. Because independent of the talent and what you can really do, if you don’t have the project that can allow you to display that kind of range, then nobody can see it. I feel like with this as my second movie, this movie kind of puts me in a certain category. Already, like, the cast is amazing. I mean, it’s unbelievable, and to be in such a company.
D: WHEN YOU GET A LEAD ROLE RIGHT OUT OF THE GATE, THAT HAS TO HELP.
SS: That helps, yeah. I agree. Then they know you can do it. And then again, the industry can be too compartmented — I can easily see that if you start with a lead part, that’s how they see you. But what do you do? You need to do it, and you need to work and make some money, so it’s like being caught in a vicious circle, running and running. It’s a strange thing, there’s no rules. That makes it scary and beautiful at the same time.
D: EVEN WHEN YOU’VE MADE IT, YOU STILL HAVEN’T MADE IT. IT NEVER GETS EASY.
SS: Never. I mean, there’s even pressure on the A-listers, for instance. The A-listers come in with big money, but at the same time the pressure of the movie to perform is on their shoulders, and just like that, all it takes is one movie for them to fall from grace in a way. It’s such an interesting business. There’s no pathways, there’s no rules. It’s just so random. You just keeping trying things. The beautiful thing, though, is all you need is one. All you need is one good deal. Bang, on so many levels. Gerard [Butler] was a great actor, was working, but there was a before and after “300,” definitely. So that’s kind of like all we need, one hit. You capitalize on it and you’re really set, you know?
GOODBYE SOLO TRAILER
MACHINE GUN PREACHER TRAILER