The Odd Couple

A model from the Ivory Coast meets Elvis's bodyguard in Goodbye Solo

Goodbye Solo, budding New York auteur Ramin Bahrani's third feature after Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, continues the filmmaker's astute observations about isolation, assimilation, and survival on the urban American fringe. But perhaps just as notably, it showcases one of the most superb and oddest screen couples of the year: Souléymane Sy Savané, an Ivory Coast–born male model making his acting debut, and Red West, a 73-year-old character-actor and stuntman, who was once a member of Elvis Presley's "Memphis Mafia," in his first starring role.

Sy Savané plays Solo, a charismatic Senegalese taxi driver working the mildly mean streets of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, while West is his passenger, William, a bitter old man with a death wish. Similar to Abbas Kiarostami's seminal Taste of Cherry—an obvious influence on the Winston-Salem–born Iranian-American Bahrani—the story hints at issues of cultural difference, but ultimately hinges on the fundamental moral question of whether one man is willing to aid another man's suicide.

Bahrani discovered the actors at random. After casting sessions in New York, L.A., North Carolina, and Paris, Bahrani ended up meeting Sy Savané through another New York–based filmmaker, Andrew Dosunmu. The audition process was lengthy: "Initially, he was taking everything too seriously," recalls Bahrani. "Part of my direction to him was that if you try to confront William, it antagonizes him so much that he'll leave. You have to charm him."

West, on the other hand, was picked based on the first five minutes of his casting tape. "He was perfect," says Bahrani. "He had a life in his face and eyes that you could see without him talking about it. That was critical."

Indeed, West has been around the business for nearly 50 years. When Elvis made it big, he took his high school friend and sometime bodyguard along for the ride, so West ended up with small parts in '60s films such as Blue Hawaii, Viva Las Vegas, and Girls! Girls! Girls! (in the latter as the "bongo-playing crewman on tuna boat," according to IMDB.com). He did stunt work, too—on TV's The Wild Wild West, he says, it was the easy jobs that hurt the most. "I was supposed to crash into a breakaway piano; my head broke away." He got knocked out several times and had knee-replacement surgery.

"I never did anything quite like this," says West, whose meatiest roles were in Road House, alongside Patrick Swayze; a co-starring turn on TV's 1977 series Black Sheep Squadron; and, more recently, bit parts in The Rainmaker and Glory Road. While he's done independent films (such as Ira Sachs's Forty Shades of Blue), West told Bahrani that after watching Man Push Cart, about a struggling New York Pakistani street vendor, "I wanted to reach into my TV screen and hand [the character] my pistol so he could blow his brains out."

As for William, West sympathizes with the character's senescence: "He's tired of it. He sees nothing ahead but more discomfort and more pain."

Sy Savané, too, felt sorry for the fictional William, despite the character's verbal assaults on Sy Savané's Solo ("Stay the fuck out of my life" is a typical line). If some viewers may wonder why the cab driver would go to such lengths to befriend William, the motivation was clear for Sy Savané. In the Ivory Coast, people don't abandon their elders. "This doesn't exist in Africa," he says. "And in my culture, if you let someone kill themselves, it's the equivalent of you killing them."

While Sy Savané's Solo and West's William obviously come from widely disparate backgrounds, Bahrani did not want to highlight this cultural difference. Bahrani cites one critic's happy discovery that the film wasn't just another story about " 'the black man who saves the white man through his mystical ways,' " he says. "I would add that it is William who is more of an outsider in his own Southern hometown than Solo."

For a film that tracks a subtle bonding process, it's ironic that both Sy Savané and West faced basic communication problems.

"I was having trouble with my cues," says West, who suffers from hearing loss. "And I was having problems understanding Solo's heavy accent." Soon into production, West got a hearing aid ("My wife was telling me to get one for years"), but he had to remove the device because it "didn't look good on camera," says West. "So I would watch Solo's lips in the rearview mirror."

And Sy Savané, not a native English speaker, had to translate every word of the script to his native tongue, he says, "in order to connect with his emotional memories in Africa and Paris." Even for Solo's repeated usage of the nickname, "Big Dog," the actor changed it in his head to the French slang "Le vié père." "It would give me the right vibe," he says.

Though Sy Savané and West couldn't be more different, they both share the hope that Goodbye Solo will lead to more opportunities. Sy Savané says he's been reading scripts and "doing the rounds" in Los Angeles, while West says he recently got a call to co-star in a karate comedy alongside 63-year-old former kickboxing champion Bill "Superfoot" Wallace. "At this age, you don't look for too much," he says. "But who knows? There have been a couple people at my age who've made it: Richard Farnsworth, he was a stuntman, and he [was nominated for] an Academy Award."

 
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