L'Officiel Hommes USA
Award-winning French actor Tahar Rahim opens up about his two polar-opposite projects and love and hate on screen.
Despite 2021’s wavering start, Tahar Rahim is already reaping the fruits of his work on both big and little screens. This spring, the French actor stars in the film The Mauritanian, which is based on Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s best-selling 2015 memoir, Guantanamo Diary, about being imprisoned by the U.S. Government at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp without charge or trial for 14 years. Alongside a stellar cast including Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, and Benedict Cumberbatch, Rahim’s expressive performance earned the actor a Golden Globe nomination. He can also be seen in the Netflix and BBC produced series The Serpent, in which he portrays real-life serial killer Charles Sobhraj, a French thief who murdered tourists in Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s. The t wo roles, though poles apart, confirm the high expectations that have followed Rahim since his double win at the 2010 César Awards for his breakout performance in A Prophet.
L’OFFICIEL: How do you slip into the shoes of a serial killer?
It’s a hell of a process! Usually, it’s harder for TAHAR RAHIM: me to get into a character than to get out of it, and it was even more difficult for The Serpent. I had a hard time figuring out how anyone could fall into [Sobhraj’s] trap and grasp
Before I BECAME AN ACTOR, my PLAN WAS TO GRAB A BACKPACK and JUST TRAVEL AROUND the WORLD.
his extreme lack of empathy, so, rather than getting into his head, I worked from the outside. I listened to the tapes, read the evidence, and chatted with those who had met him. The physical transformation also helped: the wig, the makeup, the waxing, and the bodybuilding. I also came to think of him as a cobra—suddenly he could bite.
You worked with The Mauritanian’s director Kevin L’O: Macdonald previously on 2011’s The Eagle. How was it working together again?
When Kevin sent me the script [for The Mauritanian], I was TR: very moved, and immediately accepted. Faced with Kevin’s courage to make this film, his battle to get it funded in these complex times, and the controversial subject matter, I had so much admiration for him. And even beyond the script, the directing, and casting, Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s story is worth telling.
L’O: Did Salahi see it?
Yeah, and he liked it. What a relief! I felt responsible… TR: there was no question of disappointing him or downplaying his experience. I looked inside for what he must have felt: the pain, the shame of being tortured. The first day [of filming], I refused the foam handcuffs and opted to wear real ones. I had some wounds throughout, and I was also on an extreme diet for the role. This state of exhaustion allowed me to dig deeply into my emotions.
You had to learn Hassani Arabic to play Salahi. You’ve spoken L’O: Arabic, Corsican, Scottish Gaelic, and French in past films. Are you a citizen of the world?
During filming, I spoke Lebanese, Ancient Gallic, and TR: Armenian. It was fun learning all those languages. Before I became an actor, my plan was to grab a backpack and just travel around the world. In the building where I grew up, there were people who came from all over, both geographically and socially. We were all mixed together, we tasted all the dishes, we listened to all the stories by immigrant fathers and grandfathers who told us about Asia, Africa, the Maghreb, and the France of yesteryear. Also, as the youngest in a large family, I was exposed to the perspectives of people who were between 10 and 20 years older than me.
L’O: How have you been coping during the pandemic?
I don’t want to complain too much. So many in this TR: world are going through hell. I’m grateful to have my wife, my children, my friends, a home, and a job—those are what matters most, always. Of course, I miss the routines and small joys of everyday life, like going for coffee or to the gym. To cheer myself up, I watch concerts, where I can sometimes manage to feel the crowd, the beat, and the sweat. Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, U2, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan— their music makes me happy.
The Serpent and The Mauritanian deal with brutality in L’O: their own ways. Are there any other violently cinematic moments that have made an impact on you?
There are two very different ones. The first made me TR: deeply uncomfortable, because it was as perfectly done as it was grotesque. It’s the scene with the fire extinguisher in Irreversible by Gaspar Noé. This head that crashes over the blows...it was so realistic! The second is from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which shows Jamie Foxx’s character beating up one of the Brittle brothers. After seeing the racist acts perpetuated throughout the film, the viewer almost enjoys the violence.
L’O: And what love scenes have resonated with you?
I like it when something is left to the imagination. There TR: is a part in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway, where their feet intertwine… it’s wonderful. I also remember the scene on the stairs from David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, because it’s not just about raw sexuality, which I’m hardly interested in, but also the psychological revelation of a character.