'The Mauritanian' Star Tahar Rahim On His Long Road Back To Hollywood [Interview]

Tahar Rahim, whose soulful and wrenching performance practically carries the true-life Guantanamo drama The Mauritanian, has become an unexpected awards season dark horse this year. He has already earned a Golden Globe nomination for his turn as Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was detained at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp for 14 years without charge. It's a dynamite performance that comes more than 10 years after his breakout role, A Prophet, which first turned him into an awards darling and appeared to mark the arrival of a new international star.

But between 2009 and 2018, Rahim practically disappeared from the Hollywood stratosphere, popping up every now and then in blockbusters like 2011's The Eagle and arthouse dramas like Mary Magdalene, but mostly preferring to work in his home country of France.

"When I worked with Kevin [MacDonald, who directs him in The Mauritanian], on The Eagle, I could barely speak English," Rahim said in a Zoom interview with /Film. "So it would have been hard to work in America or England before, but also the parts that I got offered are not convincing, and I had to turn them down."

It would take nearly a decade before Rahim was offered more than "terrorist roles," and before he would perfect his language skills so that he could speak four languages, and showcase an even greater variety of accents, in The Mauritanian — a talent that the French actor of Algerian descent has become known for in recent years.

"I like to work in foreign languages, especially English because you got a different musicality," Rahim said. "You stress words in a different place, and that makes you feel different. You move differently. Your face moves differently, so your emotion follows. "

Read our full interview with Rahim below, in which he speaks about the grueling process of filming The Mauritanian's torture scenes ("I got waterboarded and force-fed for real.."), and how he's not letting the awards buzz get to him.

After your breakout success in A Prophet, you made your first crossover in Hollywood with The Eagle, which is where you first worked with Kevin MacDonald. But it would take you almost a decade before you went back to Hollywood again with 2018's The Looming Tower. Can you speak about why you took your time doing work in France and other indie international projects for coming back to the U.S.?

I know I wasn't ready. You know, when I worked with Kevin on The Eagle, I could barely speak English. So it would have been hard to work in America or England before, but also the parts that I got offered are not convincing, and I had to turn them down. And until a certain point when I thought it would [change], I was like yeah it's never gonna happen. And that very day, I had two offer: The Looming Tower and Mary Magdalene. So I was like, yeah, that's a good sign. So I kept on working on my English. And I love to work with foreign directors because my philosophy with movies is that movies have no frontiers. So you see, if cinema is a country, movies are our language. So it's always cool to travel and to meet people so you know more about foreign culture, and it makes you a richer man, a better actor. And I love it, you know, I like to work in foreign languages, especially English because you got a different musicality. You stress words in a different place, and that makes you feel different. You move differently. Your face moves differently, so your emotion follows. You feel more free now, almost like a virgin, going back to the feelings I had when I was a kid actor, and I love it.

How would you describe the different movements and feelings when you're acting in English versus French, for example?

For example, in French, that's my mother language. I've been saying those words for decades. So I get bored by myself at some point, when I act. I'm like, I'm gonna try to say this differently. I explored every meanings of those words and those lines and it's still... I still have a responsibility, but it became less exciting than before. By going abroad, it's like being a virgin, so you don't overthink it. You don't overthink about what you're saying, and you do rely on what you're feeling in the moment.

There's some surface-level similarities between A Prophet and The Mauritanian, both being largely prison-set movies following sympathetic characters who go through hell, but coming more than a decade apart. Was it your intention to put some distance between that breakout role in your film choices that would follow? Is there something interesting about seeing these two kinds of roles at the beginning and later in your career?

Yeah of course, I thought about it was another jail movie, but it's such a different movie. Mohamedou [from The Mauritanian] and Malik [from A Prophet] are so different. And the good thing is that, as I did A Prphet, I had an experience as an actor, occupying a little space. When you're alone, I like that because there's no safety net. You always have to be sharp and trying to invent something, improvise. Something that I really love, especially in The Mauritanian, is when he's in the courtyard, talking with Marseille, it's like being on stage. You're alone, talking to somebody you don't see, you have to do something to make the audience feel what you're thinking, what you're going through, what affects you, what makes you laugh. And it's a good experience.

But yeah, after 10 years... I never wanted [to be typecast]. That's why I never picked a terrorist [role] or something during those 10 years, whether it would come from America or Europe, because I don't share the same ideas. And I don't want to defend that. I thought that the movies that had been made before were not efficient enough to make people think, question themselves, and finally, eventually help, in a way. This one is different. It's the first time I read a script when I see a movie with a sympathetic Muslim character at the heart of an American movie. And plus, that part is a real part, we see a real human being. And when I took it, as I was working on it — he could have been Spanish, French, American — I would have the same interpretation. You take the narrative and the character, you put it in another context — he is in jail, an innocent man with no charge against him, for another crime — the movie still works.

Have you seen a shift, since your career began, in the depiction of Arab characters on the screen?

It's moving in France, it's getting better and better. Yes, I saw that when I watched that great series, Ramy. Very good. Wow. Finally, I see something clever, deep, funny. Life, just like with human beings. See, and this movie, I hope this movie will help. It will open up the range of offers to people from different backgrounds. Origins, culture, gender, whatever, but [I hope] it can help in this way.

You and Kevin worked on bringing The Mauritanian to life for years, after you read Guantanamo Diary. Why was this story so important to you and what was the two-year process of bringing it to the screen like?

I like to say, when you have the opportunity, or the luck to get a script, two and a half years to two years before you shoot it, you have time to think about it slowly. You know, some days you leave it you don't think about it, then you see something in the street or it's just someone or something that makes you think about the script, so you start to build up your character, and the sort of psychology. It helps a lot. So I'd like to say that I was like a hot cup of hot water and the whole script and Kevin and Mohamedou, were the tea bag. It infused inside of me slowly over the months. And that helped me a lot. And it was important for me to make this movie because of what it says. It's a story that needs to be told, it's beyond being innocent or guilty. It's about human rights. You know, we live in countries where we are supposed to be protected by the rule of law. That's why a lot of people are escaping from their countries to come to ours. So, it's important to remind people of history so we don't repeat it.

The film has several grueling scenes in the film, and you yourself went through a physical transformation to play the role. What was the most difficult part of taking on the role?

Physically, it was the torture scenes. Because the only way I found to make it authentic was to put myself in realistic conditions to experience what Mohamedou has been through. So yes, I asked the props to bring their real shackles. I wanted them to turn the cell as cold as possible. It wasn't cold enough, so I asked them to spray me with water, so I could feel the cold, I got waterboarded and force-fed for real. We had our coats, in case there was a problem or something. And the more you try it, the further you want to go. Because, you know, as an actor if you have the opportunity to do it — which means that the script is strong enough, the directors will be your partner — you have a chance to touch the truth. It doesn't happen quite often. So, I needed to go further and further and further, to a point that Kevin came to me and was like "all right, stop," because my ankles were bleeding, I was exhausted, I was very thin, I had no energy at all. But it was like immense stuff we got it, and it's good. But I was like "Man, it's too late, I need to go full on. And don't worry, I'm not gonna hurt myself." And yes, it helped me to do it. I couldn't have been able to do it otherwise.

Technically another thing that was not easy to do was speak four different languages. French it's okay. But the Arabic and the Mauritanian. I don't speak classic Arabic and Mauritanian, so I needed to learn how to do it and how to do it properly, because you can you can trick a Western audience, but not the Middle Eastern audience that deserve to be portrayed properly. So I've worked a lot on my Arabic. And for the English it was something very complicated to do because we needed to gradually create his capability to speak English fluidly. So with Kevin we're starting to work around the dialogues and to create some mistakes here and there to stress some words and, you know, change a little bit of the musicality, until we found the right average at the end of the movie.

You're getting quite a bit of awards buzz for your performance in The Mauritanian, how would you feel if that buzz takes you all the way to the Oscars?

You know, it feels good. Always when people like a performance and when they're moved by what you've done — because it's always tough to do this job, you know — it makes me feel happy, it brings me hope in what I want to do, and what I want to continue to do. But I don't want to think too much about the outcome, because otherwise I'm going to miss what I'm living in the moment, and it's so incredible, so fantastic, that I want to take advantage of it all.

I don't want to make that mistake twice because when A Prophet came out, everybody was happy and they were crazy about the movie and, you know, I was too young, too scared of the way I could take it. I didn't want to turn into an asshole, or a stupid guy. I was like, "I'm afraid. I don't want to change, I want to stay grounded," so I [didn't let] myself [enjoy it] too much and I didn't take advantage of what was happening, like fully. This time it's not gonna happen, so I better not think about it and just go with the flow.


The Mauritanian opens in theaters on February 12, 2021.