Currently taking the world by storm on Netflix’s The Serpent, Tahar Rahim is a rising name in the industry’s new generation of brilliant actors. His lead role in Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian is a powerful highlight from the 2021 awards season. Starring opposite Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, and Benedict Cumberbatch – Rahim earned a nomination for Best Actor at the Golden Globes and now the BAFTAs. He first gained notoriety for the critically acclaimed film A Prophet in 2009, but it’s great to finally see him gain wider recognition.
Rahim plays Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a Mauritanian local who was kidnapped from his home in 2002 and detained in Guantánamo for 14 years. Based on the best-selling memoir Guantánamo Diary, the “War on Terror” had just begun and Mohamedou was one of the first victims of the American Government post-9/11. He was detained on suspicion of terroism without there ever being official charges. Mohamedou is represented by defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) who try to uncover what really happened during his illegal incarceration and prove his innocence.
We were lucky enough to sit down with the Golden Globe and BAFTA-nominated actor to go behind the scenes of The Mauritanian. Diving deep into his feelings, his connection to the real-life Mohamedou, and what he hopes the film will achieve. One thing is for certain, crystal clear passion and devotion pave a bright future for Rahim with his wealth of tremendous talent.
What first intrigued you about The Mauritanian? How did you get involved?
Tahar Rahim: I worked with Kevin Macdonald years ago, I knew him and we were good friends. So he sent me a text saying, I might have a good part for you. I read the script and I instantly wanted to do it, because the part was beautiful. It’s very rare to have a Muslim sympathetic character at the heart of an American movie. And the part in itself was amazing with big challenges ahead, and that’s what I seek for as an actor. I was very happy to take the part. But at the same time, I felt sad and angry because it’s a true story. I really needed to be part of it because I wanted to do justice to Mohamedou.
You worked with director Kevin Macdonald before on The Eagle, how was it reuniting with him?
Tahar Rahim: So much better because the first time we worked together, I could barely speak English. My relationship with him was good and very thoughtful with a lot of respect, but I was frustrated. When you shoot a movie, especially when you shoot abroad, you have to say goodbye to your family for a couple of weeks, sometimes months, and you want to share good and important moments with the people that you’re going to work with, and to feel at ease. And I wasn’t at that time.
So I felt like I missed something. Now 10 years later, there was nothing like that. We went as deep as we could in our relationship and in the way we work together – it was great. Another thing that was very good was that as I knew him before, we didn’t have to go through that meeting process with actor and director. Which always takes time and energy to win the trust of each other. In The Mauritanian, it was there. It was totally different, so it was a bigger challenge.
What was the most challenging part of bringing Mohamedou’s story to life?
Tahar Rahim: Many things, the torture scene was one because I needed to go full-on to put myself in realistic conditions. So I could try to convey authentic emotions and that feeling to the audience, my director, and to Mohamedou himself. But there was another thing that was maybe more important than touching the truth in a way, his capacity to turn anger into forgiveness. I talked with him and asked, between us, tell me are you still angry or not? He said, not at all. And I asked, how did you do that? He said to me that when you do this, when you forgive people, you realize that forgiving people is a treat to yourself.
You free your mind from a lot of things. He would feel free and he would be able to escape from his cell. Plus, he said then you might have the power to change people’s minds. And that’s what happened with those guards. Each time when he would be tortured, he would ask them, why do you do this to yourself? He was trying to understand why. At some point, he came to that conclusion, which is that fear lead them to do those horrible things. And he started to look at them as victims. Incredible.
It seems like your collaboration with Mohamedou was great. Was he there on set and were you able to talk to him between takes?
Tahar Rahim: [Mohamedou] managed to travel to South Africa, because even though he got released a few years ago, he is still living in an open sky prison because he can’t travel. He just got back his passport last year and a few weeks later, he had a visa from South Africa. The only country that accepted his Visa was South Africa, I guess it’s because of their history. But elsewhere, they don’t give him visas. What Mohammed said was that the American government is still calling foreign embassies to not give him the right to travel. So it was the first time since he took that plane to Guantanamo that he had traveled.
I bumped into him when I was going to work, in front of my hotel. We hugged and it felt so good as it felt like I was meeting someone I haven’t seen for years. When he came on set, he came with Nancy Hollander, and it was very hard for him to take what he was seeing. The set was so real, it looked just like Guantanamo. But you could tell he was trying to hide it by cracking jokes, talking to people, and chit-chatting. He and Nancy held hands and started to cry while we were shooting, and I didn’t want to go to him and talk because I was so focused and didn’t want to disturb him.
On this film you worked with a whole group of great actors, but how is it working specifically with Jodie Foster?
Tahar Rahim: It was amazing. It was an honor for an actor of my generation. And for everybody, Jodie is an icon. I grew up with her movies and her great performances. So I felt like I was going through the screen of my childhood. It was great because when you have an actress of that level bringing such truth and realism each time she moves or looks at you – it’s so subtle and so deep at the same time. What you have to do is be well-prepared and follow.
We didn’t talk that much on set, but in a way we developed a kind of a secret language without words by looking at each other, it’s like a jazz band. You come on stage, you don’t know your partners and they’re like, we’re going to play that song, ready? Then you start to follow and the music starts to come to life. As she raised the game all the time, it made me improve my performance.
What are your expectations and what do you want people to take away from the film?
Tahar Rahim: I hope people get to see the movie first. So that they can meet with an unexceptional man. Not me but Mohamedou, of course. To know and understand his story. I hope the movie can bring hope to people. If the movie can help make people question themselves, and eventually change their mind if they have preconceived ideas. To understand what’s important with the people that don’t look like you, to look for a connection, and see what you have in common. Instead of watching the differences. If the movie can do this, I think it will be a beautiful step forward.