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French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim first rose to international acclaim with his performance in Jacques Audiard’s 2009 crime thriller A Prophet, which debuted at Cannes to rave reviews and went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. It wasn’t his first feature film, but it was the one that opened the doors for him to work with an eclectic mix of filmmakers that includes Asghar Farhadi (The Past), Fatih Akin (The Cut), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Daguerrotype), and Kevin Macdonald (The Eagle).
Rahim’s latest project reunites him with Macdonald for a challenging role in a based-on-true-events drama, The Mauritanian. In it, he plays the titular character, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was kidnapped from his home country in 2002, transported to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, and detained there without being charged with any offense for 14 years before he was ultimately released. The film details not only Slahi’s harrowing experiences at the facility, but also the efforts of ACLU attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) to afford him due process and the shocking discoveries made by the U.S. government’s own military prosecutor, Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch). Working alongside a star-studded cast that also includes Shailene Woodley and Zachary Levi, Rahim’s standout performance recently earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.
Rotten Tomatoes had the opportunity to speak with Rahim ahead of the Globes to talk about the new film, describe what it was like to meet and spend time with the real-life Mohamedou Ould Slahi, and drop a wish list of directors he’d love to work with (somebody please get him a meeting with the Safdie brothers). Before that, though, read on for Tahar Rahim’s Five Favorite Films.
Taxi Driver (1976)
I’m a big fan of the New Hollywood wave, a very big fan of this period. I think it’s the best period of movies ever. This one is a very specific one because it’s an incredible story of someone who is an antihero. He’s got all the flaws, when you think about it. It can read as a racist, in a way, who could be in love with young girls and totally crazy, who’s trying to kill the president. So he’s got all the flaws, and yet he’s still an ordinary man, you see.
It tells a lot about the way society can create heroes, because at the end of the movie, he’s saving this young girl from evil, from the streets of New York. He wants to clean the streets of New York; that’s his obsession. He finally does it, but you don’t know if he does it for him, for her, whatever. He does it. He quenched his thirst for violence. At the end of the movie, he turned out to be an American hero. It’s crazy what it tells about the media, about society.
And the performances are stellar. The movie is incredible, the way it’s shot. We get to see New York in the ’70s. Because I always say that movies are testimonies for the next generations when they’re well-made classics like this one. When I discovered it — I might have been 17 or 18 — and I could tell my friends what New York looked like in the ’70s. It was right. It was true. They were in the streets, shooting people, the random people who were walking in the streets and buildings and cars and the way they would talk. The whole thing blew me away.
Plus, the script is incredible, the way it’s written. You know, it’s this new period that that looks like a little bit of the New Wave in France. They met the concept of going out there to film reality and people. The way the New Hollywood turned it, it’s better for me, because they weren’t afraid to create antiheroes, to write bigger stories, and to make an x-ray of American society.
I could talk about this movie for hours. You know, the first time I discovered Jodie Foster starting her career; she was absolutely awesome. And of course, Robert De Niro, who stays the best actor ever for me, to me. The ’70s, in a way, they created some codes of acting that never moved from there.
Number two, still New Hollywood. It’s Scarecrow by Jerry Schatzberg. I love what we call here in French kind of a… I don’t know if it’s the same expression in America, but buddy movies. But in this one, I remember when I first watched it, there’s this opening with this road, empty road, windy, and two guys who are hitchhiking, and they’re waiting for someone to pick them up. What’s happening is they talk without a single word. This might be the most beautiful encounter of two characters I’ve seen.
At this moment, they don’t even talk. There’s not a lot of action, but you can tell who’s who, what type of character they are, their identities, in a way. You see Gene Hackman is grumpy. He doesn’t really want to watch him. You can feel that he is ready to jump on him and beat him. The other one’s trying to just, in a way, find a father. That’s sort of the whole movie, to me. He’s trying to make him laugh, using his own skills, all he’s got to communicate. To go from The Godfather to this character, Al Pacino, it’s crazy what he’s doing in this movie. It’s the opposite of The Godfather.
At some point, they start a story together. I remember that they walk through life, and yeah, they have a purpose and they’re going to help each other. It’s about being dependent on someone, but in a good way, because they became friends. I think that Al Pacino’s character is looking for a father. He’s very interesting, but he’s still a kid. He’s a kid that has to be an adult, because he’s got a son, and he’s going to meet him for the first time. He doesn’t know what to do. He just bought a present that he keeps with him all the way along. The poetry of this present is amazing.
The ending, when he finally meets his ex-wife and sees his son, and she’s like, “You’re not going to tell him that you’re his daddy.” She starts to ruin him. You see a mother being rude with her kid. That’s where he fell into despair, into madness. The arc of his character is sad, but incredible.
I think in English it’s 400 Blows. What an incredible movie. Classic. I mean, I saw it a long time ago when I was a kid. It was beautiful. I liked it, but I didn’t really know what it was talking about. Then I watched it again 10 years ago. When you put it back in its context in the ’60s or ’70s — I don’t know exactly — it’s so brand new. Watching a kid wandering in the streets of Paris and making his own 400 blows, and being a young adult. It was pretty amazing. It brought me back to my childhood. It felt good to watch this movie.
And it tells a lot about French society at that time — working class people; how a relationship between a man and a woman was, in a way; what people know, but don’t say, between the lines. There’s a lot of this in this movie, between the mom and the son and the dad and the son. It’s incredible. I loved it. There’s this pure innocence in this movie as well. The ending on the beach with fireworks… It’s beautiful.
Memories of Murder (2003)
What a great movie. I saw it at the video tech, not in a movie theater. I didn’t know what I was about to see. I didn’t expect that this movie would be so good. I remember I discovered Oldboy, and I was like, “Okay, we got real movies over there.” I wanted to know more, and I watched this movie.
It starts like a… You see two detectives that don’t really seem clever, and then the guy from the street, from the big city, is going to meet people from the countryside. The shock, culturally, between those two different roots, in a way, is very interesting. It’s like, “Okay. Whether it’s in America, France, or Korea, it’s kind of the same thing.”
The ending is so unexpected. I was like, “What?” And it’s the first time ever that I saw that in a movie, in a thriller like this. The whole movie is built on this investigation — the structure of the movie, as well — so when you reach the climax, you need an answer, and it doesn’t give you an answer. It’s not meant to have a sequel. But I think it’s so clever to do this. Plus, the movie’s protected by its own true story. They never found the right guy, the perpetrators, the killer.
I remember the cinematography is so good. So good. Do you remember the scene when the cops are arresting the young man, thinking that he’s the killer? The father comes and he’s like, “No, it’s my son. He did nothing.” And they start to fight and there’s the cops and this father and his son being arrested, and it’s all in slow motion, except for the sound; the sound runs normally, which is incredible. You’re like, “Oh, it’s the first time I see it.” Usually it’s slow motion music, silence. Now you’ve got the slow motion shot, and the sound is a direct sound. People are screaming and you hear them fighting. It’s incredible. Like, “Okay, wow. What a director.” He did that before [David] Fincher.
Also, in this movie, it’s very serious, but at the same time, there’s a comic layer. It’s funny, sometimes. It’s a lot of poetry.
The Truman Show (1998)
The Truman Show, Peter Weir, because man, it was ahead of its time, like crazy. I think this movie came out in the ’90s, 10 or 15 years before social media, before reality shows. I mean, that’s so avant garde. He understood so many things, Peter Weir, about the world at that time, what would be the outcome. If you just watch it again, for example, tonight or tomorrow, whatever, you’re going to go crazy. You’re going to go like, “Okay. I mean, did he time travel?”
Plus, you see the innocence of Jim Carrey, who’s got an amazing part, and see his deception. It’s kind of a coming-of-age movie as well, in a way. He’s a kid, very innocent. At some point, he’s going to have to get to the real life, life of adults. No more fantasy, no more lies. It’s just the cruelty of the world.
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Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: The Mauritanian is not the first time you’ve portrayed a real person on film. Do you find that it’s more freeing to play a character based on a real person because you have a template to follow? Or do you enjoy more getting to collaborate and infuse a fictional character with your own ideas?
Tahar Rahim: I think right now, I’d say it’s, in a way, easier to portray someone who is a real life character, because the range of liberty you have is limited. They don’t go all over the place. The main answers you need to know for questions about your character, you have them. And you don’t have them in 100 pages, you have them from someone who’s been living for years, decades, so he knows exactly what he’s talking about. You don’t even have to, “No, you know, I think the character would answer this way.” You don’t have any conversation about who the guy is. He is who he is. It helps a lot.
But on the other hand, the problem is that you have a responsibility to not, in a way — let’s use this word, and I don’t know if it’s the right one — but to not betray that person and his identity and his personality, his life, what he’s been through. You still have some freedom because he’s not a famous person, but not a lot. I don’t know if it feels better to play someone who’s a real life character or just a character. I don’t know if it feels better because it’s a whole thing. It’s not just about a performance, it’s about your relationship with your partners, with the director, the story, the script, and the whole thing.
Rotten Tomatoes: I know you met Mohamedou Ould Salahi before you shot the film. Was there anything about him that surprised you, or anything unexpected about him? Something you were able to work into your performance?
Rahim: I knew about him because I read the book, I talked with [director Kevin Macdonald], I had his recordings. So I had enough materials to make my research. But I needed to meet him for other reasons, to know him and to understand the way he moves, he talks, whatever. But I was so surprised to see how funny the guy was. Everybody would say it, but I couldn’t expect that he would be that funny, because sometimes he was sarcastic, sometimes just funny. That surprised me a lot.
But you know, it was not just a joke. He likes to joke around. But instantly he can find a good joke that is connected to the context. It’s not just written jokes; he’s taking advantage of the situation and turning it into something funny. You need to be very talented to be able to do that, because it’s like improvisation. It’s like asking a comedian on stage to improvise. They need to improvise between their jokes, the things that are written. It’s a real job. This guy has it naturally.
But also, the fact that he was full of life, full of life. Very nice. When you know what he’s been through, it’s almost impossible to believe. The trauma is still there; he manages in some ways to control it, so you don’t see it.
(Photo by Graham Bartholomew/©STX Entertainment)
Rotten Tomatoes: This is a difficult role for anyone, and I would ask how you would normally decompress or de-stress during shooting, but you’ve said that you basically didn’t, because you were afraid you would lose everything you had put into the character. Doesn’t that take a bit of a toll on you?
Rahim: Of course, of course. But I was lucky to shoot that abroad, to shoot this movie abroad. I was alone, with just one of my best friends. Otherwise, if this movie was shot in Paris and I had to see my family and my wife, my kids every day, it wouldn’t have been possible to portray Mohamedou the way I… to give my all.
I got really lucky. I didn’t want to be disturbed. It’s such a difficult part that once I caught him, I didn’t want to let him go. I know myself. I’m almost 40; I know if I start to get relaxed too much, I’m getting out of my character, and then to get back in, it’s hard.
Rotten Tomatoes: You obviously take your work very seriously, and you’ve been able to work with a wide variety of filmmakers from all kinds of backgrounds across different genres to build a really eclectic resume. But you’ve also expressed in the past that there are some Hollywood directors you’d love to work with. If you had to name the top three on your wish list, who would they be?
Rahim: Of course, Martin Scorsese. Paul Thomas Anderson. Who else? There’s so many great directors. I’d say [Alejandro González] Iñárritu. You know what? from the new generation, definitely the Safdie brothers.
Rotten Tomatoes: I could absolutely see you in a Safdie brothers movie.
Rahim: You know, Good Time was a beautiful surprise. I was like, “Oh, man!” You can feel the New Hollywood references, but it’s not copying. It’s not about that. They’re talking about their time, the people they met, their life, their New York, and it’s incredible. It reminded me of New Hollywood, without copying them. I found it so clever and so brand new, in a way, in the way they shot, in the way they direct their actors, and the last film they did, Uncut Gems, the last 13 minutes… It’s like a James Brown concert. It’s like James Brown saying, “We’re going to shake them. Shake them ’til the end.” I was like, “Whoa. Okay, these guys are great.”
The Mauritanian was released on February 12, 2021.
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