When Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet opened to international acclaim in 2009, its 28-year-old star Tahar Rahim seemed destined for huge things. But after just one major Hollywood movie— 2011’s The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell—Rahim focused on working in his native France for nearly a decade, collaborating with major directors like Asghar Farhadi and Fatih Akin but never to the same level of global attention. That was by design.
“I was just not ready at that time to be exposed this way, to be in the limelight,” he says in an interview on this week‘s Little Gold Men podcast. “In a way, [I] self-isolated, overprotected myself, but I missed some good things […] But I needed it. I mean, who’s prepared for this, except princes and princesses?”
That one Hollywood production, however, is what got Rahim where he is toda: a Golden Globe nominee for The Mauritanian. He reunited with The Eagle director Kevin McDonald for the film, based on the true story of former Guantanamo detainee Mohamedou Slahi. Even though Rahim, who was born in Paris, says he barely spoke English when he made The Eagle, he and McDonald kept in touch over the years, and the director came directly to the actor with the idea of adapting Slahi’s bestselling book, Guantanamo Diary. Rahim, the son of Algerian immigrants, says he had spent years turning down terrorist roles—but The Mauritanian (now in theaters) was different. “Usually, people like Mohamedou were depicted in only one way, with one face, one voice, and it’s always the same,“ he says. “And I don’t want to be a vehicle for those kind of stories. I never wanted it.“
On this week’s Little Gold Men podcast, Rahim speaks with Katey Rich about the process of making The Mauritanian, of filming its searing torture scenes, and how having the real Mohamedou Slahi on set affected his performance. In the rest of the episode, special guest Noah Gittell joins Katey and Joanna Robinson to talk about his viral tweet about the best original song Oscar category, and why this year’s shortlist continues such an ignominious tradition. And, because last week‘s conversation about Judas and the Black Messiah just wasn‘t enough, they dive further into that movie, and why Daniel Kaluuya suddenly feels like the odds-on favorite to win best supporting actor.
Listen to the episode above, and find an abridged transcript of the Tahar Rahim interview below. You can find Little Gold Men on Apple Podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts.
You met Kevin McDonald when you worked together on The Eagle, but you had also said that at that point, you didn’t really speak much English, and you didn’t feel like you were able to kind of build the relationship with the director, but then you guys also stayed in touch. So, how did you guys strike up that relationship that then continued to The Mauritanian?
When you feel for someone, you know it. You don’t need to say it or prove it in a way. And, I felt this from Kevin and I did so, but the problem is that I didn’t speak English, I was speaking English, but totally broken. I started to work on my English and I would go back and forth, and in London, just for a weekend or something, and I’ve been working with a lot of foreign directors, and the only way to communicate was in English.
And so, I talked with Kevin, messaging each other, “How are you?“ “Happy New Year,” and things like that. And each time I would come to London, we’d have dinner or a drink. Then he sent me a text two years ago saying, “I have a good part for you, so let’s talk.” And that’s how The Mauritanian story started.
So when he brings that to you, I think everyone has some familiarity with Guantanamo, but I think you can know more about it than others. What was your level of knowledge of that situation when he hands you this script and this book?
As much as everybody. The pictures that were all over the news about what the guards were doing to their detainees. So, I knew about it. And, at that moment, it was a couple of years ago, I knew that something very bad was happening over there. So, we knew it, but not precisely. I never get the chance to really dig in and do some research. I did that while I was preparing this movie, otherwise, I didn’t know that much. And I never heard about Mohamedou before, never heard of him or the book.
I think when things like this are happening, that can feel far away or that are so awful, that it’s kind of hard to contemplate, we kind of protect ourselves by not thinking so much about these people, about them as specific individuals. And, I think what this movie does, and I imagine what you’re feeling was reading the script is you read this, and you feel Mohamedou is a person, you feel this really individual person going into it. So, when you’re going into it as an actor, how do you kind of work to establish that connection with the audience?
First of all, there were a lot of answers in the script. The script was so well-written. It was all about universal values and not stereotypes, you see. Usually, people like Mohamedou were depicted in only one way, with one face, one voice, and it’s always the same. And, I don’t want to be a vehicle for those kinds of stories. I never wanted it. So when I read it, I got a lot of answers in the script. I didn’t want to meet Mohamedou straight away, because I needed to read the book first and to know a bit more about Guantanamo, and all of it. And, I needed to secure the first Mohamedou that I had to portray, which is the one in the script.
And then, I got to meet him. And, I mean, we talked and I was very, very shocked and surprised to see someone that nice, that thoughtful with goodwill, and funny, playing music, knowing a lot of American movies, fond of American culture as well. But when we get to talingk about those days and days and days of torture, I mean, he changed, literally you could… The PTSD is still here, strongly, but he manages to hide it so you don’t see it, but it’s still somewhere. I think he’s still fighting and struggling, but now, he masters it, he knows how to live with this.
You and Kevin have known each other for a long time, you’ve kind of built this relationship over time. You’ve talk about how you really tried to immerse yourself in the torture process as much as you could as an actor for the torture scenes, and that’s hard for you, but also I think you have to have a lot of trust with the director to do something like that. So, what did you guys do together to make those scenes happen?
You just said it, it’s all about trust. I had the most beautiful safety net with Kevin, I could try whatever I wanted. I knew he would tell me, “Uh, that’s not good. Do it again. Let’s go to this direction, right, left, up, down.” And plus, he has a lot of experience with fictions and documentaries. And, as he did a lot of documentaries, he knows exactly what’s a genuine person, genuine expressions, real feeling, realism. And, I knew that each time I would try something, he would see if it’s right or wrong.
And, of course, knowing this, I couldn’t rely on my habits. And plus, out of respect to Mohamedou, I didn’t want to just sell something or make people believe in what I’m doing. I wanted to believe it, in what I was doing, so I could convey authentic emotions and feelings to my team, my copartners, Kevin, and the audience, and of course Mohamedou. And you see, when you have to play an instrument or know how to ride a horse for a movie, you learn it, then your practice, and you practice, and you practice, and at some point, you’re ready and action, boom, and you do it. It’s the exact same thing, but I can’t practice, you see?
Yeah. You have to just do it.
I needed to go as close as possible to Mohamedou’s experience, without putting myself in danger, so I can feel what it is and just so I know, and I can’t fake it. Then, I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m feeling. It’s real. I wouldn’t put myself in danger, but Kevin started to get worried at some point. He was like, “Hey, man, it’s okay. We got it.”
But, the strange thing when you experience those types of strange things, you want to go further and further and the more you try to do it, the further you want to go, because you feel like you’re touching the truth, in a way. Sometimes, it feels good to suffer in a way, when you create something.
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