‘I had a lot of offers to play a terrorist or the French boyfriend’

Tahar Rahim talks about his latest role as a detainee in Guantánamo Bay in Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian

The Mauritanian tells the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi – played by Tahar Rahim in a Bafta-nominated turn – a man from the northwestern African state of the title, whose tenuous connections to al-Qaeda result in his detention at Guantánamo Bay for 14 years without charge. There he endured torture, sexual abuse, sleep deprivation and threats against his family.

Salahi finds advocates beyond his confinement in the shape of defence attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), a legal team who face a formidable military prosecutor, Lt Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), in the courtroom.

Speaking via Zoom from his home in Paris, Rahim recalls crying when he finished reading the script. "[Director] Kevin Macdonald sent me the script 2½ years ago," the French-Algerian star says. "But I remember reading it as if it was yesterday. Because I discovered the story as I was reading it. And I was blown away by it. The script was so well written. The part was beautiful.

“Most important was the story of Mohamedou and what happened to him. Fear can make you do strange things sometimes, and I think that’s what happened to the American government.”

To prepare for the role, Rahim consulted with Salahi but found his trauma too intense to bear.

“I knew things from the script but I thought it was better to hear him say those things again,” says Rahim. “I didn’t want to imitate him 100 per cent; I was trying to catch his spirit in a way. When we got to touchy questions about torture, his face changed. It was very hard for him to articulate anything about it. I felt really bad and stupid.

“This is still a struggle for him because it’s very hard for him to get a visa to travel. He’s got a wife and a kid in Berlin. He never got to see his son until his son was one-year-old. I thought: who am I to bring this guy back to this horrible place? So I stopped. And we just talked.

“You know, in life you don’t get to meet many exceptional people that often – so take advantage of it. The way I work is that the more I spend time with people the more I take things from them, like a sponge. Mohamedou is full of hope. I was struck by his generosity and humour and delight. This man is so joyful. I almost couldn’t believe how it was possible that he had lived through this hell. I wanted to carry that with me.”

The role required certain physical interventions for Rahim, a livewire who finds it hard to sit still, to approximate life – or what passes for it – in Guantánamo Bay.

“I had to lose 10kg in 18 days and when you’re on a diet like this at some point your mind and your spirit and your emotions go to places that you never expected,” recalls the youthful 39-year-old. “It’s my job to control and play with my emotions, but this time it was the other way around. Usually it’s not hard for me to get out of my character. This time it took three weeks at home with my wife and family. I couldn’t tell them why. I just said it was special.

“Plus the fact that I wanted to come as close as possible to real conditions. I wore real shackles. I asked their production team to make it as cold as possible and to spray me with water so that I could get a feel of what waterboarding was like.

“To be honest, I couldn’t afford to do it another way. It was not going to be possible for me. I’m not the kind of actor that can just make it up. I had to go hard. In life, I like to laugh and have fun. I always see the bright side. I’m not a dark person. It’s not in my nature.”

Rahim and Macdonald – director of The Last King of Scotland and Touching the Void – had collaborated on the 2011 historical epic The Eagle. The filmmaker is “a good man who cares about actors”, says Rahim, though he remains a little mortified about their first film together.

“I could barely speak English,” he says. “So I was trying to explain myself and explain my ideas and it was very frustrating. When you work with a director you want to share something special because you go away from your family for months. You form almost another family for those months. But with a language barrier that was very complicated.”

‘Five movies a week’

Rahim grew up in the sleepy town of Belfort, on the French-Swiss border, in a family that had emigrated from Oran in Algeria. He credits small-town boredom for instilling a love of cinema, an affection that inspired his career.

“I come from the suburbs,” he says. “We’re working class. When I started to dream of being an actor, it was a teenage dream. I could’ve dreamed to be a soccer player. My childhood was perfect . But when I turned into a teenager I started to get bored because in a small town of 50,000 people there is not much to do. So I used to go to watch movies and I found a place where I could escape.”

He studied sports and computer science before transferring to drama and film, but not before he made enemies among the staff of his local movie theatre.

“I love the movie theatre itself,” he says. “I love that you’re in a place where you share emotions without even looking at each other or meeting them. It’s like being in another dimension. It’s so cool. So I found a way to sneak in from the back door and watch five movies a week and I did that for years. I would pick up the tickets from the ground from the people who were there before. The director of the theatre went crazy. So we started playing this cat and mouse game. He put up a picture of me on the wall in his office and told the staff if you see this kid, stop him.

“When I went to study in Strasbourg, I came home one weekend. I was 21 and I said to my friends: why don’t we sneak into the cinema like we did when we were 15? It was Star Wars Episode One and it was a hit Saturday evening eight o’clock. The director stopped the movie right in the middle. I swear to God. With a hundred people watching, he went to me and asked for my ticket. I slunk out. I was so ashamed. But 10 years later, after I became an actor, we made our peace. It was funny.”

A Prophet

Rahim became an overnight sensation with his depiction of a petty criminal who rises through the prison hierarchy in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet from 2009. Hollywood beckoned, but Rahim has generally preferred to stay in France. He was the third party in Asghar Farhadi’s 2013 divorce drama The Past, an organ donation consultant in Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living, and a cat burglar who pretends to be Santa Claus in Le Père Noël.

"I love a script that plays with your opinions," says Rahim. "I think Asghar Farhadi does that so well. He makes you want to judge someone and then he'll make you think: oh, I might have done the exact same thing."

Prior to The Mauritanian, The Eagle was the sole Hollywood excursion of Rahim’s career. It remains his only picture with a major studio. And with good reason, he says.

“I’m not going to mention movies because I think it’s impolite,” says Rahim. “But I had a lot of offers to play a terrorist or the French boyfriend. I had to pass. When it comes to the representation of Muslims, I turn down offers because they don’t go along with how I see my life and my opinions. Okay, if you want to make those movies, you can make them. But you don’t need me. I won’t be a tool for something I disagree with. Plus, as an actor, I don’t want to be typecast. Do the same thing twice or three times and bye-bye. One of the things I loved about The Mauritanian is that he’s not a terrorist.”

He has, of late, worked on several notable Anglophone projects, including Damien Chazelle's The Eddy and Lone Scherfig's The Comfort of Strangers. He won much acclaim for his depiction of Judas in Garth Davis's Mary Magdalene, as an FBI agent in The Looming Tower, and for his role as the serial killer Charles Sobhraj in the BBC's true crime drama series, The Serpent.

“It was a big challenge acting in English because mastering a language is a hard task,” he says. “And above that you have to know how to play in a language. But I love to be challenged. I pick my parts because I want to be challenged. Otherwise, I’d get bored. I try to do different takes all the time.

“I’ve come to realise that playing in English is great in a way because I’m so used to speaking in French. In English I’m thinking about the meaning of the words and I can play with the stress on words because the stress of words in English is totally different. In English, it’s all brand new; I’m like a virgin.”

The Mauritanian is on Amazon Prime from April 1st