‘The Mauritanian’ Star Tahar Rahim on Working With Jodie Foster and How Boredom Brought Him to Acting (EXCLUSIVE)

With magnificent performances in "A Prophet" and "The Past," the French actor opens up about his largest role yet in Kevin Macdonald's harrowing true story.

Tahar Rahim
Arno Lam

Tahar Rahim turned the heads of cinephiles more than a decade ago in Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,” which was Oscar-nominated for best foreign language film in 2010. Since then, he’s made his way through the independent and international audiences with performances in films such as Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past.”

Now, Rahim is taking on his most demanding and mainstream role yet in Kevin Macdonald’s “The Mauritanian.” The French-born actor sat down with Variety‘s Awards Circuit pocast for an exclusive first interview since the film was announced to be released within the extended Oscar eligibility window. Listen below:

Based on the harrowing true story, the film also stars Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley.

The 39-year-old actor plays Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a man who was imprisoned at Guantanomo Bay for over a decade without officially being charged by the United States government. He opens up about signing on to the film and reveals how he was inspired to pursue acting.

“The Mauritanian” is distributed by STXfilms and is scheduled to be released on Feb. 19.

What attracted you to “The Mauritanian” and why did you choose the project?

Tahar Rahim: First of all, Kevin [Macdonald]. I worked with him, 10 years ago on “The Eagle” I was on holiday, and I got a text from him saying, “I might have a good part for you.” So I’m was excited and he sent me the script. So when I read the title, which at the time was “Guantanomo Diary” – I was a little disappointed at first. because I thought it would be this endless story of those type of stereotypical characters. But when I started to read it, I didn’t know anything about Mohamedou Ould Slahi. When I read the entire script, I cried twice. I was really moved by the story. And then when I started to dig in, I realized that this guy was innocent. No charges against him. Nothing. I mean, how could that be possible nowadays in our countries? I thought that it was a beautiful part, as an actor, plus, that it’s a useful movie that we need to tell those stories about protecting the rule of law and why we live in democracies.

Did you get to ever speak or meet Mohamedou Ould Slahi and how did that conversation go?

Rahim: It was a beautiful moment. The first time was virtual. I was in Thailand, and he was in Mauritania. The first thing you notice is he’s such a bright man, nice, clever and with a big sense of humor, which is very surprising because of his story, and what has been through. It’s a big responsibility when you carry real characters, especially him. I didn’t want to disappoint him, nor his story. He talked about the tough, tough things but a little at a time. Because I think those memories are hard for him. But when you meet him, he has got a smile from ear to ear. You couldn’t believe that he’s been through hell. I couldn’t believe it. He’s become such a wise, very wise man. He doesn’t hold a grudge against anybody. When he first got to Guantanamo, he believed in the rule of law. He thought I’m going to be treated like a human being. And after all of it, he still believes in the rule of law, which is incredible.

How do you understand an innocent man that was held in prison for 14 years?

Rahim: Each time I talked about what he’s been through, he wouldn’t really answer it, in detail. I felt I didn’t want to bother him. I didn’t want to disrespect him. I had the book, his interviews, and what Kevin brought with his recordings of him. And I thought, how can I reach that “point of truth?” I haven’t been through this. The diet helped me a lot. And I remember the first day, I wanted to feel what it was like in the real conditions, so I got shackled. They had fake shackles, and I said, “no” bring me the real ones. I want to feel what he felt. Listen, it was only six hours [I had the shackles on] and I kept the bruises for the entire shoot. With just six hours. At some point, I don’t know you lose something. You’re not even in reality or in the same dimension as others.

You’ve spoken about not really knowing English well when you started in this industry. You’ve worked in this industry a decade and this is one of your first big, American roles. How does that feel for you now?

Rahim: I didn’t know where this was going to lead me, to be honest. I always wanted to work, foreign and American directors. This is a reward for me. And I like to be surprised. And I don’t like to think too much. Because when you think too much, and you want too much, you always get disappointed. So it’s kind of a philosophy that I developed over the years. But I’m excited, of course.

Why inspired you to be an actor?

Rahim: It all started with boredom. Boredom led me to acting. I come from the countryside in the east of France. I come from a suburb and a very modest family. So when I was around 13 or 14, I used to hang around and go to the movies. But, I couldn’t really afford it. So I found a way to get in from the back door. And I would go there five times a week. And over the course of watching movies, I started to feel something in that place – the movie theater itself. It was something like being in an unconscious dream space. The material of the seat, the smell of the people around you, that don’t even look at you, but you share something. I escaped into this. And then I thought, I could someday be an actor. I moved to Paris with my bag and nowhere else to go.

If the stars align, you could be nominated for an Academy Award, which would make you the first Muslim actor nominated in a leading acting category. How would that feel for you?

Rahim: I don’t know a lot about awards in America and the way it works. I’m discovering it right now with you, with the friends that I have. But if that happened, that should help the community to change and to take an actor, whether he is Black, White, Muslim. So they can reach different parts [of the world] and tell stories and characters. To open up minds, if it helps with that, that would be so cool.

You get to work with Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley. How did you all come together on the project?

Rahim: When I got involved with the movie, Jodie was not yet. I was dreaming that she would accept the part and she did. She is a legend. I mean, I grew up with her. Shailene, I had just finished HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and I was like, “wow,” but I’d seen her in other movies. Benedict Cumberbatch as well. I was very excited but a bit intimidated. I was thinking “am I going to be able to do this, to exist, in the middle of those actors? A very vivid memory in my mind is when Kevin wanted us to read some parts of this trip to South Africa. Jodie, Shailene and I for a [script] reading. I forgot about the stress, and suddenly they came to life. I didn’t have the chance to meet or work with Benedict because we don’t have scenes together.

How long did you shoot?

Rahim: I think it was something like 26 days and it was a very hard shoot. I had to put myself on a very drastic diet, I needed to lose around 10 to 12 kilos, in a short time. Monday to Saturday, one day off and 12 hours a day. It was very, very tough but I liked it because it puts you in and in a specific emotional place that leads you to something that you may have been able to reach if you’re not in those conditions.

Favorite horror movie?

Rahim: “The Exorcist,” William Friedkin man. I had nightmares for weeks.

Which director would you love to work with?

Rahim: I’m such a big fan of [Alejandro González] Iñárritu

How has your family shaped you as a person?

Rahim: They helped me a lot. And if I start from the beginning, all the credits go to my mother. God bless her soul. She is the one who believed in me when no one would. I have my brothers and sisters because I’m from a big family. There are nine and I’m the youngest. They’ve been very protective. And then I met my wife on “A Prophet.” She helped me a lot. But really, what made me a solid soul were my kids. My two kids. My son is three and a half on my daughter is not even one. They are the most important things you have. Acting is my passion, it’s my job, but it’s not my life. My life is here with them. It makes you be a better actor as well. It helps you back to reality.

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, hosted by Clayton Davis, Jenelle Riley, Jazz Tangcay and Michael Schneider (who produces), is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.