The cast and director of “The Mauritanian,” based on a true story of the torture and trial of a suspected 9/11 terrorist, want audiences to take away lessons of empathy, love and justice from the film.

Academy Award-winning director Kevin Macdonald, along with stars Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley and Tahar Rahim joined Variety film awards editor Clayton Davis in the Variety Streaming Room to discuss the difficulties of and preparation required to recount the gargantuan story of Mohamedou (Rahim), a man who unwittingly got involved with al-Qaida and was subsequently tortured at Guantanamo Bay without trial for his alleged involvement in 9/11.

For Macdonald, one of the challenges of the film was weaving the separate storylines of an ensemble cast — Mohamedou, his defense (Woodley and Foster) and military prosecutor’s (Cumberbatch) — into one cohesive story.

“How do you take these disparate stories and weave them together in a way that is compelling … and where you don’t feel like these are three completely disconnected stories,” Macdonald said.

The stars reflected on the complications of portraying real people, which they surmounted by researching the case and meeting with their respective characters. “With Nancy, you do feel that responsibility to make sure that you honor not just who she is, but her mission,” said Foster of her character Nancy Hollander, Mohamedou’s defense attorney who emphasizes the importance of the rule of law throughout the pic.

The panelists said a main driver of the film is the intellectual themes behind the story, such as the universality of humanity, the necessity of protecting civil liberties and the overwhelming power of fear and bias.

“When we look at fear, it’s easy to look at it from a very mental-based place, but I think, for [Teri,] she had a deep emotional fear, a fear of isolation, a fear of feeling neglected, a fear of being kicked out of society, in a way, because what she wants to do is right, but then she gets in her head about are the decisions she’s making right?” Woodley said of her character Teri Duncan, who is an amalgamation of the defense behind the case. “What does right and wrong even mean?”

Cumberbatch, who plays Lt. Stuart Couch, said he was attracted to the role because of the journey his character takes in unraveling the institutional issues that plague the U.S. military, particularly at Guantanamo.

“From wanting blood and then being brought to a realization that everything that he founds his belief on, from the law to the military to Christianity, and not necessarily in that order, was being undone by the actions at Guantanamo, and he couldn’t, with any conviction, square his conscious, and so he stepped away, he did that extraordinary thing of giving up the case,” Cumberbatch said.

Rahim, who plays the titular role, said his main obstacle was getting into the mental space required to depict a torture victim. To help with the reality of the scenes, he asked Macdonald to make his cell as cold as possible and be put in shackles. “It was tough. Because how could I possibly know what it is to be tortured like this?”

For Macdonald, the film serves as a lens through which audiences can understand the multiple facets of humanity beyond the realms of guilt or innocence.

“The Muslim man accused of terror is probably the least loved person in the world and the least understood person, and I think … it’s that emotional connection,” Macdonald said. “It’s a film about humanity and about why are we doing this to other human beings? What possible excuse can there be? And it’s beyond his innocence or his guilt.”