Tahar Rahim, from Mauritanian, on his portrait of the Guantanamo detainee – Deadline

Mohamedou Ould Salahi endured unimaginable horror as an inmate at the famous US government detention center at Guantanamo Bay for over 14 years. During that time no charges were ever brought against him, and with the help of his tireless lawyer Nancy Hollander, who withstood extreme criticism for representing terrorist suspects, he was finally granted his freedom in 2016. His story is the subject of director Kevin Macdonald’s New Movie Mauritanian, based on the memoir Salahi wrote in custody, in which Tahar Rahim telegraphs the pain and resolve of a victim of America’s bitter war on terrorism. Yet, as Rahim explains, it was a role he could have dismissed before reading it …

Jodie Foster says ‘Mauritanian’ reflects residual effects of US transformation after 9/11

DEADLINE: You last worked with Kevin Macdonald The Eagle. It was your very first role after a prophet, right?

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TAHAR RAHIM: Yes. I remember when a prophet came out, I had a lot of offers, but it was kind of the same type of characters, but not as good, not as well written. So I wanted to wait until I had something good to defend. Kevin called me after seeing the trailer for a prophet. He hadn’t even seen the movie, just the trailer. And he offered me a role in The Eagle. Everything was new to me, so I thought, it’s great, you can get a role right in the back of the trailer. I was a kid, I was just discovering this industry, this world. By the time we shot the movie, I could barely speak English. So, it was a bit strange and frustrating to share an adventure without having a real relationship with my director.

DEADLINE: How did you get over this?

RAHIM: I have been working my English since then. First of all, I work with a lot of foreign directors who don’t speak French, so English was a common language. And I started to learn English from movies, from music. There was a turning point for me, and that was when I played Ali Soufan in The impending tower, because he is an American citizen. He went to America as a teenager, so I had to work four hours a day with a trainer working on emphasis, and I did my homework every morning. Being in America, being in New York, I was surrounded by people who spoke English every day. Wherever you go, you train. So that helped me a lot.

DEADLINE: How did Kevin approach you Mauritanian?

RAHIM: After The Eagle we always wanted to work together again. We were going to do a show together –The last panthers– what I finally did with Johan Renck. In the end, it didn’t work out with Kevin, so I’m like, OK, well, there will be another chance.

About two and a half years ago, I got a message from Kevin saying, “Hey, I could have a good slice for you.” So I’m like, “Great, send it.” He sent me the script and my first reaction was disappointment. By the time the movie was called Guantanamo Journal, which is the title of Mohamedou’s book. I saw the title and thought, no way, Kevin is do not is going to offer me one of those endless stereotypical games that I have refused for years in Hollywood to play a Muslim terrorist.

DEADLINE: How many such offers have you received?

Tahar Rahim in 'The Mauritanian'
STX Entertainment

RAHIM: I had maybe 15 or 20 offers like that, from America, Germany, France, since I made it a prophet. When you go to talk about topics like these, you need to know what you are talking about and what you want to say. What do you want to say to an audience? What do you want them to learn? I am not saying that Muslim terrorism does not exist; we all know it happened and it’s real. But that’s a tiny part of the Muslim experience, and Muslims, Arabs, are also very hurt by what these people have done. There is another side of being a Muslim that isn’t explored enough, and even before I started receiving these offers, I knew I wasn’t interested in telling stories about terrorists. I refused to be a tool to tell these stories. And they didn’t need me; of course, they still told these stories.

DEADLINE: It was different though …

RAHIM: Yes, and because I knew Kevin and knew he would be too smart for that. So I thought, let me put that aside and just read it. And, I mean, I fell in love. With the role, with the script, with the story of Mohamedou. I cried twice, because it was so emotional. I cried because it hurt me. I cried because of who this person was. How to get out of an experience like his without blaming anyone? I was like, OK, that’s a life lesson right there, and I have to go through this process because I want to learn something, not just as an actor, but as a man. It all started that way.

And then I had the chance to meet Mohamedou virtually, and he was incredibly kind, with such a brilliant sense of humor. I didn’t want to disturb him by asking too many delicate questions. I didn’t see myself as a young actor with a notepad saying, “OK, about that experience…” So, we just talked. We had a conversation, and it was just about catching his mood, his mind and all that.

DEADLINE: What could you have taken away from him? There are images of the real Mohamedou at the end of the movie, and he wears a huge smile, and just generally full of life. The Mohamedou you play is in a very different place, locked up in Guantanamo, fighting for his freedom.

RAHIM: That was the hardest part, because how can you really know what it is without experiencing it? It is simply impossible. It’s my job to fake it, but I don’t want to fake it, otherwise you will feel it as a member of the audience. First of all, I have a responsibility to Mohamedou to play a real man. I wanted him to be happy with what I had done, and I didn’t want him to feel diminished by my performance.

Tahar Rahim in 'The Mauritanian'
STX Entertainment

For that I needed to embrace some of the real world conditions, physically, because you can work as hard as you like on the character psychology – and I read his book, I met him, and I did – but there is a big difference between knowing psychology and understanding how it will be tested by the experiences he has. So, for example, I asked them to chain me with real chains. I needed to taste it. I needed to get some idea. So my job is to magnify it and play with my emotions, but this realism was necessary for me. The bruises I got while chaining myself, I kept them for the rest of the movie. And I can tell you that I wore these chains for maybe two hours a day for maybe two days. So you think… Mohamedou wore them every day, sometimes 24 hours a day, for almost 15 years.

It was an example. Another is that Mohamedou was transferred to a cold cell at one point, and I asked the production to make the set as cold as possible so that I could really feel that experience. I did. When you are cold for such a long time, something starts to happen inside of you. I combined that with a drastic diet where I ate hard-boiled eggs, a little chicken breast, and maybe two glasses of water each day. When you combine all of that… Man, I learned a lot from that experience, fasting on set, living in this cold. Your soul flies in fields you never knew existed [laughs]. You are carried away by your emotional and physical state.

DEADLINE: How hard is it to stay in control in this environment?

RAHIM: It’s difficult. This time it was hard. Usually I can manage my characters and leave them on set, but with this one, I’ll tell you, it took me three weeks to get out of it. This had never happened to me before. But when I got home, my wife and my friend would look at me and say, “Tell us what happened. You are so different. You are not here with us.

But it had to be done that way, for Mohamedou. It had to be real, because to him it was real. And I want to make films that I want to see, okay, so I want audiences to feel the authenticity of what they’re watching. I couldn’t have done it any other way, really. No, there was no other way to do it.

DEADLINE: Have you ever been able to ask Mohamedou the most difficult questions about his experience? He came on the set while you were shooting the Guantanamo scenes…

RAHIM: He came, and for him I think it was like being there. It was so hard for him. They set him up near the monitors and gave him headphones so he could hear the scenes we were shooting. And he’s so polite, he said, “Thank you” and took the headphones, but he turned off the receiver. He didn’t want to see, didn’t want to hear. He just closed his eyes.

But I heard he was crying; he was also there with Nancy, the real Nancy Hollander, Mohamedou’s lawyer, who is played by Jodie Foster in the film. And we were shooting the scene where he finally starts telling her the truth. They sat behind the monitors together, held hands and cried.

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