Tahar Rahim The Mauritanian

The Mauritanian presented Tahar Rahim with the toughest role of his career

“I cried at the end of the script.”

Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian tells the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), a man from Mauritania whose tenuous connections to Al-Qaeda put him directly in the crosshairs of American counterterrorism.

Dogged for years by authorities, Salahi was eventually detained, questioned at length for months based on his association with known jihadists and eventually sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he stayed for 14 years, enduring torture and isolation. Somewhere along the line, he comes into contact with Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), a defence attorney, and her associate Terri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), who begin a years-long process to free him. 

Tahar Rahim was born in France to Algerian parents. His career really took off in 2009 with Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. Suffice to say that when you’re a young actor of Maghrebi descent whose career is really popping off in the years following 9/11, projects about terrorism are bound to come your way. 

“I was skeptical, because I read the title, which was Guantanamo Diary at that time,” says Tahar Rahim. “I made a mistake. I instantly thought, ‘Kevin is too clever to make those kinds of movies that I don’t want to do, be a part of or even see.’ But when I read it, I knew I wanted to do it. Straight away.”

Rahim and Macdonald had previously worked together on the 2011 historical epic The Eagle — the first project that Rahim was involved in following his international breakout in A Prophet. 

“When I first met Kevin for The Eagle, it was 10 years ago or so,” says Rahim. “At that time, I was frustrated because I could barely speak English. I couldn’t really build a real connection with my director. My communication was not good enough. I had a good time and we got along very well. We became good friends over the years and he came back five years later with a TV show. We didn’t do it, finally, but when he came up with this story, I was ready. My relationship with him was great and is still great. As a great director, he likes to share ideas with his actors. He cares for actors. He always listens to suggestions. He’s not narrow-minded at all. He knows that everything we do is to help the movie. He once told me that the best idea always wins.”

Though there are bonafide movie stars in The Mauritanian, Rahim is really the star of the show. Mohamedou is taken through every horror imaginable: beaten, tortured, subjected to sexual humiliation and even, in one case, a sort of “murder prank.” As the film takes place over more than a decade, it’s a role that requires a lot of gradual, incremental work.

“It was the most challenging part I’ve ever had to do, because there are so many challenging things in it!” says Rahim. “All those torture scenes. I had to speak four different languages… We needed to build his ability to speak English gradually, which is a bit complicated when you think about it. Plus, I felt really responsible to Mohamedou. I didn’t want him to feel disappointed, diminished or simply not happy about what he would see. He was my first audience. I wanted him to be happy and I wanted to please him. That was one of my biggest challenges, finally.”

The centrepiece of the film is the speech that Mohamedou gives, via Skype, during one of his trials. As it turns out, even that scene — demanding under any circumstance — brought its lot of extra challenges.

“When I first read the script, I got struck by this monologue. I cried at the end of the script. It was so important to tell people what this character needs to say about his background, his religion and what he’s been through. It was important, and the funny thing was that we were supposed to shoot this in the middle of the shoot or at the end, but we had a scheduling problem. Two days before we started to shoot, Kevin told me we needed to start with the monologue. (laughs) I got scared, and I worked on it a lot in order to be emotional enough to convey what Mohamedou wanted to convey to the world. I think it’s a very clever one and I was moved by the fact that he doesn’t hold any grudges against anybody. It’s a beautiful life lesson.”

Of course, a large part of preparing for the role involved meeting the real Mohamedou, who was released from Guantanamo in 2016 and now lives in Mauritania.

“I met him on Skype for the first time,” says Rahim. “I was shooting abroad in Thailand. I wanted to meet him. I wanted to travel to Mauritania, but it was not possible. So we met on Skype and it was a great meeting. It was like meeting a friend — someone cool, funny and generous. It came as a shock to me that a man who has been through what he’s been through would be able to crack jokes, to smile, to be funny. At some point, we needed to talk about some touchy moments. Suddenly, he began to change. He became very sad, dark. His eyes would go here and there. I felt like I was embarrassing him and I felt stupid, so I stopped asking those questions. At that moment, I felt like I was meeting someone extraordinary. I took advantage of it. I knew that by talking to him, spending time with him, talking about the people in his life and in Guantanamo, I would catch his spirit. It was more observing him and listening to him. When you meet someone like him, all you have to do is shut up and listen.” ■

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Cult MTL. The Mauritanian is available on VOD now. For more about the film, please visit its IMDB page. Watch the trailer here:

The Mauritanian starring Tahar Rahim

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