Tahar Rahim
Photo by Arno Lam/Charlette Studio

Tahar Rahim: “Why recreate when you can create?”

 Listen to Audio Excerpt Listen to Audio Excerpt
Short Profile

Name: Tahar Rahim
DOB: 4 July 1981
Place of birth: Belfort, France
Occupation: Actor

Tahar Rahim stars in the Netflix series, The Serpent, available to stream on 2 April 2021.

Mr. Rahim, apparently you have quite the work ethic on a film set, and you will always ask for just one more take. What changes for you during that last take?

Well, you have enough time to explore the scene, to do it in different ways. You're in a way almost always conscious about recreating something. And you always have a little bit of pressure because you’ve got to please your director as well. So when you see your director very pleased and happy, like, “Okay, we’ve got it,” then there's no pressure at all! You know that he's got the right one and it feels like you're free to try whatever you want. It’s not a problem, you can make a lot of mistakes, it’s all good. And by doing that freestyle take, you can create accidents. And sometimes accidents are the truth.

Is that work ethic something that you live by in your regular life as well?

Oh, it depends. When I’m with my family and my friends and my kids, I have a responsibility to them. So, no. But when I'm the only one concerned, I like that. I feel like I'm going back to school with every single movie I do. That's what I'm looking for, to be honest. If I pick a movie, and it's almost the same as the previous one, I'm probably going to get bored. I'm not going to be efficient if I feel like I'm not learning anything acting wise, or as a man — because whatever you learn as an actor feeds the man as well. And vice versa.

“I find it harder to play someone who's just happy in a simple life because it's too real, too common, too natural.”

So your previous roles have an influence on the next ones?

Sometimes, yes. But with something like The Serpent, not at all. I mean, I always wanted to explore evil in a character. You want to explore different fields of acting, and this one, I’d never tried it before — I actually thought it would be easier. I knew about Charles Sobrahj even before I got the offer. When I was 16, I read a book about him, I thought I could play him because I was naive enough to not see the horror. I was just interested in the fact that he is an actor as well in a way; taking different personalities of his victims, and that he was French. But when I started to build him as I usually do from inside, it was so tough because I couldn't find any connection with him.

But on the other hand, playing an average, normal person — who you might connect with very easily — could probably also be a challenge.

(Laughs) I do find it harder to play someone who's just happy in a simple life because, you’re right, it's too real, too common, too natural. There’s these little moments of normal life, like opening the door, picking up a glass of water… As an actor, you make a big deal out of everything. And when you try to go method for that normal guy, you end up thinking, “Maybe he should take his glass like this, or like that!” And it turns out to be very ridiculous. It’s hard! I guess because maybe I don't feel like I'm creating something.

What do you mean?

When I played the Guantanamo Bay prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi in The Mauritanian, for example, it was important for me to get as close as possible to real life torture, because I couldn’t do it otherwise. When you have to learn how to ride a horse or play trumpet, which I’ve done, you have time to practice over and over. But I couldn't see myself wearing shackles in my hotel room. It's impossible. I needed it to be as authentic as possible to his actual conditions during the filming: I was fasting, I was shackled, I was waterboarded, I was freezing cold… Why recreate when you can create? It was more about experiencing something than performing.

Although you’re multilingual, you’ve also learned several new languages for your roles. Is that process also an experience rather than a performance?

You do have to know what you're saying. Each time I'm acting in a foreign language, for example, in classic Arabic — I don't speak this type of Arabic, — I had to know exactly what I was saying, what each word would mean because I think otherwise, you would feel that emptiness. With a film like The Eagle, though, I was actually protected by the language I played in front of the camera. Scottish Gaelic is a dead language, so no one really knows about it and if I made some mistakes, it would be okay. But when it came to connecting with my director and with the other actors, I felt frustrated because my English wasn’t as good back then. I felt like there was some barriers and that if I could’ve explained myself properly, it would have been a better experience for me.

You’ve since really mastered the language and you’ve said that these days, you actually feel freer acting in English.

When I first started to play roles in English, I felt like I was a virgin again, everything was new. With any new language, the frequency is different. In France, it’s a low frequency, it's very flat. In English and Arabic and many other languages, it's different. The rhythm is different, you start low, and then you go high, then loud… You play with it, and your face moves differently, so your body and of course, your emotions. You feel more free to create something because you discover yourself, you feel your body as you never felt it before. It’s interesting.

“Languages connect you to a country's culture, so each time you ask for a word and you want to understand something, it comes from somewhere. You learn a little bit more every time.”

Would you say that exploring these other languages can broaden your cultural horizons in the same way that something like travel does?

Not quite as much as traveling, of course, but it does help me in the same way. Languages connect you to a country's culture, so each time you ask for a word and you want to understand something, it comes from somewhere. You learn a little bit more about the culture every time. Plus you meet with coaches, and they will tell you a lot about their culture.

Why is that something that’s important for you as an actor?

Because I believe in the addition of cultures. Really, I think that is the most enriching thing on earth. It's sometimes sad to see people trying to just find the differences between someone from another country… We should try to find the similarities to create connections. At the end of the day when you think about it borders are just invisible lines.

James McAvoy says that because he grew up in rural Scotland, he owed his cultural understanding to art education rather than actual experience. How was it for you growing up? Did you travel a lot?

I traveled a lot in my little city! My understanding of different cultures and my love for that comes from my childhood, from my suburb where I grew up. There were kids in my suburb from everywhere, whose parents immigrated from Asia, southern Europe, eastern Europe, France, North Africa, Germany… So when we were hanging around together and we would go to each other’s houses and meet each other's parents, it was within their own cultures that what they brought from their country: music, food, films, languages, all of it. So, yes, I was travelling within my neighbourhood — and that's where that's where everything, even my taste for foreign movies, comes from.