Tahar Rahim was born and raised in Belfort, France, in 1981. Of Algerian descent, he recalls having a wonderful childhood, but that as an adventurous and energetic teenager, he searched for “something” to help rid him of his boredom. Belfort could not fulfill his ambitions. He realized his love for acting at age 15, which he developed by watching movies and going to the cinema. However, he did not automatically break into the world of film. Rather, he experienced a transitional period in sports and computer science programs, thinking they would open the doors to the future. He soon returned to what he loves most, cinema. Rahim enrolled in the University of Montpellier to study acting. After completing his studies, he carried his passion, his degree, and his backpack, and moved to Paris in search of a future that would realize his ambitions.
Rahim’s first acting experience was in Cyril Mennegun’s French documentary Tahar l’étudiant in 2005, which follows his financial struggles. His acting career took off when Jacques Audiard offered him the key role in A Prophet (Un Prophète) in 2009. The picture won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival as well as 9 César awards, including Most Promising Actor Award and the Best Actor Award for Rahim’s critically acclaimed performance. “I worked hard to succeed in auditions,” he says. “Destiny was my best ally. I met Jacques Audiard by chance, on the set of a series I was playing in. I did not intrude on him, but felt that he noticed me,” he recalls. “Audiard returned the day the series was broadcasted. He watched the first two episodes and came to congratulate me. I felt proud.” Rahim explains, “I went to the auditions and succeeded. This is where the story begins.”
The actor shares that above all, he did not want stardom to dazzle him. “I wanted neither to brag about success nor to change, so I kept to myself,” he states. “I preferred to persevere and maintain the same level of this role.” If Rahim enjoyed his success calmly, his choice offered him time to gain experience along with the confidence and the ability to choose the best roles. “With time, […] you know what you like most. Most importantly, you develop the ability to choose what suits you in terms of script, production, and other fundamentals of a successful movie, as it becomes a way that feels like an identification card,” he says, adding, “Years of experience have given me a great deal as well as fatherhood that changed my priorities.” Rahim is married to actor Leila Bekhti, and they have two children.
With more than twenty movies under his belt, Rahim has always played prominent roles that were very well-received by the press and the audiences, from an Arab prince alongside Channing Tatum in Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle and Samir in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, to Gary in Rebecca Zlotowski’s tragedy Grand Central. These characters opened the doors for more wide-reaching performances, like his lead role in Fatih Akin’s The Cut. He has starred in numerous successful films, especially Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene in 2018, where he played Judas opposite Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. The same year, he paired with Jeff Daniels in the blockbuster BBC series The Looming Tower in the role of Ali Soufan.
In 2021, the actor faces promising challenges, with lead roles in two productions based on true stories. He will be the main character in a Netflix series produced by BBC called The Serpent, where he plays Charles Sobhraj, a notorious killer from the 70s. The series is written by Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay. Rahim will also be one of the leads in Kevin McDonald’s The Mauritanian, starring Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Shailene Woodley. The movie tells the true story of a prisoner’s fight for survival against all odds. The prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi is played by Rahim. It is a role in which he takes the viewer into Mohamedou’s journey of agony with professionalism and feelings that stir up many an emotion. “It is great and also useful as an actor to play opposite an experienced, nice, and elegant actress like Jodi Foster. Here, the game is bigger, and the performance is more distinctive,” he comments. “Even with Jenna Coleman, there was great chemistry between us. We were able to find the note and this helped to succeed, especially when filming a difficult movie, like The Serpent.”
The challenge for an actor is to successfully play a role of a real character. “There are two ways to play such a role,” he comments. “If he is a well-known person, then you have no choice but to imitate them in every move so that audience can interact with the character. However, if he is an unfamiliar person, that allows the actor space since the audience will get first acquainted to them through the movie.” Commenting on the character preparations, Rahim says, “As for Mohamedou Ould Slahi, it was a big responsibility. I wanted him to be the first to see the movie and feel satisfied with it. I did not want to underestimate him or what he went through. We talked a lot. I was really surprised by his sense of humor and wisdom.” Rahim adds, “On asking him about his years of torture, his features, as I noticed, got tense, as if he was carried back to the past.” Rahim resorted to reduce questions and give more time for exploring Ould Slahi’s personality. “Mohamedou loving the movie was the biggest reward for me,” he shares. It’s worth noting that Rahim did not want to meet Charles Sobhraj, though he thought about it. “I got to know him through my research; the way he dresses, acts, and moves. I thought to meet him to know how he manages to deceive people. But, morally, and in respect of the victims, I did not want to,” he says. However, he needed to hear testimonies from people who met him. “There is no connection between us. So, I worked hard to perfectly match his appearance, firstly by quoting his look and moves. Thinking of an animal resembling him—the serpent came to my mind—specifically the Cobra that seems beautiful from the outward but has a venomous killing bite.” Rahim adds, “I was lucky to work with the film director Tom Shankland who has a deep knowledge of Sobhraj. We made our choices that later proved to be right when we got acquainted with Nadine Gieres, a real neighbor of Sobhraj. The description she gave us was exactly what we thought of and worked on.” If there was a connection to be made with Sobhraj, Rahim says, “It’s reflected in one sentence she said through our conversation: ‘I had to count on myself since I was 15 years old. No one wanted me. If I knew that fortune would smile on me, I would have waited. I took everything I wanted by myself.’” This statement can resemble the ambitious and dream-filled Rahim, but resemblance, ends here. He does not really know if he would accept playing roles he previously played. “I would love to move from one world to another, but no comedian or romantic roles were offered to me,” he laughs.
Rahim is proud to be French-Algerian. He has a good command of many languages and comes from diverse cultures. “I’m more than French-Algerian; I’m imbued with the cultures I lived in,” he says, adding, “I grew up in the middle of a multicultural and multinational environment. A mix of cultures at all levels: in lifestyle, language, and food. This is the true richness.” It can be said that this background paved his way towards working with international filmmakers. “I like learning languages and mastering them,” he pronounces.
Besides other under-discussion projects, Rahim is currently working on two French projects: a film and a Netflix series by Cédric Jimenez about the French Connection era and The Guerini brothers. When asked about the role he is most proud of, he comments: “I like all my roles and I’m happy with my choices,” adding, “Maybe Mohamedou is the dearest to my heart. This character goes beyond the film, it carries a message.” He adds, “Mohamedou does not hold a grudge against anyone. Out of this injustice, he learned wisdom which is great.”
Rahim will not accept to play unconvincing roles or those that are not in line with his beliefs. He cannot even say what roles exactly he likes to play; as all depend on several factors, including the script. He is drawn to the actors of Hollywood in the 1970s, since they often played characters from real life. “These actors are timeless icons, like John Cazale, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Meryl Streep,” comments Rahim. He also admires the works of many film directors, especially Adam McKay, Martin Scorsese, James Gray, and Bong Joon-ho.
If he was not an actor, Rahim would travel the globe searching for his passion—now he can do both. He lived the year 2002 his own way, spending more than nine months in various shooting locations. “Above all, I learned to live the present,” he says.
Originally published in Arabic in the February 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia