Tahar Rahim on avoiding stereotypical roles and taking Hollywood by storm
Tahar Rahim always knew his worth as an actor, but he had to push extra hard to get the roles he wanted.
At first, the French-Algerian actor said the parts he was offered “lacked imagination” – to say the least.
After his breakout role in the highly-acclaimed French crime drama A Prophet, in which he played a young criminal in a rough prison navigating between the Corsican mafia and Muslim factions, the roles he then received, especially from Hollywood productions, were unoriginal, even clichéd.
"Tahar Rahim has come a long way since his humble beginnings in Belfort, a small town near the French-Swiss border, where he was raised by Algerian parents"
Roles of a terrorist, a Muslim gangster, even a cheating French lover – Tahar received stereotypical parts over and over again, but as a young Arab actor trying to make his mark in both French and foreign films, he was intent on avoiding being typecast, especially if the script lacked nuance.
“I said no to a lot of people,” Tahar told The New Arab, “but things have changed for the better since.”
“At the very beginning, after A Prophet, they wanted me to do the same thing over and over again, as a gangster, a criminal. So, I tried to make my way, the way I wanted it, which is jumping from one style to another, one country to another, because this is who I am. This is my life. That’s the way I’ve been brought up.”
Tahar’s unwavering determination to only accept roles that challenged him, with directors with a strong voice, eventually paid off.
Since Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Tahar has worked with some of the most talented filmmakers from around the world: Kevin Macdonald (in The Mauritanian and The Eagle), Asghar Farhadi (in The Past), Jean-Jacques Annaud (in Black Gold), and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (in Daguerrotype) to name but a few.
But far more is still to come: Tahar has just wrapped up filming Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, in which the English filmmaker reunites with Joaquin Phoenix for the first time since Gladiator.
In other latest news, Tahar is listed to star alongside Anne Hathaway, Marisa Tomei and Matthew Broderick in Rebecca Miller’s upcoming New York-set rom-com She Came to Me.
Tahar can also add his name to the list of famous actors who’ve jumped on the unstoppable Marvel bandwagon.
It was announced last week that Tahar is the latest to join Sony Pictures’ upcoming female-driven Spider-Man spin-off Madame Web, adding his name to a growing cast that includes Dakota Johnson (The Lost Daughter) and Sidney Sweeney (Euphoria).
All these A-list film projects lined up for Tahar confirm that he’s one of the most in-demand and acclaimed Arab actors working today.
After winning several Best Actor awards for A Prophet when he was only 28 (he is now 40), he garnered more international praise for his roles in The Mauritanian, portraying the wrongly imprisoned ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi alongside Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch, for which he received a BAFTA nomination, and for the crime drama series The Serpent, co-produced by BBC One and Netflix, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination for his magnetic portrayal of French serial killer Charles Sobhraj.
At the 75th Cannes Film Festival, he promoted the premiere of his new film, Don Juan, a French musical that offers a fresh take on the famed womaniser made famous by Molière and Mozart.
After a series of roles in crime dramas and police thrillers, Tahar is now surprising much of his fanbase by singing and dancing in this musical directed by Serge Bozon. A challenge he relished to take part in, especially alongside Belgian-French actress Virginie Effra (Benedetta).
“I had to do many lessons to be able to do it [sing], you don't want to hear me singing,” he said laughing. Tahar said he watched old French singer-songwriters to help him study for the role, like Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour, singers who really put their soul behind every performance, just what Tahar was trying to achieve. “You have to be able to convey your emotions,” he said about the singing. “It's a whole different game.”
The film offers an original take on a much-told story, one reimagining the womanising myth of Don Juan in a post-#MeToo feminist context. Rather than conquering women, Don Juan is abandoned on his wedding day in the film’s first scene and remains alone at the end.
In between, he finds his ex-fiancée in every woman he meets, desperately trying to woo them to get over his heartbreak, but none fall for his attempts.
It is a story that embraces men’s vulnerability rather than promoting toxic masculinity, while also empowering female characters – angles that convinced Tahar to take on the role.
“When you pick a project, you don’t think about all of this [the feminist context]. The first thing you seek is to be surprised and to do something that you haven’t done before, and to explore different artistic fields,” he said.
“What was really original [about the project] was to tell a story with a male character at the centre of it who’s living with heartache, I’ve never seen that before… that was interesting because it shows that us men feel the same when we’re sad and without love. I think women are stronger to handle this heartache.”
Tahar Rahim has come a long way since his humble beginnings in Belfort, a small town near the French-Swiss border, where he was raised by Algerian parents. He spoke English in a surprising Southern US accent, perhaps training for an upcoming role.
Although he couldn’t choose one dream part, he said he’d love to play in a Western, imagining himself as a cowboy. But Tahar remains curious to try anything original, in any genre – attracted to diversity ever since he was a young boy when he jumped from culture to culture and whet his appetite to become an actor.
“When I was a kid we were all together. Asian people, African people, North African people, Mediterranean people, French people, Gypsies. We were kids together, hanging out, and it brings back a lot of memories.
"We would visit each other’s houses, and without even noticing it we were discovering different cultures. That fed me as a man, and that might be the reason why I like to work with both French and foreign directors.”
Alexander Durie is a Multimedia Journalist for The New Arab. His stories focus on social movements, migration issues, and the arts & culture of the SWANA region. He has contributed to The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, The Economist, The Independent, and more.
Follow him on Twitter: @alexander_durie