Tahar Rahim on portraying ‘The Mauritanian’: ‘The best way to catch his spirit was just to listen to him’

Mohamedou Ould Slahi is a Muslim Mauritanian who was arrested in November 2001 under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorist act which was implemented a week after 9/11. U.S. government authorities alleged he was involved with al Qaeda and may have even recruited the hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. Slahi was sent to Guantanamo Bay detention center in 2002 where he remained without being charged until 2016.

He did confess after extreme torture, including sleep deprivation, beatings and even sexual humiliation. One time he was blindfolded, tossed into a boat and taken out to sea where he was led to believe he was going to be executed. But because the torture led to his confession, it was considered inadmissible under U.S and international law. During his incarceration, he wrote the 2015 best-selling memoir “Guantanamo Diary,” which was smuggled out of Gitmo. Ironically, he wasn’t allowed a copy of the published book while he was at the prison.

Slahi’s harrowing story is now a feature film, “The Mauritanian,” which is set for released by STX in theaters on Feb. 12. Directed by Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald (“One Day in September,” “The Last King of Scotland’), the drama stars Tahar Rahim as Slahi, Jodie Foster as his attorney Nancy Hollander, Shailene Woodley as her younger associate Teri Duncan and Benedict Cumberbatch as the prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, who refuses to prosecute Slahi when he discovers the torture he endured before he confessed. Almost every critic has praised Rahim’s empathetic performance. Charlotte O’Sullivan in the London Evening Standard stated that the “grueling true-life story of incarceration is eminently watchable by a central performance from Tahar Rahim that ranks among this best.”

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Recently, Macdonald, the grandson of the great Emeric Pressburger, Foster and Rahim had a lively zoom conversation with Los Angeles Film Critics Association president Claudia Puig.

Macdonald got involved in the project after Cumberbatch, who is also a producer, sent him Slahi’s book. “Benedict optioned the book,” he said “I read it and thought this is an amazing feat. It was written inside the prision. The only book that was written and smuggled out. But I don’t really know what the film is.” He was told just talk to Slahi. “I did and he is such a remarkable person. He’s so warm, funny and teasing. He just captivated me.” And he was amazed at “his incredible, superhuman ability to empathize with other people. He even is able to empathize with the people who mistreated him, just to put himself into their shoes and ask, ‘I wonder why they did that? I wonder what their upbringing was?’

Ultimately, of course, at the end of the film we see that he has forgiven those who did this to him.” Slahi told him that his mistreatment at Gitmo was based on fear, “that America was frightened after 9/11 and all the guards were frightened of him. They all thought he was Hannibal Lecter. They were told that this prisoner is going to bite your face off. I guess the movie is trying to, more than anything else, just to humanize this prisoner.”

The second she read the screenplay by M.B. Traven and Rory Haines & Sohrab Shivani, Foster knew it was something she needed to do. “Why we all found our way here was that we were so captivated by him and wondered how that’s possible that somebody who is subjected to fear and terror instead of becoming a revenge seeker turned it into love and humanity and forgiveness and joy.

Rahim talked a lot with Slahi over Skype. “The more we would talk, the less I wanted to ask him questions because I felt like I was meeting someone extraordinary,” he explained. “You don’t get to meet great people quite often in life. So, I just wanted to take advantage of him. The best way to catch his spirit, was just to listen to him and try to observe and take something out of him.” When they did meet on the set in South Africa, the two hugged like they had known each other for years.

Though Foster knew she had to do the film, she admitted that she has shied away from playing real people because she is not a fan of biopics. “I’ve only done one movie where I played a real person, but she had been dead for a couple of years,” she noted. “So, I could take some liberties.” And with Hollander, she explained “there are some liberties taken. I look like her. I had the red nail polish and the lipstick. I did push a little bit, her toughness. I play a much less light character of Nancy.”

Macdonald added Foster played a version of Hollander that Slahi talked about with him. “His version of what she was like was that she was always the one who distrusted him. She was only interested in doing the right thing by the Constitution and not interested in him as a person. I think that was probably not who Nancy was.”

“That’s what you do when you make films,” Foster explained. You are usually charting how a character changes-how they start off one way and whatever the journey is, how they eventually come to some kind of understanding. That understanding usually mirrors how the audience changes as well. Eventually through the process of knowing Mohamedou and learning what happened to him, she grows to love him, which is the true story. She really does [love him.].”

Slahi wanted to make sure that the film was accurate, noted Macdonald, in its depiction of Gitmo. “Because he said to me ‘The American government spent millions of dollars keeping all of that secret, keeping everyone away from that, not letting you know.: He spent a lot of time drawing out what his cell looked like, what the pathways looked like, describing the colors.

Rahim noted he had to come as close as “possible to the real conditions Mohamedou’s been through just to have a taste of it and feel of it. We have our little tricks as actors. So, I wore real shackles.  I wanted to feel the cold, the waterboarding. It was a good experience, I guess, even if it was very hard to do. I was not in danger. Kevin was there, a bit worried.’

“I think I was worried about him at times,” Macdonald agreed, especially during the week they filmed the harrowing torture sequences. “For the week of the torture, he didn’t really eat at all,” said the filmmaker. “He insisted on wearing real shackles the whole time. His feet were bleeding because those shackles rub into you legs. So, I was a bit terrified he was going to get sick.”

Macdonald said what Rahim’s performance is so strong is that “you’re never divorced from the human being. You always empathize with this person. That was obviously a real challenge. We were all worried will an audience accept and start to feel for an imprisoned Muslim terrorist? Somebody who was accused of being one of the recruiters for 9/11. How do you get to a place where they start to feel for him, understand and empathize with what he’s doing? A lot of the movie was designed around that. Obliviously, Tahar’s performance is the thing that really makes that real.”

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