Tahar Rahim (‘The Mauritanian’) on what questions he had for the real Mohamedou Ould Salahi [Complete Interview Transcript]

Tahar Rahim plays Mohamedou Ould Salahi, the real-life Guantanamo Bay detainee, in the new film “The Mauritanian.” His performance has earned him a Golden Globe nomination.

Rahim recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Riley Chow about working with director Kevin Macdonald, meeting the real Salahi and what he hopes viewers take from “The Mauritanian.” Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: This role hearkens back to your breakthrough in 2009’s “A Prophet.” So I believe that these are the only two films that you’ve done where you spend most of your screen time incarcerated. Was this on your mind while you were shooting? 

Tahar Rahim: No, not while I was shooting, but of course, I thought about it. It was a bit ironic (laughs). There was one thing that I took from my experience from “A Prophet,” as an actor, to occupy a very small space, to be alone in a place and improvise things, “What should I do with my time? What should I think when I’ll be alone in a cell?” It was like I did that before. So it helped me to get through Mohamedou. 

GD: Now, you had worked with your director, Kevin Macdonald, before. He sent you the script, you said you read it, you were extremely moved, as you’ve talked about in other interviews. So I’m wondering when you actually got to talking to him again after you had read it, what were your initial questions? 

TR: It was more of a conversation. My feelings were mixed up. I was really happy to get this part but at the same time, I felt angry and sad because it’s a true story. So we talked about that, we talked about Mohamedou, about many things, but I had the chance to get the script two years ago, so it infuses inside of me. So it was like we were talking back and forth about the character, about the way he would shoot the movie, about the torture scenes, because I wanted to know how far he wanted to go, how much he wanted to show. And he was like, “I don’t want to freak out the audience so they don’t watch the movie. I need to tell the truth to show them what happened but I don’t want them to go away, to disconnect with your character,” and to make that possible, I needed to do it in a way for real, to wear real shackles, to get waterboarded, force-fed, put in a cold cell and lost a lot of kilos, just so we can convey authenticity and real emotions to the audience. Who else better than Kevin, who did fictions and documentaries, to do this? He knows what’s a genuine feeling. He knows what’s a real person. So I couldn’t fake anything. I couldn’t rely on my habits and I trusted him 200 percent to lead me to that place. 

GD:  I’ve seen you mention having a coach on set. What was the coach for? 

TR: He was more than a coach. I met him four or five years ago because I needed to improve my English to do “The Looming Tower” and I met someone who became a member of my family, who’s 72 years old. His name is Bob Meyer. He’s a director who directed a movie, “Drunkboat,” with John Malkovich and John Goodman, and he ended up living in France and he’s got a whole philosophy of life and he, of course, helped me to improve my English, but he knows exactly what’s the American culture. I’m French. So when I read a script, I know how to portray my character, many things but sometimes between the lines, there’s some answers that I can’t really see. He would tell me and I really relied on him every evening. We would work every evening for the next day. He carried me all the way along and I couldn’t have made it without him. 

GD: I’ve seen Kevin talk about how you have a number of things to portray in every scene. He wants the audience to be fearful of you, to be suspicious of you, to pity you, but also to love you, and then you would work through calibrating this on set at various levels, do different takes. So I’m wondering, when you are giving a performance that is changing take to take like that, how do you maintain consistency in your performance overall when you don’t actually know what’s going to end up onscreen? 

TR: You’ve got to trust your director. I mean, as an actor, I’m full of doubt and sometimes I want to do things and I do them, and if my relationship with my director is not based on trust, I can’t really give my all, I can’t really unleash myself because I’m afraid that if I do this, of course, I’m going to make mistakes. Movies are made for this. We can do many takes, but I would be afraid that he would take that one and not give me enough freedom. With Kevin, it was not the case. I would dive in, try something, and then he would come to me like, “Listen, be more threatening. Then be more charming.” And at some point, we would find the right balance to have every feeling and layers you want to give to the audience. Yes, it was something, and we liked to do different takes all the time so he could have more material when he’d be in the editing room. 

GD: I’ve seen other interviews where you talk about meeting Mohamedou, the real person, first by Skype, then in person, seeing how he responded to certain questions that you had. I’m wondering if he had any concerns or questions for you that he brought up right away when he met you. 

TR: Not at all. He’s so wise. He knows why this movie is important. It’s not just important for him, but for all the people who are still living this, whether it’s in Guantanamo or in another jail, in another country and that’s why he wanted this movie to happen. No, he wouldn’t ask me a lot of questions. He would encourage me by answering my questions, ’til the torture questions. I felt bad because I could tell that he was suffering in front of my eyes. So it was stupid for me to keep going. So I stopped. Spending time with him, I needed to understand something, though. I couldn’t get how he’s not angry against these people at all. So I was like, “You can tell me between us, do you still feel angry or are you trying to fight against anger?” And he was like, “No, not at all.” When you get to understand that by accepting this and being [able to] forgive people, you give a treat to yourself, so your mind can travel free even if you’re in jail. You got the point, you are free and you might have the power to change people’s mind, people’s perspective, and he succeeded because it turned out that his guards and his captors became his friends. 

GD: When you’re making a movie, a lot of things are going to be changing from the real-life story. Not necessarily everything’s going to translate as well onscreen as it happens in real life. So I’m wondering, is there anything about your portrayal of Mohamedou that you would point to as being quite different from the real one? 

TR: Maybe. Yeah, of course, but it’s really hard for me to pinpoint them because maybe there’s something that has changed in the script, but I don’t really think so. It’s more a question for Kevin. But for me, I didn’t want to just mimic him. I didn’t want to move exactly like he moves or talk 100 percent like he talks. You do that when you don’t have a choice, when you have to be, I don’t know, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson or whatever because they’re famous. You don’t have a choice. But when people are not famous, that gives you a little bit of freedom, the freedom that you can take to perfectly fit with what the script is demanding. Because sometimes when you just do exactly what people are doing and you mimic them, it’s great, but how can I put it? You got your limits. It’s like having barriers surrounding you because you see the limits. When you know that you can go a little bit beyond, you got more space to explore and I think that it’s more related to genuine feelings. 

GD: The film had a different title when you got the script, had a different title from that when you’re actually shooting it. Now, it’s called “The Mauritanian.” So now if you Google “The Mauritanian,” there will be a picture of your face, I guess, as the quintessential citizen of that country that has millions of people. So I’m wondering, what’s your response to all of that? 

TR: I don’t know, I think it’s cool because a lot of people don’t even know that this country exists. When Mohamedou watched the movie, I was so nervous. I was waiting for his feedback and he called me and I’m like, “So?” And he goes, “I’m very happy.” And he was very happy, very pleased. Just to say that as Mohamedou, as he is, he ended up with a joke saying, “Oh, thanks to you, the world will know that Mauritania is a country,” which I found funny. 

GD: This is not something that I’ve ever said in an interview, but I was floored by your performance. We’re an awards website and I feel like it’s not being said enough that I would like to see you win the Oscar for this. So I want to bring out your speech at the climax of this movie. Can you tell me what went into that scene? 

TR: There’s a story behind this monologue. When you make a movie, the schedule is made in a way that you go slowly into it. You start with a small scene when you don’t talk and blah, blah, blah so you can train and warm up. But we had a little schedule issue and Kevin came over to me two days before the first day shooting and he said, “Listen, I’m sorry, we gotta change everything. You gotta start with a monologue, the end of the movie.” And I’m like, “Man, how am I going feel, 14 years in jail and all he’s been through just like that?” And he said, “Yes, but we have no choice.” Sometimes you surprise yourself when you’re put in such a stress, in those surprising moments. I took all the stress, the fact that I was nervous, to put it into this monologue while we were shooting and it was so important to me because this is where I cried when I read the script. It’s the perfect sum-up of what Mohamedou’s been through and what he is and why you can get connected to him, his philosophy, is the climax. Yeah, I used the stress to put it in… it was half me, half him, you see. But yeah, it was an amazing moment because I think it’s important to tell this not just to the audience, but to people. 

GD: Do you have any recommendations for viewers who might want to do something about what’s going on, related to Guantanamo or any kind of activism? Is that something that you look into when you take on a role like this? 

TR: I don’t really like talking politics because my job is my job, but whatever. I have an opinion like everybody. Once, Picasso, journalists came and they asked him a question about Franco and what’s happening over there at that time and he said, “I have nothing else to tell you, but to watch my painting ‘Guernica.'” That’s the way I do and I pick my movies. If you want to know the way I think, my opinion, my point of view, just watch the movie I pick. There’s always something to take out of. But if there’s something to take away from the movie that I would tell people is that if it’s possible that this movie helps people with preconceived ideas to question themselves and eventually change their point of view or their mind, whatever, that would be a beautiful step forward, to not be led and guided by your fears. It never helps. Plus, we’ve gotta not be afraid of what doesn’t look like us. It’s way more interesting to talk with someone who is not from your country and trying to find the connection we have, the similarities, than trying to see the differences.

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