Tahar Rahim Is On The Cusp Of Greatness
The best thing Tahar Rahim ever did was keep his mouth shut.
Because you know that movie role, the one in A Prophet that made him? Well to Rahim, that came courtesy of his silence. It came out of not bugging the heck out of the celebrated director Jacques Audiard when he had the chance to…when other actors did. At least that’s how it started. With him saying absolutely nothing.
Tahar Rahim let his work do the talking. Even when there wasn’t much of it there to talk at all.
Not that the 37-year-old French-Algerian is quiet – more considered. Even when that role made him an overnight star, almost 10 years ago now, he kept his own council. He stayed indoors and shunned the TV appearances, the parties, the clichés. Truth is, he wasn’t quite sure of the man he might become.
Wasn’t certain of what could be lurking beneath the surface should he allow it to bask in the glory of a multi-award-winning film debut.
To somebody else, those César Awards in 2010 (best actor and most promising actor – the present and future sewn-up) could have led to crazy. To a forgotten decade filled with questionable movies and bad life choices, a sharp rise and an anonymous fall.
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As it turned out, it led to a wide-arching collection of roles, some on pictures that have shone, others that have wavered. From playing the guy who spies on a French mosque in Free Men, to FBI agent Ali Soufan in The Looming Tower, Judas Iscariot in Mary Magdalene to his current role in The Kindness of Strangers – the flick that opened last month’s Berlin Film Festival. It’s been a gradual ascent rather than a straight line to the top, a career full of lessons learned and battles fought and won. If a career could mirror life, then this is it. The feeling right now is that this is a man on the cusp of something great.
Oh, and that tight-lipped thing, Rahim still takes it seriously. He’s doing it again, now, on the morning we catch up. Word is that he’s is in line to play a key role in the latest Damien Chazelle project, a Netflix Original from the man behind La La Land, Whiplash and First Man, called The Eddy. But right now, as he walks through Paris, those words aren’t coming easily.
“Ah man…” he says hesitantly, sirens blaring in the distance. “I... I just can’t say anything. I’m so sorry, I, erm, just can’t.”
“It’s a musical drama, right?” I counter.
“I.. I.. man, I just can’t.”
“But it’s Damien Chazelle, come on, that’s very exciting!”
“Of course, everything he does is exciting – for the actors and the audience. I can’t wait,” he replies.
“You can’t wait?!”
A pause. A long pause.
“Yes, I can’t wait to watch it,” he clarifies.
Well played, Tahar Rahim, well played.
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Whatever the motivation, Rahim is happy today. Frank Sinatra knew what he was talking about. Paris in the springtime is special.
“We’ve had about four days of blue skies and warm weather,” he says, his voice singing a list of better-day activities: “If I’m not filming, I’ll get up, maybe workout a little, go for a coffee, come back, read, watch a movie, spend some time with my son.” The French accent occasionally switches into something American, something Brooklyn. The perils of learning a language with Hollywood in mind.
Intonation aside, it doesn’t take too long to work out that, with Rahim, there’s authenticity. Realness. Something uncompromising, unflinching. You can see it from the roles he takes – these aren’t the easy roles – and you could see it from the very beginning, too. When his life wasn’t working out, he changed things up, took a risk. That’s how he ended up living in the French capital.
“I originally studied sports in Strasbourg and then went to Marseille to study, erm, some computer things…but it was absolutely not my cup of tea. I said to myself, ‘If you want to be an actor, the only way to start is to learn.’ So that’s what I did, I went to Montpellier and studied cinema, script production, lighting. It was just the basics, really – this was a university, not a theatre school – but it put me on a road to somewhere I wanted be.”
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And just to blow a hole in his art of silence, he got a little further down that road because of his gift of the gab. It came because he was a likable guy, the type that blags his way into a drama school by convincing the teacher he’s worth a punt, even if, on the surface, he might appear woefully underprepared.
“So, I’m standing there in a queue of about 25 people, wondering what to do next, and I see the teacher. I go to him, we talk, we talk some more, we walk past the queue and by the time we get to his office he’s told me that he’ll vouch for me, give me the stamp to accept me on the course and allow me to get my grant cheque. He said, ‘Okay, you’re in, you can get your money. But I need you to send me that document. Thirty pages by next week, OK?’ I sent him four.”
That’s not to say he was lazy. This blag was a means to an end. Perhaps for the first time in his life he knew what he wanted. But even when your direction is crystal clear, that doesn’t always mean you’re going to get there easily. Life gets in the way. Rahim had to live, had to pay rent, bills. So he buckled down and lived the out-of-work actor’s life, holding down two, sometimes three, jobs while studying.
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“I studied theatre at school and worked in a bar during the day. Then I quit that job and went to a factory, they made hardware, CD-ROMs, that sort of thing – I was putting them in cardboard boxes. Then, during the night I was working in a club as a waiter.”
And this was how his life played out, at least for a year.
But then Tahar Rahim let his work do the talking.
“We had to prepare a scene that the teacher had given us. It would kind of be a live showreel, and at the end of the year we would perform it in front of people from the business – agents, assistants, that sort of thing. After I was done and had performed my scene, I had three different agents wanting to sign me.”
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Following a blink-and-you’ll miss it role as a policeman in French horror flick, Inside, Rahim won a small, but important, role in the 2007 TV series, La Commune. Here’s where it gets interesting. On this show was a guy, a fellow Algerian as it turned out, that was writing a script. No shock there. But this script turned out to be a good one, a great one, it turned out to be A Prophet. That meant occasional visits to the set of La Commune by the man behind the picture, the director, Jacques Audiard. Opportunity calling.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Rahim. “I was supposed to shoot a scene at 7pm, but my director shows up and says, ‘Look, we’re out of time, we won’t get to this today. Just go home.’ Then I see Jacques Audiard is there and somehow we end up with a few other people in the same production car. I knew the movie he was preparing and I knew I wanted a part. But I thought, man, just keep quiet. Just shut the heck up. There was another actor in the car who was talking, going on and on, telling Audiard, ‘Oh, I’m an actor, I’m in this play, I’d love to invite you to come down.’ I just thought, maaaaaan, you’re wrong. You should shut up, these guys don’t like it when you do this. But, you know, as this all played out, Audiard kept looking at me – two, maybe three times. There was a connection. But, still, I kept my mouth shut.”
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Let’s break down this power move for a second. This was a risk. A big risk. The life of a successful actor is built on fleeting moments, on chance meetings with a big-name directors. What you do next could change your life, so you better choose right. It’s part cliché, part desperate reality, but the talent lost to the wrong decision must be unfathomable. Rahim followed his gut.
“I kind of forgot about it really, but then after La Commune wrapped I bumped into Audiard again, at the party. This time we did speak, and it was him that approached me. He came over, said he loved what I had done in the show. Man, I was happy. I also knew that it meant I had a shot at an audition for A Prophet. As it turned out, I didn’t get one. I got eight.”
There was a time during the process that Rahim was done, finished, sick of it. Three months of callbacks, of new scenes, old scenes. He didn’t tell Audiard, but around the midway point Rahim just wanted to be put out of his misery. Give him the job, don’t give him the job, just let this thing be over and let him get on with his life.
“There were six scenes from the movie and from other movies, too. I remember he said, you’ve got to learn and play two of them. I learned them all. When I entered the office, I met with the casting director and he asked which I wanted to play. I said, ‘I wanna do them all.’
“Then there was a callback, then another, then progress, I formally met with Audiard about the role. But then back to more callbacks. A fourth, a fifth, then a little nudge forward. A scene with actors who I knew were in the film.
“Then Audiard called me with another scene he’d just wrote, so we worked on that. The eighth time, a new monologue. I had to prepare and perform it in just over 24 hours. I was so stressed. But then, it came: The call I was waiting for. ‘OK,’ said Audiard, casually. ‘So how about making this movie together?’
“It would change my life.”
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But overnight success is a strange beast. It skews your reality and affects your judgement along with it. “Nobody is ready for something like this,” explains Rahim. “Nobody. One day you’re in the shadows, the next you’re in the light.” His response was, well, not silence, but measure, control.
“I was afraid to be stupid,” he says. “To think that I’d already made it, that I’m a star. I knew that this type of fame could be a cancer. So I went the opposite way, I overprotected myself. Instead of going out, I would stay at home preparing for the next part.”
Those next parts didn’t play out as planned. There was the American-British project The Eagle that struggled – he learned Gaelic for that one – or the French film The Free Men, which did OK, but was still far off his triumph on A Prophet. It was steep learning curve.
“The success [in A Prophet] was a huge surprise, but don’t get me wrong, I knew who I was working with. I knew how good Audiard could be, where he takes his actors and the performances his abilities can bring out in them.
“But in the movies that followed, I was still a little shocked. The previous success was not normal, it was special. Learning this was something that helped me grow.”
It helps if you’re the kind of guy that wants to learn in the first place. The passion to discover, to take a risk is what drives Rahim forward, it’s what accounts for the eclectic CV and work with foreign directors such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
“I like to be surprised – by my work, or by myself,” he says. “I’m trying to find that new feel on every job. Risks, challenges. I want something that I haven’t done before, to learn something new, another language. This is what feeds me as a man.”
His heritage comes into play here, too, both in his levels of determination – he has nine other siblings, you learn quickly to fight for what you want in that environment. But it came from his parents, too, who left Algeria for France in search of better days.
“I was born and raised in France, but my parents brought Algeria and its culture to our home life,” says Rahim. “It’s my second country. They also taught me about life, the importance of working hard, of sharing and being respectful. They taught me to listen to others and to reach out a hand when somebody needs it. They’re good values to have.
“I also learned that having two cultures is way better than one. You’re more open to the world. That’s why my Algerian roots are so important to me.”
But although Rahim made a first visit to Algeria when he was around eight, the political tension and civil war meant that he didn’t return for 20 years.
“They were dark times,” he admits. “And, you know, we didn’t have much money, so when my mom would go there she couldn’t take us all, so she would take my big brother.
“By the time the tensions had eased, I have to admit that my priorities had changed a little. I was young, I wanted to go places with my friends – they were going to party in Spain and places like that, and I didn’t want to miss out. But at some point I realised that I had to go back. It was necessary. So off I went and when I got there, you know, truly, it I felt like I had only been there yesterday. I was with my family, my people, I was home.”
Rahim still has aunts, uncles and cousins there – familiar yet distant faces that he’s only got to know over the last seven years.
“I go to the village, I stay with family, we share the same life. It’s truly great. They’re proud of me. They’re proud of the fact that a famous Algerian actor is in the family. They’re like, ‘Yeah, you represent our village… our country!’”
And that’s a pressure that extends, too. The life of an Arab actor is a little different now, moving away from the stereotypes, the terrorists or kidnappers that have kept actors from the region gainfully employed for decades. In this moment right now, anything is possible.
“For 10 years, I had to be very picky with the roles I chose,” he says. “I look at it this way: you have a responsibility as an actor. If you say yes to everything, you don’t make the world move. You perpetuate the stereotype. Here’s my advice: even if it’s tempting, if the role’s not right, just say no.”
It’s here that Rahim raises his voice a little, revealing some fire.
“These people exist. Arab people exist. We’re here, we have a history… we all do. Movies are documents that will be seen, centuries from now, and we have a responsibility to tell the people in the future how the world was. Movies document time, people, clothes, cars, where they live, their political issues, their history. Everybody has to be represented.
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“Things are getting better. Now, we have real parts, good roles… look at Rami Malek for example. He’s playing Freddie Mercury. This wouldn’t have been possible 10 or 15 years ago.”
But of course, for every Rami Malek, there’s a toiling actor that has to put food on the table. Eventually, everybody feels the pinch. Ethics come at a cost, so you need to be sure of where you’re going. You need to be in the right headspace.
“My job doesn’t stress me. Not anymore. In the past it did. When you’re young, you have a lack of experience…you’re stressed. That’s okay, it’s normal. But then I became a father and everything changed. It sounds so unoriginal, but this thing, it’s true. I have my son, I come home, we play for a while, it’s so great. Through family you start to build yourself as a man – and that’s way more important than building yourself as an actor. But, that said, this thing works both ways. If you feel good in what you are as a human being, you’ll be a better actor, too.”
Those last few lines, they pretty much sum Rahim up to a T. His priorities are straight – they always have been. For him, his family and the journey he’s on, that’s what matters. Everything else just fades into the background.
“Children remind you of what’s important in life. My son, he’s happy to eat a good meal, to go for a walk, to play. I look at him and any stress I have just disappears. He has no worries, he’s like a cat. He eats, sleeps, plays. Life is good.”
Whether the Netflix move comes off or not, Rahim is working, hustling, with a movie and a couple of TV shows in the States as well as a French movie, too. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that he can’t say too much more about them than that.
He could easily go on to icon status, Rahim; he could be that guy, you know, the one emerges from nowhere to take the stage at the Oscars and Golden Globes. But then again, maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll simply remain that actor with the fantastic range, the one that you see occasionally pop-up in a film you fall in love with.
One thing is guaranteed: either way, he’ll follow his own path.
Worry is for the other guys. Tahar Rahim will let his work do the talking.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Stephanie Galea
STYLING: Sally Anne Bolton