It was his performance as an incarcerated young Arab in Un prophète that turned 29-year-old Tahar Rahim into an overnight sensation. John-Paul Pryor finds out how the son of an Algerian immigrant factory worker became the cinema’s go-to golden boy of the banlieue, and what identity means to an actor
The first time I met Tahar Rahim was in London when he was doing the publicity rounds for Un prophète, the French film that earned international accolades and turned the then 28-year-old into the award-winning toast of world cinema. Rahim’s uncompromising turn as an incarcerated innocent in Jacques Audiard’s brutal meditation on criminality and racism was his first major role, and it was one that witnessed him transferring swiftly to the red carpet at Cannes. Back then, he seemed very much like a young man shell-shocked, in disbelief at his own success.
A year on and I am in Paris on my way to meet our rising star in a dusty photographer’s studio, situated in the same arrondissement where Baudelaire purportedly scored his laudanum and where Richard Avedon shot some of his most memorable pornographic scenes. It’s late afternoon when I arrive, and a fresh-faced Rahim is having his hair tended to by a stylist in preparation for the PORT shoot. He winks at me conspiratorially and says hello. Despite the awards he has received since Un prophète, I had half-expected to meet the same slightly nervous cigarette enthusiast I met in London, but the Tahar Rahim who greets me today is far more assured – this one has been working on a number of major features since our first meeting, all of which are earmarked for release this year.
I briefly remind the actor of our first interview, when we had shared cigarettes in a no smoking area and joked about being under hotel surveillance. He smiles politely, enquires how I am doing and then asks me if I can recall the name of the hotel where the interview took place. It’s clear that life has become a rollercoaster for the new prince of modern French cinema.
“From the moment you realise your dream you drown it – you kill it,” says the actor, ruminating on his sudden success. “Then you have to leave the dream, and when you realise you are leaving your dream, you realise that it was always like a phantasm. There is always another dream rising up inside you though, and for me the dream is now to go further and further. I need to learn something every time I take on a new project – I need to make something different each time because I need to feel like a virgin every time. For other actors it might be different, but if I wasn’t making cinema, I would try to kill the boredom every day.”
Boredom is the catalyst Rahim has most often cited for his cinephilia as a young dreamer growing up in the small country town of Belfort in northeastern France. “I went to the movies a lot as a kid and I fell in love with them – I saw movies, movies, movies… I kept on learning about actors and the cinema, and in this way, I fed my dream,” he tells me. “All the actors in the 80s – Gene Hackman, Harvey Keitel – they had great voices, incredible accents and ways of moving. They made me want to be an actor from the start,” he confides. “I read a lot too as a kid – but only because my sister would make me do it as a punishment,” he laughs. “She would make me write down the title of a book, the name of the author and then my thoughts on the book.” Perhaps it’s somewhat unsurprising the cinema became Rahim’s home from home when you consider he was the youngest in his family by a fairly significant degree – his older brother is some 20 years his senior. “I thought of him as being so old – a big old man! Now I am his age! Time cares for no man,” he says.
The realisation that life tends to rattle on apace came to Rahim early. After some uninspiring post-baccalauréat dabbling in computer sciences, the young hopeful made a conscious decision to chase the dream he formed on those afternoons spent with just the whirring film projector for company. So he hotfooted it to film school at Université Paul-Valéry in Montpellier – where he caught the eye of documentary-maker Cyril Mennegun, who more or less immediately made him the subject of his short film Tahar, student – after which he headed for the bright lights of Paris to study acting at Laboratoire de l’acteur. He took menial jobs in factories, clubs and bars – including the legendary Man Ray – to support his growing thespian habit. Then, after a couple of years of considerable struggle, he landed his first notable role in Canal+ television drama La commune, written by Abdel Raouf Dafri. At the time, Dafri was penning the screenplay for Un prophète, and it was a chance meeting between Rahim and the film’s director Audiard that gave the actor his big break. “What I wanted and what I still want from a movie is that it teaches me things and that it doesn’t lie to me – that it makes me dream, that it makes me feel something,” he says now.
It is perhaps this belief in the emotional power of cinema that made his breakout role as the jailbird Muslim gangster Malik El Djebena so compelling, and equipped him with the tools to create a criminal, and indeed a killer, who was so universally loved. “The way Jacques works is that he gives people a couple of hours and they dream,” says the actor, laughing modestly at the suggestion that the success of his character was all of his own making. “It was hard with Un prophète because it was about prison and criminality, but people loved it because they shared a moment and they felt something. It was good for the Arabs in France because it showed that we can tell a story with a minority, and that people can feel as good watching it as they might feel watching different movies – because when you see this movie you don’t think about Arabs or Corsicans, you just see people.”
He stops for a moment, before adding: “I know a lot of Arab actors in France would say, ‘I’m not going to play the part of an Arab kid who lives in a social project and steals handbags from old ladies!’ But it’s a delicate question because a boy from the suburbs who steals handbags is what we’re served up – it’s what we see on TV and it’s shit… But what if the part is written in such a way that we understand why the kid does this, what his life is about? It can be super complex.”
His approach to the part won him Best Actor at the European Film Awards, plus Best Male Actor and Best Breakthrough Actor at the Césars. The role outlines the ascent of a young man capable of considerable violence to the top of the pile in the criminal underworld, and I ask Rahim if he thinks Malik’s righteous aggression is symptomatic of a certain kind of pent-up male rage that’s, well, all the rage today. “I do feel that people have a lot of violence inside them and that they need to explain it, so they either do it for real or make movies or songs about it,” he says. “I don’t know why, but there is this thing going on out there right now – Romain Gavras is doing his own definition of it in cinema and I think that is courageous.” Does he hold with the notion that the ultra-violence of Gavras, Kim Chapiron and Gaspar Noé represents the new new wave? “I think they are trying to make a new kind of cinema, which is very, very great, and that they are trying to change things, but I don’t know if it is going to be able to make the same impact as the new wave,” he says diplomatically. “It’s not a question of them, it’s just a question of cinema. I don’t know if it is possible to break the rules again – can you break broken rules?”
Given his taste for challenging cinema, it’s little surprise that Rahim has spent his time since his breakout role racking up an impressive slate of projects, working on movies as diverse as Kevin Macdonald’s Roman Empire epic The Eagle of the Ninth, in which he plays the Gaelic speaking Seal Prince alongside Donald Sutherland; Ismaël Ferroukhi’s Free Men, in which he plays a Muslim who discovers he is Jewish in Nazi-occupied France; and rebel Chinese director Lou Ye’s very-likely-to-be-banned-in-his-own-country Love and Bruises, in which he plays the violent lover of a former prostitute. It makes one wonder whether he has a penchant for controversy, but the actor claims it is simply more that he is attracted to characters and films that are genuinely interesting. “In every movie I make, I want to learn something about me – about my reactions and about what I could have been if I had the life of this character,” he divulges of his choices and his craft. “That is the way I work. I’m always just trying to think, ‘What would be my reaction if I had this life?’ I try to believe in it and I can only work on something if I go full-on in, not halfway.
I need to give everything, and everything comes through emotion.” I suggest this sounds like a somewhat dangerous form of commitment to his art, one in which the frail boundaries between reality and fiction could easily become blurred, but Rahim is adamant that he is not the kind of actor to lose his proverbial marbles.
“I don’t think so. There are some actors like this but it is not my case. When I stop, I have the feelings of the things inside but I still know who I am, and I still see myself in the mirror. The strange thing that can happen is that you have different reactions, but you don’t go schizophrenic…” He pauses for a moment. “You know Fassbender in the movie Hunger? He’s a great actor but in this movie he went very, very thin, and at this point you definitely aren’t ‘playing’ any longer – you are so much in it that you live something, and he was really living his character. I think that sometimes you have to go that far but only if you know you are strong enough to come back. If you feel there is any risk, you don’t go. I would not go crazy, I love life.” Suddenly, he screws the paper he has been drawing on into a ball and throws it into the corner of the room, laughing. “But you know what? You think about something and you play it a certain way, but people might read it in another way – people understand things differently, but the most important thing is that they understand something, and they feel something. Then I think you have done your job properly, because you never know – you never really know if what you are doing is going to work or not until the movie comes out. I am actually going to play a schizophrenic soon with a French director. It is very daunting because, as I told you, I always play me in a different life – it’s going to be very difficult because I am going to be a person in a different life who is also a different person in a different life.”
I consider following up on this statement and asking him something more about the fluid nature of identity but I figure it can wait – the sudden dispatching of his pencil-fuelled reverie begs the question whether he has always been artistically inclined. “Drawing and writing have always been very important to me. I used to draw pictures of people, or the countryside,” he tells me with a smile. “I really loved drawing, but I have a hard time inventing stuff. It’s funny. I have loads of stuff in my head but I have a hard time reproducing something from my imagination. If I had to draw you though, then no problem. I can draw you given time. There’s a link there when you think about it – drawing in the way I did as a kid is about reproducing what’s around you, and acting is to live out what’s going on. It’s the same thing: reproduction.”
It seems fair to say that Rahim will never have a problem reproducing any life he is asked to explore; for his role in Un prophète he had to speak in three languages and be convincingly fluent in all of them. However, he is characteristically modest about his talents and cites his role in The Eagle of the Ninth as one of the biggest challenges he has faced so far. “It was a very hard film for me because it was my first time playing in English,” he explains. “When I came to the movie, my English was weaker than it is now, and when you play in a foreign language you feel like you are raping your honesty, because you are obliged to change the musicality of your accent and all those things. In the beginning it is strange, and you feel like you are playing fake because it’s not natural for you.” Sure, but working with the ever-controversial director Lou Ye must have been a far tougher gig in terms of the cultural leaps he had to make? “Well, Lou Ye is kind of special in that he doesn’t really direct,” says the actor. “His way of directing is to not direct. He makes everything around you and he lets you live within it. I like it best when the director and I agree on the general direction, either conversationally or implicitly, and then from there I have a certain amount of freedom, and he can lead me upwards. It was hard to understand what Lou Ye wanted, but that was a great experience because I had to look deep into his eyes to make the link to try and find something – you just try to read someone and read the feeling and the mood. To be controlled by a director is very important, but you need to surprise yourself and the director to get a performance.”
Judging by his searing attention to detail and nuance in Un prophète, Rahim certainly seems to have an uncanny knack of getting to the absolute core of whatever he is working on – and he displays an ability to thoroughly communicate the heart and soul of his characters “When I am preparing, I just need to understand the motives,” he explains when I push him on the process that engenders such convincing transformation. “I need to question every scene and try to make a string from the very first scene to the end, and when I have got this string I stop reading the script, because I know how my character will react in the moment…” He pauses, extinguishes his cigarette and looks out the window as evening falls in the street outside. His publicist walks into the room to give us the customary five-minute nod, a timely reminder that, despite his modest down-to-earth character, Tahar Rahim is set to be a major international star. I suddenly have the sense of sharing the eerie photographer’s studio with someone who will perhaps one day be as iconic in his own way as Avedon or Baudelaire ever were. “I don’t know exactly what drives me,” he says quietly after ruminating for a moment. “I think maybe I chose this life because I am afraid to not do anything, you know? I am maybe afraid not to feel something, because when I am not being creative I feel like I serve nothing – I feel useless… I love working on shoots, I love being around other people, I love to share and reach beyond myself. I love to give myself to what I’m doing – to yield. Yes, it’s something like that, to give, give, give…” He smiles broadly and jumps to his feet as we all prepare to leave.
Minutes later, I am saying my goodbyes and stepping back into the street, becoming slowly aware of the sound of Paris’s night creatures taking to her innumerable bars.
The gentle clamour reminds me that this country’s greatest outsiders have always celebrated what Baudelaire referred to as its courtesans and pimps, its gold-edged veils of night. I turn up my collar and decide to make for the nearest tabac – that question on the fluidity of identity will just have to wait a little longer.