Breakout Star Tahar Rahim on 'The Serpent' and Awards Recognition for 'The Mauritanian'
By Stacy Lambe
Not even halfway through the year, Tahar Rahim is one of Hollywood’s biggest breakout stars of 2021. After first appearing in streaming shows like The Looming Tower and The Eddy, the 39-year-old French Algerian actor first has emerged as a leading man with The Mauritanian opposite Jodie Foster and the true-crime drama, The Serpent.
In the latter, which is now streaming on Netflix, Rahim portrays the 1970s “Bikini Killer” and fraudster, Charles Sobhraj, who was responsible for murdering over a dozen of Western tourists along the Hippie Trail of Southeast Asia. As depicted on the show, he eventually gets into a dangerous game of cat and mouse with a junior Dutch diplomat (Billy Howle), who sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to the capture of Interpol’s most wanted man at the time.
“I’ve always wanted to explore evil,” Rahim says of wanting to find a character that was the most distant from who he is in real life. And as a teenager, he remembers reading accounts of Sobhraj’s crimes and then as late as 2001, hearing that Benicio Del Toro was supposed to portray him in a biopic that never happened.
While Sobhraj, who is still alive behind bars, has been the subject of various documentaries and even a Bollywood film, this is the first time he’s getting the true-crime treatment in the U.S. So when this project came up, Rahim couldn’t pass it up.
However, getting into the headspace of Sobhraj proved to be more difficult than he expected. “I couldn’t find any connection at all. He’s a murderer, a con man, manipulator. And he did all those horrible things,” Rahim says, revealing that he started building the character from the outside in, which is something he rarely does.
So when he worked with the director, Tom Shankland, on the way he looks and the way he walks, the actor had a breakthrough. “I thought, ‘I’m an animal. Of course, a snake. But which one?’” he recalls, before settling on the cobra. “There is a charm about this animal. He is still, cool, and when he bikes, it’s very sudden and quick. So, I found my connection with the animal.”
He added, “From then on, I started to feel something inside of me come. And that felt like the right place to be.”
Not only did he workout rigorously on set to match Sobhraj’s muscular and often shirtless physique, Rahim also took advantage of all the period-perfect costumes, wigs and accessories he got to wear while shooting on location in Thailand. “It was fun to time travel in a way,” he says, revealing that he took the whole wardrobe home with him. “I took them all; I took the glasses and the shoes.”
Although being in an exotic location had its perks (“Every weekend we could on an Island or something, so it was like a holiday,” he says), it did keep him isolated from his wife and two kids. “To be honest, I missed them every day,” the actor says, eventually developing a ritual that every other day, “I would talk to my kids and then go work out. It helped me let it out.”
Filming on the series also overlapped with The Mauritanian, which tells the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a man who was detained at Guantánamo Bay detention camp and held without charge from 2002 to 2016. In addition to starring Rahim as Salahi, the cast is rounded out by Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch and Zachary Levi in various roles.
“When I read the script, I literally wanted to sign up,” the actor says. “I cried. I was moved, and for an actor, it’s a great opportunity to portray someone like this. I wanted to do justice to this person to this extraordinary soul.”
Released in February, the film opened to rave reviews for Rahim’s performance, eventually earning him a 2021 Golden Globe and BAFTA Award nomination for Best Actor.
“I couldn’t have imagined that it could happen someday,” the actor says, adding that the recognition in the U.S. feels good. “You feel like people are telling you, ‘You’re welcome.’ And I feel reassured about my choices as well because when you try something, you don’t know if you’ll fail or succeed.”
And while both roles have garnered the actor newfound attention and an opportunity to step into the lead role, none of that matters more than honoring the real-life people behind The Mauritanian and The Serpent.
“Mohammed is a real man. [And during filming,] I was like, ‘I want to please him. I don’t want him to feel diminished or betrayed in any way.’ That was more important than the movie,” Rahim says. “And when I did The Serpent, I thought of the victims and their families. I was like, ‘I’ll try to do my best for them.’”