Mohamedou Ould Salahi endured unimaginable horror as an inmate of the U.S. government’s notorious Guantanamo Bay detention center for more than 14 years. In all that time, no charge was ever leveled against him, and with the help of his tireless lawyer Nancy Hollander, who weathered extreme criticism for representing terror suspects, he was finally granted his freedom in 2016. His story is the subject of director Kevin Macdonald’s new film The Mauritanian, based on the memoir Salahi wrote in confinement, in which Tahar Rahim telegraphs the pain and resolve of a casualty of America’s heavy-handed war on terror. Yet, as Rahim explains, it was a role he might have dismissed before reading it…
DEADLINE: You last worked with Kevin Macdonald on The Eagle. That was your very first role after A Prophet, right?
TAHAR RAHIM: Yes. I remember when A Prophet came out, I had a lot of offers, but it was all kind of the same type of characters only not as good, not as well-written. So, I wanted to wait to have something good to defend. Kevin called me after he’d seen the trailer for A Prophet. He hadn’t even seen the movie, just the trailer. And he offered me a part in The Eagle. Everything was brand new to me, so I was thinking, This is great, you can get a role just off the back of the trailer. I was a kid actor, just discovering this industry, this world. At the time we shot the film, though, I could barely speak English. So, it was a little strange and frustrating to share an adventure without having a real relationship with my director.
DEADLINE: How did you overcome that?
RAHIM: I’ve been working on my English ever since then. First of all, I work with a lot of foreign directors who don’t speak French, so English was a common language. And I started learning English from movies, music. There was a turning point for me, and it was when I was playing Ali Soufan in The Looming Tower, because he’s an American citizen. He went to America as a teenager, so I had to work four hours a day with a coach working on the accent, and I did my homework every morning. By being in America, being in New York, I was surrounded by people who spoke English every single day. Wherever you go, you get to practice. So, that helped me a lot.
DEADLINE: How did Kevin approach you about The Mauritanian?
RAHIM: After The Eagle we had always wanted to work together again. We were going to make a show together—The Last Panthers—which I eventually did with Johan Renck. In the end, it didn’t work out with Kevin, so I’m like, OK, well, there’ll be another chance.
About two and a half years ago I had a text from Kevin saying, “Hey, I might have a good part for you.” So, I’m like, “Great, send it over.” He sent me the script and my first reaction was disappointment. At the time the film was called Guantanamo Diary, which is the title of Mohamedou’s book. I saw the title and I thought, No way, Kevin is not going to offer me one of those endless stereotypical parts that I’ve been turning down for years from Hollywood to play a Muslim terrorist.
DEADLINE: How many offers like that have you received?
RAHIM: I’ve had maybe 15 or 20 offers like that, from America, from Germany, from France, since I did A Prophet. When you’re going to talk about topics like those, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about and what you want to say. What do you want to tell an audience? What do you want them to learn? I’m not saying Muslim terrorism doesn’t exist; we all know it happened and it’s real. But it’s a tiny fraction of the Muslim experience, and Muslim people, Arab people, are very wounded by what those people have done as well. There’s another face to being a Muslim that is not explored enough, and even before I started getting those offers, I knew I wasn’t interested in telling stories about terrorists. I refused to be a tool to tell those stories. And they didn’t need me; of course they told those stories anyway.
DEADLINE: This was different though…
RAHIM: Yes, and because I knew Kevin and I knew he’d be too clever for that. So, I thought, let me set that aside and just read it. And, I mean, I fell in love. With the part, with the script, with Mohamedou’s story. I cried twice, because it was just so moving. I cried because it hurt me. I cried because of who this person was. How can you come out of an experience such as his without holding a grudge against anyone? I was like, OK, that’s a life lesson right there, and I need to go through this process because I want to learn something, not just as an actor, but as a man. It all started this way.
And then I got the chance to meet Mohamedou virtually, and he was incredibly nice, with such a brilliant sense of humor. I didn’t want to bother him by asking too many touchy questions. I didn’t see myself as a young actor with a notepad going, “OK, about this experience…” So, we just talked. We had a conversation, and it was just about catching his mood, his spirit, and all of that.
DEADLINE: What were you able to take from him? There’s footage of the real Mohamedou at the end of the film, and he is wearing a huge smile, and just generally full of life. The Mohamedou you’re playing is in a very different place, under lock and key in Guantanamo, fighting for his freedom.
RAHIM: That was the toughest part, because how can you ever truly know what that’s like without living it? It’s just impossible. It’s my job to fake it, but I don’t want to fake it, otherwise you’ll feel it as an audience member. First of all, I have the responsibility to Mohamedou of playing a real man. I wanted him to be happy with what I had done, and I didn’t want him to feel diminished by my performance.
For that, I needed to embrace some of the real conditions, physically, because you can work as hard as you like on the psychology of the character—and I’d read his book, and met him, and done that—but there’s a big difference between knowing the psychology and understanding how that will be tested by the experiences he’s living through. So, for example, I asked them to shackle me with real shackles. I needed to taste it. I needed a sense of it. My job, then, is to magnify it and play with my emotions, but that realism was necessary for me. The bruises I got from being shackled, I kept them for the rest of the movie. And I can tell you, I wore those shackles for maybe a couple of hours a day for perhaps two days. So, you think about… Mohamedou was wearing them every day, sometimes for 24 hours a day, for nearly 15 years.
That was one example. Another was that Mohamedou was transferred into a cold cell at some point, and I asked the production to make the set as cold as they could so I could really feel that experience. I did. When you’re that cold for that long, something starts happening inside of you. I was combining that with a drastic diet where I was eating hard boiled eggs, a little bit of chicken breast and maybe two glasses of water every day. When you combine all that… Man, I learned a lot from that experience, fasting on set, living in this cold. Your soul is flying into fields you never knew existed [laughs]. You’re dragged along by your emotional and physical state.
DEADLINE: Is it hard to keep control in that environment?
RAHIM: It is hard. That time it was hard. Usually, I can manage my characters and leave them on set, but with this one, I’ll tell you, it took me three weeks to get out of him. That had never happened to me before. But when I got back home, my wife and friend would look at me and say, “Tell us what happened. You’re so different. You’re not here with us.”
But it had to be done that way, for Mohamedou. It had to be real, because for him it was real. And I want to make movies I want to see, right, so I want the audience to feel the authenticity of what they’re watching. I wouldn’t have been able to do it in any other way, really. No, there was no other way to make it.
DEADLINE: Were you ever able to ask Mohamedou the tougher questions about his experience? He came to set while you were shooting the Guantanamo scenes…
RAHIM: He did come, and to him, I think that did feel like being back there. It was so hard for him. They set him up by the monitors and gave him some earphones so he could hear the scenes we were shooting. And he’s so polite, he said, “Thank you,” and took the earphones, but he switched off the receiver. He didn’t want to see, didn’t want to hear. He just closed his eyes.
But I heard he cried; he was there with Nancy, as well, the real Nancy Hollander, Mohamedou’s lawyer, who’s played by Jodie Foster in the film. And we were shooting the scene where he finally starts to tell her the truth. They sat together behind the monitors and held hands, and they cried.