Tahar Rahim: Breaking and Entering is Not a Crime if Culturally Speaking
Tahar Rahim is a truly global actor. When we speak, the 36-year-old is fresh off the Moroccan set for The Looming Tower, an upcoming Hulu series based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning exploration of Al-Qaeda’s rise and the events that lead to the September 11 attacks, and he’s enjoying a brief break in Paris before jetting off for NYC in the morning.
No wonder it’s been tough to snatch half an hour from his schedule. But it’s not just the frequent flyer miles he’s racked up that prove his cosmopolitanism chops: his roles traverse cultures, continents, history, and an encyclopedia of languages—Armenian, French, English, Arabic, and Gaelic, to name a few.
“I always saw myself as someone who can work in many countries for movies,” he tells me. “This is the way that I see things in life—we have to share. The more you get to know about other cultures the more you get rich, mentally and emotionally. The more you know about others the better you are as a man, and the better you are as a man the better you are as an actor, because it’s linked. There’s something great about working with foreign directors and in foreign countries, because you get to know about their cultures. It’s a gift.”
Perhaps he has an advantage from his own multicultural and multilingual upbringing in a French-Algerian family, but he still has to put in the practice. “I grew up with two different languages. That helps to develop your ear, but it’s not enough,” he explains. “To learn an accent, it takes a lot of work—a lot. I’ll listen to music in the language, I’ll watch movies, and of course, above all, I spend a lot of time with a language coach. I start the very first day. And every time I meet someone who is like, ‘Oh, my friend is from America or England or Armenia,’ I’m like, okay, lets try to talk, let’s practice. I ask them questions and it infuses in me over the months.”
Bursting with energy, ambitious, and sporting an easy sense of humor, Rahim is instantly likeable. He trusts his instincts, and he isn’t afraid to take a chance, as his origin story shows. He reflects on how as a 14-year-old he read in the newspaper that director Cyril Mennegun had plans to film a short in Rahim’s tiny town in East France, and he landed a spot helping out on the set. It was his first time seeing the machinery of film in action, and he was enchanted. When he ran into the director on the street a few days later, Rahim, just a kid, approached him boldly.
“Listen, I want to be an actor,” he told the director, and to his surprise, Mennegun responded with, “Let’s go get a coffee.” He was given a role in a Mennegun’s next film. From there he only increased his stature with a breakout performance in Jacques Audiard’s critically-acclaimed 2009 film A Prophet—where he plays a naive young Arab hoodlum enduring the brutalities of French prison—as well as a lauded role in the 2013 French–Italian–Iranian drama The Past. And he’s not slowing down—next year he’ll appear in his first starring role in a feature-length American film when he plays Judas alongside Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus in the forthcoming Mary Magdalene.
Rahim doesn’t define himself as an "Arab actor" or a "French actor"—he sees himself as an actor. Period. He might say he is just doing a job, but he is also an important voice for a worldview that is currently under siege: an openness to the diversity of the world, and an appreciation for the vibrant cultures in which he fluidly moves. It’s served him well, and he knows it: “I love my job, I meet great people, I travel all over the world. I’m thankful.”
Written by Devin Hendricks
Photographed by Fe Pinheiro
Stylist: Sonia Bédère.