BAZ BAMIGBOYE: The Serpent’s Tahar Rahim goes face to face with Jodie Foster
Tahar Rahim ensured his co-stars were scared of him when playing a killer in BBC hit drama The Serpent — by giving them the cold shoulder.
For the first two weeks of filming the mini-series about sinister Charles Sobhraj and his murder sprees along South-east Asia’s hippie trail with accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman), Rahim didn’t speak to his fellow actors. Which meant that ‘they didn’t know if they could speak to me or not’.
The technique worked. ‘People were frightened of me,’ the 39-year-old told me from Paris, where he’s under curfew with his actress wife Leila Bekhti and their three children — including their newborn ‘quarantine baby’.
French actor Tahar Rahim ensured his co-stars were scared of him when playing a killer in BBC hit drama The Serpent (pictured right) by giving them the cold shoulder which worked he says
Rahim as Charles Sobhraj in The Serpent with Marie Andree Leclerc played by Jenna Coleman
The only person not bothered was Coleman, his ‘partner in crime’, with whom he spent a lot of time.
The Serpent has been BBC iPlayer’s biggest success since last year’s Normal People, but Rahim is still not convinced about the title. When preparing for the role, and listening to tapes of Sobhraj speaking, he did indeed think of a snake . . . but a cobra.
‘They hunt their prey,’ he said. ‘The cobra studies them, stares at them, then strikes.’
While on location for The Serpent in Thailand, Rahim had a chat via Skype with another intriguing character: Mohamedou Ould Slahi.
The Serpent (pictured) has been BBC iPlayer’s biggest success since last year’s Normal People
Slahi was accused by U.S. authorities of being a key member of Al-Qaeda and spent 14 years without being charged in solitary confinement at Guantanamo Bay, where he was tortured.
Rahim was due to play him in director Kevin Macdonald’s new film The Mauritanian.
‘They believed him to be a terrorist, but he wasn’t,’ Rahim said of Slahi. ‘He was meeting the wrong guys, at the wrong moment.’
Macdonald’s picture, due for release on April 1, focuses on dogged efforts by U.S. constitutional advocate Nancy Hollander (played with determination by Jodie Foster) to hold the American government’s feet to the fire over the rule of law. Benedict Cumberbatch plays military prosecutor Stuart Couch.
The Mauritanian focuses on dogged efforts by U.S. constitutional advocate Nancy Hollander (played with determination by Jodie Foster) to hold the American government’s feet to the fire
Tahar Rahim was nominated for a Golden Globe for for best actor in a motion picture drama
As he faced Slahi on Skype that day, Rahim realised he would have to undergo a dramatic change in physicality, and temperament, if he were to portray him successfully.
‘Here I was, playing Charles — a man who has no empathy. A conman. A murderer. A manipulator.
‘It was so hard to find him that I had to build him from the outside. I worked out and built up muscles — which changed the way I walk and stand.’
Now, though, he was worried about how he would shed the weight he had gained.
Rahim said he was astonished when he saw Slahi on Skype. ‘He was smiling and cracking jokes.
‘I kept wondering how this was possible, after everything he’d been through? But, at some point in the conversation, when the talk came to the tough questions of torture, his face would change, as if he was going back there.’
Later, during filming, he met Slahi in person, in South Africa — one of the few countries to welcome the former detainee.
Rahim says he was initially intimidated when he first met two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster
‘He told me that from the beginning, he couldn’t understand why he was at Gitmo. Then he realised that these people (the Americans) were being led by fear.
‘When he was being tortured, he asked his captors why would they put themselves in that position?’
The actor felt it was vital for him to experience some of Slahi’s suffering for himself. ‘My job is to make it authentic.
‘If I don’t taste it, I’m going to fake it — and if I fake it, I can’t believe in it. And neither can the audience. I had bruises for weeks after the shoot.
My ankles and arms were bruised. More the ankles, because they were shackled all day long. I played it for real. The water torture, too.’
Director Macdonald went along with it, but insisted on a fail-safe code in case the water-boarding became unbearable.
Shailene Woodley, left, and Jodie Foster in The Mauritanian directed by Kevin Macdonald
Working with Foster was a welcome respite. ‘I felt a bit intimidated when we first met,’ he told me, ‘but she relaxes you.
‘I used to compare acting to a tennis match but, with her, it’s more of a dance. You try it once or twice. You follow, then she follows and, in the middle of that, something happens.’
He was sorry they weren’t able to enjoy a meal together. But he was a man on a mission — to lose 22 lbs ‘within a matter of days’.
Early last year he bulked up again, for additional filming on The Serpent, but that was shut down in March.
Filming finally resumed last autumn, but not in Thailand. ‘We had to shoot in England. In a place called Tring.
‘Oh, they’re very nice people,’ he said, of the residents of the market town in Hertfordshire.
‘But I could never meet you there for a drink,’ he added; a nod to a night we spent on the tiles in Paris several years ago when I interviewed him about his breakthrough role in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet.
Partying is the last thing on his mind right now. Last March, he went back home to his family. ‘I wanted to reclaim lost time with my wife and two children,’ he said.
‘Now there are three children! We’re locked up in the house and not allowed out after 6pm. It’s like a kindergarten. But we are happy.’
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