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A Prophet - Tahar Rahim interview

A Prophet

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ORANGE Rising Star nominee Tahar Rahim talks about playing Malik in Jacques Audiard’s critically acclaimed prison thriller A Prophet and the difficulty of getting into character.

He also discusses how life has changed for him in the wake of the critical reaction to the movie and why his follow-up movie, Roman epic The Eagle of the Ninth, presented a different set of challenges…

Q. So, this role must have been a dream come true for you?
Tahar Rahim: Yeah, completely that. That’s the definition.

Q. What did you think when director Jacques Audiard approached you to play Malik? He saw you in a French TV series, didn’t he?
Tahar Rahim: Yes, a TV series. We first met, though, while I was shooting the TV series. We met and said “hello”, and then the show was released and he came to see the first two episodes, and kept saying: “You’re good…” And compliments like that. It made me feel more confident. Three months after that I had my first audition with him and, in total, I had eight more over the course of three months. He finally called me and said: “What if we do this movie together?” He then told me we’d be meeting a lot of times, and there’d be a lot of work. There was [smiles].

Q. So what was the most challenging of playing Malik?
Tahar Rahim: To find the way to get to the character. The preparation was all about searching. I tried a lot of places because he was very hard to find. So, that was the hardest thing. Once I’d found him, every day was still hard but I enjoyed it.

Q. Where did you look? Did you watch other prison movies? Or try and talk to prisoners?
Tahar Rahim: Yeah, I saw some prison films and a lot of documentaries and photos. I talked with ex-convicts.

Q. Were they willing to talk?
Tahar Rahim: It was kind of special because they never talk about their sentence. I remember they told me some stories about what happened in jail… but they never talked about the way they felt when they were inside. I asked someone: “What was your first day like? What was it like when you first entered the courtyard? What happened in your head?” He then told me something that was special to me and which helped a lot.

Q. So, how did you feel when you entered the courtyard for the first time in character?
Tahar Rahim: After preparing and talking to Jacques and everything, it’s a question of looks between people. You think that anything could happen now. They’re staring at you… scanning you, looking for weakness.

Q. And how scary was it to be in that mindset of fear?
Tahar Rahim: It was for the character because anything can happen in just a second. There are codes but no rules.

Q. Do you see Malik as a hero?
Tahar Rahim: For me, yes… yes, because he’s a victim first of all. He tried to be an honest prisoner. But the jail administration tried to kill him. And after the Corsican doesn’t want him, and the Arab doesn’t want him, what does he do? He’s alone…

Q. But he’s also highly intelligent… because knowledge is power in this film?
Tahar Rahim: Oh yes. He discovers that he’s clever and he begins to understand that this [knowledge] is a better weapon to have while he’s inside.

Q. I read that Jacques Audiard has said he feels A Prophet will help to break down Arab stereotypes in movies. Do you agree?
Tahar Rahim: I hope that what he intended to do is going to happen. I think we go beyond the question of Arab identity in this movie – we pass it. It’s in the background. I think he made what he wanted to do. But I think we’ll see exactly what impact it has had after a few years.

A Prophet

Q. He’s also described the film as an anti-Scarface. Do you see it that way as well?
Tahar Rahim: Completely… because Scarface is insane. He’s a psychotic man who wants the power no matter how he gets it. But Malik is not a criminal… he’s forced to do it. He’s a victim at the beginning. He doesn’t like gangsters and he doesn’t like blood. He’s just really clever. So, yes it’s an anti-Scarface.

Q. Would you be interested in revisiting the character if Jacques does a sequel? It has been hinted at…
Tahar Rahim: I would love to. Oh yeah.

Q. Has he talked to you about the idea of a sequel?
Tahar Rahim: Not yet… but I think that even if he wanted to do a sequel he would never tell me until the last moment [smiles].

Q. Is Jacques a collaborative director? Can you bring a lot of your own ideas?
Tahar Rahim: He’s demanding. He constantly wants to be surprised by every take. So, you have a lot of freedom, so long as you don’t betray the scene, the character and the script. He likes you to be free to surprise him. It’s what he wants.

Q. How has life changed for you since A Prophet came out?
Tahar Rahim: My professional life has changed completely. Now, I can propose something and people will listen. When I talk with them about a script they listen. And that’s amazing when you think about it. My private life has also changed. I learned so much doing this… I grew up with my director. So, it changed a lot of things in my life.

Q. You’ve also landed a role in Roman epic The Eagle of the Ninth. What’s that experience been like for you?
Tahar Rahim: I finished it a month ago and it was difficult as well because I arrived in the middle of the adventure on that one. They were shooting for a month and a half before I got there. I’m the fifth role. But this was something interesting for me because I didn’t know how I would be when people weren’t as interested in me. And I wanted to know how I’d cope, so it was another opportunity. What’s hard is to come in for two or three days, grab the character and then come back later and repeat that. At the moment, this is a strange gymnastic for me. The way of working is very different. Everything moves fast… sometimes you do things without knowing the plan or how many cameras. You serve the camera – that’s the big difference.

Q. In what way?
Tahar Rahim: You have to take care of your position and things like that. I think it’s like that on a lot of movies but sometimes it’s unnatural for you as an actor. You have to talk to him like this [motions a position] so that it looks completely natural on the screen. But it’s harder for you to play it that way because you’re in the middle of your scene and yet outside of it too. But Kevin Macdonald [The Last King of Scotland, State of Play] is a very good director and a good guy.