How does one prepare to play Mohamedou Ould Salahi? As written about in his memoir Guantanamo Diary, the man spent nearly 15 years detained as a suspected terrorist without formal charges, and during that time he was on the receiving end of some truly horrific abuse. The idea of wrapping one’s brain around that experience in hopes of dramatically recreating it would be a taxing effort for any performer – but in the making of the new movie The Mauritanian, star Tahar Rahim had a key tool in his arsenal: time.
Speaking with the Golden Globes-nominated actor late last month during the new film’s virtual press day, I asked him about what his preparation process was like in recognizing the emotional scale of the role. It was a scale he certainly appreciated, but he explained that one thing that was exceptionally helpful in doing the work required was that it was a part he landed a good long time before production started. Said Rahim,
I had the luck to have been approached two years before we shot the movie. So I had the time to read the script, to study it, to read the book to watch a lot of documentaries, to talk with Kevin back and forth. So I felt like being, I like to use this metaphor, like being a cup of hot water, and the whole project, Kevin, the script, and Mohamedou were the teabag. So it infused inside of myself over the months.
The way Hollywood works, it can sometimes be that an actor gets only a few weeks to prepare for a significant performance, but The Mauritanian offered Tahar Rahim a certain luxury in that department. During the two year period the actor worked on other projects and played other roles, but he continued to take in more information over time about Mohamedou Ould Salahi that ultimately informed his performance and gave it important verisimilitude.
Most of what Tahar Rahim did during that two year prep period involved understanding the story through multiple mediums, but as production dates started getting closer the actor decided it was time to actually meet the man he was portraying. As Rahim explained, it wasn’t just about understanding the intense pain and horror that he experienced while suffering through extraordinary rendition and detention at Guantanamo Bay, but also grasping how he could go through all of that and come out the other end an optimistic and positive person. Rahim continued,
The closer we get to the shooting, I started to really get into it. I wanted to talk to Mohammedou, to meet him, and I did! So by meeting him and talking and talking, I was trying to catch the spirit and try and understand his sense of humor, his trauma, and all that makes him a very special person.
It really is something to see. You’d think Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s horrific treatment for nearly a decade-and-a-half would have permanently damaged his soul, but as shown in real footage before the new film’s end credits, it’s remarkable to recognize his emotional resilience – and that very much comes through in Tahar Rahim’s performance as well.Co-starring Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, and Zachary Levi, The Mauritanian arrives in theaters this Friday, February 12.