The French-Algerian actor starts the new year as though 2020 never happened, with two award-worthy performances in BBC’s The Serpent and STX’s The Mauritanian.

Tahar Rahim misses hugging people. He misses jumping on the train from Paris where he lives to do press in London. But as he politely asks if he can light up a Gauloises rollie over our Zoom call, it’s not all bad. After all, he has two of the biggest projects of an already brilliant career soon to be released.

The first sees Rahim portray renowned French serial killer Charles Sobhraj in The Serpent, a thrilling eight-part series that tells the tale of Sobhraj’s twisted life of murder and theft on Asia’s hippie trail in the mid-’70s. The second, The Mauritanian, is also based on a real-life story about an altogether different character in Mohamedou Ould Salhi, a man who was detained at Guantánamo Bay detention camp without charge from 2002 until 2016.

Both see Rahim deliver the kind of performance that causes awards buzz, something he is familiar with after his role in A Prophet helped it win an Oscar in 2009. Throughout the past decade or so he has continued to make a name for himself in arthouse films like Our Children, The Past and Heal the Living while occasionally entering the Hollywood fray in carefully chosen projects such as The Eagle alongside Channing Tatum and Mary Magdalene with Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix.

With The Serpent and Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian kicking off 2021 with a bang, Rahim turns 40 this year in what could well be the biggest 12-months of his career to date. From representation in Hollywood to working with Jenna Coleman and finding relief from a serial killer’s mind on set in the gym, here’s what we touch on over a virtually-shared cigarette or two.

Man About Town: What got you into this industry in the first place?
Tahar Rahim: My way to cinema comes from boredom. My hometown where I was born is small and everything closes at seven, the last bus is at 7:20pm so there’s not a lot of things to do and I used to go to see movies and someday it struck me. I felt so good in this atmosphere, a meeting where you meet no one but you share your emotions. The smell, the temperature, the materials, everything was nice and I could forget about my condition for two hours and escape my reality. From then on I fell in love with movies and I dreamt of being an actor as a teenager.

And what is it that you strive to achieve as an actor?
TR: It’s very important that a movie can teach something to someone, that’s one of the goals of cinema to me. It’s the way I learned life. It was a window to the world, I learned how to wear clothes, how to talk to girls, music, different eras, history, a lot of things. I always try to link Tahar the person and Tahar the actor, to take from my own experiences and give to my characters until the point when you have to perform characters that are so far from your nature that you learn more about acting but I’ve got to say the more you feed your soul as a man, the better actor you become.

Growing up as an aspiring actor, did you feel that there were people like you on screen to look up to?
TR: I couldn’t identify with people who are from my background on French TV so most of my inspiration comes from new Hollywood ’70s movies because it’s maybe the best period of movies ever to me because they were telling stories and showing actors and performances that I could recognise as something that is from my social roots, so I felt represented.

And have you ever felt like you’ve been typecast?
TR: Earlier in my career, I felt frustrated to have been offered endless stereotypical parts from Hollywood mainly. I wanted to work over there but not at any price so I turned them down a lot of times. What’s happening all over the world at the moment is a good thing, it’s late but it’s a good thing. I think that they should open up the range of roles to actors of different origin, meaning culture, race and religion is all very relevant now. It would bring hope to people just to tell what you see from your window.

Both The Serpent and The Mauritanian are pretty intense portrayals, what drew you to both of them?
TR: I like challenges, I like to be challenged and that’s what I’m seeking for as an actor, something I haven’t done or something I haven’t seen, lets try it to get out of your comfort zone,

And both are based on real-life stories, which must make the task of playing them even more difficult?
TR: It’s more scary man! It’s more scary because you’ve got a responsibility. I mean there’s two ways to portray real life people. If they are celebrities you have to mime them in a way because everybody knows them. When it comes to people who are not famous and alive there’s a responsibility in a way to not disappoint them. For Charles [who’s story is infamous], you want to know what happened to him psychologically and physically and it’s interesting in terms of anthropology, studying the human mind and psyche like that and as an actor to play this, I couldn’t find anyone more distant from my nature than him.

What made you want to play Sobhraj in the first place?
TR: When I was fourteen, I bumped into my brother’s room and there was this book, Richard Neville’s The Life and Times of Charles Sobhraj. I read it and I got crazy because I wanted to be an actor and each time I would read it, it looked and sounded like a movie so I was like yeah I’d like to play him sometimes. Then in 2001 or so William Friedkin was prepping a movie about him with Benicio del Toro so I forgot about that and then I got an email 20 years later saying yep you got that offer, so it’s a bit different. But apart from him, it’s fascination and repulsion that are generally not conceivable that become automatically attractive to try and challenge yourself.

What is it about watching true crime that entices an audience so much?
TR: When you see true events or a true story, you’re hooked and I think that you can get easily curious and fascinated when you know that this person can exist or has existed because you find a relationship and a link to reality that makes it more attractive.

How do you detox while playing the role of a real-life serial killer?
TR: Oh man, I would go to work out. I worked out a lot just to let it go. I’m so restless and I have to be very tense and contain things inside so everything goes through my eyes only. I would work out and the good thing about shooting in Thailand is you can go on holiday and go on an island and have fun, that’s the way I escaped.

With a film like The Mauritanian, how do you prepare to play a man who spent more than a decade incarcerated when he was innocent?
TR: It was tough. I did my homework, I read his book, I listened to audio about him and watched videos to understand his psychology but at a certain point there’s something that you cannot know without experiencing it physically, so to reach those dark places I needed some realistic conditions physically to just taste it. My job is to make it bigger, to magnify it, for example I wanted the team to shackle me with real shackles, not fake ones, so I could feel what Mohamedou has been through. The bruises I got, I kept them for weeks and I got shackled for real for only two days. For the torture scenes, one thing they would do was throw their detainee in a very cold cell so I asked the team to make it as cold as possible and spray me with water so I could feel what’s the real state physically and I got waterboarded for real, we had a sign in case.

That sounds pretty intense.
TR: I went to these extreme because otherwise I couldn’t have made it, I wouldn’t have believed in what I was doing. To make it believable I needed to go that far. I also did a drastic diet, I lost 10-12kg within three weeks. What you feel when you’re on a diet like this, you start to explore some places emotionally that you wouldn’t expect. Usually as an actor what you do is you go into your inner jar, you take your emotions and then you pull them and they bring you somewhere and when you reach that level when you’re fasting that hard there’s another way round, your emotions are free and they grab you to some places.

Can you tell us about the relationship between actor and director on projects like The Mauritanian?
TR: It’s more than important, its capital to me. On set I’m a soldier ready to do whatever it takes to give my director whatever he wants in terms of acting. What’s important is communication. Someone like Kevin [Macdonald] cares for actors a lot and he comes from documentary as well so I can’t fake anything, I can’t rely on my habits, it’s impossible, I’ve got to be alive and Kevin was good because he was always open to suggestions and improvisations. He would never let go till he was happy and that is something that makes you feel more confident and more comfortable because we actors, sometimes are whackos, we think and overthink.

You star closely alongside Jenna Coleman and Jodie Foster in The Serpent and The Mauritanian respectively. How do you generate such great chemistry on set?
TR: I like to compare acting to dancing. You’ve got a choreography, you come on set and it works then I come from a school of actors that like to try something else in every take but in order to do that you’ve got to secure some things first. Once we were done with a sequence I would watch my director and say you got it? Can we have a freestyle one? Then for the freestyle one, you pace left, you pace right and your partner follows or you follow your partner and these were the best dances ever. Jenna was great at this and the same with Jodie, they both raise the game.

Once filming is over, how do you go from being Tahar the actor to Tahar the husband and father?
TR: When I was younger I remember my wife once told me ‘you’re cold as a tomb.’ I didn’t even realise that I would bring my character home so I started to work on myself and at some point I was like OK I start to take off my character’s suit and leave it at the door so I’ve learnt how to do it over the years. That said, for The Mauritanian it’s the first time in my life it’s taken me three weeks to get out of it. I went too far and self isolated to reach my goal. Usually when I get back to Paris at the end of a movie I go back to my clothes, do my thing, my hair, whatever. But I was bald, I was very thin and I would see him [Mohamedou] again and again every morning. Little by little it started to go away but it was a tough shoot.