‘The Mauritanian’s’ Tahar Rahim Talks Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’ and the Paris Banlieue of His Youth

MARRAKECH – Chain smoking in a green, pleated Issey Miyake outfit, paired with cream loafers, his hair tied neatly back, Tahar Rahim, 41,  speaks, between puffs, in such a convincing, powerful American accent, that you would never imagine that the actor grew up in the Paris banlieue, in a poor French-Algerian family packed with children.

His cinema education was as much as popping into the multicultural neighbor’s houses, to chat and drink tea, as watching films, when he could afford to, on local screens.

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“France has changed,” he says. “I grew up in a suburb where we were all together. French, Egyptians, gypsies. You would go to each other’s houses. Drink tea. Chat. The conversations you have. It made me. Boundaries are just an imaginary line because to discover a new culture is rich.”

Serving as a jury member at this year’s Marrakech International Film Festival (Nov. 11-19), Rahim’s credits include Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,” which won him multiple awards, including the Cesar and European Awards for best actor.

He has since worked with a long list of name directors, including Lone Scherfig (“The Kindness of Strangers”), Asghar Farhadi (“The Past”) and Kevin Macdonald (“The Mauritanian”).

His upcoming films included Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon,” in which he was asked if he could pull off a British accent to play the role of Frenchman Paul Barras, the commissioner of the Revolutionary Army. He laughs. And puts on a French-British accent for a few seconds.

Asked where he got his American accent from, he said, “I worked on it really hard for my first project there.”

His efforts have paid off. He is married to actress, Leïla Bekhti (“The Restless”), with whom he has three children. “If my son asks me for something, I can give it to him,” he said.

During the jury press conference, a few days earlier, he shared with reporters that he couldn’t afford to go to the cinema, growing up. There was, anyway, no one like him on the screen, a French-Algerian actor.

Now he’s that for his fans.

How does he feel about becoming a mega-star to his Arab fans which has been made more evident by his reception at the festival? “I’m getting used to it,” he said, with a grin.

Studying drama in Paris, Rahim said breaking through wasn’t easy.

“It took a long time, but I found my way thanks to foreign movies and directors. They approached me with different roles I wasn’t offered in France,” he said.

He has payed close attention along the way and is quick to respond to questions about any aspect of his business.

“Somewhere in my teenage years, I discovered New Hollywood,” he said. “I could identify with the heroes. The actors are the best in New Hollywood. They’re the best actors we have ever had. You can see the difference of acting between different generations. Since the ‘70s, there has been no other revolution. Maybe it’s been 50 years that it hasn’t changed.”

How does he select his roles? He’s played a serial killer in the Netflix TV series “The Serpent” and goes from convict to kingpin in his breakthrough film, “A Prophet.” He was Judas in the film “Mary Magdalene,” directed by Garth Davis.

“I pick movies based on the cast, script and director, but when it’s a true story you have a responsibility,” he said “Movie choices talk about my political points of view.”

Apart from wearing the late Issey Miyake’s  designs, his other fashion collaborations include being the “face of a watch” for Louis Vuitton last year. “There’s more coming for them, but I don’t know exactly what yet,” he said.

The same goes for film.

“I’ve got a couple of things that I can’t talk about yet,” he said. “But nothing that I’m shooting in two months. But I need downtime. I’ve got my kids and wife. I’m away a lot for work. I’m restless. It’s the way I was built.”

As the interview draws to a close, the  sun setting over the manicured gardens at Marrakech’s flagship luxury hotel, La Mamounia, the call to prayer rings out from a local mosque.

“Of course I’m a believer. Religion feeds me. It’s been with me since I was a kid,” he said.

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