Credits include The Past; Un Prophet

It is hard to forget actor Tahar Rahim in Jacques Audiard’s rivetting prison drama Un Prophet of 2010. As Malik El Djebana, an illiterate minor offender and newcomer to prison, his character is absorbed quickly into the criminal matrix of gang culture behind bars, and then rises to the top. He cuts a fellow prisoner’s throat to stay alive. When due for release back into the community, his transformation into ruthless crime lord is complete.

The quietly spoken Algerian Frenchman actor was just 27 years old with two screen credits to his name at the time he worked with Audiard. The writer-director says that transforming Rahim, ‘the gentlest boy’, into Malik was one of the best things he has done in his career. Some twelve films and five years later, Rahim has now clearly secured the career he aspired to at the age of 14 while growing up in a working class community in Belfort, a small city in north-east France.

Mad for the movies from a young age, Rahim liked to go to the cinema to escape, and who doesn’t? He also used to source it for the clues it offered about the mysteries of adult life. ‘Movies can teach you how to talk, how to talk to a woman, how to be aware, and yeah, how to be.’

Sitting across from me in an interview in Paris last November, Rahim speaks English well and we don’t need a translator. He is handsome, polite, personable and ready with his smile and it is easy to imagine him fitting in anywhere. As the late Roger Ebert observed, the actor played El Djebena as an enigma, a character whose coming of age in prison taught him you did anything to save yourself and you revealed nothing. Since Un Prophet, Rahim has managed to avoid being typecast in similar roles and to explore a certain chameleon quality that allows directors to test his versatility on screen.

In Asghar Farhadi’s new film, The Past, Rahim plays another maghrebi (North African), Samir, a man entangled in a complex web of intimacy because he is not sure of his own heart. There is the beautiful Frenchwoman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo from The Artist), a mother of two a little older than him, with whom he lives, and there is his French wife confined to hospital. His partner’s estranged husband arrives from Iran to finalise the divorce, but this complicates matters further rather than provides closure. What’s past is not yet past.

I ask how Farhadi works. ‘Rehearsal was not like where you came and played your scene, it was more familial and kind, a supportive exercise with music […] for which we did improvisation of the characters’ past, how they met, their wedding and they way they behaved […] Then when it came to the shoot, Farhadi became very precise.’

It was the first time Rahim had worked with Farhadi, and the first time the writer-director had worked in France. Is this a story that could have unfolded in any community or did it have to be an immigrant community? ‘It’s not an Iranian story, it’s a French story but it’s a Farhadian movie.’ By which Rahim means it’s universal, ‘about relations between people, it’s about love, death, children, birth…Everything is there.’

There is something Rahim particularly likes about Farhadi’s films: ‘I always like how in his movies, because he is doing something interactive with the audience, he is always interrogating the audience’s ability to judge people.’ He’ll show the audience how they can be wrong about people, how perceptions can be way wide of the mark. ‘You thought this guy was an arsehole? You gotta understand life is not like that,’ Rahim is now pretty animated. ‘In a way, he gives a lesson to people. I love that!’

In The Past, Rahim’s Samir owns a laundry. His French wife lies in a hospital bed, in a coma as a result of an attempt to commit suicide (in front of their son) over his affair.
What was his approach to this character? He shakes his head. ‘ I can’t give you three or four words to describe him… It’s not a question of English. This guy’s in construction, or deconstruction… What can I say? He’s just in the middle. Between two choices, two wives, two kids, two temporalities. He’s just trying to go the distance with all this weight on his shoulders.’

In true Farhadian fashion, Samir’s emotions are complex. ‘I think he’s still in love with her (the unconscious wife), that he fell in love with Marie by default…’ We then agree that Marie still seems to love the husband who has returned from Iran to divorce her, and he with her.

The Past is a marvel of subtle and engrossing detail like Farhadi’s gloriously complex drama, A Separation, which in 2011 became the first Iranian film to win an Oscar.

Rahim has recently played in romance opposite Lea Seydoux, had a part in Kevin Macdonald’s film about Roman Britain, The Eagle, and he is slated to work this year with Fatih Akin (Soul Kitchen, Head On), a young Turkish-German filmmaker of distinction. For this ‘boy from the countryside’, it couldn’t have gone better to plan.