Of all the things you might expect to hear come from the mouth of Tahar Rahim, the charismatic French-Algerian star of the hit prison thriller A Prophet and the new serial-killer series The Serpent, the least likely must be: “Have you ever heard of Tring?” Yet here he is, speaking over Zoom from his home in Paris, and dumping on the sleepy Hertfordshire market town. “There’s nothing to do there,” he says. “It’s got, like, a main street and that’s it.”
It’s unlikely the 39-year-old would ever have visited but for the pandemic, which interrupted the shooting of The Serpent, a BBC/Netflix production, for five months. Once filming resumed in August, a return to the original locations in Thailand was out of the question. Somewhat implausibly, Tring stepped in.
As it turns out, the break was beneficial. For one thing, Rahim’s second child was born earlier this year. He and his wife, the actor Leïla Bekhti, now have a three-year-old son and an 11-month-old daughter. (The couple met in 2008 while shooting A Prophet.) For another, it gave him a chance to reflect on his work so far, playing the remorseless real-life murderer Charles Sobhraj, nicknamed The Serpent because of his ability to slither out of the clutches of the law.
Sobhraj killed at least 10 young backpackers making their way across south-east Asia in the 1970s. They were poisoned, strangled, stabbed and, in some cases, burned alive. An extraordinary series of identity thefts, arrests, escapes and even a jailbreak followed, making him a shameless media star. As recently as 2014, GQ magazine ran a splashy interview with this “funny, enigmatic, absurd and engaging” psychopath.
“Usually I start building a character from the inside,” Rahim tells me. “I try to find bridges psychologically between me and him, but here there was nothing. Regular people, balanced people, we don’t know what it is to not have empathy. He’s a murderer, a manipulator. He’s what you don’t want to be.” The solution was to begin with the external. “Those who had met him talked about how he moved and spoke, and I started to assemble the puzzle. I thought of him as an animal. Of course, a serpent. But which one? Ah – a cobra. It stares at you. Then boom! – it strikes.”
Actor and character couldn’t be more different. A broad, Robert De Niro-style grin regularly engulfs Rahim’s face, reducing his eyes to little dashes. But, as Sobhraj, he scarcely smiles and doesn’t move unless it’s imperative. “Tahar is such a beautiful soul,” says the former Doctor Who star Jenna Coleman, who plays his accomplice, Marie-Andrée. “The way he played Charles was very contained, which is not Tahar at all. He isn’t a still person: he’s really quite fidgety. He was going to the gym because he had to get rid of this dark, dynamic energy he was carrying with him.”
Rahim transformed himself physically, too, topping up his fake tan every few days, shaving his body hair (“It hurts, man!”) and wearing facial prosthetics when playing the older Sobhraj. The result is a sleek, almost laminated look. He intended initially to meet the man himself, who is now 76 and in poor health in prison in Nepal, but decided against it. “I wanted to see how he would con me,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘I don’t want to meet this type of guy. I’ll find another way.’”
Does he worry that it will feed Sobhraj’s considerable ego to see himself portrayed by a handsome, talented movie star? Rahim swivels sideways in his office chair so that he’s sitting in profile while he ponders the question. “Maybe he’ll say, ‘They’re all talking about me!’ Maybe he’ll think it’s bullshit. I don’t know.” Isn’t it ghoulish to tell his story at all? “It’s in our nature to want to find out about him,” he says. “The less you know, the more you’re attracted. Fascination and repulsion – a very human feeling.”
His own interest in Sobhraj dates back to when he was 14, growing up as the youngest of 10 in Belfort, a city near the French-Swiss border. He read a book about the killer that he found on his brother’s bedside table, and dreamed of one day playing him. “You think at that age that being a great actor is about picking the crazy parts. Over the course of my experience, I’ve realised that being a simple, normal guy might be the hardest thing to do.”
It was as just such a simple, normal guy that he made his acting debut in 2005, playing a version of himself on French TV in Tahar, Student. Presented as documentary, this was actually scripted reality, with Rahim reenacting for the camera scenes from his own life. After appearing as a drug dealer in the TV series The Commune, his blistering breakthrough came with A Prophet. One of the joys of that film lies in seeing an actor, as well as a character, take shape before your eyes. Just as the young convict Malik is transformed over the course of two-and-a-half hours (and six years of prison time) from toerag to kingpin, so the actor playing him goes from face-in-the-crowd to fully fledged star. “It’s like I went up the red steps at Cannes,” he said in 2010, “and never came down.”
That makes it sound like a lottery win, when in fact Rahim is famously industrious and indefatigable. “His work ethic is off the chart,” says Coleman. “He has this magical ability to keep on mining. On The Serpent, he would always want another take. He’d ask Tom Shankland, the director, for ‘one for free’. In the first week, it was, ‘Tom! Tom! Tu m’en laisses une libre.’ After that, it was shorthand: ‘Une libre?’ In those moments, you have no idea what he’s going to surprise you with. He’d steal a glass from me or suddenly kiss me. You never knew what was coming.” Ask Rahim about his approach and he puts it simply. “I look at my director and I say, ‘I’m your soldier. Whatever you ask me, if I can do it, I will.’”
Rather than being dragged along in the celebrity slipstream immediately after A Prophet, he took his time weighing up offers, eventually starring with Channing Tatum in The Eagle, set in the second century AD. It would be a stretch to imagine a part further from kingpin Malik than this Gaelic-speaking warrior daubed from Mohawk-to-toe in loam. “I’m always trying to go in a different direction,” he says with a mischievous smile.
His tastes skew toward the arthouse, with intense dramas such as Our Children, The Past and Heal the Living dominating his CV, though he also played a burglar mistaken for Santa Claus in Le Père Noël. That knockabout comedy, he says proudly, will be the first film of his that his kids get to see. He recently starred as Judas alongside Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara in Mary Magdalene, but for nearly a decade he rebuffed Hollywood’s advances. “A lot of what I was sent had to do with terrorism.” Given his Arab roots, he explains, he “didn’t want to be a tool for that sort of thing”.
When he did agree to explore the theme – in the gripping 10-parter The Looming Tower about the US intelligence failures that helped make possible the 9/11 attacks – it resulted in his most complex performance to date. He played the FBI agent Ali Soufan, who was instrumental in efforts to thwart al-Qaida. Rahim’s American accent today is a hangover from that role, his native French cadences surfacing only sporadically.
After The Serpent, he will be alongside Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Mauritanian, out in February. He plays Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was held without charge in Guantánamo Bay for 14 years. Along with The Looming Tower, this suggests a bold philosophy emerging in his choices. What does he want his body of work to say about him? “If I can be part of a piece of cinema that teaches people something,” he says, “I’ll be happy.”
And if the role is in English, so much the better. “I feel freer acting in English. Your face moves differently, your mouth, even your body. It makes you forget about the habits you used to have as an actor. It puts your soul in a different place, so you rediscover what you were at the very beginning.” Which was? He grins and swivels in his chair again. “A virgin.”
• The Serpent starts on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on 1 January.