Twenty years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the stories of human suffering triggered by that horrific day remain as relevant as ever. The Mauritanian, starring Tahar Rahim (A Prophet), tells one such tale of torture and human-rights abuses at Gitmo, a Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Also starring Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, and Benedict Cumberbatch, the film is based on the explosive memoir, and New York Times best-seller, Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi.
Slahi handwrote the 466 pages after he was captured by the U.S. government—under suspicion of being a recruiter for al Qaeda—in his cell at Camp Five Echo, a secret disciplinary block made up of shipping containers. The prisoner from Mauritania (hence the movie’s title) languished in Gitmo for 14 years without being charged with a crime before finding champions in defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Foster) and her associate, Teri Duncan (Woodley). Together the trio battled the U.S. government and military prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch) in a dogged fight against human-rights abuses. Directed by Academy-Award winner Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September), The Mauritanian opens in theaters February 12.
We sat down with Rahim to discuss what it was like to portray Slahi’s time at Guantanamo, which remains one of the most controversial places on Earth.
Tahar Rahim on Method Waterboarding and the Magic of Jodie Foster
Men’s Journal: Mohamedou Ould Slahi suffered beatings, extreme heat and cold, and ear-shattering heavy metal music while naked under strobe lights. How did you get into the character of someone who endured such impossibly cruelty?
Tahar Rahim: It was work. I wanted to do Mohamedou justice by getting as close as possible to the real conditions so I could bring as much authenticity I could onscreen and to the audience. I went all-in. That was tough but a very interesting experience for an actor.
Can you give us specifics on going ‘all-in’?
I lost a lot of weight—22 pounds—in a very short amount of time. I asked props to bring me real shackles, to turn the cell as cold as possible. And I experienced waterboarding and force-feeding.
You voluntarily underwent torture?
We had codes in case I put myself in danger, but yeah. Different movies demand different methods. I wasn’t able to make up this part in my mind and make it look real. I didn’t want to sell something. I wanted the audience to feel it. The film is not about whether you think Mohamedou’s guilty or not. It’s about human rights.
We know about most of the harsh conditions at Gitmo. Was there something you discovered during production that surprised you beyond the usual headlines?
Mohamedou’s cell. When I went on set, I needed to spend some time in the cell to just experience it. It’s shocking because you barely have the space to lie down. The light is on 24 hours a day. And it’s all made out of metal so the sound is intense. It’s scary. And then in the courtyard, you can’t even talk to a co-detainee. Mohamedou never saw another detainee except for one little moment.
What was meeting Mohamedou like?
The meeting was a memorable moment, and this encounter will stay written in my heart for life. I was so surprised to see that a man who lived through this could smile, crack jokes, talk about movies or music, and ask about your family. If it wasn’t a true story, it would be hard for me to believe. I had to ask him some touchy questions. But when we started to talk about Gitmo, he changed. He was restless. I could see the trauma coming to life on his face. I felt so bad that I stopped asking questions. I remember saying to myself, ‘Who do you think you are to bring him back there? Stop it now.’
Not losing sight of humanity in the face of fear is a major theme of The Mauritanian. How did you manage to portray the spirit of your character?
By spending time with Mohamedou. He developed such a great philosophy despite going through Guantanamo—the power to change people’s minds. He talked to his captors while he was being tortured. He would ask them, ‘Why do you do this?’ And he succeeded, because his guards became his friends. I asked him, ‘Are you still angry? Are you still trying to fight against anger?’ And he said, ‘No, not at all.’ He turned anger into forgiveness. By doing that, his spirit could fly beyond the metal box of his cell. That was his way to survive.
Your scenes with Jodie Foster take place in a claustrophobic room at Gitmo, yet they’re so dynamic. What was it like working with a two-time Oscar winner?
Working with Jodie was an honor. She’s an icon and she’s so strong. I grew up with her movies and her strong performances. Taxi Driver is one of my favorite movies ever. I needed to be well-prepared so I could take advantage of that amazing moment working with such a great actress. And if you’re prepared, all you have to do is follow her. We didn’t talk that much between scenes; we had our job to do. But we had a kind of secret language that works just like if you started a new jazz band. The pianist says, ‘Okay, I start the music and you follow.’ And you’re there with your trumpet, and it starts to come together. The way Jodie moves, the way she looks at you, the subtle movements—it was magical.
Is it true that while Mohamedou was released from Gitmo, 40 detainees remain—only one of them convicted of a crime?
Human rights abuses are still happening not only in America, but so many countries all over the world. Yes, this movie is about Mohamedou and his lawyers because they fought for his freedom. They’re heroes. But we need more Nancys and more Teris to make the world a better place. Or at least a world that protects people’s human rights. No one should be tortured.