I am sitting in the Soho Hotel in London talking to Tahir Rahim an actor who has delivered the most impressive, most astonishing performance in a film that is one of the greatest crime movies that I have ever seen. Directed by Jacques Audiard (who also helmed the brilliant, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) the film in question, Un Prophete, basically tells of one young man’s journey through the French prison system, and has already won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, the best film at the London Film Festival and is Frances’s selection for the Oscars for best foreign film.
”It’s the first movie I’ve ever done,” declares Rahim dressed in jeans and trainers. “And it is amazing because everyone loves it. It is very human film as everyone can empathise with it as the same emotions are felt outside prison as in -loneliness, courage, fear- but the difference is that in prison every one of these emotions is heightened.”
Rahim plays, Malik El Djebena, a 19-year-old homeless Algerian boy who cannot read or write. After being set upon by Police he retaliates is battered by the cops and is sentenced to five years in a rather nasty penitentiary. Alone without the necessary contacts Malik has to survive on his wits until, cornered by the leader of the Corsican Mafia who rule the prison, he is given a number of “missions” to fulfill. Consequently his efforts win the gang leader’s confidence and allow him access to the intricacies of the nether world that surrounds him.
Rahim was born in 1981 in Belfort, a largely industrial town that, famous for nothing much, is near to Dijon land is but a hop skip and a jump from Switzerland. His parents, both factory workers, were born in Algeria and are typify the hundreds thousands of their kinsfolk who emigrated to France in the sixties. I consider that acting is not the normal career path for a chap from Rahim’s background. “But what is normal, ‘ he asks in his heavy Gallic accent. “I never cared what people thought of me. I became interested in acting because I was bored in my city so I spent all my time in the cinema, which I loved, and so I thought I could do it.”
Indeed, so enamoured was he of film that he studied cinema in Montpelier University. He landed a part in a classmate’s movie and moved to Paris to further his dream. “I came to Paris with no money at all,” he recalls.” And did a few acting lessons while I worked in a factory sealing boxes. On the weekend I worked in a club, first as a bus boy and then a waiter, then somehow I got an agent in Paris and got a small part in a TV series. I then had an audition with Jacques [Audiard], did another 8 auditions over 8 months and finally got the part.”
But the ‘part ‘ in question is the part that the whole film lives and dies on. Rahim is in almost every scene of this magnificent work delivering a turn that many older more experienced thespians might consider the performance of a lifetime.
“ I was very lucky, at the beginning,” he explains still obviously shell shocked. “I was so happy and then I was scared and then happy. But the pressure was on me. The difficult thing was that my character was growing and changing and being affected by his time in prison every day and so each time I went to the set I had to be different from the day before.”
Indeed throughout the film Malik furthers his endeavour by soaking up the whys and wherefores of criminality- a discipline that prior to his incarceration he was blissfully unaware of. “My character is a victim who does what he has to do,” informs the actor. “The prison is like a finishing school for criminals you swap stories and ways to break the law and this is a problem. I don’t know how we might deal with the situation. I lived it for false and learnt a lot so I cannot imagine how it is for real.”
As for the viewer, such is the realism of the film that imagining is all too easy as, not for one second, does one question it’s authenticity.” Jacques makes it easy for us to empathise because the set was so real,” clarifies Rahim. “And a lot of the extras were ex-convicts. In fact, the only actor with any experience was Nils [Arestrup] who plays Cesar the Corsican mob boss. But you don’t go to the ex-cons and ask,’ what do I do?’ You just… (he stops to get his French/English dictionary out to find the correct word) you just integrate yourself into the situation and, just like one would in prison I guess, take one day at a time.”
Initially, Rahim tried the Method approach to acting but abandoned it. “I watched movies and documentaries and talked with ex-convicts,’ he remembers. “I knew a lot from my city. I saw a lot of tough things growing up. I knew people who just liked being violent, crazy guys. There was a lot of delinquency and fighting so it wasn’t that difficult for me to imagine. So after a while we decided just to analyze the character and think how he, or any person, would feel in the cell the first night, in the yard on his own and try to convey his sense of isolation. He was a homeless guy and I was thinking of them, I tried to find the man’s psychology.
“Initially when I was trying the method I dressed like a homeless and went to where they are in Pairs and met them,” he explicates. “And I discovered that there is a real society amongst the homeless. The first one I met offered me a drink. The second was begging and when he saw me he turned into a lion, like it was his territory, and was really awful to me. The last one, I was sitting alone and I was trying to find some information and he refused to talk me he was so suspicious and told me to f**k off. And then I go to the cinema to stay warm. And I was sitting there and the girl next to me was looking at me as if I was a vermin and then she got up and left. I tried it for a few nights wanted to see what it was like and it was awful and it was only September.”
However Rahim achieved his exact rendering of Malik is virtually of no consequence. Yet no matter how much I try to laud his efforts he still pins the credit on his colleagues. “It was hard for me but I was able to do it because of Jacques and the rest of the cast,” he asserts. “It was amazing for me to be around these guys. They play with you and not versus you; everyone wanted the film to be great and so everyone helped to make the finished thing the best that it could be, no one was trying to grab the duvet, the important thing is the duvet.”
Before I leave I inform the young actor that many critics have likened him to a young De Niro. “But that’s not true,” he comments somewhat indignantly. “ I have only made one movie and if I make another movie that is not good they will say he is the shit. I am just beginning. I am happy to be appreciated but you know….
They could have said you’re like a new Tom Cruise I interject. “ Mon Dieu non-non no.,” he laughs. “That is not so good.”
'A Prophet' is out on DVD this month.