Tahar Rahim completed a three-year degree in cinema at the University of Montpellier before moving to Paris to pursue his acting career, beginning with stage work. After a bit part in one movie and a starring role in a miniseries, he landed the lead in Jacques Audiard’s Un prophète. The role brought him César (France’s Oscar equivalent) and European Film Awards for Best Actor. While he was back in France during a brief break in filming of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s epic Black Thirst, with Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, and Mark Strong, he made time to speak (almost entirely in English) about The Eagle, in which he plays the Seal Prince––a near-primitive warrior who quite literally stands in the way of Marcus (Channing Tatum) and Esca’s (Jamie Bell) quest.
After Un prophète world-premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival and generated all this attention, just a few months later you were filming The Eagle. Given all the projects that must have been offered to you after Cannes, how and why did this one get you to commit?
First of all, I’d seen [The Eagle director] Kevin Macdonald’s movies, and I think he’s a good director. The script was good, and was different; it’s about two people’s [i.e., Marcus and Esca] relationship and somewhat dealt with colonization. You feel, “What’s going to happen?” It’s the story of two people traveling through an unknown world. It’s what makes this movie rich.
For the part of the Seal Prince, I had to completely change my physique and that interested me. Another reason was that I would have to speak in ancient Gaelic, and that I would have the experience of shooting [a movie] far from my country. I like challenges, so I chose this movie.
Given the content of Un prophète , were other roles you got offered at that time in the crime genre?
Yeah, but this part seduced me. The others didn’t.
You have a degree in cinema. Did this movie remind you of classic films you admired and was that part of the appeal of the project?
Yes and no. Every little boy has dreamt of playing something like this. When you’re young you play Roman, you play gladiator. So this was [speaking to] my children’s soul. But I didn’t make the choice by comparing it with other movies.
The part seems to have afforded you dramatic license as an actor. Did the filmmakers place any limits on your interpretation of the Seal Prince?
The script gives you limits––or, not. This character is the baddie in the movie, and the movie is focused on the two lead characters. When you’re third or fourth, you have a little evolution ––or, not. So I had to catch something, and play with it. I had propositions for Kevin Macdonald, and he listened.
I thought about who the Seal Prince was. When you’re a prince, in a society and a village [like this character], your behavior has to be noble. But the fact that he’s a warrior too makes him more proud. He walks in the front [of the tribe], he decides [for them]. I wanted to give him stillness, when it was possible to show it in the movie.
He’s the new generation. His father, the king, is an old man living in his past every day, staying [fixated] on his last battle [20 years earlier with Rome’s Ninth Legion]. What’s in the Seal Prince’s head is, “When I’ll be king, it’s going to be different.”
I think that the Seal Prince doesn’t care about [the fate of the Ninth’s golden emblem] the Eagle. But, among the Seal People, he is the counterpart to Marcus [played by Channing Tatum]; they have the same feelings about the enemy, and think only about their people.
The Seal Prince is the antagonist, yet you deliver a lot of the dialogue without shouting your lines.
I’ve seen that [done] so many times in movies, I don’t believe it any more. When you have a lot of authority – princes, warriors, generals – you don’t show it. From his first day of living, the Seal Prince has been treated like this.
You had to deliver all of your lines in ancient Gaelic. Did you go for memorized phonetic delivery, or did you study the language?
Because they were already shooting when I was cast, I went to the set in Hungary for one meeting with a coach. When we got to Scotland, I worked on it phonetically. But I knew what was I saying, and tried to create my own punctuation. I had to respect the words, and I tried to find the music to make it [sound] real.
I knew that I had an advantage; this language is dead. So I could do what I wanted, but not that much – because other people in the movie were speaking it. So I had to hear them for [reference in] my way of talking. [The Gaelic language is] constructed the same way as the Chinese language, and like Yoda [dialogue from the Star Wars movies]; “With you the Force be.” It’s an inversion – you begin with the end of the sentence.
How else did you prepare?
I shaved my head! [laughs]
Speaking of which, did you know how extensive the make-up was going to be before you got to the location?
No. I thought they told me, but I didn’t realize. [laughs] Six in the morning, cold mud in your face and on your head, hands, legs. Two hours [daily].
Did you use that time to mentally prepare for the day’s scenes? Or did you doze in the make-up chair?
I was sleeping. [laughs] I had time to think [about scenes] when I was waiting [on the set].
Did you rehearse at all with Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, or did you keep apart from them to enhance the impact of the scenes?
No, we didn’t rehearse together. I don’t like to. Run the lines if we have to, to see how they fit. When you rehearse one, two, three times, you lose the spontaneity. Sometimes it’s nice to not control everything; something escapes from you, and it creates something that works.
Did you socialize with the other members of “your tribe?”
Yeahhhh. I really liked them––my “soldiers!” Good guys. They weren’t [all] actors, I liked [getting] to know about Scotland, about people. It wasn’t the work process; it was just human [interaction].
Up next for you is Black Thirst. Tell us a little bit about that one.
We shot it in Tunisia – three months [so far]. This is a huge movie; it deals with the discovery of oil and the arrival of America to dig and take oil, and with religion. It’s [taking place] in the 1920s. I’m playing a prince, the lead character. He’s stuck between his father, who’s a king, and has raised him in like a golden prison [i.e., gilded cage], and another “father”––a king of another kingdom. My character begins as like a little librarian, and goes through the desert and becomes part of revolution.
Who play the kings?
The other king is Antonio Banderas. My [character’s] real father is [my costar] for the second time, Mark Strong [of The Eagle]; he’s a great actor.
The Roman empire, the 1920s – which period do you next want to be part of a movie about?
There is a period that I really love; the 1930s and the 1940s in America. Not specially [to be in] a gangster movie. But there was something in the air [then]; behavior, clothes, relationships between men and women. Something brand new.