Tahar Rahim on Embodying "Evil" as Serial Killer Charles Sobhraj in Netflix's 'The Serpent'

Tahar Rahim The Serpent
Netflix

Ahead of the series' launch on the streamer, Rahim describes how getting into character as the notorious murderer and con-man, who preyed on young travellers in 1970s South East Asia, was one of the toughest challenges of his career.

It's been quite a year for Tahar Rahim.

Thanks to The Mauritanian — in which he played real-life Guantanamo prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi and starred alongside Jodie Foster — the 39-year-old has been getting some of the best film reviews since his phenomenal, Cesar-winning breakout performance in 2009's A Prophet. His powerful and deeply moving portrayal of the now-freed Slahi landed him a Golden Globe nomination, and later this month he's up against the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Riz Ahmed and Chadwick Boseman for the best actor BAFTA.

But before then, Rahim is hitting screens in the U.S. in an almost polar-opposite role.

In The Serpent, an eight-part series that debuts on Netflix on Friday (as a BBC co-production, it aired in the U.K. in January), he plays Charles Sobhraj, the notorious French fraudster and serial killer who preyed on Western tourists in Southeast Asia during the 1970s. Sobhraj — currently serving a life sentence in Kathmandu and known to have committed a least a dozen murders across Thailand, Nepal and India — would use his good looks and charm to lure young travelers on the so-called Hippy Trail into his orbit, often poisoning them and nurturing them back to health in his apartment to gain their obedience.

For Rahim, The Serpent — also starring Jenna Colman as Sobhraj's devoted girlfriend and some-time accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc and Billy Howle as Herman Knippenberg, the young Dutch diplomat whose tireless devotion helped bring the killer to justice — would prove to be one of the hardest challenges of his career to date. Getting into character as Sobhraj — a man who is "so distant from my true nature" — would force him to completely rethink his usual approach to acting.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Rahim explains the lengths to which he'd go to embody the murderer (including not talking to his co-stars to create an uneasy mood on set), being forced to lose 10 kilograms in under three weeks to jump back into delayed shoots for The Mauritanian, and why COVID-19 saw the The Serpent's production shift from South-East Asia to a very unlikely small town just outside of London, which stood in for Paris, Thailand and India.

Congratulations on both The Mauritanian and The Serpent. They're both such great performances and such interesting characters.

Yeah, I'm really happy about those two parts. Because they’re so different. Both are real-life people, but one is an absolute angel and the other one is just evil. It’s really interesting to explore.

What were your first thoughts when you were offered the role of Charles Sobhraj?

My story with Charles actually started a long time ago, when I was a teenager. I already wanted to be an actor, and my brother had this book, Serpentine [about Sobhraj and his murders]. So I started to read the book and it appeared to me like a movie. I was naive enough to think that I could be an actor and naive enough to not see the horror it contained. I didn't identify with him, thankfully. Can you imagine?

I’m very glad to hear that.

I'm not gonna offer you a strange tea next time I see you!

But I projected myself playing him as an actor. When I think about it now, as I wanted to be an actor, I was reading about him like he was an actor. I mean, he is someone who was changing identities and being someone else all the time. And plus, he was French. Maybe that was the reason why I wanted to play him.

But later on, around 2001, Benicio Del Toro and William Friedkin were preparing a movie about him, and I was like, oh, not this time. But it never happened. And 20 years later, I got this email from my agent. And at the time, I wanted to explore evil in a character as I’d never done that before. So the email came and I started to scroll down and was reading "con man" and "murderer" and I was thinking, "ok I can take this part." And then I read Charles Sobhraj. It was like, wow, life’s crazy sometimes.

How do you even begin to get into character for someone like Sobhraj. Do you have a usual method and did it work in this instance?

I found it very hard, especially in the first two weeks. Usually when I build my characters, I start from inside. But this time I couldn't find a single connection. Nothing. I mean, he's got no empathy, is a con man and manipulator. He’s so distant from my true nature. And it couldn't happen. So I tried the other way around. I started to create him from the outside, which I’d never done before. So I built his look. Thanks to testimonies and the research I did, I could know the way he would behave and talk. And I also found inspiration in an animal, a cobra. I picked the cobra as inspiration!

What sort of research did you do?

I talked with the director back and forth, I read the books, I watched every bit of footage you could find about him, listened to some recordings he did and read the testimonies from people who met him. But it still wasn’t enough. Tom Shankland directed me very precisely for the first two weeks, but I was like, I really need to stay focused. So on set, where we didn’t have a trailer of anything like that to isolate, I self-isolated myself. I remember on Black Gold (the 2011 feature in which Rahim played an Arabic king) my father was Mark Strong and he said, if you’re king, you don’t play the king, you let others play the fact that you’re king. And Sobhraj considers himself a god. So I didn’t talk to my co-stars on set. They would come to me asking if I had a nice night and what I did in the morning, and I wouldn’t answer. I know - it’s not nice! I felt uncomfortable. But it created a really strange mood.

Were people put off at first? Or did they realize what you were doing?

Yeah, it was strange. But at the end of the day, I’d talk with everyone and have a drink. But they came to realize that ok, on set, maybe he’s getting focused on whatever. But it really created something and each time I would come on set or enter the room their behavior would change. It helped me embody my character.

But the most important thing was, two weeks into the shoot, the real-life Nadine Gires, Charles’ neighbor, came on set. And she was like, no, it’s not the right dog, the color of the car should be different. I thought oh, she’s gonna crucify me. So I tried to avoid her. But she told someone that when she saw me, she felt like she was traveling back in time. That she felt exactly the same and that she had gotten scared.

Did you have to bulk out for the role? Sobhraj is pretty muscular.

I used to go to the gym a lot when I was a teenager and at some point I stopped, because I’m a lazy fuck. And my friends were like, hey man, when are you gonna come back to the gym? And I’d joke, yeah, some day I’ll have a part and I’ll have to have a great body and I’ll work out. And that happened. Tom told me, I’m sorry, but you’ve got to have a Bruce Lee body. So I went back to the gym and I worked out for months.

I bet you didn’t imagine that the role you’d have to have a great body for would be a serial killer…

Yeah, exactly, I thought it would be a football player or something. But it was actually very specific the exercises I had to do. You can build your body in so many different ways, but in this case, Sobhraj was so straight and wooden, so we wanted him to have a very straight back … like a cobra!

So where did you shoot? Did you go to Thailand?

Oh, you’re going to laugh. So we started in Thailand … and we ended up in Tring [a small market town north east of London]

Tring? Of all the places in the world, I did not expect that. Why Tring?

Thanks to Covid! We had to shut down production in Thailand when the pandemic hit. So we shut down, went back home. And had to wait until the situation eased. And when it did, we went to Tring for the last two weeks. And we shot Paris there. You don’t have to take the Eurostar!

Did Tring also stand in for Bangkok?

We shot India and a bit of Thailand. The set designer did such an amazing job. Because you can’t tell.

Am I right in thinking you shot both The Serpent and The Mauritanian in the same year?

Yeah, but we shot The Mauritanian from August 2019 to December, but we were late on the schedule. So when I came to Thailand to shoot The Serpent I told them I still had a movie to finish. So I went to shoot The Mauritanian and then back to The Serpent.

That’s quite some role transformation

Yeah, it was pretty tough physically to go from Charles to Mohamedou because I had less than three weeks to lose 10 kilos!

You’ve played some pretty interesting characters over the years, including Mohamadou and Judas. Where does Charles Sobhraj rank?

Definitely in my top three. Because he’s the most distant character I’ve ever had to play and he was the hardest one to catch. I don’t know if the audience will feel the same way, but for me I know what it took to create Charles, and it was tough.

By the end, were you able to find any connection with him at all?

Actually, I finally found one connection. In episode three, there's a line where he says, "If I had to wait for the world to come to me, I'd be waiting. Everything I ever wanted, I had to take it." And this is exactly what happened to me when it comes to my passion, acting. I come from a small town in the French countryside. Nobody in my family is connected to the business. So I had to work to make my money, take the train to Paris and work and do my classes and just take what I wanted to take.

The Serpent will be available on Netflix from April 2.