'The Mauritanian': Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim on How Their Political Thriller Became a Story of Human Resilience

It’s an Amazing, Weird Thing That We Do
Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald's political thriller follows the 14-year detainment of Mohamedou Ould Slahi at Guantánamo Bay.

What first attracted you both to this project?

TAHAR RAHIM Kevin [Macdonald], first of all, because I worked with him before [in the director's 2011 feature The Eagle]. He called me up and told me that he might have a good part for me. I didn't know anything about Mohamedou's story. We knew a lot about what happened at [Guantánamo] — but also, not really. I thought it was really interesting to tell the story in this perspective, in a humanistic way. Plus, the [script] was so moving, and I could almost see the movie [in my head].

JODIE FOSTER It was a wonderful script, I have to say. And as time went on, the script got better and better. It became less of a political movie and much more of a human movie. The characters were really there, especially Mohamedou. I mean, what he lived through is extraordinary. But the fact that he was able to find forgiveness and humanity and vulnerability and openness and humor and joy — all of the things that you would imagine were broken out of him. It's just really inspiring.

I know you both got to meet the real people you were playing. Did that bring more responsibility to your roles?

FOSTER I've never been excited to play a real character because I feel constrained. I'm much more interested in crafting the character in order to tell a story. Nancy's amazing, and when I met her, I said: "I will not be doing an impersonation of you. It will be the essence of you." The most important part of the story is Mohamedou. I wanted to create a character that's able to serve that story.

RAHIM If you have to play Elvis or Michael Jordan, it's impossible because people know them. It's like you've been living with them. So when it comes to someone who is not that famous, you can find some freedom. But you've got a responsibility. In the case of Mohamedou, I didn't want to diminish him. I felt totally committed to the part, yes, but to him as well. I mean, he has been through hell. And, as Jodie said, he came out as a better man, which is extraordinary. But the wisdom he reached at some point makes him a hero to me. When you meet him, he's so [down to earth]. He's got a crazy sense of humor — which is not naive but very layered — and plus a beautiful sensitivity. What I tried to do was get connected to his spirit, which was not that hard. When you meet the guy, he's extraordinary.

This is an intense film with a lot of harrowing scenes to film. How did you leave work at work?

RAHIM Usually it's harder for me to get into a character than to come out. In this case, it was the opposite way — when I ended shooting, I couldn't let it go for almost three weeks. I was just not there with my friends and family. It was such an experience to live. We tried to make it as real as possible, and when you go back home to your hotel room [at the end of the day] … I've got my tricks to get [myself] to relax. But in this case, I couldn't — I was too scared to lose my character. I was like, "No man, just stay in it as long as you can."

FOSTER It is an amazing, weird thing that we do, right? We have to create a reality for ourselves. And sometimes you don't even realize you're doing it. What I find is, even as a director, it's not so much necessarily being inside the character, not recognizing yourself — it's being obsessed by something. We spend 14 hours a day thinking about this one thing and committing to this one thing. Anything that you do that obsessively for that long period of time is very difficult to shake. There's a sadness to leaving it because you're leaving something that's so meaningful — that can really feel life-changing.

This is a very political film that, as you both said, manages to find the humanity at the heart of its story. What were the conversations like on set as to how you would achieve that?

FOSTER That's really Kevin's job. That's why we have directors — they have the vision of the movie, and they keep the eye on the prize. I know that Kevin would say [if he were here] — because I've heard him say it before — that his number one goal was to make sure that this was a human story and that every piece of the plot was in service of Mohamedou.

RAHIM When you accept to be part of the movie, you know where you're going. When we read the script, and it was evolving in that direction, Kevin told us that we would work on it to reach the point of humanity we wanted to have. We'll have time to talk about it and maybe change things on set. But you trust [him], and you trust the script, as well.

The film offers a very stark depiction of Guantánamo. Was it unsettling to be on such a realistic set?

RAHIM Yeah. It was so real. I remember the first day I visited the set. We rehearsed some choreography [and] torture [scenes]. I went to the cell, and I just laid down for 10 minutes. I realized how crazy it was to live there. No mirrors, no light — just one very small green neon light. Everything made out of metal, you could hear every sound from afar. And you're just lost and alone. That helped me to feel a little bit more about what [Mohamedou had] been through. I'm not comparing our experiences because it's impossible. But I couldn't stop thinking of Mohamedou and the people who have been in the same situation spending days and nights and days and nights in this place.

Jodie, what kind of research did you do to capture your character's anger about Mohamedou's experience?

FOSTER I got to meet up with Nancy a couple times before we started shooting, and then she was there also during the shoot. That was the most valuable thing, putting myself in her shoes and figuring out who she is. She always wears red lipstick and [has] red nails; she loves to drive race cars and play country-western music. She is a lovely person — she's not rude, she's very well mannered. She's not as mean as my character is. She's very soft-spoken and speaks methodically and quietly, unlike me in the movie. I thought it was important to chart the change that happens [when she realizes] she needs Mohamedou [to cooperate with her for her to take the case]. To do that, I sort of exaggerated some parts of her. She's somebody who's very defended, and it's understandable. She's done nothing but defend mostly guilty people her whole life. And she does that as a mission to defend the Constitution and challenge the government. But that takes a toll when you defend guilty people for 85 percent of your cases, right?

What did you both take away from filming this, and what do you hope audiences get from it?

RAHIM My encounter with Mohamedou. To have someone in front of you, in flesh and blood, who has been through this hell. He showed me that even if you are in the worst position ever, you can still put yourself in the shoes of others. Even his captors, he would tell them while he was tortured, "Why do you do this to yourself?" To me, it's impossible to conceive. But when I met him, and when I talked with him, and what I've been through [playing] this character, I came to realize that in every choice, in every second of your life, you should pick forgiveness over fear.

FOSTER As I get older, one of my biggest goals and motivations is to become a better person. There's a lot of humility in getting older, right? You look back on things you said and did. You're like, "Wow, I can't quite believe I did that in my 20s." And it's a real inspiration that he was able to take this experience and become a better person. I mean, who does that? Why did he not seek revenge? Why does he not get eaten up with hatred and anger and resentment? For him, forgiveness, and love was a survival tool. That's not only admirable, but it's almost counterintuitive. And I feel like I had a lot to learn from him.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.