A Mix of Mandela and Ali: 'THR Presents' Q&A With Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim and Kevin Macdonald on 'The Mauritanian'

"I expected, quite honestly, somebody who was really embittered and really traumatized," says the Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September and The Last King of Scotland) about Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a man who was wrongly imprisoned for 14 years at Guanatanamo Bay. "Instead, what I got on the phone was this smiling face, this witty person whose frame of reference is broader than anyone's you've ever met."

Macdonald had been approached by Benedict Cumberbatch's production company, which owned the rights to Salahi's prison memoir, about directing its big-screen adaptation. He hesitated because he was unsure about how to present "a very complex story that takes place over many years." But before passing, at the urging of Cumberbatch's team, he placed that call to Salahi, and came away with a changed mind that led to the film The Mauritanian, starring Tahar Rahim as Salahi and Jodie Foster as his attorney Nancy Hollander. "It was that conversation that made me say, 'I want to tell this man's story.' And I think that was probably the motivation for all of us."

Rahim had previously enjoyed working with Macdonald on 2011's The Eagle, the first film the French actor of Algerian descent made after his breakthrough in A Prophet. But he tensed up upon seeing the title for the next script that Macdonald sent him to consider, Guanatanamo Diary, assuming that it, like many he has been sent, would ask him to play a stereotypical terrorist. But, he says, "I read the script and I fell in love with the character and with the story," likening Salahi to Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali: "I think he's a mix of both."

Foster, meanwhile, has taken on very few acting jobs since turning 50 in 2012. "There did come a moment in my life where, if I was going to go in front of the camera,  I just really wanted to make films that were meaningful to me, and that I felt I could not only learn from, but could also contribute to society." Over the course of a 55-year career, she also had never agreed to play a real living person. "But Nancy Hollander is a very special person," Foster explains. "I mean, she's brilliant, of course, and has this intense, sober legal mind. But she's also a whole bunch of contradictions with her red lipstick and her red nail polish and she loves to drive race cars and listens to a lot of country music — I mean, all of these things that you never would associate with her. So I was intrigued by her."

Rahim prepped for the film with numerous physical ordeals that gave him a small sense of what Salahi had endured. He explains, "I needed to feel what it was with real shackles, with the cold, with the forced feeding, being on a very strict diet. I didn't try sleep deprivation — I thought about it, but I wouldn't have had enough energy to [act]. So I tried my best to go as far as possible so what I would feel would be absolutely authentic."

Foster, meanwhile, got to spend time with Hollander, and cautioned the attorney that she would be portraying a version of her, not an imitation.

Then the filmmakers headed into production in South Africa and, for a brief time, Mauritania itself. In Cape Town, they were visited by Salahi and Hollander, whose presence reminded them why they were doing what they were doing. "We hope people get to know and love Mohamedou, and get to see his story from his perspective," Foster said. "That would be a new thing, for a mainstream movie to have a Muslim man [provide] the perspective of the movie, with all of his complexity. That usually isn't the case." She adds, "And then, of course, Guantanamo is still open, which is insane. And I think a lot of us would love to see it closed."

This THR Presents has been brought to you by STX Entertainment, and is powered by Vision Media; additional Q&As and other supplementary content can be viewed in THR’s new public hub at THRPresents.HollywoodReporter.com.