Tahar Rahim on playing a real-life hero in The Looming Tower.
Watch Hulu’s The Looming Tower, and there’s one character who strikes a chord, Ali Soufan. Soufan is the FBI agent, a Muslim-American hero who gets the bad guys. There couldn’t be a better time to see a portrayal of such a hero, but Rahim says, if this was twenty years ago, there must be more heroes like this out there? He’s probably right, but for now, we have his excellent portrayal on the show.
Rahim tells us how he almost didn’t take the role, but his agent convinced him this would not be a stereotypical Muslim role. Taking a meeting with the showrunners, he still wasn’t convinced and wanted to dig deeper into the character. A call with the real Soufan would change his mind and Rahim accepted the part.
Spending time with Soufan, Rahim was able to get down to the soul and capture the essence of who Soufan was.
Read our chat below and stream The Looming Tower on Hulu.
How were you approached you for the role?
It was the classic way. My agent approached me and said there was a show that’s going to be shot and they wanted me to play the lead. He said that it was going to be about 9/11 and I thought it would be the stereotypical part and I said no.
He said, it was a true story about an FBI agent and we set up a Skype session. I talked with Dan Futterman and Alex Gibney and they almost convinced me. I only had the first three episodes and didn’t know what was going to happen next. Then they started to tell me the story. I always need to take time before I say yes. I said I was going to call Ali, my agent, but they thought I was talking about Ali Soufan not my agent. So, they wanted to set up a call with him and I talked with Soufan on the phone and I ended up feeling good about it.
I flew to New York and talked to the producers. I wanted to meet with them because I was going to spend the next 6-8 months with them. I also had an important choice to make too, because my wife was pregnant at the time. So, I met them and that’s when it felt so right. I walked out of the bar and I called my wife and told her I was going to do it and she was happy about it, so I walked back in and I told them yes, and here we are.
You talked to Soufan. What did you learn from him?
I needed to know when I spoke to him about what happened between the third and the last episode. He told me not to worry about it because he was going to be a supervisor. So, I asked him some stupid questions such as what he ate and those fifty questions such as what music he liked. I felt stupid but I needed to know. I started talking to him. He ended the conversation by saying, he had read how I had rejected roles for being stereotypical parts and he said, “If you accept this one, you won’t need to complain anymore.”
You truly capture Ali’s soul. How do you get to that essence?
Thank you for saying that. It’s great to hear that because that’s exactly what I was trying to portray. After the stupid questions, he welcomed me into his house. I said to myself, I need to spend time with him, feel who he was and look at the relationship. That’s what I did. I’d never get the chance to see him at work, but that part was already well written. The work was factual and easier to portray, but the blood and soul of him were missing. So, by being this close to him, I could get down to that.
He was so welcoming, professional and so devoted to his country and just spending time with him was enough to craft him. It was so valuable having that time.
What was it like being in a show where you’re playing a positive Muslim-American hero?
I thought it was legitimate. I thought finally we’ve reached this point and I could be interested in the part. Before that, I wasn’t interested. When you know it’s a true story and a real man, it becomes more legitimate. This man existed before so there must be more of these heroes around. I was really so proud of playing him.
When you think about cinema and roles, it’s a great part. To be honest, even if it was fiction, I would have done the part because it’s a great story about a minority who is fighting for his country.
What do you look for in a script?
I want to be surprised. The part needs to be interesting. Then, when I meet the director, that’s important. You have to feel it. In France, we get to meet them, we talk and you get that feeling right there.
In America, they send you the script, you like it, then you meet the guy.
I also want to do something I’ve never done before. and I don’t like being typecast.
What was it like working with Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard?
They confirmed a reputation. They are very committed to their work. They do what they do and they do it very well. That’s what I saw. I learned from them. We don’t need to be great friends, we need to know our lines. You do what you do to the best you can and that way of working made me feel good.
I thought, next time I do a movie, I’ll learn my lines, I’ll come on set and stay focused and try that way of working because it worked so well. I felt like I was living Ali Soufan’s life. You see the character, you don’t see Jeff or Peter and that helps you believe what you have to do.
It’s a very simple relationship. We said hello, we went on set and did our parts. Jeff became his part and so did Peter, and it was easy for me to slip into playing Ali Soufan.