Three Great Things: Tahar Rahim

The Golden Globe-nominated star of The Mauritanian on some of his favorite things (two of which he can't do because Paris is in lockdown ...).

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To celebrate the February 12 release of the real-life legal drama The Mauritanian, featuring Golden Globe-nominated performances from Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster, starring alongside Shailene Woodley and Benedict Cumberbatch, French acting icon Rahim shared some of the things that make life better for him. — N.D.

My Parisian Morning Routine
As we’re in lockdown, I don’t currently get to do this, but I used to love to start my day in a very humble way, by having a coffee and a cigarette on a beautiful terrasse in Paris. I love it. It kicks my day off, and then I can go to the gym and to my other appointments. I always have an espresso; black, no sugar. And not just one, but maybe three in a row. It’s like the oil in my engine. I really miss that routine now, because it’s an important moment, a moment where I’m alone with me.

I’ve had this routine ever since I was in my early 20s and I was studying cinema in Montpellier. I started there and continued it in Paris, but it’s also changed over the years. Before it was forbidden to smoke inside bars and restaurants, I used to go to a bar and have my coffee in the morning, talk with my friends, have one little cigarette, and then we all would split and go to our different jobs.

We’re in a partial lockdown at the moment in France, but we’re heading to a full lockdown, probably for about a month, like the first one. Things are very uncertain and the mood is getting sadder and sadder, but I’m not complaining as I have my family with me and I’m not in need of anything.

In the past year, with all the extra time I’ve had, I’ve come back to drawing again. I like doing it and used to draw a lot when I was a teenager. I must have been 10 years old when I started drawing, and I was pretty good at it. I was a big fan of Japanese animation and I wanted to draw my heroes, so every night after dinner I’d go draw for one or two hours in my bedroom. It kept me quiet, so I think my mom was happy for me to take my paper and pencils and just do it. At some point, I got good enough that I would sell the drawings to my friends at school, which meant I could buy candy. I quit when I was maybe 16, because I wanted to be an actor, so I was watching a lot of movies instead.

Now that I’m drawing again, I feel good. It’s another way to escape from reality, like movies. I love to draw with my son, who’s three years old, so that’s what we do together. I needed an activity to keep myself busy, so I started to teach him how to draw. He likes it a lot and he’ll tell me, “I want you to draw me Spider-Man.” My son likes comic book characters, so I draw them for him, but I like to draw faces. I can’t draw from memory, so when I’m alone, I take a picture of a friend or a family member – a face that I like – and I draw it. It feels good to be doing it, especially in a moment like this.

If it weren’t for the pandemic, I’d be traveling, which is my other passion.

When I started to dream of being an actor, acting was my first plan, but I had a second plan too, because my cousin had found his vocation in life after he’d gone backpacking in Asia. So my thinking was, I don’t know if I’m going to be an actor or not, but if not, I’ve got to find another vocation – and the only way to find it is to travel.

Fortunately, I became an actor and so I can travel for my job. I love traveling because I’m a big fan of the culture of others. I think it makes you a richer person inside of yourself – it feeds you as a human being.

It’s always good to discover new people, new cultures, new music, new movies. I think I’m drawn to foreign cultures because of my childhood, as I come from a suburb in the East of France which was a real melting pot. There were people from all over France and other parts of the world: Eastern Europe, Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and other parts of Africa. My friends and I would go to each other’s places and I would talk with their parents, discover music and movies from their country, taste their food. I was born and raised in France and my family is originally from Algeria, but I feel like I come from the melting pot. And for the better.

I’ve had some very memorable experiences traveling. I remember when I first went to Mumbai, I was blown away by the light, the faith, the spirituality. And at the same time, I was shocked by what I saw in the streets, the poverty, where people are desperately trying to just find a meal. There was such a big contrast in fortunes, it came as a real shock to me. When I went back to France, it was hard for me to get back to my life, my habits.

Another experience that stands out was when I first went to Thailand. It’s a beautiful country and the food is great, but being there reminds me of what I used to feel when I was an innocent kid, because people are always smiling, always welcoming. They don’t care about who you are, about your gender, your background, your religion – they just all live together. It felt so good, like I was traveling back to my childhood. That’s why I love Thailand so much and why I’ve been there so many times.

Tahar Rahim’s latest film is The Mauritanian, for which he received a Golden Globe nomination for Bets Actor in a Motion Picture Drama; the real-life legal drama also starring Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley and Benedict Cumberbatch is out February 12 through STX Films. Rahim’s breakthrough came when he played the main role Jacques Audiard’s 2009 thriller A Prophet. Since then, he has worked all over the world, in films such as Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle, alongside Channing Tatum, in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, Fatih Akin’s The Cut, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Daguerrotype and opposite Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix in Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene. He starred with Jeff Daniels in the series The Looming Tower and plays in the main role in the BBC/Netflix co-production The Serpent.