Madame Web actor Tahar Rahim: 'When you’re afraid, you create something to save yourself'

Bafta and Golden Globe-nominated actor tells The National why he has been consciously taking non-Arab roles

Tahar Rahim first found international acclaim for his role in the modern classic French film, A Prophet. Getty Images
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Tahar Rahim is afraid. That’s just how he likes it. The French-Algerian actor first gained international acclaim with his breakout role in the 2009 Jacques Audiard modern classic A Prophet, and has steadily risen in stature ever since, all because he continues to push himself as far as the film industry will let him.

What we see, of course, is the pure talent. It’s what’s landed him two Golden Globe nominations already this decade. It’s what got him cast as the lead villain in Sony and Marvel’s latest Spider-Verse film Madame Web. What he’s feeling, from start to finish, and even as we interview him, is abject fear.

“I’m trying to explore something new all the time,” Rahim explains to The National. “I want to put myself in survival mode. Yes, I’m afraid, but that’s intentional. When you’re afraid, you create something to save yourself.”

In Madame Web, Rahim is playing the long-running Marvel villain Ezekiel Sims, a rich businessman who gains powers similar to Spider-Man. The role requires him to be menacing, physical (he’s even in a Spider-suit for much of the film’s runtime), obsessive and manic.

What it doesn’t require is for him to leverage his identity as an Arab man, something that he has used to great effect in roles past, exploring the complexities of the Modern Arab experience, particularly in the wake of September 11 and the widespread Islamophobia that followed.

Malik El Djebena in A Prophet, for example, came from similar Algerian origins to his own, only to rise the ranks in the Maghrebi crime syndicate. Ali Soufan in the acclaimed Hulu series The Looming Tower saw him as the real-life Muslim Lebanese-American FBI Agent Ali Soufan leading the agency’s counter-terrorism division. In his Bafta-nominated role in The Mauritanian, he played the real-life Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohamedou Oud Slahi.

In the past few years, however, he’s been venturing into uncharted – and yes, terrifying – territory.

His acclaimed performance in Netflix’s The Serpent saw him as a French serial killer of mixed origins, and in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, he played the French politician Paul Barras.

In his view, focusing on non-Arab roles is the best thing he can do to represent his heritage, because if he charts new paths for Arab performers, then others will be able to follow.

“This is making those jobs. It is doing the job of representation,” Rahim explains.

“My job is to show the audience that even if you’re Arab, even if you’re from North Africa or Asia, you can play everything.

“No one should be forced to be just one thing, one type of character. We need to avoid being tagged, you know? That’s why I’m trying to fulfill my dream in the acting world.”

One of those dreams was to play a superhero. Now that’s come true, too.

“I always wanted to be in a Marvel movie, and it happened. That’s one of my childhood dreams. But the adult me has to be fulfilled too, so then I start being motivated by the psychological aspect,” Rahim continues.

For Ezekiel Sims in Madame Web, he dug in deeper than one might expect, particularly focusing on the character’s chronic nightmares.

“I talked to a psychologist because I wanted to see what happens to a person when they have the same nightmare every night. What does that do to your body? Does it actually rest?” Rahim says.

“She told me that the only moment that they really face reality is at dawn. The rest of the time, they don’t know if they’re dreaming or awake. It’s dawn that they can relax, when they come back to themselves. They’re stuck in a loop all the time, so they can’t think of anywhere else,” he continues.

“In a way, we’re all fighting for survival.”

Madame Web is in cinemas now across the Middle East

Updated: February 23, 2024, 11:35 AM