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‘The Looming Tower’ Star Tahar Rahim on Playing a Muslim FBI Agent Instead of a Terrorist (as Usual)

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “Maybe 50 percent of the parts I was offered were terrorists,” French actor says of his first two years in Hollywood

A version of this story about Tahar Rahim first appeared in the Miniseries/Movies issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

When Tahar Rahim first met Ali Soufan, the real-life former FBI agent he plays in Hulu’s gripping limited series “The Looming Tower,” Soufan hit him with a pointed parting shot.

“He said, ‘And if you don’t accept this role, you will never again have the right to complain that you only get offers to play terrorists,'” Rahim said, laughing.

In fact, Rahim had complained about exactly that in the past. Although the French actor with Algerian ancestry had made a name for himself in such notable European films as Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past,” he had spent fruitless years trying to land acceptable English-language projects.

“I always like to work with foreign directors, and I don’t want to be an actor of just one country,” he said. “My vision of cinema is that we can do this all over the world. And as long as you can speak another language, you should try.

“So I came to America and spent two years trying to get work. Maybe 50 percent of the parts I was offered were terrorists, and the others were stereotypical people. So I said to myself, ‘I’m done with this — maybe I’ll go to Asia and see if I can make movies there.'”

But then he landed the part of Judas Iscariot in Garth Davis’ “Mary Magdalene,” followed by the role in “The Looming Tower” as one of the few FBI agents who spoke Arabic in the years leading up to the 9/11 attack.

The limited series, executive produced by Dan Futterman and Alex Gibney, is full of powerhouse acting performances — Jeff Daniels, Bill Camp, Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg are among the stars — but Rahim is in many ways its heart as a Muslim agent who is sick at the way his religion has been perverted.

He’s one of the few men who might have been able to prevent 9/11 if the government around him hadn’t been so inept.

With only a third of the miniseries’ scripts finished when he was offered the part, Rahim wouldn’t accept the role until he’d had a chance to speak to Soufan and hear what happened from the man who lived it. “After he told me the rest of his story, I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to do this,'” he said.

His preparation, he added, was simple. “When I met Ali, I was full of questions, like a good student who did his homework,” he said. “But when I started to talk to him, I felt stupid asking questions. I understood that the right thing to do was to just talk to the guy, to try to know him. What is his spirit, his soul? That’s more important than what he has for breakfast or what kind of soda he drinks. I wanted to spend my energy in knowing him rather than imitating him.”

In the aftermath of “The Looming Tower,” Rahim said he feels a change in his opportunities in the U.S. film industry. “”I started acting in 2008 and didn’t work in America until 2017, but I think it’s changing,” he said. “I played Judas, and then Ali Soufan, and I just finished a movie with Lone Scherfig where I play someone named Mark who runs a restaurant.

“I don’t want to stop working in France or Europe, but you have more cinema history in America. You’ve got types of movies and characters that we don’t have. I want to play a cowboy one day, I want to be in a Western. And if I want to be in a Western, I have to be in America.”

Read more of TheWrap’s Miniseries/Movies Emmy issue here.

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