A Prophet is a visceral, explosive new film from Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) featuring a tour-de-force performance by relative newcomer Tahar Rahim. Rahim plays Malik El Djebena an innocent (in all respects except, well, legally) thrown into the pressure cooker of a prison who quickly learns what it takes to survive, and thrive. The film won Best Picture at this year’s London Film Festival, the Grand Prix at Cannes, Best Actor at the European Film Awards, and is nominated as Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Golden Globes.
I met with Tahar, who was gregarious and vibrant and could barely remain seated on the couch, and his interpreter (though his English was excellent) to discuss the difficulties and joys in playing such a complex character who is on-screen for almost every second of the film’s 155 minutes.
Garth Twa: First off, congratulations on your European Film Award for Best Actor.
Tahar Rahim: Oh, thank you very much. It’s good!
GT: What brought you to the role?
TR: I had a lot of auditions [laughs]. Eight auditions during three months.
GT: How much did you bring to the role of Malik?
TR: I don’t know how to answer. Because Jacques is a great, great director. He’s always there. When you have a question he gives you. He created and I wear it. You know? And he gives us a lot of freedom. I mean, he gives you direction, and then if you want to go walking or running or crawling or jumping, you do. If it’s good for the movie, if you can do it, do it. If it’s not, stop. Don’t crawl. Go walking. You know? It’s the same thing about the way of talking.
GT: I found it interesting that we are not given any information on Malik’s past.
TR: He has a past. It’s represented by [the scars on] his back. He’s a homeless, that’s all.
GT: And the movie’s really about his present. And his future. It’s interesting that in the film the criminals don’t get punished, but succeed. Hollywood criminals get punished. Is Malik punished?
TR: Ah, he had six years in jail.
GT: But that seemed to give him the only life, the only success, he has?
TR: Yeah, but he’s punished by his master first of all, I mean Cesar. Ever time. He’s a victim, Malik, at the beginning. He’s forced to do those things, he doesn’t want to do it. He’s a criminal when he’s forced to be a criminal. Or when his life is threatened. So what else do you do when you’re in war? Before that he’s dealing in marijuana on the outside, not killing someone. You know what I mean?
GT: But he doesn’t seem a victim. When is shoes get stolen, he fights back, getting beat up twice.
TR: He’s a victim but he’s savage. You can be a victim, but savage.
TR: Sauvage? [to interpreter] Comment on dire? Wild. He’s wild. You can be a victim and be wild. When people make bad things for you, then you are a victim. But you can defend yourself.
GT: But Malik seems smarter. He’s going along with his master, subserviently, but he’s gradually gaining the upper hand. He’s less a victim than just really smart. Smart enough to be patient.
TR: He discovers that he’s smart. Every time he’s learning.
GT: One of the characters comments that Malik is straddling both worlds. To the Arabs he’s a Corsican pig, to the Corsicans he’s an Arab dog. He’s working both.
TR: Yes. He’s an opportunist. There’s a moment when he’s an opportunist. And he has to do that to survive in the beginning. Then to make better his way of life that’s what he does. Then there’s a moment when he thinks about his people, and taking the power. But there’s a moment when Cesar says to him, ‘Do this, kill those people and I’ll give you casinos.’ That’s false. After this he’s [Cesar] gonna kil him. So now he’s going to be a criminal to save his life, as in the beginning. That’s why he kills. It’s him or them. He does something to reverse the situation. He’s not that bad…he don’t kill Cesar.
GT: He did something worse. He killed him in a worse way. Malik was in close-up, Cesar is approaching, stops, in long shot, very small, insignificant, turns around and walks back, an old, defeated man.
TR: It’s amazing.
GT: And Malik heads off unpunished, to a happy and successful life. All the spoils of crime.
TR: We don’t know. I don’t think he’s gonna work at the Post Office, you know? [Laughs] But he could be a good father. The end is clear. There is his team. He doesn’t go. He walk with the [wife of Reyed, his mentor from prison], with his real purpose. Homeless, he’ll find a home. Just follow him. What happens now? We don’t know.
GT: The film is doing well. What do you attribute its success to?
TR: Oh, yeah. I’m happy. It’s a great movie. I don’t know, really, maybe because first of all, Jacques is a great director. It’s an amazing script, too. Because the whole team is near to perfection, there was something human inside. It’s a genre movie, so a genre talks to people fastly. Even if it’s something artistical that you can talk about for hours and hours, there is something that people can understand very fastly, so they can join the movie.
GT: What genre would you say it is?
TR: It’s a jail movie first, and it’s an initiation…roman?
TR: He [Malik] is building and writing his own life. This is a genre movie but Jacques moved the genre in introducing another genre inside, something like fantastic, with the ghosts. But it’s not free, it’s something…there’s a sense. So it means something. It’s the interiority of Malik that means he’s guilty.
GT: Which is his relationship with Reyeb, the man he murders who comes back to haunt him.
TR: Yes. It’s his guilt and interiority. You have to feel the weight of a murder, and this is this
GT: Were there changes during shooting from the original script?
TR: It changed, but not that much. [A script] is a working object. It has to die to get into images.
GT: What did you think when you saw the movie?
TR: I was shaking [laughs]. It was surprising, thanks to the montage. It was amazing. Wow. I was surprised every time. I was thinking on this scene I thought about the scene of…ah, the Spielberg movie about the warrior…?
Interpreter: Saving Private Ryan?
TR: Yes. There is a scene between two soldiers and they come in front of them and they got guns but no bullets. Do you remember this scene? [he gets up and begins to act out the scene of hand to hand combat] It was crazy! He take his gun and he throw it on him and this…this is what we do now, we got to survive. It’s that. Anything to survive. Exactly.
GT: Was it a gruelling shoot?
TR: No. Not that much really. The prison was a set. It helps me, because the set looks so real. But no, it wasn’t because you know you’re not in a real jail, really. Just stop lying to yourself. At the end when he says cut and at the end of the day you go home, you recognize your friends, you recognize your girlfriend, your family…there was such a beautiful mood in this movie, so you’re happy to go to jail.