is not a recent phenomenon. Ten years ago, when we met during his promotion of A Self Made Hero, he wore a flat cap and smoked a pipe). Talking fast in French, the married father-of-three reveals that he became involved with A Prophet when he was sent a 160 page script by Abdel Raouf Dafir, who wrote the two Mesrine films. ‘I kept the essentials, but I had to do lots of work on it’, he says. ‘The main character Malik was originally very violent and hard from the beginning he was a real killer. I think Scarface is a great film, but if you have a character like Tony Montana, you don’t identify with him at all. I think it’s very interesting instead to identify yourself with a character you don’t like all the time. You can create a tension between the fiction and the viewer. You force the spectator to wonder about his actions. By showing Malik dreaming, I could give this character a human interior.’

Audiard also made a small yet significant amendment to the original screenplay’s title, changing it from The Prophet to A Prophet, because in his words, ‘I like more abstract titles, which don’t tell you what to think. For me there are several senses to the title: it suggests a carrier of something divine in religious terms, and also a person who paves the way for something new in terms of the criminal world. Malik uses his intelligence rather than brute force to form alliances and get ahead. I was thinking of calling the film after the Bob Dylan song ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, but that was hard to translate into French.’

The director went to considerable lengths in creating a ‘realistic’ prison environment for A Prophet. He visited working jails, cast actual inmates in background roles, and built his main set on a disused industrial estate, complete with corridors, cells and staircases. Yet he stresses that his film is not intended to be an intervention into the current debate within France about the country’s failing prison system. A Prophet is like all his films in that it is a work of cinematic fiction, although he relishes the irony that for Malik ‘prison is the perfect school for crime.’ Throughout his career, Audiard has gained deserved plaudits for drawing out compelling performances from now celebrated male leads Kassovitz, Cassel and Duris. One of the exceptional aspects about A Prophet is that Tahar Rahim had very little professional experience before Audiard took the gamble of building a whole film around him. Why, I ask, did the filmmaker think Rahim was so suited to the role? ‘I’d always thought of Malik having a natural innocence’, he replies. ‘Tahar is a pretty young man, who, although he comes from Toulouse, he looks as though he could come from Portugal or Italy or Corsica. He’s not a dramatic person he’s not an Al Pacino. And he’s certainly not a violent man. It was very much a character part for him. He really had to work on playing Malik.’

A Prophet, selected release from Fri 22 Jan. See Tahar Rahim interview, right.


Previously unknown French actor Tahar Rahim is about to become the darling of European cinema following his gritty lead performance in A Prophet. He tells Kaleem Aftab about playing a killer

Tahar Rahim looks like a rabbit caught in the headlights. We are on a hotel roof overlooking the sea at Cannes and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet has just had its world premiere. In 150 exhilarating minutes, the 28 year-old has gone from unknown to the toast of the town with his turn as a 19-year-old Muslim convict who uses guile and courage to become the top dog in prison.

Dressed in a suit, the actor looks

uncomfortable as he tries to deal with all the attention. Young, beautiful and talented, it’s little wonder everyone wants a piece of the man, born in Belfort, near the Franco- German border, who has produced one of the great movie debut performances in recent years. Audiard has a proven track record with

young actors, so naturally Rahim was excited when the director started calling. ‘Jacques came to a projection of a TV series that I did called La Commune and he said hello and gave me the scenario of A Prophet. I was ecstatic as he was my favourite director. I was then asked to come to an audition, a process which lasted for three months.’

The biggest problem for the son of North African immigrants was getting into character, ‘Malik is nothing like me,’ he says. ‘Except perhaps the desire to create something, to not have a meaningless existence and have independence. It’s very hard to play him because I had no reference point. There was a method that we had in school where we’d substitute something from our own life and that wasn’t possible when you want to work out what it feels like to kill someone.’

Whatever his secret was, it worked. Unsurprisingly Rahim has been inundated with offers since Cannes. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of other Audiard collaborators, he’s looking to carve out his niche with his next role as the Gaelic-speaking Seal Prince in Kevin MacDonald’s Roman epic Eagle of the Ninth.

21 Jan–4 Feb 2010 THE LIST 27