Tahar Rahim on Method Waterboarding in ‘The Mauritanian’

Can you give us specifics on going ‘all-in’?

I lost a lot of weight—22 pounds—in a very short amount of time. I asked props to bring me real shackles, to turn the cell as cold as possible. And I experienced waterboarding and force-feeding.

You voluntarily underwent torture?

We had codes in case I put myself in danger, but yeah. Different movies demand different methods. I wasn’t able to make up this part in my mind and make it look real. I didn’t want to sell something. I wanted the audience to feel it. The film is not about whether you think Mohamedou’s guilty or not. It’s about human rights.

We know about most of the harsh conditions at Gitmo. Was there something you discovered during production that surprised you beyond the usual headlines?

Mohamedou’s cell. When I went on set, I needed to spend some time in the cell to just experience it. It’s shocking because you barely have the space to lie down. The light is on 24 hours a day. And it’s all made out of metal so the sound is intense. It’s scary. And then in the courtyard, you can’t even talk to a co-detainee. Mohamedou never saw another detainee except for one little moment.

What was meeting Mohamedou like?

The meeting was a memorable moment, and this encounter will stay written in my heart for life. I was so surprised to see that a man who lived through this could smile, crack jokes, talk about movies or music, and ask about your family. If it wasn’t a true story, it would be hard for me to believe. I had to ask him some touchy questions. But when we started to talk about Gitmo, he changed. He was restless. I could see the trauma coming to life on his face. I felt so bad that I stopped asking questions. I remember saying to myself, ‘Who do you think you are to bring him back there? Stop it now.’

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