Tahar Rahim: The Unsung Hero Elevating Hulu’s ‘The Looming Tower’ to New Heights

Mar 26, 2024 | Articles, Movies

Starting “The Looming Tower,” Hulu’s 10-episode version of Lawrence Wright’s 2006 book, feels like entering a complex world. It’s akin to reading detailed casino reviews. In both, every nuance can make you rich or make you broke. “The Looming Tower” takes you on a gripping journey from New York to Eastern Europe and beyond. It explores the events leading up to 9/11. You get to see inside the world of F.B.I. and C.I.A. through key figures played by Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard. The series has accessible, deep storytelling. It shows how everything is connected. It connects secret meetings in far-off lands to the choices made by top officials at home.

Tahar Rahim: The Heart of ‘The Looming Tower’

“The Looming Tower” spotlights Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American Federal agent who captivates viewers from the start. Tasked with heavy exposition on pre-9/11 missteps, he handles it remarkably quickly. Throughout the Hulu series, we see Soufan in intense and quiet moments. He pursues suspects and gets frustrated with a jihadist. He also prays and makes insightful observations. These moments highlight his depth and keep viewers engaged.

At the heart of the series is Tahar Rahim, the Franco-Algerian actor playing Soufan. Rahim is known for his roles in arthouse films like the Oscar-nominated “A Prophet” and “The Past.” His performance adds a compelling layer to the show, making him its standout star and a likely new favorite for many.

Hollywood’s Reluctant Hero

Say this to Rahim, and he’ll smile, thank you, and then pose a question. “Correct me if I’m wrong. But, this is one of the few times that an American T.V. show has had an Arab as the hero, right?” the 36-year-old actor says. Then he laughs. “I mean, the idea of playing someone like Ali … is also new to me. I’m lucky. I’ve worked in Europe. I got to play an Armenian, an Italian, a Frenchman. I’ve been a lawyer, a fighter, a criminal, a stand-up comic. The choices for what I’ve done have never been, ‘Is this role a good Arab?’ It’s always been, ‘Is this a good role? OK, then let’s talk.’

“But I’ve talked to many of the [Middle Eastern] actors on the set,” he continues. “Many of them took me aside at one point and told me, ‘We’re delighted you got this part. Because we are always playing this or that – but not this, not the lead. “You have no idea what a big deal this is,” it reminds me. “If I worked in the U.S. all the time, I wouldn’t get to play some of these roles either.”

Challenging Hollywood Stereotypes

After “A Prophet,” Tahar Rahim became a celebrated actor. Hollywood recognized his talent and sent him many offers. They saw him as a French Al Pacino. Rahim is a fan of American movies from the 70s and 80s. Even before his fame, people noticed his love for classics like “Scarface.” Yet, the roles he offered often fit stereotypes, which he preferred not to reinforce or be limited by.

“I refused to work in Hollywood for ten years,” Rahim admits. “I’ve always said, ‘I’m not going to play a terrorist.’ Not for any price. I’d rather work in South Korea. If someone like Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wok called me and said, ‘I may have something with you in mind,’ I’d tomorrow! With Hollywood, I always thought, ‘No, thanks.’ You guys have great directors here. And I’d always wanted to play an English-speaking role, to see how I’d do it. Or if I could do it. But I wasn’t getting anything interesting.”

The Casting of Ali Soufan

Dan Futterman, the co-creator of “The Looming Tower,” wanted Tahar Rahim for the show. He convinced him to consider the role, even though Rahim was skeptical. Rahim thought the show was another 9/11 and Al Qaeda story. He was surprised they wanted him to play an F.B.I. agent who stops terrible guys, not a villain, which caught his interest.

Rahim took his time deciding. He set up meetings with the producers and Alex Gibney, who directed the first episode, to learn more about his character and the show’s direction. Still unsure, Rahim asked for another meeting to buy time to think. When he said he’d discuss it with his American agent, Ali, the team thought he meant Ali Soufan, adding to the confusion. Rahim played along, still needing to decide.

Understanding Ali Soufan

Tahar Rahim received a surprising call from Ali Soufan. This led to a deeper understanding of Soufan’s life and work with the F.B.I., including his crucial role in identifying Al Qaeda’s actions. Rahim was inspired. He visited Soufan in New Jersey. There, he found a humble, welcoming man, not an intimidating agent. This helped him grasp Soufan’s true character.

When Rahim shared this meeting with the show’s creators, they revealed Soufan had thoroughly researched Rahim, proving his F.B.I. skills. Soufan challenged Rahim, pointing out his reluctance to play stereotypes and suggesting the role was a chance to make a difference. This direct challenge made Rahim realize the importance of the role, convincing him to take it on.

A Role with Impact

Tahar Rahim portrays Soufan as passive, even in action scenes. But a pivotal moment is in the third episode. It shows Soufan confronting a Muslim shopkeeper who works with Al Qaeda, marking a turning point for his character. Rahim suggested making Soufan reconnect with his faith, which he felt extremists had corrupted. The creators liked this idea, which adds depth to Soufan’s journey. He is returning to his religious roots, driven by a desire to confront hypocrisy.

Personal Faith and Professional Roles

Ask him if he’s religious. The private Rahim says, “Yes.” But, he declines to say which faith. “But I was glad to say those lines, to play that scene,” he notes. “Extremism exists in every religion. And it’s good to have a hero fighting this in the field. I thought I hadn’t seen that on a TV show before. People need to see this.”

After “The Looming Tower,” Tahar Rahim feels more open to Hollywood roles, having landed another English-language part. His new character is named Mark, signaling a shift from stereotypical roles. He’s also in the biblical drama “Mary Magdalene” as Judas Iscariot. His success in “A Prophet” brought him fame and awards in France. After that, Rahim saw his career could go in two directions.

Reflections and Hope for the Future

“You can think you’re a much bigger deal,” Rahim says. “Or, you can step back from the spotlight, wait for it to pass, and get on with your work.” That’s what I did, the second one – and it kept me from becoming pfft. It’s sort of like, how about this moment right now? If this show leads to offers to do exciting things here, I’m up for it. If not, I will keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

“Put to you this way: I hope this is a beginning,” he smiles wide. “Not expectations. But hope.

The author confirmed that Rahim believes in staying humble and focused, not getting carried away by fame. He’s open to new chances but will continue his work if nothing changes. Rahim is hopeful for the future, but he doesn’t expect much. This shows an intelligent and grounded approach to success.

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Thomas B.