Last summer, French actor Tahar Rahim was deep into preparation for a star turn in Hulus 9/11 drama The Looming Tower. He was working to master both English and Lebanese Arabic, and also had fatherhood on his mind. His wife, actress Leïla Bekhti, was due with their first child in August. When he showed up at the New York home of Ali Soufan, the real-life retired F.B.I. agent he was to portray, Rahim didnt interrogate him for ideas. Instead, he played with the agents three young boys and left the question-asking to Soufan. The laid-back approach didnt surprise the investigator best known for getting the closest to foiling al-Qaedas 9/11 plot.
“He didnt want to know what I did in a certain situation in the F.B.I. He didnt ask many of those questions. He wanted to go beyond that, to know the real me,” Soufan, 46, recently told Vanity Fair. “I knew exactly what he was trying to do. I respected that. I used to do this for a living.”
“I wanted to catch his spirit, to know his values, the way he reacts, his relationship with his wife,” said Rahim, 36, in a separate interview last week.
Rahims Soufan serves as the emotional core to The Looming Tower, which will air its cant-miss series finale next Wednesday; hes the patriotic hero with all the skills and intention to defeat the bad guys. The show, which meticulously tracks both the geopolitical circumstances that led to the rise of al-Qaeda and the heroic efforts and missteps of the F.B.I. and C.I.A. that allowed the attacks to occur, relies on Rahims layered, thoughtful performance to draw you in and hope, against all reason, that he will somehow solve the attacks that changed our world forever. When he fails, his devastation is excruciatingly palpable.
It was the role Rahim didnt know hed been waiting for. Though hes seen his star quotient rise in Europe, he never thought someone like him, a Muslim raised in the small town of Belfort, France, by Algerian parents, could play an American federal agent. Rahim burst onto the international stage in 2009 when audiences discovered him in Jacques Audiards Oscar-nominated prison drama A Prophet. Rahim devoured the screen, playing a naive inmate-turned-kingpin. The performance caught the attention of filmmakers as diverse as Irans Asghar Farhadi, who cast him in The Past (2013), and Japans Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who threw him into his horror film, Daguerrotype (2016). Yet Rahim kept Hollywood at arms length, turning down a slew of movie roles that wouldve called on him to play the two-dimensional bad guy, usually the Arab terrorist. “I was waiting for something good from America,” he says. “At some point, I thought maybe its a dream I better leave [alone].”
That resignation evaporated within a span of two months. First, Australian director Garth Davis (Lion) called and offered him the part of Judas in his biblical epic Mary Magdalene, which stars Rooney Mara in the title role and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus. (The films U.S. release has been delayed by the Harvey Weinstein scandal.) Then the Looming Tower show-runner Dan Futterman (Foxcatcher) begged him to play Soufan. Rahims performance in A Prophet had stuck with the producer. “It must have been like what people felt when they saw Robert De Niro in Mean Streets,” Futterman says. “He was just different from anything Id ever seen.”
The real Soufan is a bit of an anomaly—a deeply patriotic ex-government official born in Lebanon and educated in the U.S. with degrees in international relations, who at the time of 9/11 was one of only eight Arabic speakers in the F.B.I. It would only make sense that someone as unique as Rahim could portray him.
Today, the two are good friends—a bond that belies age, nationality, and vocation. Though they live a continent apart (Soufan in New York, Rahim in Paris), they text each other all the time. Rahim was Soufans date to the Looming Tower premiere in New York. They tease each other relentlessly, especially on the subject of designer shoes, which is a plot point in the series. Soufans mentor in the series is John ONeill (Jeff Daniels), a snappy dresser who encourages his protégé to up his shoe game. That never made sense to Soufan, but it played out in reality when the former agent showed up to the premiere clad in some fancy kicks. “Ali said to me, I dont understand the thing with the shoes,” says Rahim. “Yet, when he came to the premiere, I look at his feet, and I told him, Youre wearing Ferragamos, man? Says Soufan, when asked about the shoes: Hey, what do you want me to do? I dont show my cards immediately.”
Still, despite the close relationship, there are questions Rahim has never asked Soufan. What was it about the agents childhood that drove him to such a big job at such a young age? Rahim imagines it was Lebanons ongoing civil war and his familys quick departure, when as a teenager he immigrated from Beirut to the U.S.
Soufan says he doesnt spend much time self-reflecting, but guesses that the event did affect his career path. “It changed my entire life, uprooting me from one place and putting me on a new continent,” he says. He just never thought about it that way. He says he joined the F.B.I. on a lark, just as its depicted in the first episode—a bet with his fraternity brothers about who would last longest in the elite agency. “They all wanted to be in the F.B.I.,” Soufan says. “Im the only guy who thought law enforcement was so freaking far away from what I wanted to do. But life works in mysterious ways.”
The shows adherence to Soufans biography wasnt absolute. The pressure of a climactic interrogation scene with Osama bin Ladens bodyguard, Abu Jandal—12 pages of Lebanese text that was both a chess match in its own right and a crowning achievement of Soufans F.B.I. career—hung mercilessly over Rahim. “It was so well-written,” says the actor. “But I was scared.” To get there, Rahim, an observant Muslim who fasted on set during Ramadan, wanted to ratchet up Soufans spiritual journey. So he asked the writers for more scenes in mosques, more emphasis placed on becoming closer to his faith as he closes in on the heretics who are perverting his religion as justification for their murderous behavior.
“To end the show in this face-to-face, I thought it would be interesting that the more he hunts [al-Qaeda], the more he understands his religion, and the more he gets back to it,” says Rahim.
The depiction didnt match Soufans experience, but he understood the motives of the creators. “I liked what Tahar and Danny [Futterman] tried to do, and the way they tried to capture that feeling and share it with the audience,” he says. “Im not much into organized religion, but [emphasizing the true practice of Islam] brings a better understanding to the conflict itself.”
In the finale episode, when Soufans character learns about the attacks on the World Trade Center, he makes a beeline for the bathroom and vomits in the sink. Its a dramatic moment, a culmination of the months of frustration from being stonewalled by the C.I.A.
Its also a true story. “Ali told me, Right after [the second tower fell], I fell on my knees and I vomited.” says Rahim. “When you read that as an actor, if it was fiction, I would have gone to the director and said, Listen, I dont think he would have thrown up. But when you know its real, you just do it and you believe in it.”
“Imagine youve been asking since November 2000 for intel about these people, and these [C.I.A.] guys knew it and still told me nothing,” Soufan says. “Then on September 12, they hand me a manilla envelope with everything Ive been asking for. At that time, I thought most of our team was dead. I thought 50,000 Americans were dead. I felt like a big failure. We allowed this to happen. Its something I will live with for the rest of my life.”
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