The following interview for Backstage’s on-camera series The Slate was compiled in part by Backstage readers just like you! Follow us on Twitter (@Backstage) and Instagram (@backstagecast) to stay in the loop on upcoming interviews and to submit your questions.
A star-studded cast featuring Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, and Shailene Woodley is heating up awards season with “The Mauritanian.” The feature film from director Kevin Macdonald tells the true and tragic story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the Mauritanian citizen who was imprisoned by the United States government at Guantanamo Bay for his alleged but unproven connection to the 9/11 terror attacks. Rahim stars as Slahi, while two-time Oscar winner Foster portrays his defense attorney Nancy Hollander; they both recently sat with Backstage to discuss the film, their character-building processes, and some insight about the work of being an actor.
For Foster, playing a real person requires a different approach than the fictional characters of her past.
JF: “Obviously, you have to honor who they are and the story that’s being told. That being said, I told Nancy, ‘I’m not gonna do an impersonation of you. I’ll definitely have the hair and the lipstick and the nails,’ but it was important to have the freedom, really, to create a character that could support Mohamedou’s story because that was really our main goal: to make sure that Mohamedou’s character and Mohamedou’s story was supported by the rest of the characters. So I did take some liberties. I mean, Nancy Hollander—the real Nancy Hollander—is a very nice person, much more polite and nice than my Nancy Hollander who can be very rude and a little bit loud and bossy. Nancy Hollander is much more reserved and subdued.”
Rahim also got firsthand experience with Slahi prior to shooting.
TR: “We met virtually for the first and I just showed up as an actor and I had some questions to ask and when I talked with him, over our conversation, I started to realize that I was meeting someone very, very exceptional. I knew it from the story, but when you meet him, it’s like, sometimes reality is bigger than fiction. He’s got a sense of humor, a crazy one. He’s got a lot of humility, sensitivity, so there’s so many things that you can take out of him because the challenge was to catch his spirit.”
In addition to the physical aspects of Hollander that Foster represents onscreen, there is also a process for inhabiting truth when building a character.
JF: “For me there’s always two parts to it. The first part is the intellectual part: preparation, making decisions and all these choices. That’s almost the directorial work that we do either as a director or as an actor where you make lists and you write journals and you do all that stuff where you try to figure stuff out. You interpret the text, you go over the text, and then at some point somebody says ‘action.’ And all of that stuff either goes out the window or it goes into your body, I don’t know where it goes. But, at that point, when you’re talking about execution, hopefully you have ingested the information you need and you work in a way that’s much more instinctual. And some movies require continually honing that process and staying focused and lots of effort, and some require less effort. And I think that once you establish a character and you’ve got what they look like and what they feel like and what they move like and how they react to things, then you can just…drink some coffee, right? Because it’s already there.”
Foster likes to identify the part of a character that they are ashamed of and wouldn’t want anyone to know.
JF: “In Nancy’s case, I think that she has had to have been very self-protective because she’s, you know, 90% of her cases, the people are guilty. And she has made this mission of social justice to defend people under the rule of law as per the constitution because they deserve defense whether they’re guilty or not.”
Foster and Rahim capture the very significant relationship between Hollander and Salahi in their scenes together by working between the lines.
TR: “When you have the luck to work with such a great actress as Jodie, needless to say that she’s an icon and one of the best actors of the world, it helps you a lot. Sometimes, at some point, you just have to follow. It’s like a dance. It’s scripted, you do what you have to do, and then at some point, something happens and then you feel like maybe I could try something with my partner, and the partner answers, and then you start to develop something that is beyond the words. It’s not written. But you don’t prepare what’s written between the lines; that has to happen in the moment. It’s hard to find the words to describe it because you lose space, you lose time, you’re in the present.”
Foster feels that dialogue between actors is the best part of the entire process.
JF: “I was telling Tahar, doing the movies where it’s just you and a big green screen is the worst because it’s almost like it’s just you and a big mirror, looking at yourself. So, you treasure those moments where you’re able to react and to have your performance really shaped by the other character and by the other person. I mean, I feel that in some ways it’s almost like being an athlete, being an actor, where over the years, or even instinctually, you understand that you carry two things at once: You carry the more intellectual side, the decisions that you make, the choreography, and on the other side is just the pure dance of it.”
When it comes to the struggles of finding work as an actor, even those at Foster’s level are not exempt from the occasional creative rut.
JF: “For 55 years in the business and starting when I was three years old, it’s a little bit of a different path for me, but I think that one of the best things you can do is to become a whole person and to work on yourself as a human being, because you have to bring something to the table. People say, ‘How do you prepare for creating a character and making a movie?’ Well, I prepare by loving them and by understanding them and being curious about them and referring what the character is happening to things that I’m working on in my own life and that I’m trying to figure out, because it is an adventure. It’s a journey and you don’t really know where it’s headed, and you learn that through the course of making the film. I feel like movie-making has made me just be a better person.”
The stress and insecurity that often comes with being in an audition room is something that both Foster and Rahim empathize with. Foster insists that you already have everything you need within yourself.
JF: “I do feel like every answer that you need is inside of you. And sometimes that takes a lot of years to understand that everything you need is inside of you already. And if you can find a way to relax and let that truth come through, that you don’t need to quite work so hard. And sometimes if you do work hard, extraneous things get in your way. So yeah, that’s some meditation and that’s also just knowing yourself more. I always say with directors especially but also with actors is what you bring to the table is what you bring to the psychiatrist's couch. So your problems as an actor or your problems as a director are the same problems you have with your wife and the same problems you have with your children. Become a more aware person, a more conscious person, and you’ll be a better actor.”
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