When you watch The Looming Tower, Hulu's ambitious 10-episode adaptation of Lawrence Wright's 2006 book on the intelligence failures and international terrorist conspiracy that led up to 9/11, you'll find yourself keying in to a number of the show's moving parts and characters. There's the globetrotting narrative, with the series whisking viewers from New York and D.C. to terrorist cells in Eastern Europe, training camps near Pakistan's border and bombed embassies in Nairobi. There's the volatile F.B.I. hotshot John O'Neill and the head of the C.I.A.'s Al Qaeda unit Martin Schmidt, played by Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard as two different "difficult men" antiheroes. (Imagine the Feds' Don Draper going up against the Agency's Al Swearingen.) And there's a number of supporting folks working the sidelines, including Bill Camp's dogged interrogator, Wrenn Schmidt's central-intelligence consigliere and Michael Stuhlbarg as the one adult in the room, a.k.a. the counterterrorism czar Richard A. Clarke.
But the person who keeps drawing your attention is the gentleman we meet near the very beginning, the one who sits before the 9/11 Joint Inquiry and explains how years of infighting laid the groundwork for catastrophe. He's burdened with a lot of exposition, but he winds through it with ease.
Since Hulu began streaming the episodes last week, we've seen this Lebanese-American – a Federal agent named Ali Soufan – chase down suspects, lose his temper at a jihadist supporter, compare Al Qaeda to the T-1000 from Terminator 2 and coyly court a young woman over dinner. It's the quieter moments, however, that keep you rapt, from the way Soufan silently kneels and prays before entering a courtroom to how he clocks O'Neill's conversations with everyone from TV reporters to maître d's. In several scenes, he's doing little more than sitting in the background and connecting the dots. You still can't take your eyes off of him.
This is The Looming Tower's moral center and its secret weapon, courtesy of a Franco-Algerian actor named Tahar Rahim. If you've spent time in an arthouse cinema, you have most assuredly seen this popular star before, in movies ranging from the Oscar-nominated French prison drama A Prophet (2009) to critically praised imports like The Past (2013). And if you haven't, congratulations – you've just met your next Internet crush and the show's big breakout star.
Say this to Rahim, and he'll smile and politely thank you and then pose a question. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is one of the few times that an American TV show has had someone of Arab descent be the hero, right?" the 36-year-old actor says, then laughs. "I mean, the idea of playing someone like Ali ... it's new to me as well. I'm lucky that I've worked in Europe, where I've had the opportunity 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 a number of the [Middle Eastern] actors on the set," he continues, "and a lot of them took me aside at one point or another and told me, 'We're really happy 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's reminded me that, you know: If I was working here, in the U.S., all of the time, I probably wouldn't get to play some of these roles either."
It's not like Rahim hadn't been fielding offers from Hollywood, especially after A Prophet vaulted him from a struggling young actor with a few small credits to his name to being dubbed France's version of a next-gen Al Pacino. (He's long been a fan of American movies, especially from the Seventies and early Eighties; an interviewer from The Guardian noted the prominent placement of a Scarface poster in a student-film doc on Tahar's pre-fame college days.) But they were always roles that conformed to certain stereotypes, he said, and he wasn't keen to perpetrate such things or be pigeonholed.
"I refused to work in Hollywood for 10 years," Rahim admits. "I've always said, 'I'm not going to play a terrorist.' Not for any price. I'd rather go work in, you know, South Korea – if someone like [filmmakers] Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wok called me and said, 'I may have something with you in mind,' I'd be on a plane tomorrow! With Hollywood, my instinct was always to go, 'No, thanks.' It's not like you guys don't have great directors here. And I'd always wanted to play an English-speaking role, just to see how I'd do it. Or if I could do it. But I simply wasn't getting anything interesting."
"We begged him to do it, basically," admits Dan Futterman, The Looming Tower's co-creator and executive producer. "He was the only person we asked. We didn't know if he spoke English, or if he'd be interested. Turns out he knew English." He takes a beat. "The second part was a little tougher."
Essentially, when Rahim's agents presented him with the Tower's pilot script, the actor hadn't heard of Wright's book. All he knew was that "the show would deal with 9/11, Al Qaeda, all of that," Rahim notes, "so I figured, right, this is the same as everything else. I didn't need to read it. I was skeptical. But they kept saying, no, they want you for an FBI agent. You're not blowing things up. You're stopping the bad guys." His eyes go wide and mimes sitting up very straight. "OK, you have my attention. Go on!"
Still, he was apprehensive, so the star did what he says was his usual due diligence process: He requested a Skype call with the producers. He asked to speak the director – in this case, co-creator Alex Gibney, the noted documentarian (Going Clear) who'd also signed on to helm the first episode. He read the first two scripts they sent him, and admitted that yes, this was in fact different from the usual things he was offered. And yet, Rahim was still not convinced. "I didn’t know the arc of the character," he says, appearing slightly sheepish at the memory. "I didn't know his full story, or where he was going. The first few episodes, it’s more of a presentation: This is him entering the bureau, getting established. After that, I didn't know what would happen."
So he requested one more Skype meeting with everybody ("just to buy myself some time to think"), and at the end of it, the actor mentioned that he would talk it over with his American agent. "I was just being polite," Rahim claims. "I said, 'Great, well, thank you, I'll discuss this with Ali – that's my American agent's name. And they said, 'Oh yeah, great! No problem, we can totally set that up.' They meant Ali Soufan. I just kept going yes, yes, of course, yes. Whatever.
"A little while later, out of the blue, I get a call," he continues, laughing. "It's their Ali. And that was when I got to know him, his personal history, to find out what his life was like. That was the turning point." Having joined the F.B.I., Soufan was one of the few Arabic speakers in the Bureau in 1998, when recruited by O'Neill to assist in tracking the work of Al Qaeda. He was one of the first to recognize that the bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi was the work of that organization and not Hezbollah (a moment which the show dramatizes); when Lawrence Wright was working on the script for the 1998 movie The Siege, he kept hearing about this Lebanese-American agent who was an expert on counterterrorism. (Tony Shaloub's character in the film was loosely based on Soufan.) And as Wright mentions in The Looming Tower book, he was one of the few people who had come close to preventing the events of September 11th.
Rahim was intrigued, and decided he wanted to meet him. "My wife [actress Leïla Bekhti] was pregnant, and we had some time before the baby was coming," he says. "So it was, you know, 'If you were serious about me getting some free time before I become a family man ...'" Last summer, he found himself driving to New Jersey to meet Soufan face to face. "He opened the door and suddenly, there's no big bad F.B.I. guy there ... just this humble man, an immigrant, who immediately welcomed me in to his house like I was his brother. And suddenly, like that, I understood who this guy was."
When this story is mentioned to Futterman and Lawrence Wright later on, they exchange a look and fill in the part that Rahim doesn't mention. "Ali knew he was going to meet with Tahar, so he read up on him, watched his movies, all of his interviews – that's how good an FBI agent he is," Futterman says. "And when they finally met, Ali said to him, 'Look, I've heard you complain about getting all these offers to play terrorists. If you don't play this part, you can't complain any more. This is your chance to do something about it. I think Tahar took that to heart. It was the exact right thing to tell him."
"He just totally challenged his moral response," Wright adds. "And Tahar didn’t know what to say. He had to do it."
And while Rahim's version of Soufan initially seems like a very passive character – even when he's chasing down possible Al Qaeda members down alleyways and through laundries, the agent seems a little reticent – the actor cites a scene in the third episode, when Soufan blows up at a Muslim shopkeeper who's been acting as a messenger, as a turning point. "When I talked with Dan and the others," he says, "I told them that it would be interesting if the character reconnected with his religion – if there was a sense that he felt these people had hijacked Islam. It would be great to have him face them. And they said, that would be a good idea. I liked the notion that he finds his way back to religion because he couldn't stand the hypocrisy of it."
Ask him if he's a religious man, and the intensely private Rahim answers in the affirmative while declining to specify his faith. "But I was glad to say those lines, to play that scene," he notes. "Extremism exists in every religion. And I think it's good to have a hero who's fighting this, both in the field and spiritually. I thought, I haven't seen that on a TV show before. People need to see this."
As for whether his experience making The Looming Tower has changed his idea about working in Hollywood, he notes that he's booked another English-language role in a movie. "I opened up the script and the name of my character is Mark – nothing exotic, just Mark," he says. "So yeah, maybe things are changing." (Before that, he'll be onscreen in the upcoming biblical drama Mary Magdalene, playing Judas Iscariot.) He also mentions that, right after A Prophet made him instantly famous throughout France and won him the country's equivalent of the Oscar for both Best Actor and Most Promising Actor, the experience offered him two paths.
"You can either think you're a much bigger deal then you are," Rahim says, "or you can take a step back and retreat from the spotlight a bit, 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 how I feel about this moment right now. If this show leads to offers to do really interesting things here, I'm up for it. If not, I will keep doing what I've been doing."
"Put to you this way: I have hope that this is a beginning," he adds, smiling wide. "Not expectations. But hope."