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Tahar Rahim interview: 'The Serpent' star talks about playing serial killer Charles Sobhraj

Tahar Rahim The Serpent
Tahar Rahim plays 1970s serial killer Charles Sobhraj in "The Serpent." (Image credit: BBC)

Tahar Rahim shot to fame when he won a host of awards in 2009 for his portrayal of a young criminal in A Prophet. He's since appeared in many hit TV series, including intelligence thriller, The Looming Tower

Now he's starring in The Serpent, a new eight-part series from BBC1 and Netflix, which tells the story of notorious serial killer Charles Sobhraj who preyed on Western backpackers who came to Asia on the "Hippie Trail" during the 1970s.

Sobhraj used his good-looks and charm to gain young traveller's trust before murdering them and at the height of his infamy, he was Interpol's most wanted man, with arrest warrants on three continents. 

With the help of his lover Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Victoria star Jenna Coleman) he slipped past authorities all over the globe, yet was eventually tracked down by Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle).

Tahar Rahim on when he first heard the story of Charles Sobhraj

"When I was 16 my brother had a book called 'The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj' and I read it several times," says Tahar. "I already wanted to be an actor, so I dreamt of playing that part because it was fascinating. Then 20 years later, I got an email from my from my agent saying like, 'Yes, some people are interested in you to play a man called Charles Sobhraj'. I told my agent i knew the guy and he said he would call them."

"I said 'No, I'll tell them!' and I called the writer Richard Warlow and director Tom Shankland and I talked for a long time about Sobhraj. Afterwards he told me he wasn't sure if I was just spinning him a tale about how interested I was in the character to get the part, but if I was — I was perfect for the part!"

Charles Sobhraj The Serpent

The real Charles Sobhraj is currently in prison in Nepal. (Image credit: BBC)

Tahar Rahim on Charles Sobhraj

"It's really hard to define him," he explains. "He became a murderer, a manipulator and a con man, but nobody was born as evil. I have no sympathy for him, but he was raised was very tough when he was a kid. 

"He was a street kid, mistreated by his mum and abandoned by his dad, he was half French, half Vietnamese and nobody wanted him at all. So he started as a petty criminal and then something happened in his life. One day he took a cab and he was drugging the driver, so he didn't have to pay the fare, and he killed him by mistake. I think that's the moment when he realised he felt nothing with death and something changed in him." 

Tahar Rahim Jenna Coleman The Serpent

Tahar Rahim stars alongside Jenna Coleman in "The Serpent." (Image credit: BBC)

Tahar Rahim on playing a serial killer

"It's very strange," says Tahar. "We're not trying to glorify him, but as an actor it's very exciting to study the psychology of people like him. It's a real challenge to pick a character that's so distant from you, that you think you can't play at all."

"I found it very, very hard to just find him. The two first weeks were very hard for me, because I couldn't believe how he was able to trick people so easily. And then I realised that he was talented to pick his victims, he would smell them. 

"For a normal person to play someone like him you have to lose all the empathy you have in your body and your heart. That's when I realised I needed to build the character from outside and I thought of an animal, a serpent."

Tahar Rahim on moving production from Thailand to Hertfordshire

"We shot most of the series in Thailand, which was beautiful because that place can be like paradise on Earth," he explains. "But then in March we had to shut down production because of Coronavirus. We did nothing for nearly five months and then we decided to finish the shoot in Britain, and the Hertfordshire town of Luton, to be precise.

Billy Howle The Serpent

Billy Howle plays Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, who finds himself hunting Sobhraj.  (Image credit: BBC)

"Luckily it was a very warm summer in Britain and the production company used some clever tricks to make the sets in Luton seem like open markets or other places in Karachi, Bombay or Bangkok. The crew worked wonders and it's seamless. I think viewers would be surprised which scenes were shot on location and which in Britain. I loved Luton though, I'm going to move there one day!"

Tahar Rahim on that '70s style

"I loved it!" says Tahar. "I took a lot of clothes with me at the end of the shooting, especially the shoes. It's strange because when you wear those 1970s style clothes and shoes, it really changes the way it change the way you move and walk.  In a bizarre way it helped me to get through my character to believe in it, you know? Don't tell anyone, but I took almost all of the shoes home with me!"