Why Tahar Rahim is the best part of Hulu’s addictive 9/11 drama

Photography Matthew Sprout

Published March 9, 2018

Tahar Rahim almost turned down his starring role in The Looming Tower—and for good reason. A loose adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, the new 10-episode miniseries from Hulu dramatizes the events leading up to and surrounding 9/11. When the 36-year-old actor, who is French and lives in Paris, learned that he was being considered for a part, he thought that it would be no different from the many other offers he had already received from America: terrorist, stereotype, “Arab.” It was especially concerning due to the sensitive nature of telling a story still so painfully fresh in the minds of its American audience, and shouldering the weight of playing its central character, a Muslim-American.

“Cinema has no nationality,” he says, explaining that “what I’m looking for is good characters, beautiful parts, something I can defend.” What he was looking for was something like the role of Ali Soufan in The Looming Tower, the real-life FBI agent who fought al-Qaeda in the ‘90s, and who The New Yorker described in a 2006 profile as “America’s best chance to stop the attacks of September 11th.” Pretty much the opposite of terrorist, if not something fairly new for American TV: a Muslim-American hero.

Rahim brings to the role a unique split-focus between Soufan’s personal and professional lives. When in the field, his Soufan is intense, ready for action, sure of his beliefs and indignantly willing to voice them. As a civilian, he is more reserved—even shy—and pursues a love interest with quiet emotion. In other words, he’s a real person with multiple, and at times conflicting, layers of personality.

To prepare for the role, Rahim read both Soufan’s book The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, and met up with the former special agent in New York. “When you meet someone who’s real and you’re going to portray them, there’s two ways: The first is to imitate them.” The second? “To capture his soul, to understand his values.”

To do so, Rahim needed to create a backstory for his character. “My question is, how can a 27-year-old man want to save the world?” he asks. “When we were 27 we wanted to go out and meet girls and party!” Considering his character’s motivations in light of his own provided Rahim a point of access to better examine those that underlie The Looming Tower and its re-enactment of such recent and charged history: its conscience.

Yes, the show revels in the hallmarks of a pop crime procedural, but at its core it’s also a 21st century moral story. First and foremost, it is an indictment of the American intelligence community, which The Looming Tower accuses of bungling its anti-terrorist efforts—despite the better intentions of agents like Ali Soufan—through internal squabbling. It is also, however, a remonstrance to the era of the “travel ban,” and the people in power that conflate an entire faith with those that profane it by perpetrating violence in its name. Rahim explains that his Soufan is so steadfast in his beliefs and purpose in part because al-Qaeda has “hijacked his religion,” and hints that the show will culminate in a final showdown between his character and another which, “in 10 minutes, will tell people the difference between a terrorist and a Muslim.” It goes without saying who’s who.