Most American viewers probably don’t know who Tahar Rahim is. But the French actor currently is doing impressive work in The Last Panthers on Sundance.
Rahim plays Khalil Rachedi, a detective investigating a jewel heist conducted by a group of Serbian criminals imitating the notorious 1990s ring of thieves call the Pink Panthers. While the original Panthers were famous for never physically hurting anyone, the new group causes the death of a little girl.
Told in five languages with action taking place in Bosnia, Hungary, France and Great Britain, “The Last Panthers” (10/9c Wednesdays) isn’t just about the aftermath of the heist, Rahim said.
“What’s great is how the story is about European criminals but it’s also about three people who are trying to find redemption,” Rahim said. “It has a big story but also small stories.”
The heist connects the three characters and their stories. Naomi Franckom (Samantha Morton) is a tough insurance investigator who clashes with Kahlil. She still is haunted by her experience as a UN peacekeeper during the Balkan wars. She has ties to one of the jewel thieves, Milan Celik (Goran Bogdan), a Serbian caught between his former criminal brotherhood and a clean life.
And then there’s Khalil, who has returned to the same suburb of Marseilles, France, where he was becoming a juvenile thug until his father sent him away. Now a law officer, he wants to clean up the suburb and prove to his family he’s not a bad seed, Rahim said.
“He really wants to fix everything and to take a new position in his family—the position of the father. He says, ‘I’ll be a good man and I’m going to reunite the family,’ ” Rahim said of Khalil. “But everything he does is shit.”
I spoke with Rahim, a two-time winner of the Cesar Award (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for his role in the 2009 film “A Prophet,” during the January TV Critics Association tour in Pasadena, Calif. Below is an edited Q & A.
In America, few productions do subtitles because few viewers like to read them. I like that in European productions it’s not that big of a deal.
They get used to that in Europe—to frame movies with subtitles. So it’s a good thing that we can work all together in Europe like an international thing. So I’m used to this because I work with a lot of friend directors, so it’s cool.
Did you know about the Pink Panthers?
I knew who they were, but they’re done now.
Unless this production brings them out of retirement.
[Laughs.] They’re retired. I think they’ve got a lot of money now. I heard about them—like they are Robin Hood of Eastern Europe and things like that—but not more than that. I heard about a spectacular heist in Monaco that they did during the day. They were more like a legend to me than a fact. Thanks to the show, to the script, I studied a little bit about them.
How did you prepare for this role?
Research and I did technical things. I met the GIGN [a French police unit like SWAT] because I needed to have some answers. They taught me how they move on the job, how they shoot. They showed how to enter a place when making an intervention.
Jewels heists seem a very glamorous crime, but in your show it’s not really glamorized at all, is it?
No. It’s rough because it’s more real and it’s based on real evidence. And we all wanted it to be inspired by reality because you better not lie to the audience today. You got to show them your own vision in your story, but I think that when I go to a movie or watch a TV show I need to learn something. It has to be like that. This show taught me about how the law, Pink Panthers and about insurance investigators work in Marseilles, in the suburbs, in the east of Europe.
I didn’t know about that a lot about insurance investigators. I saw that in a couple of Hollywood movies, but not the way [we portray it]. The good thing in this show is that we’re dealing with human beings more than different jobs or the mob. It’s more about human beings who are trying to do their best to fix problems, but the more they try sometimes the more they screw up.
Tell me about Khalil. He has some very specific issues that he has to deal with his growing up in the area and being involved in crime there.
He was born and raised in a suburb of Marseille. At that time Khalil was kind of a bad seed, and as a bad seed he was not good for his young brother and for his family.
His father sent him away to a family in the north of France or somewhere to punish him and to save him. And while he was away he lost his father so he changed. He wanted to be another person—a better person. When he came back 10 to 15 years later he was a police commissioner. He comes back and wants to clean the city from criminality with his own methods, which are old methods. They don’t work anymore.
He’s sort of an egotistic cowboy. That’s the way I see him. But as an actor if you want to defend someone who’s egotistical you need to understand him. That’s the only way to portray him.
When you study egotistical people to find empathy for them, you realize that they don’t know that they’re egotistical. That’s why they do things like that; they don’t to see [those faults]. That was the only way to portray him—to find empathy for him. That was the key for me. Somebody who knows he’s got a huge ego is not that interesting.
Khalil says, “It’s not the fight of good against evil, it’s the fight of bad against less bad.” He says it to his boss, I think. Tell me about that idea and Khalil’s feelings.
He knows about life and that it’s not only the bad against the good. I remember that scene when Roman says he is like Khalil and Kahlil feels Roman is patronizing him. I said, “I know it’s not bad against good, it’s just a bad against less bad.” It’s true. When you’re dealing with this criminal world you can find some people who are trying to be good, but they’re evolving in a bad area.
For being on opposite ends of the law, Khalil and Milan have very similar stories, don’t they?
They have something in common; their arcs are the same. They want to save their families. When I saw this show for the first time I saw this kind of mirror effect between them. They look like each other inside, in a way. They have kind of the same DNA.
Is Khalil searching for redemption in the work he’s doing now or is it much more than that?
It’s not as simple as that. I think that yes, he’s trying to find redemption in a way. But more that that he’s trying to change how his family [members] look at him. He’s trying to make his dead father proud of him in a way. It’s like his father sent him away saying, “You’re a bad seed, go away.” He comes back as a saver, as a hero in a way. He wants to show to his family and to his suburb and to everybody that he can be a good man and he can change things. He’ll see that it’s not simple to achieve.
There are so many layers to this story beyond a police and crime story. Did you feel you were making something special?
I felt it in the script first. When I read it for the first time I felt that it was contemporary; it was brand-new for a TV series in Europe. It was like, “OK, they are dealing with reality but don’t forget to give fiction and entertainment to the audience.” It was a good mix.
You live in Paris. Why are your thoughts on the terrorism occurring there and in Europe?
It’s awful. I don’t know how people can do that. They’re completely crazy.
When it happens in front of your door you start to think differently. You’re like, “OK, I’m a target, too.” So you get scared. You start to think anyone could be this kind of terrorist because terrorists have no face. But you also think if I get scared all the time I will not live my life. So it’s like, “OK, let’s live our lives and we’ll see what happens.” You’ve got to fight. You’ve got to live. You’ve got to have a good time, love your friends. If you don’t do that, they will win.