The Serpent is a serial killer story unlike you’ve ever seen. The new limited series, premiering this weekend on Netflix, tells the true life story of Charles Sobhraj, who was responsible for the deaths of an unknown number of Western tourists visiting Thailand in the 1970s. As played by Tahar Rahim, Sobhraj is an enigmatic yet fascinating villain whose motives for murder are complicated, rooted as much in greed as they are in his own sociopathy, and while we get to know him more over the course of the
Rahim has built up an impressive resume of challenging and complex characters over the last several years, including his recent Golden Globe-nominated turn as Mohamedou Ould Salahi in the legal drama The Mauritanian. In a one-on-one phone interview with Collider, he talked about what was involved in getting inside Charles Sobhraj’s head, when he first heard about the man’s legacy of murder, what it was like participating in awards season during a pandemic, and why he — and so many of us in general — are fascinated by serial killer stories.
COLLIDER: To start off, how aware were you of the whole story as it happened in real life, before you started working on this?
TAHAR RAHIM: You’ll be surprised. Matter of fact, when I was 16, 17, or so, I read the book because it was in my brother’s nightstand. I already wanted to be an actor, so when I read it, I fantasized about playing him. At the time I was thinking about this, it was like he was playing different characters, taking different identities. He was French, so that might be the reason why I fantasized about it.
In 2001 Benicio del Toro and William Friedkin were meant to shoot it, and it never happened. Then almost 20 years later, I had an email from my agent saying, “Yeah, you’re going to play Charles Sobhraj.” I’m like, “Well…” It’s crazy.
So, it was just an offer that came out of the blue?
RAHIM: Yeah, absolutely.
That must feel pretty good.
RAHIM: Yeah, I always wanted to explore evil in a character. When you’re an actor, the challenge is to find characters that are very distant from your true nature. I was scrolling down and I read Charles Sobhraj, I’m like, “Whoa.” So, I called my agent and I told him about it, about the book, the story. He wanted to call them to tell them, I’m like, “No, wait, let me meet them and talk with them directly.” That’s what happened, the director, Tom Shankland, would tell me later on that he said to his fellow writer, Richard, he said, “If he is lying, he is the right guy because I believed him,” and I’m like, “Man, I didn’t lie, I really read it.”
It’s so interesting — with projects like this, there’s a temptation to want to try to get inside a character’s head, but I don’t feel like that’s something that the show does at all with him.
RAHIM: No, it’s very clear to me that the show doesn’t sensationalize Charles and his crimes. The show celebrates the heroism and the bravery of Knippenberg, and Knippenberg’s wife, and Charles’s neighbor, and the French couple. It did good, the way that it was written, the way it’s shot. That was at the center of all the conversation.
But from your perspective, you’re playing a character that, especially at the beginning, we’re never supposed to really get to know. Was that something that you struggled with at all?
RAHIM: I didn’t think about it, because I had to know him perfectly, as much as I could. We shot a lot of things, and when I discovered the two first episodes, I thought they did an amazing job by keeping him as a secret — a mystery. You don’t know what he thinks, you don’t know why he does this. I think the three first episodes are built this way, so you can connect with the victims and not him, but still you’re attracted. I think they did good. Because it was not really written this way. We knew more about him than in act one, two, three. When they edited it, they decided to build the story this way.
I was going to ask about that, because the structure goes back and forth so much, but was it shot that way?
RAHIM: It was written this way, and I asked them about it and they said, “We need to do this. It’s the style of the show.” Plus it’s a bit gripping, I think, because each time you see something and then we go back in time, you understand a lot of things from a different point-of-view. Different angles. You notice objects. It brings something… I don’t know how to say it, but something that makes you want to know more about it, that perks you in a way. You get very focused in details, and you need to focus on details when you look at those type of stories.
In terms of shooting, what order were things filmed in?
RAHIM: We had to shoot it in two different blocks, four first episodes, and the four last episodes. Then it was the usual thing, shooting in location, so we shot everything we could in Kanit House. Then we went out of the city… It was a bit mixed up.
So, what did you have to do in order to keep in the mental place of whatever specific time period you were in?
RAHIM: I was not really trying to be precise in the dates, but I do have two different periods in my head. Before he turns into a real killer and after. When we go back in time, when he’s in his previous life in Paris, when he met Marie-Andrée, to me, I thought that he could be more sensitive in a way. We could read more about him in his face. But afterwards, nothing.
It’s funny — on Wikipedia, he’s referred to as a serial killer. But when you think of the stereotypical serial killer, he doesn’t seem to fit into that category.
RAHIM: No, because his motives were not about sex, or cutting people into pieces, or something. It was about money. I don’t think he would care about his sexuality. There’s a story at the end of Episode 1 — he’s talking about the taxi driver he killed by mistake. This is exactly what happened: The guy killed someone, not on purpose, and he felt nothing. The first reaction that he had was to put him into the water to get rid of him… He understood that getting from point A to point B by killing people is not a problem, and that’s where everything started.
This is a pretty big question, but what is it about a story like this that you think had you fascinated from an early age, that keeps a lot of people hooked?
RAHIM: I think that for balanced people, trying to understand what’s not conceivable is always attractive. To study their psychology, to understand how it works, and how it turns inhuman people evil. It’s always interesting. It’s this thing that you feel all the time, it’s an attraction and repulsion at the same time.
I know the show’s been out in the UK already, what have you noticed about the reaction to it there?
RAHIM: It was unexpected — I was so happy that the show turned out to be such a hit. Really, it feels good. I mean, you work hard and you do something that’s meaningful, because I’m talking about the victims and their families. It’s always important to show them respect.
Yeah. That’s something I think the show does really nicely is the fact that it really cares about the people who lost their lives.
RAHIM: Yeah, who lost their lives, and the real heroes, like Knippenberg and his wife. I mean, they are the real heroes. They brought him to justice, to stop him and his craziness, his crimes, It’s about them.
Can you say what you’re working on next?
RAHIM: I’m working on a French project, it’s a musical, but not made in the old fashioned Hollywood way. With some big songs and performing dance, it’s dancing and singing, but more in a poetic way, more subtle, and it’s a beautiful love story about an actor who’s playing Don Juan all his life.
To wrap things up, you just had the experience of going through award season, and congratulations on the Golden Globe nomination. You’ve had the experience of this circus before with other projects. What was it like having technically the same experience, but during this particular era?
RAHIM: There’s good things to take and bad things to take as well. There’s good and bad things in this situation. The bad thing is that, what I call candy time, is when you are done with your work, and you got to show the movie to people — you meet people, you get the audience, you have fun, and this didn’t happen obviously. But at the same time, if I would have been able to travel, I wouldn’t have lived this with my close friends and my family. You see, so the Zoom thing in a way helped me to celebrate with my family and my friends directly. I’m close to my kids as well, so there was good things to take.
What was the actual night of the Golden Globes like?
RAHIM: It was in a hotel room on Zoom. I had my family and friends with me, and it was cool, we were celebrating. It was very important for the movie as well, so people can see it more. It’s important to Mohamedou Ould Salahi as well, to help him in his private life. The funny thing is that I wore my slippers. No boots, no shoes.
That is definitely one of the best parts of the whole thing.
RAHIM: Yeah, more comfortable.
The Serpent is streaming now on Netflix.
Toss a coin to this perfect set photo.
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