A retro true crime caper inspires the latest binge-worthy Netflix series

Posing as a gem dealer, French con man Charles Sobhraj travelled across Thailand, Nepal and India in the mid-’70s, carrying out a spree of murders on the Asian “Hippie Trail.” Sobhraj and his girlfriend, Québécois Marie-Andrée Leclerc, had managed to weave an intricate web of crime and deception by the time Dutch junior diplomat Herman Knippenberg stumbled upon the killing of two Dutch citizens, which sets off a chain of events that makes Sobhraj Interpol’s most wanted man, eventually bringing him to justice.

The SerpentNetflixNow the charismatic killer, his accomplices and those who upended their lives to catch him come to life in a new show starring Tahar Rahim as Sobhraj, Doctor Who alum Jenna Coleman as Leclerc and Dunkirk actor Billy Howle as Knippenberg.

Rahim, the French actor best known for his award-winning breakout role in A Prophet and his Golden Globe-nominated turn in this year’s The Mauritanian, reveals he first heard tell of the serial killer as a teenager. “I’d go into my brother’s room, and in his nightstand, there was the book, La Trace du Serpent. I read it very quickly. As I already wanted to be an actor, I thought I would play him someday, which is crazy,” says the now-39-year-old.

The SerpentNetflixBut time has turned this awesome-to-play madman into a far more reflective experience for the actor. “When I first read it, I was young enough to not think about how deep evil could be,” says Rahim. “I think I was attracted to the story because he’s an actor as well, playing different personalities, different people, taking identities. But when it came to shooting it, it was not what I expected. It was very, very hard to catch his spirit.”

The SerpentNetflixThe father of two struggled to find any commonality with the sociopathic Sobhraj, who is responsible for at least a dozen murders. “Usually, I start from inside to build my characters, but it wouldn’t work because he’s a murderer and manipulator. I couldn’t really get him,” says Rahim, who instead built the chilling con man from the outside in. “I thought of a question that had been asked when I was in my theatre school. Sometimes you’ve got to think of an animal and I thought of a serpent, of course, but which one? The cobra, because there’s this mythology around the cobra—the charm, the stillness, coldness. And when he bites, you don’t even have time to blink.”

The Serpent streams on Netflix