‘In Freddie Mercury I saw a very shy and at times lonely figure’
Actor Rami Malek on portraying the late Queen frontman in the new biopic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
Rami Malek is all elbows and thumbs as he gallantly pushes a chair across the room for me.
“Don’t move! I got it,” he insists as he clatters into a desk. About 20 minutes later, he ducks around the corner – still talking – to change from a jumper to a T-shirt. Aged 37, he looks a good deal younger, an effect that is intensified by his boyish helpfulness and fidgety physicality.
It’s almost impossible to reconcile this fellow with his swaggering, electrifying turn as Freddie Mercury in the new Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, a performance that in the past few days has leapfrogged over Bradley Cooper’s in A Star Is Born to make Malek the Oscarologist’s top pick in the Best Actor race.
“I have a little anecdote for The Irish Times,” he offers, excitedly. “So, I have a great scene in this movie with Aidan Gillen and Allen Leech in the back of a car. And when we were shooting it, I was so intoxicated by the majestic Irish accent and the talent of those individuals, that when Allen Leech says: ‘Do you want me to take you home, Freddie?’, I turned around and said . . .”
He pauses and goes full Irish brogue: “‘Anywhere but home.’ So my dialect coach came flying in: ‘Get out of that car and stay away from those Irish guys!’”
The accent was the easy part. To study his subject, he tracked down every last bit of archival footage, from Top of the Pops appearances to scratchy camcorder recordings.
“I would listen to him in radio interviews and he was such a . . . I would never use the word meek, but demure, present and thoughtful human being,” says the actor. “Even the way he would order a vodka tonic and how gracious he would be to the person that was bringing it to him. I saw a very shy and, at times, lonely human being and he admits that quite often. I worried about finding this man’s inner life, but then I realised: you fool, he has written it out for you in the early writings and early songs. They come from this sometimes very dark, sometimes very whimsical place.”
Malek additionally had to learn how to play piano and how to sing from scratch: the impressive final mix is an amalgamation of Malek, Mercury and Canadian vocalist Marc Martel, a winner of the Queen Extravaganza live tour auditions. He also worked with Polly Bennett, a movement coach, to choreograph a film that culminates in an uncanny recreation of Queen’s world-conquering 20-minute set at Live Aid in 1985.
“It was in the very first iteration of the script I read,” says Malek. “I just didn’t realise it would be the very first thing that we would shoot. I thought it was unfortunate because I wanted to articulate his spontaneity. But we started with the one section of the film that is copied move for move. In the end it ended up being the most helpful thing to do because I got a real sense of him from that recreation.”
“Oh, it was quite surreal,” says Malek. “I’d be talking to Brian May as Freddie and future Brian May would show up. It was like being in a sci-fi novel.”
Malek’s performance may be flawless, but the production has hit more than one speedbump since its inception. In 2010, Queen guitarist Brian May announced a band biopic with writer Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) and Sacha Baron Cohen attached. For a time, David Fincher was pencilled in as director. Then Ben Whishaw was cast as Mercury. In a 2016 episode of The Howard Stern Show, Baron Cohen claimed that left the project as the surviving band members were insistent on making a film that depicted the band going from strength to strength following Mercury’s death in 1991. (In fact, Bohemian Rhapsody ends in 1985).
“I never listened to any of that,” says Malek. “I just didn’t have the time. I didn’t know anything about earlier iterations. For me we had one mission and that was to honour Freddie Mercury and live up to what a unique figure he was.”
It’s very difficult to be gay or bisexual in the Zoroastrian culture that he came from
The first trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody was greeted with some dismay by writer and producer Bryan Fuller (Star Trek, American Gods, Pushing Daisies), who took to Twitter to ask: “Anybody else mildly annoyed (enough to tweet about it) that the #BohemianRapsody [sic] trailer features gay/bi superstar Freddie Mercury flirting with and twirling with a woman but no indication of his love of men?” As with Baron Cohen’s remarks, the finished film does not bear out the allegations of queer-erasure and bi-erasure that were levelled at the earliest promotional materials.
“Why do that so early on?” asks Malek. “Especially after seeing one teaser that was essentially a musical trailer? Freddie Mercury defied every obstacle, every stereotype, every convention to become the man he wanted to be. And he inspired other people to become their most authentic selves. I consider him a revolutionary. It’s very difficult to be gay or bisexual in the Zoroastrian culture that he came from. It’s inconceivable, in fact. To have that sense of conflict and yet to have an ownership of himself to say, fuck off? That’s revolutionary. Why would we hide that?”
Even the amiable Malek will concede that he had “creative differences” with Bohemian Rhapsody’s original director, Bryan Singer. Last December, amidst stories of repeated clashes with cast and crew, production was temporarily halted when Singer failed to return to set after a Thanksgiving break. In the weeks that followed, the director was accused of sexual assault of a minor in 2003. Singer has denied the charge. Dexter Fletcher, the British filmmaker behind Sunshine on Leith and Eddie the Eagle, was hired to replace the American, yet Singer has retained his directing credit in accordance with DGA (Directors Guild of America) rules.
“I would love to talk about; believe me, I would,” says Malek. “If it was anything else I would. But I don’t want what happened to overshadow this beautiful film. I’ll be quite frank. I didn’t love the situation. Thank God we had Dexter Fletcher step in. It would have been worse if we had lost Thomas Sigel (the cinematographer) because his unified vision kept the movie together. That would have been a blunder. And we also had Graham King and Denis O’Sullivan who have produced this over 10 years. And we had Brian May and Roger Taylor, who will never let anything be a failure.”
Success has been a long time coming for Rami Malek. The Los Angeles-born son of Coptic Egyptian immigrants began acting at high school and decided to give it a shot. His mother, an accountant, and his late father, an insurance salesman, took a while to warm to the idea, although his sister – a doctor – and twin brother – a teacher – were always happy to run lines with him. “They’re pretty good at it, too,” he notes.
I love collaborating with people who are at the top of their craft. I gravitate toward writer-directors in particular
Hollywood was even slower at succumbing to Malek’s charms. At the turn of the millennium, he was voicing “additional characters” for the videogame Halo 2 and mostly waiting on tables.
“People say to me, don’t ever change, but this has been a very slow burn,” he says. “My first play was at 14. My first paid job was at 22. If my head was going to turn, it would have turned by now. I kept stuffing envelopes with my headshot and resume. I took them everywhere and if anybody looked in any way producorial, they were getting one in a delivery bag or a pizza box. It was all little steps. Getting my Equity card so I could do theatre. Getting into SAG (Screen Actors Guild) – they had to pay a fine because they wanted me for Gilmore Girls.”
He points at the recorder between us: “I keep saying I really appreciate that show because the creator, for some reason, thinks I said something different, but I really appreciated that job and still do. I was still bussing tables when I got my first cheque. And I looked at it and thought: maybe I don’t have to shine 200 pieces of cutlery every night.”
Over a decade he built up a solid reputation as a character actor, appearing in the Night at the Museum films as Pharaoh Ahkmenrah, the final instalment of the Twilight saga, and the eighth season of 24. He has worked for Spike Lee (Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), and David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints).
“As soon as I hear the word ‘cut’ I want to talk to the director,” says the actor. “I love collaborating with people who are at the top of their craft. I gravitate toward writer-directors in particular. I’m in awe of guys like Sam Esmail and Paul Thomas Anderson and David Lowery and, oh, who am I forgetting? I don’t want to go to my trailer and work on the next beat. I want to talk to the lighting designer, I want to talk to the cinematographer.”
Mr Robot, the hit techno-thriller TV series, in which Malek plays an ill-at-ease hacker, made him a star, an Emmy winner and, finally, Freddie Mercury.
“I like to be composed,” he says. “I don’t ever want to do a big, showy performance. That the producers of Bohemian Rhapsody saw me in Mr Robot and got the idea that I could play Freddie Mercury, that boggles my mind. Some people started to recognise me on the street after the war series The Pacific. They’d call me by my character’s name. But after Mr Robot I started hearing my actual name.”
Next up, there’s The Voyage of Doctor Doolittle, a recurring role as Flip McVicker in Bojack Horseman, and the fourth and final season of Mr Robot. But for right now, he’s really missing the Freddie accent. “It gets things done,” he laughs. “It turns out people listen to Freddie Mercury a lot more attentively than they do to Rami Malek.”
Bohemian Rhapsody opens on October 24th