Rami Malek on the challenges of playing legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury
For the role, the Egyptian-American actor took singing and piano lessons, worked with a dialect teacher and a movement and choreography coach
When Rami Malek appeared at the world premiere of Bohemian Rhapsody two weeks ago, he was in a white suit – a clear tribute to the late Freddie Mercury and the other members of Queen. By the end of the night, in a venue just a stone’s throw from London’s Wembley Stadium, the scene of the British band’s triumphant Live Aid performance in 1985, it became obvious that Rami Malek’s turn as the flamboyant Mercury was a triumph, too.
The Egyptian-American actor, 37, has already grabbed viewers’ attention with his Emmy-winning turn as paranoid hacker Elliot Alderson in TV show Mr Robot. But playing the renowned lead singer of Queen is another matter. “I appreciate a challenge and this was a massive one,” he admits, when we meet a few weeks before the premiere. In person, he looks little like his character, but with magnetic wide eyes, you can’t help but fall under his spell.
Becoming Freddie Mercury
Bohemian Rhapsody has been in the works for years, and actors including Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Whishaw toyed with playing Mercury, but eventually quit the project. When Malek was approached by the producers to take on the role, he professed his lack of musical talent.“I’d never touched a guitar or piano before,” he says. “I think probably of all the actors that have come in there and said, ‘Oh yeah, I sing and dance and do all this’, they thought I was being very humble.”
Long before the film was even green-lit, Malek started flying to London whenever he had time off from shooting Mr Robot to take singing and piano lessons, and work with a dialect teacher and a movement and choreography coach. The first piano piece he learnt was the intro to the band’s seminal operatic odyssey Bohemian Rhapsody; he then had to figure out how to play it “upside down” for a scene where he’s lying on a bed with a keyboard above him.
Malek watched countless live shows, studying the way Mercury moved, and even studied a documentary about the making of the band’s album News of the World, which includes the anthems We Are The Champions and We Will Rock You, both of which feature prominently in the film. Malek became a Queen fanatic as he waded through the band’s personal archives. “Getting to peek behind the curtain … it’s just awakened my appreciation in a way I don’t think other things would be able to.”
Yet becoming Mercury was about more than merely mimicking his musical skills; Malek wanted to get under the skin of a boy who was born in Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara, who was then shipped off to boarding school in India before his family eventually moved to England. “Essentially, he’s an immigrant in London,” says Malek, who says he can relate intimately to this experience: despite being born in California, his own parents – his father an insurance broker, his mother an accountant – arrived in America from Egypt.
Getting the film out
Then there is Mercury’s emotional arc explored in the film. While Bohemian Rhapsody deals with Queen’s rise in the 1970s, the heart of the story is the singer’s relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), to whom he gets engaged, before he comes to terms with his attraction to men. Loneliness is an overriding feeling. “It’s not so surprising when you look at his lyrics,” says Malek. “When you look at Somebody To Love … you realise how much he’s talking about searching for love.”
Getting the film over the line and into cinemas was made even more tricky after original director Bryan Singer was fired in the final weeks of production, and Dexter Fletcher was brought in to steer the film home. Malek, though, pays tribute to real band members, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, who were on board from the beginning. “[They were] a lifeline for me especially and Gwilym [Lee, who plays May]. Having that approval was something that got us through a lot of tougher moments.”
The film made £1.62 million (Dh7.76m) on its opening night in the United Kingdom; to put that into context, A Star is Born, with Lady Gaga, was also released on the same day of the week in the UK in early October, and took £522,000. Underestimate the staying power of Queen and Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991 of AIDS-related pneumonia, at your peril. Even the reviews, which were mixed, rushed to praise Malek for a performance that will surely see him nominated in this year’s Oscars.
Having attended the same high school in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, as actors Kirsten Dunst and Rachel Bilson, Malek started performing from a young age, but his early years in the business were difficult. He won a role in Spike Lee’s remake of the South Korean thriller Oldboy, but his scenes were left on the cutting room floor. “I think it’s those moments that keep you from ever being too complacent or naive,” he says. “The highs and lows collectively give you the fortitude to move forward.”
Gradually, he began to win roles – notably as a pharaoh in the Night at the Museum movies and as a Marine in the Second World War mini-series The Pacific. He also appeared in indies Short Term 12 and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. “He has a huge range and he’s always intriguing, looking at his face,” says Michael Noer, who directed him in the upcoming remake of prison escape movie Papillon, in which Malek takes the role of Louis Dega, previously played by Dustin Hoffman.
Malek has also played the role of a gorilla, via motion capture, in The Voyage of Doctor Doolittle, opposite Robert Downey Jr. And there’s the little matter of the fourth and final season of Mr Robot. But Malek has bigger ambitions, to get behind the camera “producing and directing” one day. However, he says: “I don’t think I’d act in a film I chose to direct. It might be a bit much.”
But somehow, the multi-talented Malek – like Freddie Mercury – seems more than capable of conquering it all.
Bohemian Rhapsody is in cinemas across the UAE from November 8
Updated: November 6, 2018 07:03 PM