Rami Malek and Freddie Mercury might never have met, but you get the sense they’d understand each other.
Two children of immigrants – Malek born in Los Angeles, but with Egypt in his veins; Mercury, then Farrokh Bulsara, born in Zanzibar, having relocated to (and reinvented himself in) England in his teens – they are united by the sort of commonality that defines a person.
“I related to Freddie Mercury in a very literal sense,” says Malek, discussing his portrayal of the late Queen singer in soon-to-be-released biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. “When the script wasmbeing written, I wanted his upbringing to be an integral part to knowing Freddie Mercury. It was important to see an immigrant household and an immigrant upbringing.”
He pauses, a sharp intake of breath.
“That was so important in understanding his situation. And similarly, my situation…”
Bohemian Rhapsody is a film about the rock band Queen, yes. But more than anything, it’s a film about finding yourself. Loving yourself, even. Being able to look in the mirror and not flinch from your reflection. It’s this innate understanding of a person trapped between cultures that drew Malek to the role.
I would have Arabic music in the car when I was a kid and I’d be nervous about anyone hearing it on the way to school.
“It’s true that it did take Freddie a long time to become comfortable with himself. Similarly, I’m still learning to be comfortable with myself. I’m probably going to regret saying this, but I think me taking the challenge of playing this role might be, on some level, me feeling like I have something to prove.”
What do you mean?
“Well, I don’t know whether it stems from my experience as a first-generation American or as someone who is considered ethnic in a business that hasn’t always had people like me in the leads of films or television series. I grew up with the name Rami Malek. I went to a school where that was an unusual name. I would have Arabic music in the car when I was a kid and I’d be nervous about anyone hearing it on the way to school.
There comes a point in your life where you can acknowledge the beauty of that. Where you can see how beautiful and poetic that culture is and you want to share it with people. But when I was getting into acting, I didn’t have a role model. Someone who was like me. I wish I’d had Freddie…”
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A famously troubled production – announced as long ago as 2010, filming on Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t end with the director it began with. Malek (after Sacha Baron Cohen, then Ben Whishaw) was the third Freddie Mercury to be attached to the project – but it’s likely that the names Rami Malek and Freddie Mercury will now be conjoined in conversation forever. Like Ian Hart is now cinema’s John Lennon, like Jim Morrison belongs to Val Kilmer, it seems unfeasible that any actor will dare to inhabit Mercury’s soul, such is Malek’s prowess in the part.
Incredibly, the actor, best known for his role as depressed hacker Elliot Alderson in the hit TV drama Mr Robot, had only a passing appreciation of Mercury and the music of Queen before taking the part. He ended it “a super-fan”.
“I inhabited him by immersing myself entirely in him. Every idiosyncrasy. Every nuance. The two most important things to me were, I knew I was going to be able to connect with him as a human being – as an actor, I can find those things, it might even be my strong suit. And so his upbringing and things like that, I knew I could relate to that. Who he was outside of the monolith of being a rock god. Where I had to work harder was trying to understand what made him such a brave and bold soul onstage.”
‘Playing’ the shows, take after take, was the most physically demanding performance I’ve ever had.
What helped you find that?
“Well I found a movement coach. I told them I wasn’t looking for someone to help me with choreography. That was almost the opposite of Freddie. What I needed was someone to help me understand why he moved in such a unique way. And I hired a physical trainer, because while I’d never compare what I did to them touring relentlessly, ‘playing’ the shows, take after take, was the most physically demanding performance I’ve ever had.
“I wanted to understand everything from how he moved his hands, to how he covered his teeth with his lips. I had a prosthetic in playing the part and when the make-up artist put them in for the first time, it almost made me giggle. The teeth took me so much closer to inhabiting him.”
With the surviving members of Queen involved at all levels of the film’s production, it also helped having direct access to those who had shared a stage with Freddie. Even those who’d spent time around the living room table during family meals.
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“I’d go to dinner with Brian May a lot,” says Malek. “Having his approval early on was everything to me. To hug him after the film was in the can and have him happy with it meant so much. Then on set I met Kashmira, Freddie’s sister, and the physical similarity she has to Freddie just pierces your heart. I heard that John Reid, the band’s former manager, Elton John’s guy, was pretty taken aback by what I’d done as Freddie.
“I’m looking forward to hearing from other musicians about what they think,” he continues. “I heard from Bono the other day, from Boy George, from Sting. Whenever I meet a musician I always ask them if they met Freddie. Bono’s wife told me a great story about Freddie hitting on Bono in front of her at Live Aid.”
Understandably excited to show the world what he’s done, Malek tells us that finishing the film, which encompasses Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, made him feel “sad, at the premature theft of life”. He smiles. “But there’s real joyous moments in there too. I’m in awe of him. I think I’ll be inspired by Freddie Mercury every day for the rest of my life.”
Bohemian Rhapsody is in cinemas from October 24
Image: Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, FOX