This story was supposed to begin differently, but Rami Malek stole my line.
After spending more than an hour chatting with him on the Fox Studios lot in Los Angeles, I had to ask why he had been so jumpy at the interview’s outset. He had twitched, hugged himself, crossed and uncrossed his legs, scratched his arms and jiggled at a terrific frequency that suggested advanced jitters or vast amounts of caffeine. What had all that been about?
Malek replied that his nervous energy was par for the course, that it once caused someone to ask, “Is Rami OK?”
“I have my flourishes,” he continued, then threw me a sly grin. “Rami Malek couldn’t sit still,” he said, in an exaggeratedly stentorian voice. The line wouldn’t have been the greatest way in to this tale, but it would have done, especially since he proved extremely reluctant to dish about himself during the course of our talk.
Attempts were definitely made. Was Malek, who was raised Coptic and went to Catholic school, still religious? “That’s such a personal issue,” he deflected. How does he decompress during production of Mr Robot, in which he plays the paranoid protagonist Elliot Alderson? “It’s so personal!” Malek, who is 37, exclaimed, revealing only that he unwound in his “own private way.”
Finally, he offered a scintilla of self-disclosure. Malek’s pre-existing predilection toward privacy had been strongly reinforced, he said, by his performance as Freddie Mercury, the bombastic and brazenly carnal frontman of the rock group Queen, who died of Aids-related pneumonia in 1991, and whom Malek plays in Bohemian Rhapsody, which is to be released in the UAE on November 9. “It’s nice to be able to own privacy, some bit of anonymity,” Malek said. “That’s a Freddie thing.”
Freddie Mercury, private? Onstage, he was a preening cock of the walk with a majestic voice. Offstage, he was a cheeky Dionysian.
But in studying the singer, Malek concluded that Freddie, as he calls him, had mastered the art of the verbal parry, never giving a jot of information more than he pleased, no matter how much an interviewer pressed.
“What you see in the moment is what you get,” Malek said. “It’s up to him to decide.”
Bohemian Rhapsody comes to the screen after a decade of fits and starts, with plenty of infighting and a rotating cast of key players. First Sacha Baron Cohen was poised to star, though nothing was shot, and Cohen later claimed he dropped out after the band sought to sugarcoat Mercury’s hedonism, prompting Queen’s lead guitarist, Brian May, to call him “an [expletive].” Then word came that Ben Whishaw was onboard, but that didn’t last either.
The script was written by one prestigious writer, (Peter Morgan, The Queen, Frost/Nixon), rewritten by another (Anthony McCarten, The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) and laboriously revamped.
“This is why it took so long to bring the movie to life,” said Graham King, one of the film’s producers. Dexter Fletcher was tapped to direct, then left the project. Bryan Singer took over, until he was fired late last year, with scant weeks of shooting left, for failing to show up on set. (Singer said he had to tend to one of his parents, who was ill.) He and Malek had also quarrelled at times, which Malek was elusive about — “there were artistic differences,” he said — and that King scoffed at when asked.
“You’re making a film at this level, there’s always tension,” King said. Fletcher ended up directing for the last leg of production, but, per Directors Guild of America rules, will not get a directing credit.
The reaction to the early trailers for the film has meant that the drama around it would not soon die. Glimpses of Malek’s sinuous embodiment of Mercury overlaid with the singer’s soaring voice left some fans in tears, while others fretted that Mercury’s queerness — he was closeted — might have been “straight-washed.”
“It’s nothing we don’t address,” Malek said, “That’s another thing our film is good about. I don’t think it’s exploitative or salacious.”
Either way, the film will open to heaps of anticipation, with much of the weight resting on Malek, who had to work through conflicts of his own before throwing himself into the role.
Of course the part carried enormous risk; bad biopics invite a particularly gleeful type of schadenfreude. “It’s not lost on me that this could go terribly wrong, that it could be detrimental to one’s career should this not go the right way,” Malek said. But this was an opportunity actors dream of. He knew he had to grab it, and give it his all.
And to do that, he had to get himself new teeth.
Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara to a Parsi family in Zanzibar, and went to boarding school in India. His classmates nicknamed him Bucky; he had four extra upper back teeth that pushed his front teeth into an extreme overbite, and also, he believed, gave his voice extra resonance.
To embrace Mercury’s physicality, Malek had a costume designer create a set of Freddie teeth that he carried around in a little black plastic container, and popped into his mouth to practice every night. He also flew to London and persuaded King to pay for a dialect tutor and a movement coach, who had him study the inspirations for Mercury’s peacocking: Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret.
“It was almost more useful at times to watch Liza than it was to watch Freddie himself,” he said. “You found the inspiration and birth of those movements.”
All of this happened before the film was even greenlighted. Malek wanted to be prepared if the film was a go, which turned out to be a wise move. The first scene shot was a re-enactment of Queen’s appearance at Live Aid in 1985, considered one of the best rock performances in history. For the singing, Malek’s voice was mixed with Mercury’s and that of the Canadian singer Marc Martel. “No one wants to hear me sing,” Malek said. But he had to, at the top of his lungs, in front of the cast and crew for every onstage scene.
Filming Live Aid early slam-dunked the cast members into their roles. Malek’s performance particularly astonished Mercury’s bandmates, who felt the actor was not merely portraying Mercury, but inhabiting him. “We sometimes forgot he was Rami,” May, the guitarist, wrote in an email.
Watching the film, I sometimes forgot, too, and found myself among those left nostalgic and misty-eyed by Malek’s onstage scenes. I also found myself asking him to do a Freddie strut, or pose, or anything, something I had never wanted to ask of an actor before. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised when he demurred.
Malek said he had never devoted himself as intensely to anything as this role. But, he said, “I can’t be Freddie-on-command for the rest of my life, right?”
Don’t miss it
Bohemian Rhapsody releases in the UAE on November 9.
WHO WAS FREDDIE MERCURY?
Born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 to a Parsi Indian family living on the East African spice island of Zanzibar and educated at an English-style boarding school in India, Mercury arrived in London when his family fled the 1964 Zanzibar revolution.
Bohemian Rhapsody follows Mercury’s rise to fame and complicated love life, from Queen’s formation in 1970 (after which he changed his second name to Mercury) to the band’s stellar performance at the Live Aid concert.
Their 20-minute set at Wembley Stadium — opposite Wembley Arena — was the band’s finest hour, often cited as one of the greatest live performances ever.
Mercury’s legend only grows with time, yet to be eclipsed by a more captivating stadium showman. Even during his lifetime, Mercury was stunned that nobody had written a hit to overtake We Are The Champions.
But 41 years on, his 1977 singalong anthem remains the go-to tune at sporting finales, and 1975’s Bohemian Rhapsody is still regularly voted the greatest rock song ever written.