Rami Malek, Catch­ing Mer­cury

Rami Malek in Fred­die Mer­cury’s shoes.

Vocable (All English) - - Édito | Sommaire - CARA BUCK­LEY

Rami Malek made his name in the se­ries, Mr. Ro­bot, and this month stars in the biopic Bo­hemian Rhap­sody, about the Bri­tish group, Queen. In his first big film, the Amer­i­can ac­tor por­trays Fred­die Mer­cury, charis­matic leader of the leg­endary rock group. How did he ap­proach the role of this iconic singer?

LosAn­ge­les — 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 here, I had to ask why he had been so jumpy at the in­ter­view’s out­set. “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.


2. 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. “It’s nice to be able to own pri­vacy, some bit of anonymity,” Malek said. “That’s a Fred­die thing.” 3. Fred­die Mer­cury, pri­vate? On­stage, he was a preen­ing cock of the walk with a ma­jes­tic voice. Off­stage, he was a cheeky Dionysian who told an in­ter­viewer that one of his hob­bies was “a lot of sex.” 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.


4. Bo­hemian Rhap­sody comes to the screen af­ter a decade of fits and starts, with plenty of in­fight­ing and a ro­tat­ing cast of key play-

ers. 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 arse.” Then word came that Ben Whishaw was on­board, but that didn’t last either.

5. 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.


6. Malek was born a twin — his brother, Sami, is younger by 4 min­utes; they also have an older sis­ter, Yas­mine — to Egyp­tian im­mi­grants, and grew up in the Sher­man Oaks sec­tion of Los An­ge­les, shel­tered and largely un­aware, he said, of the Hol­ly­wood that teemed be­yond the Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains. Af­ter study­ing the­ater at the Univer­sity of Evansville, he be­gan land­ing roles: a guest spot on “Gil­more Girls,” a pharaoh in the Night at the Mu­seum films and a coun­selor in the indie hit Short Term 12. He also played a few Mid­dle East­ern ter­ror­ists, un­til he could no longer stom­ach the stereo­typ­ing.

7. By the time Malek au­di­tioned for the lead role of the tor­tured hacker El­liot in “Mr. Ro­bot,” Sam Es­mail, the show’s cre­ator, had seen about 100 ac­tors and was on the verge of rewrit­ing the part. El­liot was too cold, stand­off­ish and un­lik­able, Es­mail con­cluded, and that was why no au­di­tion had clicked. But Malek brought a level of vul­ner­a­bil­ity and pain that made El­liot quiv­er­ingly hu­man. “It opened my eyes to who El­liot re­ally was,” Es­mail said. “Mr. Ro­bot” would prove a hit, mak­ing Malek a star and an Emmy win­ner. And it even­tu­ally comm­pelled an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer r on the Queen project to come e knock­ing.


8. Of course the part car­ried d enor­mous risk; bad biopics s 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.

9. 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. 10. 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. r “It was al­most more use­ful at times to watch Liza than it was to watch Fred­die him­self,” he said. “You found th the in­spi­ra­tion and birth of th those move­ments.”

11. All of this hap­pened be­fore the th film was even green­lighted. ed Malek wanted to be pre­pared pa if the film was a go, which wh turned out to be a wise move. mo The first scene shot was a ar re-en­act­ment of Queen’s ap­pear­ance pea at Live Aid in 1985, con­sid­ered con 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.

12. 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.

Rami Malek as Fred­die Mer­cury in Bo­hemian Rhap­sody. (Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Fox)

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