HE WILL ROCK YOU
Oh, we’re FUCKED!” Rami Malek shouts above the noise. Then he grins, looks around the pub — the big screen, the bustle — and immediately offers to do another interview, another time, in another place, if the recording of this one doesn’t come out. “But if England win,” he adds, “you won’t mind listening to this over and over again!”
Ah, football. It’s the hope that kills you.
That Rami Malek is a fan of the beautiful game is a surprise. Not because he’s American or an actor, but because of the nature of the role that brought him to prominence: doe-eyed cybertech/anarchic digital messiah Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot, Amazon’s prescient portrayal of a world riven by dark money and digital terror. In the opening of Season 2, watching basketball, Elliot narrates in a flat, medicated drawl: “I still don’t understand why people like sports. They get so emotional over the weirdest things. But I do see the beauty in the rules. The invisible code of chaos hiding behind the menacing face of order.”
And, yes, we know he’s acting, but it’s such a complete performance — so distinct, so fully realised — that it’s hard not to expect Malek himself to be tightly wound or deeply serious. Finding out he likes football is like discovering Sir Ben Kingsley likes beer pong (NB: we have not discovered that Sir Ben Kingsley likes beer pong). Yet here we are in an East London boozer in July, watching England play Croatia for a place in the World Cup final, and in person Malek isn’t half as intense. He carries the amused air of someone mildly mystified at his success. There’s a lot of laughter in his voice. He is, though, particularly present. A key to good acting — and the secret to projecting charisma — is listening. And Malek is a great listener. He somehow manages to be both laid-back and entirely on.
It’s something he excels at on screen: holding contradictory characteristics or emotions within a show, a scene, a moment. In Mr. Robot he is both adorable and unsettling, within seconds. How both sides are held in balance is quite a feat. Picking up the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in 2016 — beating, among others, Kevin Spacey — he talked of playing a “profoundly alienated” person. “And the unfortunate thing is I’m not sure how many of us would like to hang out with a guy like Elliot. But I want to honour the Elliots, right, ’cause there’s a little bit of Elliot in all of us, isn’t there?”
This is true, on both counts. Elliot’s damage makes him dangerous. But we are all damaged. Malek captures that and has carried it through three seasons to date, the heart that keeps us pumping through the sometimes bewilderingly complicated plot. In a digital conspiracy show, he is an empathy machine.PERHAPS IT’S THAT QUALITY
that earned him the part of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of the legendary Queen frontman we’re here to discuss: the capacity to make us feel, despite uncertainty — and the capacity to be two people at once. Mercury was one of the most iconic, and complex, of music stars. A foppish English eccentric, he was actually from Zanzibar (now Tanzania). A stadium-rock hero embraced by the mainstream, he was a gay man who grew up in an age when homosexuality was illegal, only coming out to his then-girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton in the film) in 1976. There were two people here: Farrokh Bulsara, the quiet boy raised at an Indian boarding school, trying to find his place in the world, and Freddie Mercury, the rock god. The journalist Lesley-ann Jones, in her biography of Mercury, recalls chatting to him in a pub in Switzerland in 1986 — there for a gig, he enjoyed it as a place he could be anonymous, relative to the celebrity frenzy he faced in London. “He seemed quite small, and endearingly boyish,” Jones wrote. “I wanted to take him home, stick him in a hot bath, get my mum to cook him a roast.”
Malek isn’t suffering that level of celebrity yet — at least, not in England. One punter requests a photo and another wants to talk about Queen. But mostly everyone is absorbed by what’s on screen. “You never know the day it’s going to happen,” Malek says. “Some days you can’t get through the street and some
days people care much more about football than they do about Rami Malek!”
Malek is 37. But he discovered football, properly, as a 13-year-old, living in Los Angeles, California, with his parents: Egyptian émigrés, his dad sold insurance, his mum was an accountant, his older sister became a doctor, his twin brother a teacher. In 1994 the World Cup came to America. “And it just fascinated me,” he recalls. “Because my family is like the UN: I have family in France, here in London, Australia, obviously Egypt, Colombia, Greece. So everyone gets together, puts their football jersey on — or just has whatever their national drink is.” It was a little after this — after Baggio’s skied penalty, Brazil’s triumph — that Malek discovered his own goal: acting.
He was in high-school debate class. Except... debating wasn’t his jam. There were other elements you could explore, though, in ‘Humorous Or Dramatic Interpretation’. One of his teachers sized him up and said, “I think the dramatic would be good for you.” He gave Malek a play, Zooman And The Sign — Charles Fuller’s Obie-winning story about a Philadelphia family and community ravaged by the murder of a 12-yearold girl. (In the original 1980 stage production the title character was played by Giancarlo Esposito. In the audience was a young, aspiring filmmaker: Spike Lee. Esposito went on to appear in multiple Lee joints, including Do The Right Thing. Malek has worked with Lee twice, on Oldboy and Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus.)
In class, Malek opened the play and read, as he remembers, “My name is Zooman, zee double oh, M-A-N. I’m from the bottom!” He went home and devoured the drama, cover to cover, then performed part of it at school and saw how it affected his parents. “There was a connection there that would last with me for a long time,” he says. “The exchange between myself and the audience in front of me. It was just powerful and palpable.”
He’s been running after that feeling ever since. He motions to the big screen. “I look at football like another art. It’s like there’s an opera going on. At their finest, it’s like watching an orchestra. This is a stage, essentially, for them. You get that moment when you’re actually doing what you’ve wanted to do all your life. It’s a rush of adrenaline, like no other. I suppose that brings me back to why we keep chasing it.”
DESPITE THAT RUSH, THERE HAVE BEEN
moments when he’s considered quitting acting. “Oh yeah, more than one.” There was a time when he explored getting a real-estate licence. That’s right: Rami Malek could have been an estate agent. “When you’re young everything is very hit and miss and it makes you very leery if it’s ever going to be stable.” In 2009, snaring the role of Snafu in the Spielberg-produced World War II series The Pacific put alternate career ideas to bed. But it was intimidating and gruelling playing one of the Greatest Generation, someone who experienced such suffering but was capable of great cruelty. Another apparent contradiction: decency and degeneracy, within one body. But while The Pacific showcased his abilities, it didn’t make him anything like a star. Mainstream bit-parts — Battleship, a Twilight, various Nights At The Museum — kept the wolf (or estate agency) from the door, while working with Paul Thomas Anderson on The Master and David Lowery on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints showed there could be more leftfield, interesting opportunities. He was very good in Short Term 12, as a rookie
social worker being helped by Brie Larson, again pulling off a tricky balance, between complacent outsider and kind-hearted idealist.
It was Mr. Robot, though, that changed everything. Shameless star Emmy Rossum recommended him to show creator Sam Esmail, who she was dating (they are now married), having seem him in The Pacific. Malek auditioned and Esmail was wowed by how he brought “vulnerability and this warmth” to a potentially cold character. The pair clicked, to an extraordinary extent. Esmail has directed every episode since Season 2 and Malek’s admiration for him is clear. (The pair are also planning to make a feature together, an adaptation of the non-fiction book American Radical: Inside The World Of An Undercover Muslim FBI Agent,
probably after the fourth and final series of Mr. Robot.) “That’s a guy who has had an incredible, indelible impact on my work ethic. He’s just trying to elevate everything to its full capacity.”
Malek was probably already somewhat obsessive, prone to immersing himself in roles to an extreme degree — “when I am in I am all
in” — and he wishes he was better at switching off. “Adrenaline is probably coursing through me a bit too often, especially while shooting a film like Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Filming was, as has been widely reported, not without its problems. Director Bryan Singer was fired near the end of production. The studio, 20th
Century Fox, first suspended filming citing Singer’s “unexpected unavailability”, then terminated his services. A Hollywood Reporter story suggested it was due to erratic behaviour and absences from set, leading to conflict with Malek. The director denied that their clashes were the reason for his firing, while admitting in a statement that “at times we did have creative differences”.
“Right,” says Malek, when this is raised. “Yeah...” He reaches for words. “Yeah, we did... We definitely had artistic differences...” His tone suggests he finds the understatement amusing. “All I ever wanted to do was honour Freddie and present some aspects of who he was. I know I’m never going to be Freddie Mercury — that’s a losing game, right? But, in trying to get as close as you can to emulating someone, in doing the work, I felt I had a decent handle on who he was. It’s healthy to have your own opinions. That’s why I’m so drawn to this: it is the collaboration of so many different artists coalescing to create something that is beyond just one of them. When it becomes about one person on set, that’s a problem.”
Eddie The Eagle director Dexter Fletcher was hired to complete filming — “It was great to have him step in” — and Malek kept going whatever his frustrations. “The duty I felt to Mr Mercury would get me through every day, no matter what the situation,” he recalls. “Often I’d think, ‘What would Freddie do?’”
PLAYING FREDDIE MERCURY BRINGS WITH
it a certain weight. Malek knows what he means to people. “But I just had to keep reminding myself, ‘You’re not him, you don’t have to be him, you just have to shed some light on the man.’ I think giving myself a break might have been a bit harder when I was younger. If you haven’t been down those dark roads before, or those moments when everything feels like it’s crashing down upon you, it can be quite heartbreaking for the first time. But because I’ve pulled through on some tough roles, despite my own inner secretary telling me I would disappoint... It’s nice to be a bit longer in the tooth and be able to quiet those voices a little bit better.” He smiles. “I sound like Elliot.”
He talks fondly of the bond he formed with his
Bohemian Rhapsody co-stars — from Boynton to his bandmates, Ben Hardy (as drummer Roger Taylor), Gwilym Lee (as Brian May) and his old friend, and The Pacific co-star, Joe Mazzello (as bassist John Deacon). “People always say that a cast gets incredibly close. But especially during this film, there was something that united us.” He’s meeting a couple of them after the interview, to watch the second half of the England match. “They’re the ones who have introduced me to pub culture the most. And, boy, have they.”
That probably explains why Malek feels so comfortable here. He loves London — “I could see myself living here” — and as much as he talks with passion about his work, he’s also great company. He’ll often break off an answer so we can focus on the football — “Sorry, I don’t want you to miss anything” — and delights in the TV commentary. “I love hearing the word ‘dispossessed’ in a football match! I want someone to give me that note as an actor: ‘In this moment you are dispossessed.’ I can do dispossessed.”
Bohemian Rhapsody is only his second film lead, following Netflix picture Buster’s Mal Heart — an esoteric odyssey that wrestles with grief and apocalyptic fears and sees him play multiple characters, in another story of a fractured psyche. It’s a deeply unusual and thoughtful film, one that wouldn’t exist unless a star agreed to do it. And finding a star who would engage with that material is rare. “If I think anybody else can do it, I’m usually not drawn to it!” he explains. “You know what I mean? As much as I’ve wanted to do this job for so long, I’ve never been someone who feels like I have to go from one thing to the next. I’m sitting here next to you talking to you because I got to play Freddie Mercury in a film. That in and of itself: that’s the mic drop, right? Well, the half-mic drop…”
That’s a reference to Mercury’s tendency to brandish half of a microphone stand on stage, just one of the singer’s traits that Malek studied intently. At half-time, at the end of our planned interview, he’s engaged in conversation by Andy — the biggest Queen fan at our table — and motions for us to turn the recorder back on, explaining how he played Mercury over a 15-year period, the weight fluctuations it required, the challenge of preparing for the incredible Live Aid performance, about how Freddie was formed and how he tried to understand him. But then he really does have to go, or he’s going to miss the second half with his bandmates. We head outside. It’s a bright, summer evening. England are still in the World Cup — perhaps later we’ll all be singing ‘We Are The Champions’. The actor is bubbly, invigorated by chatting about Freddie — the immigrant who became an English icon, the shy man spectacular on stage, the rock star you wanted to take home to mum.
“He could be very posh. He could be very camp. That’s the beauty of him,” Malek sums up. “He could convince you of anything.”
Top to bottom:
As boy racer Finn in Need For Speed
(2014); Gothed-up as Browning in 2013’s Oldboy;
As Ahkmenrah in Night At The Museum (2006), alongside Ben Stiller and Patrick Gallagher; With Charlie Hunnam in 2017’s escaping-convicts drama Papillon.
Clockwise frommain: Rami Malek — a step up from the rest; Elliot (Malek) with Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) in Mr. Robot; Malek channels Freddie Mercury alongside Gwilym Lee as Brian May in Bohemian Rhapsody.