HE WILL ROCK YOU

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - BO­HEMIAN RHAP­SODY IS IN CINEMAS FROM 24 OC­TO­BER

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.

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