Mer­cury ris­ing The Queen front­man is Rami Malek’s most chal­leng­ing role

The Observer Magazine - - News - Pho­to­graphs AN­DREW WOFFINDEN

Rami Malek, the Cal­i­for­nian ac­tor, says: “I don’t know man. I guess I’m an un­usual hu­man be­ing.” It’s an af­ter­noon in Hyde Park and we’ve been talk­ing about the 37-year-old’s ex­tremely odd walk, a see­saw­ing, twitchy-limbed zigzag – just all over the place – that has been mak­ing ours less a stroll around the Lon­don park than a ca­reen. Malek, not yet so well known in this coun­try, but with a size­able pro­file back home thanks to his lead role in the US TV drama Mr Ro­bot , is two days re­moved from wrap­ping the big­gest job of his life so far – as Fred­die Mer­cury in Bo­hemian Rhap­sody, an up­com­ing band biopic about Queen.

At first I as­sume this is the rea­son for the wild walk. Maybe he hasn’t yet shaken off his in­ten­sive phys­i­cal coach­ing for that film? But no, the ac­tor says, this jaggedy lope is all him. “It’s quite stac­cato, isn’t it? There’s a lit­tle swing in my step… Of course, Fred­die had a very par­tic­u­lar gait him­self.”

Malek grew up a Queen fan. So when the chance fell to him to play the role of the band’s late lamented front­man in a Hol­ly­wood movie, Malek says he felt it in his gut: “I must do this.” But you won­der what he was think­ing, the ca­reer tick­ing along quite nicely with the TV work, to ac­tu­ally say yes to this thing.

The idea of mak­ing a Queen movie was first an­nounced way back in 2010, since when it has be­come one of the most trou­bled un­der­tak­ings in Hol­ly­wood, no­to­ri­ous long be­fore it even reached the edit. At least two high-pro­file Bri­tish ac­tors, Sacha Baron Co­hen and Ben Whishaw, came and went from the Fred­die role be­fore Malek signed on. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, a script by Peter Mor­gan ( The Queen, The Crown) was com­mis­sioned but af­ter Co­hen pulled out, he left the project. Word was that David Fincher would di­rect, then Tom Hooper, un­til even­tu­ally the scan­dal-plagued Bryan Singer came aboard – only to go overboard mid-shoot af­ter tales of ter­ri­ble fights with the cast. Even­tu­ally the stu­dio an­nounced Dex­ter Fletcher as his suc­ces­sor – the fol­low­ing day Singer was hit with a sex­ual as­sault law­suit, which he strongly de­nies.

Con­sid­er­ing all this I sup­pose it would be a mir­a­cle if to­day, 48 hours af­ter fin­ish­ing on set, Malek didn’t seem a bit twitchy, a bit stac­cato. He is pro­fes­sional and diplo­matic in his dis­cus­sion about Bo­hemian Rhap­sody, pal­pa­bly proud of his work on it. But I still have to ask, what was he think­ing, say­ing yes? Malek grins. “Kind of the gun-tothe-head mo­ment,” he says. “What do you do? And I like to think if it’s a fight or flight sit­u­a­tion, I’m go­ing to fight . The scari­est en­deav­ours that I’ve cho­sen to take in my life have been the most ful­fill­ing and re­ward­ing. And this has proven to de­fend that equa­tion.”

Smooth-cheeked, slight, so youth­ful that he’s only re­cently stopped be­ing ID-ed in bars, Malek is an Egyp­tianAmer­i­can with “good genes, I guess. I’ve got a sis­ter who’s an ER doc­tor and her pa­tients con­stantly think she’s too young to be there.” In con­ver­sa­tion he’s a la­conic talker, a drawler even, but his word choice is never lazy and he’ll some­times pick an un­fea­si­ble route through a sen­tence to avoid be­ing clichéd. (“An at­tempt at cap­tur­ing an essence for who­ever wants to take that leap,” is what he’ll say, in­stead of “act­ing”).

If Bo­hemian Rhap­sody is a movie al­ready tor­tured by bad de­ci­sion-mak­ing, the cast­ing of Malek might be a stroke of bril­liance. In terms of verve and per­sonal ec­cen­tric­ity there has been a clever pair­ing of ac­tor and sub­ject here. While we walk, his fo­cus roves all over the place, on trees, on traf­fic, on a cou­ple of French tourists who’ve recog­nised him from Mr Ro­bot and are fol­low­ing at a short dis­tance. When they catch up and make a shy ap­proach, Malek takes the ini­tia­tive – bow­ing from the waist and say­ing: “En­chanté.”

Our walk takes us out of the park and past a restau­rant in May­fair where, not long ago, Malek had din­ner with Brian May (May and Queen’s other sur­viv­ing mem­bers are co-pro­duc­ers on Bo­hemian Rhap­sody.) They bumped into Ray Davies that night, Malek re­calls, and when May in­vited the Kinks front­man to join them to eat, the con­ver­sa­tion turned to the two old rock­ers’ mem­o­ries of Fred­die Mer­cury. Malek sat there, rapt, ab­sorb­ing what he could about “the im­pres­sion Fred­die had on peo­ple. How he could be alone at home and be quiet and re­served and, as he some­times re­ferred to him­self, quite bor­ing . And then ex­ist in such a pow­er­ful way on stage. The one thing that kept com­ing up was how gen­er­ous he was. How he could make you feel you were the most im­por­tant per­son in the room.”

A cou­ple of years ago, af­ter he’d left this pro­duc­tion, Sacha Baron Co­hen gave an in­ter­view in which he ex­plained that it was the chance to ex­plore Mer­cury’s darker side that made the idea of a biopic ap­peal­ing. “There are amaz­ing sto­ries,” Baron Co­hen told Howard Stern in 2016, “the guy was wild… There are sto­ries of lit­tle peo­ple with plates of co­caine on their heads walk­ing around a party.” Baron Co­hen’s sug­ges­tion was that he left the film be­cause of his un­ease at the prick­lier stuff be­ing left out. He went on to tell a cruel story about how the sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the band did not be­lieve that any movie about Queen should cul­mi­nate at the point of Mer­cury’s death, in 1991; in­stead they thought a bet­ter movie would carry on to ‹

Screen idol: (clock­wise from top) Rami Malek stars as Fred­die Mer­cury in Bo­hemian Rhap­sody; in Mr Ro­bot; and with the Emmy he won for that role

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