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