Rami Malek, Catching Mercury
Rami Malek dans la peau de Freddie Mercury.
Rami Malek, révélé au grand public grâce à son rôle dans la série Mr. Robot, est ce mois-ci à l’affiche du film Bohemian Rhapsody, qui retrace la carrière du groupe britannique Queen. Pour son premier grand rôle au cinéma, l’acteur américain interprète Freddie Mercury, le charismatique leader du groupe de rock légendaire. Comment s’est-il imprégné de son personnage ?
Los Angeles — 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.
CRAVING FOR PRIVACY
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.
RISING TO FAME
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 compelled an executive producer on the Queen project to come knocking.
8. Of course the part carried enormous risk; bad biopics 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. “It was almost more useful at times to watch Liza than it was to watch Freddie himself,” he said. “You found the inspiration and birth of those movements.”
11. All of this happened before the film was even greenlighted. Malek wanted to be prepared if the film was a go, which turned out to be a wise move. The first scene shot was a re-enactment of Queen’s appearance at Live Aid in 1985, considered 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.