In a central London hotel room, actor American-Egyptian Rami Malek, who can’t sing to save his life, is explaining to Radio Times how he was the right man to play one of the all-time great British rock stars: Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen.
But who is Rami Malek? And how did he win the role of a lifetime in new film Bohemian Rhapsody? We sat down with the Mr Robot actor to discuss Mercury, music — and how his Malek’s jawline snagged him the part…
- Watch Queen come up with their greatest hits for Bohemian Rhapsody trailer
- When is Bohemian Rhapsody released in the UK? What’s it about and who stars in it?
Who is Rami Malek?
Rami Malek, 37, is probably best known for his Emmy-winning role as Elliot, a cybersecurity expert and hacker suffering from social anxiety and clinical depression, on TV series Mr Robot.
You might also recognise him for playing Ahkmenrah in the Night at the Museum franchise.
On Queen’s legendary frontman Freddie Mercury, Malek says he “identified with his story,” as he drew parallels between his own background, as an American-Eygptian, and that of Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, Tanzania, to Indian parents.
How did he win the role of Freddie Mercury?
It was the parallel between Malek and Mercury’s backgrounds — and Malek’s jawline — that helped him secure the role.
Recalling an early meeting with Bohemian Rhapsody producer Graham King, Malek says, “One thing I would say to Graham is: this isn’t the heart of the story, but let’s look at Freddie’s identity, and what makes this man.”
He adds, “Here’s a guy with a Parsi background, born in Zanzibar, gets shipped off to Bombay for school. Then when he returns from school, the country is in the midst of a revolution, and his family flees to England. Farrokh Bulsara has to become Freddie Mercury, with an affected accent and everything, come hell or high water! That’s a very unique upbringing.”
Malek, expressive and animated, spreads his hands in wonder. “So, my family: Coptic Christian, a minority among Muslims in Egypt, who went to Los Angeles seeking a better life. I don’t know that either of our parents, Freddie’s or mine, would have wanted us to get involved in this type of career,” he grins. “But they just had a couple of kids who were hellbent on doing what they wanted.
“Yeah, I could identify with that majorly. So, I walked into Graham’s office and said: ‘Listen, I’m not a singer. I don’t play piano. I’m not a dancer – I mean, I got rhythm, maybe. And I’m not British! But what I do have is a jawline. Hire me now!” he laughs.
How was Bohemian Rhapsody filmed?
Malek was the third actor to be lined up the role of Mercury, following Sacha Baron-Cohen — first cast when the project was announced in 2010 — and Ben Whishaw, cast around 2013 alongside a new director, Dexter Fletcher.
By early 2016 Whishaw and Fletcher had abdicated the project. Cue a new script (by Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten, from an early draft by The Crown’s Peter Morgan), a new director (X-Men supremo Bryan Singer) and a new Freddie: Malek.
Production finally got under way in the UK last year, only for director Singer to leave the project two-thirds of the way into filming. Enter, again, Dexter Fletcher, to finish shooting.
Bohemian Rhapsody begins and ends with Queen’s legendary performance at Live Aid in 1985, so it doesn’t dwell on Mercury’s decline and death, in 1991, at the age of 45, of Aids-related illness. But his drug and alcohol abuse, homosexuality and promiscuity, while not foregrounded, are certainly not airbrushed from the story. What could have been a sanitised karaoke jukebox musical, well, just isn’t.
“He’s a very, very naughty boy at times,” says Malek. “And you’d be doing a disservice to him if you didn’t portray that. But I don’t think we’re saying: ‘Here’s our debauchery documentary.’”
The Live Aid performance was faithfully re-created, right down to the stadium itself (albeit tricked out with CGI), at Bovingdon Airfield in Hertfordshire. No spine should go untingled as you watch Malek lead the watching “thousands” in Radio Ga Ga.
“Look,” he says, “those guys were one of the only bands on that day, one, to rehearse, multiple times, and two, as Brian May said, ‘Play the hits, stupid.’ They knew how to play to a stadium. And Freddie could find anyone in the audience – I felt he could really see all the way to the back and lock eyes with them.”
Bohemian Rhapsody is in cinemas now