Rami Malek on why playing Freddie Mercury changed him from Queen “fan to fanatic”
It seems like an impossible task, playing Freddie Mercury, but Rami Malek accepted knowing the result would be either victory or defeat. And nothing in between.
Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, and Gwilym Lee
November 2nd, 2018
We caught up with the 37-year-old star of this month’s Bohemian Rhapsody, about Mercury and his rock band Queen, at London’s Soho Hotel. In a sharp-looking suit, and with a stylishly short haircut, Malek — who owns an Emmy thanks to his performance on TV’s "Mr. Robot" — seems like a bit of an introvert, moulding his answers slowly and intensely in that deep voice of his. Nothing about the man who was born and bred in L.A. reminds you of the legendary, flamboyant frontman for Queen, one of Britain’s most popular, revolutionary and important music groups.
That’s when you realize how good an actor he is. Because when you see Malek on screen as Mercury, you feel he is nothing but the right choice for this part.
What did it take to become Freddie Mercury? My impression is that you’re nothing like him.
I guess so. Well, one, I don’t think that I ever became him. That’s where I thought I would set myself up for disappointment if I ever said, “I’m going to be Freddie Mercury.” That would end up in some mimicry of him. I thought the only way to do this properly is to capture the essence of the man. You know, it can be very daunting looking at one of the most beloved musicians of all time, an icon for the ages on stage, watching full-length concerts of what he could do, how he could captivate and hold an audience. It can leave you with a feeling of impending doom. So I had to circumnavigate that somehow.
And how did you manage to do that?
I said, “What can you do to investigate a human being?” And just go about it the same way you would when playing a fictitious character.
What did you find out about his essence?
I don’t want to use the word, but he is quite mercurial. There is no single version of him. It’s an amalgamation of many different characteristics. He’s quite a complicated guy. He can be very shy, timid and emotional. And then he can be brash and volatile and the kindest, sweetest human being. He was a complete perfectionist and a competitor. And he can also hold you in the palm of his hand as an audience member and elevate you to the same iconic status that you feel for him in one song.
The physical part, his body language, seems to be very important. How did you prepare for that?
That’s true. I watched as much material of him as possible. And I think if there is something on Freddie Mercury that I haven’t seen, I’ll be astonished. Though I’m still looking. I’m as or maybe even more fascinated with him now than I ever have been. I mean, the film is over and I’m still looking for footage. I’m as captivated by it as any audience member is.
So playing him made you a fan?
I always was a fan, but not to the degree I am now. I went from fan to fanatic, I think.
How did that happen?
Because I got so connected to his humanity, his identity and his crisis as a human being, trying to discover who he was and come to terms with so many aspects of his life. He was bullied as a child, being called “Bucky” for those teeth. That was his name in school. Aside from that having a very tumultuous upbringing, living in Zanzibar, going to Bombay for school, coming home to a revolution and having to go to London, discovering that he could sing and play the piano. And then to be able to share that in an environment that was so wild, to say the least. He calls it an upheaval living upbringing. You start to really appreciate him and his humanity. So I felt this connection that you get while trying to interpret a human being. I guess I developed some affection for him. It’s like trying to find a long lost friend somehow.
At what point did you think, “I know what he’s feeling”?
Who doesn’t try to understand the complexities of their makeup? Why we do the things we do and who we are. And I think everyone in life has asked themselves, questioned his sexuality at one point. And he just dives right into these questions, and I can relate to that. Give me a job about a human being I find interesting and I’ll go all in. I guess that’s where I could find some of the gravitas, flamboyance and larger than life quality that he emits. It reminds me of my personal ability to go for the things that I want in life. Acting has been one of them. I may come off as a shy and introverted person if you don’t know me. But as an actor I can show it all and, in a way, at the same time show nothing [laughs]. But there has to be some of me in everything I do, I think.
How did you let go after playing him?
This was a very difficult one to walk away from. And, as I said, I’m still searching for him in a way.
How did you become yourself again?
Well, if you look at it, it’s a new self, right? Because he changed me. I’m a different person because of him. And I appreciate that.
In what way?
He’s had the effect on me that I think he has on many people. I think there is a sense of courage, bravery and absolute determination that I find incredibly inspiring. And I hope if I can walk away with anything, it’s to be infected with some of that.
What was it like to meet the rest of the band for the first time?
I was never going to show up and think they were going to be immediately accepting. I mean, it’s a very close, dear friend of theirs, that they cherish and never want to tarnish the image of him in any way. And I don’t mean to portray him in a negative light, just for anyone not to get it right. I understand the protection of their mate. So I went in apprehensive of course, but open. And they hadn’t seen any footage of mine yet, which I did not know. So I met them feeling a bit comfortable, because I was at least pleased of what we had done in the recording studio, where we videotaped a kind of audition tape for them. But it wasn’t downloaded. About halfway through our conversation I realized that that ball was dropped. That sent me into a little bit of a panic. But Brian [May, lead guitarist] was very encouraging and became a real friend I hope to stay in contact with for the rest of my life. I don’t know if I could have done it without him and Roger [Taylor, drums].
What is your favourite Queen song after playing Freddie?
“You Take My Breath Away.” It is an astonishing piece of poetry. And when you sing it, and it doesn’t hit you, man, you don’t have a heartbeat.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a must-see for music lovers.
Who isn't a fan of Queen? Watching this movie will remind you of all of the iconic songs and moments in Freddie Mercury's legendary career. Try *not* singing along with the film, we bet it will be difficult. After the movie is over, you'll be itching to listen to Queen on repeat for the next few weeks.