He Will Rock You (He Hopes)

Posted September 13, 2018 1:41 p.m. EDT

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. He had twitched, hugged himself, crossed and uncrossed his legs, scratched his arms and jiggled at a terrific frequency that suggested advanced jitters or vast amounts of caffeine. What had all that been about?

Malek replied that his nervous energy was par for the course, that it once caused someone to ask, “Is Rami OK?” “I have my flourishes,” he continued, then threw me a sly grin. “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.

Attempts were definitely made. Was Malek, who was raised Coptic and went to Catholic school, still religious? “That’s such a personal issue,” he deflected. How does he decompress during production of “Mr. Robot,” in which he plays the paranoid protagonist Elliot Alderson? “It’s so personal!” Malek, who is 37, exclaimed, revealing only that he unwound in his “own private way.”

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,” which is to be released Nov. 2. “It’s nice to be able to own privacy, some bit of anonymity,” Malek said. “That’s a Freddie thing.”

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.

“What you see in the moment is what you get,” Malek said. “It’s up to him to decide.”

“Bohemian Rhapsody” comes to the screen after a decade of fits and starts, with plenty of infighting and a rotating cast of key players. 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.

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.

Dexter Fletcher was tapped to direct, then left the project. Bryan Singer took over, until he was fired late last year, with scant weeks of shooting left, for failing to show up on set. (Singer said he had to tend to one of his parents, who was ill.) He and Malek had also quarreled at times, which Malek was elusive about — “there were artistic differences,” he said — and that King scoffed at when asked. “You’re making a film at this level, there’s always tension,” King said. Fletcher ended up directing for the last leg of production, but, per Directors Guild of America rules, will not get a directing credit.

The reaction to the early trailers for the film has meant that the drama around it would not soon die. Glimpses of Malek’s sinuous embodiment of Mercury overlaid with the singer’s soaring voice left some fans in tears, while others fretted that Mercury’s queerness — he was closeted — might have been “straight-washed.” “It’s nothing we don’t address,” Malek said, “That’s another thing our film is good about. I don’t think it’s exploitative or salacious.”

Either way, the film will open to heaps of anticipation, with much of the weight resting on Malek, who had to work through conflicts of his own before throwing himself into the role. 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. His parents dreamed of him becoming a lawyer, until a high school debate teacher told him he was more adept at dramatic interpretation than verbal sparring.

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.

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.

He also learned that Malek was rarely satisfied with his work, even after finishing what Esmail felt had been a perfect take. The actor kept wanting to add a different shade or nuance, even though it wore him out.

“I don’t want to leave until I know it’s been executed as best as possible,” Malek said. “I know my limits, but I do reach them quite a bit.”

“Mr. Robot” would prove a hit, making Malek a star and an Emmy winner. (The series will end after its coming fourth season.) And it eventually compelled an executive producer on the Queen project to come knocking.

The prospect of portraying Mercury delighted Malek but also kicked up qualms. He said he believed there was something utterly naive about those who thought that they could depict a real person on-screen. “Why would you want to alter anyone’s perception of their hero?” he recalled wondering.

The reason, he decided, would be to tell parts of Mercury’s story that weren’t widely known — his shyness, his struggle to find his identity, his aching loneliness — and to make younger people aware of the man, and band, behind songs like “We Will Rock You” that still echo through sports arenas worldwide.

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.

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.

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.”

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. “No one wants to hear me sing,” Malek said. But he had to, at the top of his lungs, in front of the cast and crew for every onstage scene.

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.

Watching the film, I sometimes forgot, too, and found myself among those left nostalgic and misty-eyed by Malek’s onstage scenes. I also found myself asking him to do a Freddie strut, or pose, or anything, something I had never wanted to ask of an actor before. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised when he demurred.

Malek said he had never devoted himself as intensely to anything as this role. But, he said, “I can’t be Freddie-on-command for the rest of my life, right?”