RAMI Malek is a changed man. And he thanks rock god Freddie Mercury for it.
“He is revered. You can use the term icon, or god, somewhat a deity, superhuman in a way,” Malek says about the late lead singer of rock outfit Queen whom he embodies in the upcoming biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.
“Unlike many famous people, there is something about Freddie that lives up to the term Rock God.”
The film charts Mercury’s career from an upstart teenager, smart-talking his way into an early incarnation of the band, to giving the performance of his life at 1985’s Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium, knowing he was HIV positive.
There is already early Oscar-buzz around Malek’s portrayal of the tortured musician who died from AIDS-related causes in London in 1991.
Aware of the challenges ahead of him to live up to Mercury’s legacy, and with some earlier reservations, he threw himself into incredibly detailed preparation for the role. He studied every nuance in existing footage of Mercury’s performances and interviews; perfecting his speaking voice and presence.
“So, of course, that is daunting and I questioned it,” Malek tells U on Sunday while in Australia for a quick promotional tour. “No reason to go and destroy your career,” he adds, interrupting himself with a throaty chuckle, “by setting out on doing something which might seem foolish.
“There’s a part of me that also wanted to bring the story to a new generation. And I like a challenge and I accepted the challenge.
“I tried to be as detailed as possible. But also I wanted not to be conscious of it, so that on the day, to have it exist somewhere in the fabric of the performance.”
Malek, 37, is known the recurring role of Pharaoh Ahkmenrah in the Night At The Museum films; and as Elliot in Mr Robot, for which he won an Emmy Award for outstanding lead actor in a drama series.
His awkward, angular attractiveness – wide-eyed, and wider jawed – made him an obvious choice to play Mercury.
Over the phone Malek’s marble-rumble of a voice is low and purred and carries a genuine warmth. His eloquent responses are peppered with self-effacement and he comes across as intelligent, measured and humble.
He pauses when asked if he took a personal lesson away from playing Mercury, about how to navigate his own career.
“Yes, I will say yes,” he answers after giving the question consideration, “I think it is not to lose sight of things that are really important. People are bringing up awards and things like that, and I think to myself, I got to play Freddie Mercury in a major motion picture about his life and the band Queen – I should be thanking my lucky stars.
“(Mercury’s) family has a really resounding message of not losing sight of very important things like family, friendship and, you know, inclusivity.”
And this is where he reveals Bohemian Rhapsody significantly changed his life.
“It’s made me more of an activist, I would say, and possibly more of a family man,” Malek says. “After filming I got to go to Africa, to Swaziland, and work with (charity) organisations and just see the impact of what the Global Fund does down there.
“My mind and heart were open to so much that still needs to be fulfilled. Freddie Mercury has a trust called the Mercury Phoenix Trust which does great work as well. And I want to try and devote more
time to doing those things other than just solely being an entertainer.”
Mercury, and his too-short-life, has also inspired Malek to set goals.
“I’ve always had a directing itch, and a writing itch, and I think I’m really going to run with that a little bit faster than I have in the past,” he says.
“You get one shot on this earth – and that is a message that is very resonant in this film – and I’m going to do what I can with the time that I’ve got.”
Specifically, he says, to make projects that not only entertain, but are progressive.
“Ones that move the needle forward for people who feel in any way marginalised,” he says. “And that’s one thing Freddie did do so well. There was this refusal to be segregated into any particular category; in essence he was a revolutionary in spearheading some campaign for inclusivity.
“And I’ll follow in those footsteps.”
Born in Los Angeles into an Egyptian Coptic Orthodox family, Malek has a twin brother, Sami, and an older sister, Yasmine, an ER doctor. His late father once worked as a tour guide in Cairo, Egypt, while his mother is an accountant.
Sami Malek, born a few minutes before Rami, holds a double major in American Literature And Culture and African-American Studies from UCLA, as well as a Master Of Arts in Secondary English Studies. He now teaches English and literature at STEM Academy of Hollywood. Rami has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Evansville.
Both the brothers seemed to be headed for the stage, until Sami made the choice to be an educator. In Bohemian Rhapsody, Mercury’s major life decisions are examined as to the good or bad that came of them, and the lessons he did or didn’t learn.
The Malek twins, however, have no reservations about their “sliding door” moment and are proud of each other’s work.
“He auditioned with me for theatre school,” Rami says of Sami, “The university I went to wanted to accept us, with the commitment of both of us going together. And he passed. (Sami) had other things he wanted to do with his life.
“And to get in and teach kids every day is something that I can be quite jealous of as well. There’s a lovely balance there of appreciation in what we each get to do.”
Rami says for him, though, there was never much doubt he would go into acting.
“I don’t think there was ever an option,” he laughs. “When there is something present inside of you that is burning the way that it is, it’s really hard to detonate that.
“I just enjoyed it. Making a commitment to go study drama in university was a pretty big turning point, but even then that was fraught with competition, and the fear of never being able to actually work outside of that field.
“Even for the plays in college, you’re still auditioning there and it can be quite competitive. It was something that perhaps thickened my skin before getting out into the actual real-life competition of New York acting and Los Angeles acting.”
Once in work, Malek never shied away from the challenges of his craft; something he first encountered on boot camp outside Port Douglas in northern Queensland, preparing for his role as Private Merriell “Snafu” Shelton in The Pacific mini-series.
He describes it as “one of the toughest things” he has ever been through.
“At one point, they trained a Japanese army of actors – something I didn’t even know was going on – and they assaulted us, our regiment, in the middle of the night, at 3am,” he says.
“Now that will put the fear of death in you.
“It was very serious; but (Steven) Spielberg and (Tom) Hanks wanted to tell a story, and they were going to tell it in a very, very visceral way.”
In his Emmy acceptance speech for the TV series Mr Robot, Malek touched on the mind-bending intricacies of playing the hoodie-wearing Elliot Alderson; another role which requires intense characterisation and physical commitment.
“Please tell me you’re seeing this too,” he deadpanned at the ceremony in 2016, adding that there is a “little bit” of the profoundly alienated character in all of us.
For Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek took things to another level.
To perfect his character’s “look”, he even wore
dental prosthetics to accentuate his own pronounced teeth to better resemble Mercury, who boasted of being born with four extra incisors on his upper jaw. In terms of his singing and instrument-playing prowess, Malek half-teases that he gave the film’s producers fair warning.
“The one thing I said right off the bat to our producers; I said, listen, I’ve never touched a piano, I don’t consider myself a singer or a dancer, but I can learn things,” he says.
“I think they just thought, well, we have a modest actor on our hands. I kept kind of reputing it. Kept warning them! But it is not easy singing in front of an audience when you’re not trained. I took as many vocal lessons as possible from the time I had to prepare.”
The film credits Mercury with all the singing in the film, although the reality is a blend of Mercury and Malek’s singing voices.
“I don’t think this is biased, I think Freddie is one of the most gorgeous singers to have ever graced the earth,” says Malek about the decision to use the blending process. “Now, why interrupt that in any way or reduce that, we’re telling the story of Freddie Mercury, for God’s sakes, we should at least hear his voice.
“It is difficult to go from my speaking voice directly into Freddie’s voice, so there’s a blend. It’s masterfully done. In the production it seems quite seamless, and, you know, when I hear it, I hear a majority of Freddie’s voice,” adding with a chuckle, “Which I think is a big win for the world.”
The film’s supervising music editor, John Warhurst (London Road, Sweeney Todd), encouraged Malek to sing with as much energy as possible.
“And so every take, John would hear me in the cans and he could hear me at times losing my voice, so he would worry about that, but wanted it to look as authentic as possible. It is difficult to see where the seams and stitches are.”
In one scene in the film, Malek is required to play a riff from the song Bohemian Rhapsody on the piano while sitting on the ground in front of it, facing the other way, with his hands up behind him. He also had to learn to play guitar.
“This was like going to a conservatorium of music for me, starting from scratch,” he says. “At night when I got the itch I would get underneath this little keyboard I had and practice Bohemian Rhapsody upside down. That was something Freddie Mercury would do, he would play music upside down.”
Can Malek still do that now, as a party trick?
“Oh man, I’d have to be pretty intoxicated to lift that one out,” he laughs.
After spending so much time in the skin of Freddie Mercury, Malek admits he did have trouble saying goodbye to the Queen frontman when filming ended
“Yeah, it’s never easy,” he says.
“It takes quite a bit of energy and focus to inhabit another human being.
With Freddie, I was reluctant to let go. There’s a level of audaciousness and mischief that he exudes in the world that you sometimes don’t want to let go of.
“You know, it’s quite fun ending every sentence with ‘darling’ and ‘dear’.”
Bohemian Rhapsody opens November 1