Rami Malek: “I had to find a side of Freddie I could relate to”

The Mr Robot star talks to us about some of the triumphs and challenges of working on Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody...

Rami Malek might be very well-known within geek circles after three seasons of cult hit Mr Robot, but he’s about to become a household name with a role that many thought may have been cursed. Having spent nearly a decade in development hell, Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody puts the actor in the iconic role of frontman Freddie Mercury, and he’s now receiving widespread praise and Oscar buzz for the performance.

Despite working hard to capture some of the charisma and stage presence of Mercury, however, a simple imitation was never going to be enough for Malek.

“There’s no point imitating him, because you can watch a documentary,” he told Den of Geek. “I’m never going to be anyone’s Freddie Mercury. I may be a version of him, but I always thought about just delivering his essence and doing my damndest to embody him in some way, shape or form.

“In order to do that I tried to absolve myself of the idea of him as a rock god, icon, deity, monolith or supernatural human being. He struts on stage with a cape and a crown, and he might as well be flying. My feeling was that I just had to find a way to bring him down to earth and find a side I could perhaps relate to. That was the Farrokh Bulsara side that we meet at the beginning of the film.”

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Learning more about the singer’s personal life was a pleasant side-effect of joining the project, Malek said, even though he was already a fan of Queen’s music.

The actor continued: “I knew about the music, and I knew about his sexuality, but I did not know his real name. I didn’t know that he had this all-encompassing relationship with Mary Austin, and I didn’t know about Jim Hutton. I didn’t even know what his relationship with the band was, except that they had made music that is indelible and everlasting.”

Perhaps in opposition with the idea that Bohemian Rhapsody is primarily the brainchild of bandmates Brian May and Roger Taylor, Malek told Den of Geek that it was difficult at times to gain access to their memories and stories of Mercury when the band was at their height.

“It was a massive obstacle because, although I had them at my disposal, it’s still very difficult to approach them about Freddie as he means so much to them,” he said. “As private as he was, they’re also still reserved in talking about him. He was a dear friend and brother who they’ve lost, so it’s not easy for them to share memories. I’ve actually got more out of Brian now since the film finished than I did while filming.”

“They tried not to occupy the set with scenes that were more in the acting territory, and they were definitely present for the concert sequences,” Malek added on the band’s involvement on set day to day. “Brian came when we were creating the Bohemian Rhapsody performance and he got a kick out of those memories. He gave us a lot of insight. He’s an expert and a tactician and, I don’t know whether he’d love this word, but he’s a perfectionist.”

Before completing the project, he admits that there was a worry that the promise for Mercury’s voice to be mixed over the top of Malek’s during performances would not be fulfilled.

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He said: “Every time you see singing, it’s me singing at the top of my lungs to the point where the sound guys were telling the director and the ADs that I was losing my voice. I had been told early on that they would use Freddie as much as possible, but it’s scary going out there everyday and never knowing if I’m being tricked. It’s hard to believe someone in Hollywood, but now when I listen to it and hear a whole lot of Freddie I’m very, very happy about that.”

The actor’s two most significant roles to date may look world’s apart on the surface, but in reality Mr Robot’s Elliot Alderson has a few key things in common with Freddie Mercury. On whether he’s drawn to outsider characters when choosing his roles, Malek said he often gets emotional speaking about the impact his most famous role has had on people around the world.

“It’s so much to do with the work of Sam Esmail, who’s now a dear friend of mine. I cherish Elliot for his shortcomings and his ability to persevere and speak as the cog in the wheel, so to speak. For the people who feel their voice is not heard, he allows them to shout at the top of their lungs in so many different ways. I think Freddie has that same capability.

“He’s a very defiant creature who harbours so much conflict and doesn’t know his place in the world or how he was meant to fit in. He wanted to reach out to all of those outcasts at the bank of the room who felt they didn’t belong. When he’s out there holding them in the palm of his hand, he’s saying ‘hey, we all belong together – share this with me and go be your most authentic self’”.

Bohemian Rhapsody is in UK cinemas now.