By David Hochman | October 30, 2018 | People Feature
In Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek embodies Queen frontman Freddie Mercury like a champion.
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Rami Malek calls it his Freddie Mercury “ski walk”—hands tight against the hips, making invisible pole plants—and I sense he’s doing it to make a point. The 37-year-old actor’s eyes went extrawide when I mentioned I first saw Queen perform when I was 10. But it’s hearing that I attended Live Aid, the dual-venue 1985 benefit concert for African famine relief, that gets him up and strutting. Malek doesn’t even care that I was at the Philadelphia show, not London, where Queen so famously roused Wembley Stadium that day. He’s just stoked I was in the mix with Mercury in his prime.
“So, you understand there was nobody like this man,” Malek says with one last fist to the sky that, for a split second, brings Mercury into the room at a photo studio in Los Angeles. “I totally get that fans say, ‘Why even bother treading on this sacred ground?’ But Freddie’s confidence and sense of mischief and power and elegance—it’s too beautiful to not share with an entire new generation, don’t you think?”
To be honest, I was thinking the opposite as the lights went down a few hours earlier on a screening of Bohemian Rhapsody, the new Queen biopic in which Malek stars as the man whose posters and rock mag covers plastered an unbalanced portion of my bedroom walls as a kid. I was like: Really? You’re going to tamper with the legacy of the greatest singer ever to don a harlequin unitard? Am I supposed to just sit by and watch?
That’s when something magical happened. The movie opens with Malek-as-Mercury revving himself up before that Wembley concert, and as he takes to the stage, it’s clear the actor has Mercury’s magnetic moves down step for sashaying step. Malek even replicates the singer’s signature overbite, using a set of convincing fake teeth. But when his mouth opens to sing, it’s Mercury’s platinum vocals we hear. The combination is beyond electrifying. All I could do from there, frankly, was smile and belt along at full volume for the rest of the film. (Fortunately, I was alone in a private screening room at Fox Studios.)
Malek’s laugh carries something between relief and I-told-you-so when I say how much I appreciated the film. Playing British glam-rock royalty was no ordinary endeavor for an actor raised in the San Fernando Valley by an insurance agent and an accountant. It was complete immersion—1970s arena splendor from the inside out. Malek devoured old biographies, watched vintage videos (“I think half of the 48 million views on Freddie’s Live Aid performance are mine,” he says), studied piano and voice, and worked intensely with movement and dialect coaches. He also bonded with original Queen members Roger Taylor and Brian May—“We’re all in a WhatsApp group together,” Malek says, showing me pictures from the production. The bandmates signed off on Malek’s casting early in development and stayed deeply involved as producers despite the firing of director Bryan Singer more than halfway into production due to “artistic differences.”
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“By far, Bohemian Rhapsody was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done,” Malek says, sinking back into a sofa. He’s wearing black jeans and a white tee, and with his black curls and easy grin, he looks more like another pop icon—Bruno Mars (“We met once and he said, ‘Well, if it isn’t my doppelgänger!” Malek says). But Mercury still clearly holds the spell.
“I’m in love with him,” he says. “To the end of his life, Freddie lived completely in the moment and never got boxed into any particular label, which I so respect. People constantly tried to pin him down as this type or that, but he’d always say, ‘I’m just being me.’ Freddie being Freddie will forever be an inspiration to all of us.”
Career-wise, there’s never been a more exciting moment to be Rami Malek, which is not to imply he’s ever lacked for success. At Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, he performed alongside schoolmates Kirsten Dunst and Rachel Bilson, and straight after college at University of Evansville in Indiana found guest parts on Gilmore Girls and in movies such as Night at the Museum (in the three films, he played Pharaoh Ahkmenrah, which amused Malek’s family of Egyptian immigrants).
Malek met Tom Hanks on the HBO World War II miniseries The Pacific, which led to a role in the film Larry Crowne. But his breakthrough came in 2015 playing vigilante computer hacker Elliot Alderson, the lead cybernaut on the USA Network thriller Mr. Robot, entering its fourth and final season in 2019. Malek won a 2016 Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama series for a part he says “speaks to anyone who’s ever felt like a cog in the wheel but found the strength to take matters into their own hands.” That’s a sizable group, apparently. “It’s when I’m traveling that I notice the small global phenomenon this show has become,” Malek says. “I shot in Serbia once and had people hanging out outside my restaurant and hotel wanting to connect with me about the show, which was mind-blowing. Serbia!”
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After more than a year of flying back and forth to London and New York for Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek is happy to be home in LA with family, including his identical twin brother, Sami, a middle-school teacher. “We could play each other in a biopic about us,” Rami jokes. “He knows my every tic and personality quirk.”
The actor is single, though there are reports of him dating his Bohemian Rhapsody costar Lucy Boynton. When the topic comes up, Malek, who likes to keep his private life private, playfully redirects the conversation to his favorite eating spots around LA: “Hey, I love Mexican food, so there’s Don Cuco in Toluca Lake and, of course, the one and only Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks! That was your question, right?”
Before I can follow up, Malek is on his feet again planting those imaginary ski poles. Freddie is back in the building. Once again, I sense the actor is doing it to make a point, though now—oh, would you look at the time!—it’s that we’ve come to the end of our interview. Scaramouche, Scaramouche.
Photography by Mike Rosenthal; PHOTO ASSISTANTS: RAYME SILVERBERG AND RYAN HACKETT; Styling by Ilaria Urbinati; Grooming by Marissa Machado at Art Department using V76