The controversial new Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is dividing opinion. But critics are united in the performance of Rami Malek as the charismatic frontman. Here he tells Tom Lamont why he risked all for the part of Freddie Mercury
Rami Malek, the Californian actor, says: I dont know man. I guess Im an unusual human being. Its an afternoon in Hyde Park and weve been talking about the 37-year-olds extremely odd walk, a seesawing, twitchy-limbed zigzag just all over the place that has been making ours less a stroll around the London park than a careen. Malek, not yet so well known in this country, but with a sizeable profile back home thanks to his lead role in the US TV drama Mr Robot, is two days removed from wrapping the biggest job of his life so far as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, an upcoming band biopic about Queen.
At first I assume this is the reason for the wild walk. Maybe he hasnt yet shaken off his intensive physical coaching for that film? But no, the actor says, this jaggedy lope is all him. Its quite staccato, isnt it? Theres a little swing in my step Of course, Freddie had a very particular gait himself.
Malek grew up a Queen fan. So when the chance fell to him to play the role of the bands late lamented frontman in a Hollywood movie, Malek says he felt it in his gut: I must do this. But you wonder what he was thinking, the career ticking along quite nicely with the TV work, to actually say yes to this thing.
The idea of making a Queen movie was first announced way back in 2010, since when it has become one of the most troubled undertakings in Hollywood, notorious long before it even reached the edit. At least two high-profile British actors, Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Whishaw, came and went from the Freddie role before Malek signed on. According to reports, a script by Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Crown) was commissioned but after Cohen pulled out, he left the project. Word was that David Fincher would direct, then Tom Hooper, until eventually the scandal-plagued Bryan Singer came aboard only to go overboard mid-shoot after tales of terrible fights with the cast. Eventually the studio announced Dexter Fletcher as his successor the following day Singer was hit with a sexual assault lawsuit, which he strongly denies.
Considering all this I suppose it would be a miracle if today, 48 hours after finishing on set, Malek didnt seem a bit twitchy, a bit staccato. He is professional and diplomatic in his discussion about Bohemian Rhapsody, palpably proud of his work on it. But I still have to ask, what was he thinking, saying yes? Malek grins. Kind of the gun-to-the-head moment, he says. What do you do? And I like to think if its a fight or flight situation, Im going to fight. The scariest endeavours that Ive chosen to take in my life have been the most fulfilling and rewarding. And this has proven to defend that equation.
Smooth-cheeked, slight, so youthful that hes only recently stopped being ID-ed in bars, Malek is an Egyptian-American with good genes, I guess. Ive got a sister whos an ER doctor and her patients constantly think shes too young to be there. In conversation hes a laconic talker, a drawler even, but his word choice is never lazy and hell sometimes pick an unfeasible route through a sentence to avoid being clichd. (An attempt at capturing an essence for whoever wants to take that leap, is what hell say, instead of acting).
If Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie already tortured by bad decision-making, the casting of Malek might be a stroke of brilliance. In terms of verve and personal eccentricity there has been a clever pairing of actor and subject here. While we walk, his focus roves all over the place, on trees, on traffic, on a couple of French tourists whove recognised him from Mr Robot and are following at a short distance. When they catch up and make a shy approach, Malek takes the initiative bowing from the waist and saying: Enchant.