Rami Malek: Being offered the part of Freddie Mercury was a gun-to-the-head moment

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.

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The first full trailer of Queen and Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody

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.

Freddie could be alone at home and be quiet and reserved: Suit, shirt, necklace and shoes all dior.com. Photograph: Andrew Woffinden for the Observer

Our walk takes us out of the park and past a restaurant in Mayfair where, not long ago, Malek had dinner with Brian May (May and Queens other surviving members are co-producers on Bohemian Rhapsody.) They bumped into Ray Davies that night, Malek recalls, and when May invited the Kinks frontman to join them to eat, the conversation turned to the two old rockers memories of Freddie Mercury. Malek sat there, rapt, absorbing what he could about the impression Freddie had on people. How he could be alone at home and be quiet and reserved and, as he sometimes referred to himself, quite boring. And then exist in such a powerful way on stage. The one thing that kept coming up was how generous he was. How he could make you feel you were the most important person in the room.

A couple of years ago, after hed left this production, Sacha Baron Cohen gave an interview in which he explained that it was the chance to explore Mercurys darker side that made the idea of a biopic appealing. There are amazing stories, Baron Cohen told Howard Stern in 2016, the guy was wild There are stories of little people with plates of cocaine on their heads walking around a party. Baron Cohens suggestion was that he left the film because of his unease at the pricklier stuff being left out. He went on to tell a cruel story about how the surviving members of the band did not believe that any movie about Queen should culminate at the point of Mercurys death, in 1991; instead they thought a better movie would carry on to show how the surviving members went on to grow the band without him.

Who knows if this is accurate. Discomfort along these lines will build, however, once Bohemian Rhapsody is given a PG-13 certificate in the US, a 12A in the UK something sceptics take as proof that the more raw aspects of Mercurys life, not least his appalling death at the height of the Aids epidemic, will be smoothed over.

Malek chooses his words carefully here, but he does not shy at all from addressing the subject. Its an arduous thing to tell someones life in just two hours, he says. Whats the nature of celebrating a life? Definitely not avoiding his death in any way, or what caused his death, which is the Aids virus. But I think if you dont celebrate his life, and his struggles, and how complicated he was, and how transformative he was and wallow instead in the sadness of what he endured and his ultimate death then that could be a disservice to the profound, vibrant, radiant nature of such an indelible human being.

Mercury rising: Rami Malek as Freddie in Bohemian Rhapsody. Photograph: Nick Delany/Twentieth Century Fox

We continue to walkout past the embassy buildings near the park. Malek points out Egypts distinctive red, white and black flag and shouts: Woah! Serendipitous! It prompts a change of subject, and we discuss his family background how his parents first made the leap to America. My mum and dad left Cairo in 1978. My dad was working as a travel agent there, and he would pick up visitors from the west. Through them he saw this other world that existed and he was fascinated by it. A move to Los Angeles was proposed. At first Maleks mother wasnt keen. She did not want to leave. She had family and friends, right next door, and it was hard to give up that for a city like LA that can sometimes feel estranged from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. His mother agreed in the end, Malek thinks, the better to allow his generation of the family to flourish. He has a twin brother who now works as a teacher; and the sister whos a doctor.

And then theres you, I say. The actor!

My family are very creative, very intelligent, very loveable. But Im first-generation American I dont think my parents ever thought that being an actor would be the best use of this transatlantic trip of theirs. You know, reshuffling their entire existence, so I could take a shot in the arts?

Malek says theyve been supportive throughout, from the moment he caught the drama bug at high school. Acting helped him figure out who he was, Malek says. I definitely felt that culturally I came from a different background than 95% of the kids I was around. We were speaking Arabic at home. There was a feeling of being inherently different. And I dont know whether that feeling is something you create for yourself it was definitely reflected in peoples actions towards you but it was there, and its something that you fight against until you accept what a beautiful and powerful thing it is to have this history and this tradition running through your genes, you know?

Emmy winner: Rami Malek in Mr Robot. Photograph: Michael Parmelee/USA Network

He started working professionally about 15 years ago, bit parts and voiceovers mainly, supplemented by waitering. A slow burn, is how he describes his 20s. For a long time Maleks biggest job was as an Egyptian pharaoh in three Night at the Museum movies. Later he served as Middle Eastern foil to Jack Bauer in a few episodes of the TV drama 24. Maleks character finally blew himself up. Did it grate, I ask, that his biggest jobs at the time played on his Arabic heritage?

Its a difficult business to break into, he says. If that was my way in, it was a choice that I had to make. But I was conscious of when I had to move on from that.

Mr Robot, a dark swirly drama about hackers co-starring Christian Slater, premiered in the summer of 2015. I happened to be in LA the week the show launched and I remember, clearly, this enormous billboard with Maleks face on it, straddling one of the boulevards. The actor remembers that, too: the first time he glanced up and saw it he was driving, he tells me, and stamped so hard on the brake the car behind went into him. Best car accident ever, I ask? Malek shrugs. It felt a marker for some sort of achievement, I guess. But youve got to remember, I was born in Los Angeles. I come from a mindset of, I know what that billboard was two weeks ago. And I know what its gonna be two weeks from now. This business is a revolving door.

Mr Robot, which has run for three series, will end after the conclusion of its fourth in 2019. By then Malek will know one way or the other how his big-risk decision to take on the Freddie job played out. In the worst case scenario, it could mean being hurled at speed out of the revolving door. So stressful had Bohemian Rhapsody become, by the end, that one of its producers jokingly speculated whether Mercury had been looking down on them, mischievous and exacting, throwing hurdles down at us for many years to get this right.

In two weeks the billboards will change. This business is a revolving door: Malek has been linked with Bohemian Rhapsody co-star Lucy Boynton. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

I ask Malek whether for himself he felt any spiritual connection to the musician. This may sound odd or hokey or cheesy, he says, but to me theres a relationship that now exists. And that may be some figment of my imagination. Some notion I enjoy entertaining in my own head. But for me its nice.

I hope for the best for Malek, this charming, childlike 37-year-old whos giddily excited to have an Oyster card in his wallet and whos managed to double the length of a short walk with his exuberant flailing zigzags across the pavement. All afternoon Ive been asking if hell show me something of his portrayal of Mercury. The amazing on-stage prowl, or a drawled, delicious darling. Its not that Malek relents in the end, more that he catches himself quoting Freddie and clicks into the imitation without thinking about it. These questions! Malek says, as our interview comes to a close. As Freddie used to say: Im just me Im just me, darling.

Styling: Helen Seamons. Hair and make-up: Tara Hickman using Armani and Aveda. Stylists assistants: Penny Chan and Eleanor Calder. Shot at Marks Club, Mayfair

Bohemian Rhapsody will be released on 24 October

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