For Rami Malek, playing legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody was both daunting and incredibly exciting. Malek clearly embraced the challenge; immersing himself in the music of a band that he already loved, studying the songs that Mercury wrote himself and researching the life of the man born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar who would go on to reinvent himself as Freddie Mercury the iconic front man for one of the biggest bands in the world.
He found, too, that he could identify with Freddie’s remarkable journey from Zanzibar via Bombay to London where he met Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and formed Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody recreates the band’s incredible show stealing performance at the 1985 Live Aid concert in aid of the Ethiopian famine refugees.
Malek was born in Los Angeles, California. He won an Emmy, and has twice been nominated for a Golden Globe, for his role as Elliot Alderson in the critically acclaimed psychological TV drama Mr. Robot. His films include Night at the Museum, Larry Crowne, Battleship, The Master, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Short Term 12, Old Boy, Need for Speed, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and Papillon.
What do Queen’s songs mean to you?
They’re timeless. They defy Queen’s music is a global phenomenon that transcends generational and cultural boundaries.
No one else does stadium anthems like Queen…
They practically invented stadium anthems. And especially those two songs – ‘We Are The Champions’ and ‘We Will Rock You’ – are really audience participation songs and there’s no band that has accomplished that in the same way. And what’s so unique about them. They perform a song like ‘We Will Rock You’ or ‘We Are The Champions’ and everyone out there, in those massive arenas and stadiums, is collectively singing and moving in unison. Those songs unite people.
What was your initial reaction when they asked you to play Freddie Mercury?
At first it was shock. As an actor, I don’t think there’s ever this law of depreciating excitement when things like this happen in your career – especially when you are being asked to play Freddie Mercury – so it’s a moment that halts you in your tracks and it is at once euphoric and thrilling and then there’s a hit of the magnitude and of the weight you have to take on with this legendary man who lives in the hearts of so many people and is revered as being one of the most talented artists of anyone’s generation. So you can imagine the immense weight of that. Now there’s also some ambitious part of me that gets wildly excited and starts thinking about how to begin to inhabit this unique and magnificent creature.
So you knew Freddie and Queen’s music?
Yes. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know at least one Queen song.
How did you prepare for the role?
I began to look through the songs that Freddie wrote and look for the themes that underlined every track, so that through the songs I could understand the man. My thinking was that if you are going to write something so passionately you are going to draw on some deep emotions.
And did you find a theme in his songs?
Without a doubt it’s love; the search and desperate need to find love and how that has escaped him. Here’s a man who throughout his life was constantly searching for love. Another theme is identity. I tried to build from the ground up, so I looked at his childhood. Here’s a boy who was born in Zanzibar and shipped off to St. Peter’s boarding school in Bombay at a very young age. He returns home to Zanzibar and there’s a revolution going on and his family is forced to seek refuge almost in England. So there he is with the name Farrokh Bulsara. He refers to his childhood as an ‘upheaval of an upbringing’ so I just started to somehow appropriate that to my own life in a way, being a first generation American.
My parents moved to America from Egypt to seek a better life for me and when I told them that I was going to be an artist that was a very difficult stance for me to take so there were things that I could relate to, which somehow allowed it to be less of a daunting task of looking at Freddie Mercury the superstar. There was the man on stage versus this young man who was trying to use any of his God given talent and the tenacity he had to just make a home for himself in this new land. And then, given the opportunity, rise to be who he inevitably was.
There’s also a physical transformation on screen. We see you, as Freddie, change from the shy young man who joins an unknown band into the incredible showman who captivated an audience of more than a billion people when Queen played Live Aid.
Was this physicality also a way into finding him?
It gives me chills just thinking about it because he is exactly that, he transforms. It’s always Freddie but there are different versions of him, which I think is beautiful. It’s not like he’s hiding anything, it’s not Jekyll and Hyde, they are all him. It’s who he wants to be in the given moment and the given situation, which I find so endearing. I saw one interview where he said ‘on stage I can be the macho man that everybody wants me to be.’ And I think you see that in the 80s, this performer who throws his fists in the air and holds the crowd with the raising of one arm. Whereas in his younger days he was very fluid and erratic when he was trying to find himself and there was more of a whispy-ness to him. So I started to identify that and worked on the progression of the character in that way. What was incredibly useful was when I started to find a team of people who were going to help me assemble him, essentially.
“The most extraordinary thing about his sexuality and that aspect of his life is that he never spoke about it. He transcends all these stringent labels and boxes that we try to impose on people. He never confined himself in that way”
How did you do that?
I remember when we started shooting Live Aid and I said ‘look, what I know about Freddie is that he was not deliberate about what he was going to do on the stage the night before he went on.’ He didn’t think about what his moves would be throughout the course of the next evening when he would be on stage – things happened in the moment depending on the feeling and it was always inspired. Our producers would talk about working with a choreographer and I said ‘it’s not choreographed.’ There’s nothing about him that’s choreographed. The word ‘choreographed’ just doesn’t even belong close to the name ‘Freddie Mercury.’ I wanted to find someone who could essentially understand the way he moved and why he moved the way he did.
So I found a movement coach. Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything was a big inspiration for me and I studied how he played Stephen Hawking and I said to myself ‘that’s not choreographed,’ and I believe Eddie was working with a movement coach. I met a few people and then did some work with Polly Bennett, a movement coach. The way Polly worked was fantastic. She understood how to approach this and we began just talking about Freddie’s heritage and his youth and how his shyness would be articulated.
In what way?
Well, in just the way he would sit on the couch and pick up a cup of tea or the way he would cover his teeth because they were a very unique size. And how that would evolve into things that he could manipulate as he got more comfortable with himself. And it explained for me why he had this kind of ethereal nature to him early on and how there was an evolution to his stage presence and his physical presence, as he grew older. Polly was invaluable in helping me identify that.
When did Brian May and Roger Taylor first hear you sing as Freddie? And what was their reaction?
Oh that was an earth shattering experience (laughs). It was quite funny because I went to Abbey Road to record everything, which was a completely unforgettable moment. It is the holy grail of recording studios and it’s full of photographs of the legends that have recorded there and it’s incredibly inspiring.
On my last day, when we got to go back and do a little more recording, I got to play a little bit on the piano that The Beatles used. It was incredible. This film has run the gamut of emotions for me but the highs have been higher than any you could hope for. Sharing what I got to record, which is a tape of me emulating Freddie, with Brian and Roger was quite a moment. I thought they had seen it before they showed up at Abbey Road and half way through out conversation I Realized they hadn’t. And so I had to watch myself, interpreting Freddie for the first tie standing between two of the people who know him better than anyone. You can imagine how intimidating that was.
What I knew immediately was ‘I can move like that. I can get that down.’ That was where I tried to pull all of my confidence from. I also knew that I could get that shyness that he had and that I could get that gregarious showman aspect to when I worked on it. It was the singing that was going to be the most challenging.
What did Brian and Roger say to you?
Roger was characteristically cool and reserved and Brian, who I have noticed had been eying me up and down came out with such a compliment that I was quite moved by. I had put all of myself into preparing for this and trying to do this person justice that getting that acceptance from them was inspiring and propelling.
You said that while making Bohemian Rhapsody you ran a whole gamut of emotions. Could you expand on that?
It was an unconventional way of working to say the least. There are upsides and of course downsides about a way of working that can be erratic at times, but ultimately everyone collects themselves and comes together, putting their best foot forward.
Let’s talk about Freddie’s relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton)…
Mary meant the world to Freddie and surprisingly few people are aware of the impact she had on his life. They will be when they see the film. He referred to Mary as the love of his life and wrote the iconic song (Love of My Life) for her. She was his confidante for so much of his life. She was someone who understood him in a way that no one else could or would and vice versa. They were in a romantic relationship for six years and were tethered together till the end of his life. He referred to her as his common law wife, and the person he trusted the most. Without Mary I don’t think we would have had the Freddie Mercury we know today.
Freddie kept his sexuality from the public. Do you think that was simply because it was a different, less enlightened time?
The most extraordinary thing about his sexuality and that aspect of his life is that he never spoke about it. He transcends all these stringent labels and boxes that we try to impose on people. He never confined himself in that way. He just was. And I think that’s what will make him an even greater icon, if that’s even possible. That’s why he is so accessible to everyone
What’s your favorite Queen song?
You know it’s too difficult to pick a favorite favorite, but I do really love Brian’s ‘Hammer to Fall’ (from Queen’s album The Works). That’s a great song. But for me it would be like picking a favorite child (laughs). They are all going to last for a long, long.
Photography by John Russo
Styling by Ilaria Urbinati
Grooming by Tara Hickman
Special Thanks to Twentieth Century Fox Film