When Sacha Baron Cohen left the Freddie Mercury biopic back in 2013, it was hard to imagine another chameleon who could step into the skin of the flamboyant 1970s-80s musical genius who died at 45 after battling AIDS. Then came Mr. Robot star Rami Malek who went from playing a paranoid introvert on the USA series, to portraying one of the rock world’s loudest game-changing extroverts in Bohemian Rhapsody. Stepping into the shoes of a recent celebrity is one of the most daunting assignments an actor can face; how do you meet the expectations of audiences familiar with the subject without coming off like a Las Vegas impersonator? But after an extensive physical and psychological prep, Malek fit the part of Mercury like a glove.
How did the role of Freddie Mercury come to your attention? Were you tracking it?
I was not tracking it all. I was unaware of it. I believe I was flying to Los Angeles to do press for Mr. Robot, and quite honestly, it was an opportune time. I sat down with [producer] Graham King and [executive producer] Denis O’Sullivan for six hours in Santa Monica. I do feel like, going into the meeting, I knew what the subject at hand was going to be. Denis had seen me in Mr. Robot and brought it to Graham’s attention. From there, how I’d be the right choice for Freddie Mercury is beyond me. When I sat down with them I refused to fall into the trap that most actors do where they overcompensate. “Listen, I’m not a singer, I don’t play the piano. I think I’d be able to figure out his moves, but even that might be a question,” I told them.
So, how did you transform into Freddie?
I just stopped everything. I knew I had a season of Mr. Robot and I was in talks to do a few other things. I put everything on the backburner. The film was not officially greenlit, we didn’t have a studio backing us yet. Graham had faith in me. He told me that the studios were going to need to see something. So I put myself on tape doing interviews as Freddie Mercury. That’s when it all started in some immediate connection. I couldn’t tell you what it was; there was a state of confidence I conjured, having to emotionalize him in a short period of time. I went off what I heard [in Mercury] and I sent it off. I was told it would not be shared, only among a few people. I would be naïve to believe that. I’m pretty sure every studio saw the tape.
What wisdom did Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor impart to you in preparing for your role?
We would go to dinner. They were absolutely essential to me. Surviving this, even coming close to this, that I was even capable of making this dream a reality. They are beyond classy; they are so sophisticated and elegant and smart, two really brilliant human beings who allowed me to tell the story of their dearest closest friend for the first time.
I got to audition a choreographer for the film. In regards to who I’d mesh with the best, I needed a movement teacher. I needed to be spontaneous. I never wanted anything to feel overly rehearsed or planned. As Freddie would say, “If it’s planned, it’s boring.” There’s a danger of mimicry or imitation and I wanted to make sure that every moment was combusting spontaneously on stage or in a scene. Polly Bennett helped me with that.
William Conacher was my dialect coach. We’d listen to Freddie’s mother speak, there was a good Gujarati accent that was under his RP, his received pronunciation, because he went to British boarding school in India when he was young.
Jan Sewell found a way to get me to look as physically close to Freddie; it took two hours a day in hair and make-up. It truly took an army to create Freddie. During wardrobe and costume fittings, I felt that I could be my most audacious and liberated in finding the flamboyant side of him. I wanted to try things on for the purpose of being opulent or audacious. I thought about what he would choose, and how he wanted them to flow in concert, and how they shaped his body. I also spoke with his sister Kashmira. It’s their demeanor that alters when they speak about their dear friend and brother, that’s what I gathered the most; the impact and effect he had on them and the world over. He’s an iconic, defiant figure. He never hid who he was, but didn’t want to become a poster child for anyone’s causes.
After Sacha Baron Cohen pulled away from the project back in 2013, what was important for Brian May, Roger Taylor and Jim Beach in seeing the realization of Freddie Mercury on the big screen?
I have no idea what came before me, but I had one obligation and that was to get this right. There was no time for any type of interference. One thing I know is that they never wanted to show a hedonistic, salacious, gratuitous side of his life. They wanted to see every aspect of who the man was, the highs and lows. You don’t want to overshadow what a magical human being he was in such sadness. The main goal for Brian and Roger was that they wanted his story structured more triumphantly than tragically.
This was a performer who became electrified when he stepped before the crowd and would lead thousands in song. Growing up in a conservative household, where did Freddie get his knack to perform from?
When I considered playing him, I revered him as this deity rock god, a monolith and superhuman to some degree. To bring him down to Earth, I had to think about the kid behind all of that. Someone who grew up in humble beginnings and was an immigrant in a conservative faith, and someone who discovered his identity. He was a very complicated human being who had to come to his sexual identity as well. I think overcoming certain obstacles to become who he was meant to be was a Herculean effort. What can I attribute that to? There was a fire, a tempest brewing inside of him that never allowed him to conform; a defiant spirit who was able to distribute all of that volatility and magic and creativity on stage in his music and connect with people who were outcasts and misfits at the back of every stadium.
How much did his competition at the time, or even the forefathers of British rock, play into his motivation to be an iconoclast with the band’s music? Clearly, opera and naked harmonies were important parts of Queen’s sound and Mercury incorporated that into songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
He wanted to do something that no one else had seen before, to cross every boundary; he wanted to break the stereotype of what the concept of music was at the time. He shattered every convention. In his off time, he would see a lot of opera, watching Pavarotti. He heard [Spanish opera singer] Montserrat Caballe in the wings and went on to make an album with her.
I can’t speak to everything as it’s so vast, but watching the archives I got the impression that during the recording of the album News of the World there was a cap put on the amount of time they would use to write and record each song. Those confines served them well, and they did do all these overdubs and it was extremely experimental.
What were the specific takeaways from all the research you did on Freddie Mercury?
It was difficult as I could hear as many stories as possible. I looked at all the archival footage and listened to all the radio interviews. I thought they were the most candid. You could hear how he’s communicating with a server at a restaurant and asking for a vodka tonic. I made a diary of all the lyrics of the songs he wrote, so that I could understand what he was embroiled with, what he was so desperate to share. There’s a poet of great stature and beauty in his lyrics and I beg anyone to print those lyrics and tell me if they are not comparable to the voice itself. I wrote out all his lyrics, which became a diary, because if you’re writing something that you want to sing and repeat over and over; I don’t think that’s going to be a lie as a human being.
For God’s sake, think about “Find Me Somebody to Love” or the song “You Take My Breath Away”: “Every breath that you take/Any sound that you make/Is a whisper in my ear.” I challenge anyone to say that these are not the messages and lyrics he was confounded by, searching for throughout his life.
What was Bryan Singer’s vision for the film and how did both of you see Freddie Mercury eye to eye?
I can’t speak to anyone else’s view. From the moment I signed on to the film I knew how important it was to develop what my vision of Freddie was and what it meant to me.
What can you tell us about the final season of Mr. Robot?
I think we start in January or February. Sam [Esmail] as always has some very impressive things in store. For the first time, I’m going to have to do rehearsal for Mr. Robot, which is unprecedented.
A correction was made to this interview on Nov. 17 in regards to the question and answer about Bryan Singer.