For Rami Malek playing legendary Queen front man, 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 frontman 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.
“Freddie referred to his childhood as an ‘upheaval of an upbringing’ so I just started to somehow draw a connection to my own life and being a first-generation American,” says Malek.
“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. There were aspects of his experience that I could relate to, which somehow allowed it to be less of a daunting task of looking at Freddie Mercury the superstar.
“There’s a relentlessness and determination to your fight and drive if you have not been born into opportunity or the avenues that you seek.”
Q: What do Queen’s songs mean to you?
A: They’re timeless. They defy Queen’s music is a global phenomenon that transcends generational and cultural boundaries.
Q: No one else does stadium anthems like Queen…
A: 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.
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Q: What was your initial reaction when they asked you to play Freddie Mercury?
A: At first it was shocking. 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 an.d 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: How did you do that?
A: 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.
Q: In what way?
A: 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.
Q: You said that while making Bohemian Rhapsody you ran a whole gamut of emotions. Could you expand on that?
A: 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.
Q: Freddie kept his sexuality from the public. Do you think that was simply because it was a different, less enlightened time?
A: 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.
Q: What’s your favorite Queen song?
A: You know it’s too difficult to pick a 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 time.