We arrived in town just in time for day three of the Santa Barbara Film Festival. The Arlington Theatre’s marquee was decorated and Rami Malek was on hand for the intimate conversation with The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg.
Before bringing out Malek, Feinberg introduced a montage from Bohemian Rhapsody and Malek received a rockstar welcome as the entire audience stood on their feet, cheering for the actor. Feinberg said, “I’ve been coming here for eleven years and never seen anything like it.”
The 90-minute conversation looked back at Malek’s career and his beginning in acting. Born and raised in LA, Malek said he used to watch CNN with his dad and took a debate class in school, but soon realized a career in politics was not for him.
Malek told the audience how he started in acting while attending Notre Dame High School when a teacher suggested her audition for a play before going on to discuss his career in detail.
He took a moment to thank the casting agents he’s worked with and while he was pursuing his career, he pretended to be his own casting agent in order to get a start. Malek soon landed a spot on Gilmore Girls and his world had changed.
Being of Egyptian descent, Malek told the audience about how he was typecast and offered certain roles – “Egyptian kings, terrorists, and an Egyptian vampire.” He went on to say, “This is not how I want to represent myself and if I keep doing this I will typecast myself and pigeon hole myself. I drew the line in the sand and said ‘If there’s a role I will definitely represent myself and my culture and my heritage but it will be in a positive portrayal down the line.’ ”
Malek starred in the HBO miniseries The Pacific and Night at the Museum, it was in the former that Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail saw him. Malek read the script for the show and thought it was excellent. “I knew we had something special.” Malek said of the role that would bring him an Emmy and Golden Globe win. “He’s the most complicated character I’ve ever had to understand.” Malek also said he loved that Elliot Anderson had no link to him being of Middle Eastern heritage and was just a show and a character ahead of the game. “I believed in him and I believed in Sam. Stories like this have power to affect change.”
Talking about Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek he remembered the first time he’d ever heard the song, “I was haunted and affected by it.” When producers Dennis O’ Sullivan and Graham King flew him from NYC, they told Malek they thought he could play Freddie. “My characters (Freddie and Elliot) are polar opposites, one who can command the stage and one who can barely leave his computer monitor but in some ways they share this loneliness and they are not so dissimilar.” That didn’t stop him, “I said yes right away to playing Freddie and moments later I thought, ‘what have you done?’”
Malek worked with a movement coach to help articulate just who Mercury was. He praised Polly Bennett for having “immense patience as I’m not a dancer or singer.”
He also talked about working alongside Brian May and members of Queen. “Brian (May) wanted this to succeed.” He added, “Without them, we wouldn’t have the story and they could have harped on anything that didn’t seem genuine. He was extending all the love and admiration and acceptance, most of all. He would say ‘I can’t believe you guys are telling our story.’ I looked so forward to the days when he was there because it made me want to give my best Freddie.”
At the end of the evening, Joe Mazzello came out to present the award to Malek. He joked, “I’m so happy Rami is finally being recognized for his work on this movie that has been terribly overlooked.” Mazzello went on to say, “I so admired his grace under pressure. As long as we had Rami, we were gonna be alright. It was a privilege to share the screen, again, with the man who makes it great.”