Rami Malek is without a doubt brilliant in his performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. His remarkable portrayal will rock you in the story of how Queen came to be. From Mercury’s early days to the iconic Live Aid performance, Malek injects that oversized pizzazz that Mercury possessed.
Of course, Malek hadn’t been hiding any unrevealed knack for dancing or performing like a rock star. But he knew he could pull it off when he read about the singer who not only gave us classic rock anthems but some of the best songs in rock music history. Malek honed his skills of singing, performing on stage, and dancing with the help of choreographer, Polly Bennett. But, it was in Mercury’s own words, in his lyrics, that Malek was able to truly find a pathway to the soul of the man behind the music.
Rami Malek is back from Tokyo. Japan, is the last territory for Bohemian Rhapsody to premiere. About Queen, he tells me, “They had been to Japan for at least 50 different shows. That was one of the first countries to embrace them and they gave us an incredibly warm welcome.”
When you got this project, what were your first thoughts?
I think there was that feeling of disbelief. I had to ask myself a few times if it was actually occurring. The producers had only seen me in Mr. Robot at that time. Denis O’Sullivan was Graham King’s right-hand man, and he had spotted me in that. I thought to myself, “Really, they’re going to hire me off of Mr. Robot.” I was thrilled. I don’t think the terror hit me as immediately as the elation. I thought what a phenomenal opportunity. Am I going to have enough time to fulfill the immense responsibility it would entail?
You certainly did. What was your earliest memory of Queen?
I was very young during Live Aid and the iconic image I have of Freddie is not in the yellow jacket, but at Live Aid. But the first time I heard Queen was because of the film Wayne’s World. The song came on the radio. I remember immediately feeling halted. I stopped what I was doing and listened. It struck me deeply, emotionally and in a way that was creatively inspiring. It just filled me with this feeling of OK, something hit me deeply and I want to jump up and down and sing from the top of my lungs. I wanted to have my own private dance party.
You capture his movements to a tee. Take us through how you worked with Polly Bennett and what she put you through. I’m assuming you’re not a secret dancer.
I told them when I sat down that I’m not a singer. I’d never touched a piano before. I said I don’t think anyone would call my moves dancing per se when I’m out. There was just something physically about him that I knew I could get close to. I knew I had something inside me that could get close to, but it just needed finessing. It inevitably needed much more than finesse. I sat down at the hotel I was staying at in London and proceeded to have auditions with choreographers that the producers had set up to see who I would jive with. I guess the conversation with Polly that I had felt organic. We would be able to start from a place that wouldn’t just be choreography, it would almost be understanding the man and his heritage and how things influenced him. No one was talking to me about how his boxing as a child influenced his physicality on stage in the 80s. I wasn’t having that kind of discourse until Polly came around.
She was the youngest of the bunch. She had the least credits on her CV as you guys call it. I just saw a fire in her and I think from the perspective of having so many auditions not go my way when I was younger and thinking, “Why can’t they see what I have to offer?”
I thought, now I was in that position and I wanted to give that human a shot. It wasn’t about taking a chance on someone. I really believed she had the skill and capability to get me there.
And, it was someone I knew I was going to be spending a long period of time with. I knew this role would require me to be at the height of my confidence level. I almost didn’t want to revert back to a place of more of an authoritative presence.
What gave you the best advice so you could get into his blood?
He did. In the sense of listening to his music. I looked at it from the perspective that if I went out and wrote the most emotionally profound and moving music that I could. If I wrote something that I wanted to sing over and over again, it would have to come straight from my gut. Everyone could give me advice, but I thought to myself, look at the songs and his songwriting and they will lead you.
You can see the evolution of the human being through them. You can see how his early songs are so poetic and so ethereal. He blows me away with his capacity at how talented he is. He was incredibly talented as a pianist. The voice has to be one of the top 5 of all time. He will, with all humility and modesty say, “I never thought I was a great songwriter. I never even liked writing songs, but the fact is, he has written some of the greatest.” If you dive into them, you will understand the human being. I think you’d really get to know the nuts and bolts of him by looking at the songs he wrote.
Paul Gambaccini did a few interviews with Freddie. He was at Live Aid. Brian May and I went out one night. We met him. I immediately knew who it was and I said, “Paul.” He came over and said I needed to be mischievous. When he gave me his card, I called him a week later and he said, “He just had this mischief behind his eyes at all times. You have to try to capture that.” I felt that was the one thing I was able to capture. Sometimes, more in between takes than on camera. It was nice to almost be an entertainer for the entire crew throughout the day as much as it was while the camera was rolling.
Brian and Roger too spoke with such reverence about him and you can see something in their eyes change. Roger and I were backstage, waiting to go out after a screening and I said something that made him laugh. He giggled and he said, “You’re just like him.” It was the greatest compliment I could receive. I don’t know, there was such a joy that we had come that far and he gave me that impression that Freddie liked to celebrate life and how splendid joy can be in everyone’s life.
On the subject of Freddie celebrating life, was there a particular performance you liked recreating?
We don’t see enough of Top Of The Pops during Killer Queen, but it was something I was able to capture to the tee. We go from doing an incredibly emotional scene, but I think everyone would always look forward to the performances or the concert. There was never a note of monotony to any of this and that’s what was great about filming this.
One of my favorite moments was putting my audition on tape at Abbey Road, it was one of the proudest moments ever I’d ever had. I put my demos down and had the courage to sing. They did versions with my voice. The fact I got that done with Polly in front of me and I was articulating myself where I needed to. We had two weeks before we did that. The producers lobbed questions at me and I responded as Freddie, they put me on the spot. It was the coolest thing I’d ever done in my life.