Mercury Rising: How Rami Malek became music royalty

Publish Date
Thursday, 25 October 2018, 6:05PM

By: Michele Manelis

It could have gone horribly wrong for Rami Malek. Taking on the larger-than-life Freddie Mercury, Queen's former frontman famed for his posturing and bluster, was always going to be a gamble for the Emmy-winning star of hit television drama Mr Robot. But it is a gamble which has paid off, thanks to a flawless performance in the much-hyped biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody.

From the first frames of the film - depicting Queen's 1985 Live Aid performance of their signature hit song Bohemian Rhapsody at London's Wembley Stadium - Malek not only replicates Mercury's movements and mannerisms but perfectly channels his essence.

"Coming out on that stage was a feeling of absolute euphoria and elation," says Malek, 37. "I had worked so hard to prepare for that moment that I felt like I owned it to some degree. At the same time, I think even Freddie walking out on that stage was nervous but he knew how to hide it so well."

The process of becoming the late rock god took painstaking preparation, right down to the teeth. Literally. "Yes, I watched everything, read everything. I had a movement coach instead of a choreographer because Freddie did whatever he felt instinctively. It was a daunting few months for me because I was still shooting Robot in the US and then flying to London for the film," he says. "And as for the teeth, they had to age along with me so I had to wear different moulds.

"The work I had done on becoming Freddie, for lack of a better word, was just something that gave me an immense amount of confidence. I was going to carry this through no matter what. We were making a film about a human being who was quite possibly one of the most passionate people you could run into - and it was a very passionate set, no doubt about it."

The role was of course hotly contested, with others in pursuit including Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Wishaw and Daniel Radcliffe.

Malek offers, "I never actually felt 100 per cent him. There were times when I would glance and catch a glimpse of myself and say, 'Oh, that's nice. That feels good,' because I can see someone reflected back at me that felt like someone I was truly emulating," says the quietly spoken actor.

How did Malek allay his fears about what is certainly the most challenging role of his career?

"Any time I had any doubt I would say, 'You know what, if there was any doubt, Freddie could always persevere and find a way to step outside of that and really just own who he was, own that audience, hold them in the palm of his hand,'" he says. "So I tried every day to do the same."

The movie chronicles Mercury's life from the 1970s to his death in 1991. Along with an official Queen archivist, the band's original members, guitarist Brian May, and drummer, Roger Taylor, who serve as producers, were on hand as consultants to ensure the film and its authenticity were spot-on.

Actor Gwilym Lee (The Hollow Crown), who portrays May, says, "Brian and Roger were present, mainly for the musical performances because I feel like that was where they felt their expertise was most useful. And beyond that, I think they wanted us to tell the more private scenes without them being around. They wanted us to have the freedom to express that ourselves without pressure, and then hopefully in so doing to tell the story, warts and all."

Producer and multi-award-winning producer, Graham King (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) was adamant that the film be true to Mercury's journey. A true labour of love, King had been trying to get the film made for a decade."We've made a film that's going to please all the millions of Queen fans," he says. "We don't hide from him having HIV, getting aged, you see all of that."

For all the drama on screen, there was much ado about the sudden departure of director Bryan Singer, who was missing during much of the production and was fired two weeks before the film wrapped.

King says of the troubled set:"I've said this to Brian May and Roger Taylor, that Freddie Mercury has been throwing hurdles down at me for 10 years," he chuckles. "Many things went wrong during production, and with Bryan Singer, who did an amazing job but unfortunately had a lot going on his world, including family issues and his mother [being] in hospital. He wanted to take a hiatus but when you have momentum on a film, it's hard to take a break. The studio was adamant that they were not agreeing to a hiatus, so Bryan went to deal with his personal issues."

Malek, who was reportedly upset with Singer's absences and late arrivals on set, says: "Bryan was very, very invested early on but he has a very erratic nature and at one point I just knew I had to be ready for anything, to completely fend for myself and at the end of the day I was going to pull myself up by the bootstraps and do whatever I needed to do."

Malek didn't have to fend for himself for long though as director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle), now directing another rock biopic, Rocketman, about the life of Elton John, stepped in and took the reins from Singer.

Malek will no doubt be rewarded for his efforts come award season. Did he feel that Mercury was somehow involved in his performance?

"You know, I felt this immense amount of confidence and I don't know if he was lending me some of his or where it was coming from, but it was this undeniable need to do Freddie justice, to do their story justice and to give a new generation a taste of why we appreciate Queen the way we do."

This article was first published on nzherald.co.nz and is republished here with permission.