Rami Malek: Playing Freddie Mercury was earth shattering, shocking & inspiring
Actor Rami Malek who plays the incredible Freddie Mercury in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY – the biographical movie about the front man of the iconic British rock band Queen. Rami Malek is receiving praises for his marvelous act as Freddie. The British-American joint venture directed by Bryan Singer, produced by 20th Century Fox, New Regency, GK Films, and Queen Films, with Fox serving as distributor, is set to release in Indian theatres on November 16, 2018. In a candid conversation, Rami Malek bares it’s all on playing Freddie Mercury, how the legend has inspired him, his sexuality, relationship with Mary Austin and of course Queen’s music.
You knew Freddie and Queen’s music?
Yes. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know at least one Queen song.
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. 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.
Your initial reaction when they asked you to play Freddie Mercury?
A: At first it was shock. 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 and 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. 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.
How did you prepare for the role?
A: I began to look through the songs that Freddie wrote and look for the themes that underlined every track, so that through the songs I could understand the man. My thinking was that if you are going to write something so passionately you are going to draw on some deep emotions. I tried to build from the ground up, so I looked at his childhood. Here’s a boy who was born in Zanzibar and shipped off to St. Peter’s boarding school in Bombay at a very young age. He returns home to Zanzibar and there’s a revolution going on and his family is forced to seek refuge almost in England. So there he is with the name Farrokh Bulsara. He refers to his childhood as an ‘upheaval of an upbringing’ so I just started to somehow appropriate that to my own life in a way, being a first generation American. 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 so there were things that I could relate to, which somehow allowed it to be less of a daunting task of looking at Freddie Mercury the superstar. There was the man on stage versus this young man who was trying to use any of his God given talent and the tenacity he had to just make a home for himself in this new land. And then, given the opportunity, rise to be who he inevitably was.
How was the physical transformation as Freddie for you - the shy young man who joins an unknown band into the incredible showman?
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.
Any memorable experience during the shoot?
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.
When did Brian May and Roger Taylor first hear you sing as Freddie? and what was their reaction?
Oh that was an earth shattering experience (laughs). It was quite funny because I went to Abbey Road to record everything, which was a completely unforgettable moment. It is the holy grail of recording studios and it’s full of photographs of the legends that have recorded there and it’s incredibly inspiring. Roger was characteristically cool and reserved and Brian, who I have noticed had been eying me up and down came out with such a compliment that I was quite moved by. I had put all of myself into preparing for this and trying to do this person justice that getting that acceptance from them was inspiring and propelling. On my last day, when we got to go back and do a little more recording, I got to play a little bit on the piano that The Beatles used. It was incredible. This film has run the gamut of emotions for me but the highs have been higher than any you could hope for. Sharing what I got to record, which is a tape of me emulating Freddie, with Brian and Roger was quite a moment.
You said that while making Bohemian Rhapsody you ran a whole gamut of emotions. Could you expand on that?
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.
Can you throw some light on Freddie’s relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton)?
Mary meant the world to Freddie and surprisingly few people are aware of the impact she had on his life. They will be when they see the film. He referred to Mary as the love of his life and wrote the iconic song Love of My Life for her. She was his confidante for so much of his life. She was someone who understood him in a way that no one else could or would and vice versa. They were in a romantic relationship for six years and were tethered together till the end of his life. He referred to her as his common law wife, and the person he trusted the most. Without Mary I don’t think we would have had the Freddie Mercury we know today.
Freddie kept his sexuality from the public. Do you think that was simply because it was a different, less enlightened time?
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.
What’s your favorite Queen song?
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.