Mercury Rising

24 January 2019 James McMahon

Mercury Rising

Mercury Rising

Freddie Mercury was larger than life, but that was no obstacle to Rami Malek when cast as the Queen front man.

Rami Malek and Freddie Mercury might never have met, but you get the sense they’d understand each other.

Both children of immigrants – Malek born in Los Angeles, with Egypt in his veins; Mercury, born as Farrokh Bulsara to Indian parents in Zanzibar (now Tanzania) before relocating to England in his teens – they are united by the sort of commonality that defines a person.

“I related to Freddie Mercury in a very literal sense,” says Malek, discussing his portrayal of the late Queen singer in the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. “When the script was being written, I wanted his upbringing to be an integral part. It was important to see an immigrant household and an immigrant upbringing.”

He pauses, a sharp intake of breath.

“That was so important in understanding his situation. And, similarly, my situation…”

Bohemian Rhapsody is a film about the rock band Queen, yes. But it’s also a film about finding yourself. Loving yourself, even. Being able to look in the mirror and not flinch. It’s this innate understanding of a person trapped between cultures that drew Malek to the role.

“It’s true that it did take Freddie a long time to become comfortable with himself. I’m probably going to regret saying this, but I think me taking the challenge of playing this role might be, on some level, me feeling like I have something to prove.”

What does he mean by that?

“Well, I don’t know whether it stems from my experience as a first-generation American or as someone who is considered ethnic in a business that hasn’t always had people like me in the leads of films or television series,” he explains. “But when I was getting into acting, I didn’t have a role model. Someone who was like me. I wish I’d had Freddie…”

A famously troubled production (it was announced as long ago as 2010), Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t end with the director it began with. And Malek – best known for his role as depressed hacker Elliot Alderson in TV drama Mr Robot – was the third Freddie Mercury; Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Whishaw the previous two. But now the names Rami Malek and Freddie Mercury will long be conjoined. Even though the actor had only a passing appreciation of Mercury and Queen when taking the part, he ended it “a super-fan”.

“I inhabited him by immersing myself entirely in him,” says Malek. “Every idiosyncrasy. Every nuance. I knew I was going to be able to connect with him as a human being…his upbringing and things like that, I knew I could relate to that. Who he was outside of the monolith of being a rock god. Where I had to work harder was trying to understand what made him such a brave and bold soul onstage.”

To that end, Malek hired a movement coach. “I told them I wasn’t looking for someone to help me with choreography. That was almost the opposite of Freddie. What I needed was someone to help me understand why he moved in such a unique way. And I hired a physical trainer, because while I’d never compare what I did to them touring relentlessly, playing the shows take after take was the most physically demanding performance I’ve ever had. I wanted to understand everything from how he moved his hands, to how he covered his teeth with his lips. I had a prosthetic in playing the part and when the make-up artist put them in for the first time, it almost made me giggle. The teeth took me so much closer to inhabiting him.”

With the surviving members of Queen involved in production, it helped having access to those who knew Freddie.

“I’d go to dinner with Brian May a lot,” says Malek of the Queen guitarist. “Having his approval early on was everything to me. To hug him after the film was in the can and have him happy with it meant so much. Then on set I met Kashmira, Freddie’s sister, and the physical similarity she has to Freddie just pierces your heart.

“I heard from Bono the other day, from Boy George, from Sting. Bono’s wife told me a great story about Freddie hitting on Bono in front of her at Live Aid.”

Excited to show the world what he’s done, Malek tells us that finishing the film, which encompasses Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, made him feel “sad, at the premature theft of life”. He smiles. “But there’s real joyous moments in there too. I’m in awe of him. I think I’ll be inspired by Freddie Mercury every day for the rest of my life.”

by James McMahon

>> Bohemian Rhapsody has earned five Oscar nominations for the 2018 Queen biopic including Best Picture and Lead Actor. 

Are you even suprised, darling? 

From The Big Issue #574 - courtesy of The Big Issue UK.