Rami Malek Is Under Pressure to Honor Freddie Mercury's Queer Legacy

Aingeru Zorita.

Stepping into the role of Freddie Mercury, the flamboyant front man for one of the biggest stadium rock bands in history, Rami Malek shows the world his amazing range. But Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t just another musician biopic, and Malek is far from your ordinary method actor. The politically progressive son of Egyptian immigrants, Malek is redefining how Arab-American men are treated in popular culture by drawing a line at the kinds of roles he will and won’t do. What’s most telling is what Elliot, his character on the dystopian thriller Mr. Robot, has in common with Mercury, who was born in Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) to Indian-born parents of Persian descent, and how these complex lives are threaded through Malek’s own heritage.

As Rami Malek takes the stage, a wiry bundle of energy and expectation, his short hair, tight white jeans, and studded leather cuff help him look every bit the part of a gay man in the 1980s. But this isn’t just any man (and if it were 30 years later, we’d probably be using the word bi or pansexual, not gay, to describe him). The scene re-creates Freddie Mercury’s performance during the now-famous Queen set at the charity concert Live Aid, which has been called one of the greatest rock shows in history. The 1985 performance (re)introduced Queen to nearly 2 billion viewers in 150 countries, according to CNN — the largest TV audience ever. My friends and I were teenagers then, gathered around a tiny kitchen TV in rural Idaho watching the Live Aid telecast on MTV.

And now, watching Malek take the stage, preening and pumping, emoting, and singing out to the audience for their legendary callbacks, I get the same chills. Many viewers do. That’s because Rami Malek isn’t playing Freddie Mercury; he’s absolutely channeling the long-dead singer. Even Mercury’s Queen bandmates sometimes got lost in the performance on set.

The music (an amalgamation of Mercury, Malek, and Canadian singer Marc Martel) and the clothes (including the mastery of the V-neck onesie) are spot-on. But what sells you on Malek as Mercury is his bombastic peacocking — that thrusting leg, the grandiloquent poses, the fist pumps — all the mannerisms that turn Malek into Mercury, a character he so embodies in the new film Bohemian Rhapsody, that at times you forget he’s not Mercury.

Malek, the Emmy-winning star of USA’s hit thriller Mr. Robot, absolutely inhabits the role of rock’s greatest front man, but his preparation began well before he even got the part.

“Before the film was even green lit, we were going to do a test at Abbey Road,” Malek recalls, “and I just, I needed all hands on deck so I sat down with a few choreographers.”

He was trying to nail Mercury’s movements: the brazen sexuality, his onstage bravado, his mannerisms that are enshrined in pop-culture history. “But what I really realized is I didn’t need someone to help me learn dance moves or steps. I really needed to inhabit his, as you said, peacocking and his physicality and mannerisms and the way he articulated his body — how he can keep the beat, how balletic he could be.”

The irony of trying to mimic what seemed so organic to Mercury wasn’t lost on the actor.

“The way he struts is oftentimes born out of pure spontaneity,” notes Malek. “It’s just some eruption out of his body I wanted to be able to do at the drop of a hat.” So he turned to “phenomenal” movement coach Polly Bennett, who became his “lifeline” to the character. Bennett had him studying Mercury and the people who had influenced Mercury’s peacocking (from Liza Minnelli to David Bowie).

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“We would often sit and just watch his interviews,” Malek says. “We would just see his body language. The way you would analyze if anyone was uncomfortable or how they could be deflective or inclusive, then obviously his movements onstage. The transformation of his physicality from the ’70s to the ’80s. I mean, when he throws his fist out into the air in ‘Radio Ga Ga’ on Live Aid, a lot of that comes from his training as a boxer when he was a child in boarding school. So it’s little nuances like that that were extremely useful and enlightening.”

Malek also traveled to London, got a dialect tutor, and had a costume designer create a set of Mercury’s infamous teeth that he would wear to practice. In real life, Mercury had four extra teeth that pushed his front teeth forward. Kids teasingly called him “Bucky,” but Mercury never changed his smile with dentistry, fearing it would affect his vocal range. Working with the prosthetic took some adjustment for Malek.

“It took quite a while, but what I was very cognizant of is this: I didn’t want to get used to them,” he says. “I wanted them always to be a bit uncomfortable and a reminder of something that he had to deal with on a daily basis. Something that was inhibiting and something that I think made him quite self-conscious and vulnerable.”

In fact, even at the height of his fame, Mercury would often cover his mouth involuntarily.

“Yeah, he did all the time,” Malek says. “I don’t know how many times it made it into the movie, but I tried to do that as often as possible. And he had this unique way of covering his teeth with his lips constantly. I honestly didn’t know how I would be able to do that, but once I got those teeth in it became almost second nature.”

Malek, whose star has been on the rise since his acclaimed arc as suicide bomber Marcos Al-Zacar on 24, has taken a circuitous route to get to Bohemian Rhapsody. From a small part on Gilmore Girls to gay teen Kenny on War at Home, the Night at the Museum films, The Pacific, and Larry Crowne, Malek’s roles grew steadily more significant over the last several years. He chose after 24 to stop playing terrorists, the stock role for Arab-American actors in Hollywood. (“I kind of told myself that one day … I’m just going to draw a stark line into what I will and will not do.”) But his household name breakthrough came in working with showrunner Sam Esmail, another Egyptian-American in Hollywood, on Mr. Robot. The men share a sense of “otherness” that comes out in different ways on the acclaimed dystopian TV series.

Malek, who was recently featured on the cover of the inaugural issue of GQ Middle East, is the Los Angeles-born son of Coptic Christians who emigrated from Egypt to America, dreaming of a new life while holding on to some of their traditions from back home. The magazine was quick to point to Malek’s Middle East bona fides (“Arabic was the first language out of Malek’s mouth,” for example) but in some ways it missed how uniquely American the 37-year-old is as well.

After all, Malek (who has a twin brother who is a schoolteacher and an older sister who is a doctor) grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley, an area that made youth culture famous in seminal ’80s-era films Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Valley Girl. Malek attended high school with actresses Rachel Bilson and Kirsten Dunst, graduating in 1999, and going on to get a bachelor of fine arts degree in 2003 from Indiana’s University of Evansville. (The next year he got the guest spot on Gilmore Girls, and he’s worked steadily since.)

Malek’s Twitter feed this fall praised bisexual activist Emma Gonzales and the other Parkland, Fla., survivors turned antigun crusaders; thanked Christine Blasey Ford for her “strength and bravery” in front of Congress; and suggested people make donations to the American Civil Liberties Union. But many of his social media callouts in recent months were leading up to the unveiling of the role he’s studied a lifetime to play: Farrokh Bulsara, a.k.a. Freddie Mercury.

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Born in Tanzania and attending a British boarding school near Bombay before moving to London, Bulsara was, like Malek, an artist who moved outside the expectations of his cultural heritage without forgetting his roots. But understanding Mercury meant one had to first understand Farrokh.

“That was one thing I was very cognizant of at the start,” Malek admits. “I said to our producers and writers, ‘Look, we have some of the most entertaining music you could ever ask to score a film. We have the most fascinating human being you might come across named Freddie Mercury. What is going to be very, very interesting is to discover Farrokh Bulsara. And it’s something that is as important as any other part of this story.”

Mercury’s specialness was apparent even as a youth, Malek says.

“You always knew he had something special in him and it was just a matter of time before it was going to make its way onto that stage or into the music. But early on, as he was, I think, struggling with his identity and sense of self, there’s still something burning inside of him which [he couldn’t] help but subdue. I wanted to make sure that, I guess gradually, you saw the evolution of that into the full glamour of Freddie Mercury.”

It may surprise some viewers that Bohemian Rhapsody, which centers on a queer immigrant fronting a major rock band in the 1970s and ’80s, battling internalized biphobia, xenophobia, and AIDS (when HIV stigma was at its peak), feels particularly timely in 2018. Have the political battles of the year impacted Malek’s work? “I will say a resounding yes, without elaborating. How could it not? Everybody’s work has. As I said about the career choices I chose to make, it definitely solidifies the fact that I’ve always found myself at the direction I found myself heading for a split. I can’t take my eyes off of what’s going on. Who can?”

Still, Bohemian Rhapsody will not be without its critics.

“Well, it’s 2018 in America, so everything is polarizing right now,” Malek admits. “So it won’t be a surprise if the film is as well.”

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In part, that’s because by offering up a film based on the memories from Mercury’s survivors, including bandmate Brian May, former partner Jim Hutton, and former fiancée Mary Austin, the film shows the Mercury they knew in the context they knew him. By all accounts, Mercury was a man who struggled with internalized homophobia and biphobia. You can’t help but watch the film wondering if Mercury and his “true love” Mary Austin today would just accept that Mercury was bisexual (perhaps polyamorous) and make allowances for his sexual attraction to men without dismissing his desire to also be with Mary sexually and romantically. (Or, conversely, gay fans might wonder if today he would have come to terms with being gay earlier in his life and have lived happily ever after with someone like Jim.) If LGBTQ viewers are polarized, it will perhaps be Mercury’s fault, not the fault of Bohemian Rhapsody’s creators.

Malek says, “I gravitate to very conflicted characters, and it’s easy to say that he was very conflicted, not only about so many aspects of his identity and his sexual identity and that, I think, had the makings of someone who was going to be fiercely appreciative of his place in the world and fiercely private.”

Set in a time when bisexuality seemed to be largely invisible outside Hollywood, it’s hard to watch the true-to-life moment when Mercury comes out as bisexual to Mary, and she retorts, “Freddie, you’re gay.” It’s painful to see that in the 1970s — and still a bit today — there seemed no viable option outside the binaries of gay or straight.

“I wholly understand where you’re coming from,” Malek admits. “You know in this story we not only have to honor Freddie Mercury; we have to honor Mary Austin. And one of the few things we really know [is] the way that conversation occurred.”

Speaking to what Mercury would be like if he lived in 2018 instead of 1978 is impossible, but Malek admits, “What I find very revolutionary about him is he refused to ever be defined … or be categorized or be put into a box. He was a performer and he wanted to make music and share that music and have that relationship with an audience. There was this ability he had and a desire to connect with everyone in the audience, and not the people just at the front of the stage. You see him when he’s performing — he rarely looks down at the first few rows. He’s reaching out to everyone in that audience. And I think that was his statement. That was his great ability as a human being, is to create this sense of unity. That is one way, I think, I don’t know, that’s one thing I find so satisfying about this story.”

The biopic doesn’t shy away from Mercury’s gay life (he jokes that there’s only enough room in the band for “one hysterical queen”) and the debauchery, outrageous parties, and random hookups. Much of the gay sexuality revolves around Mercury’s personal manager for nearly a decade, Paul Prenter (played by Allen Leech), who in real life exploited, isolated, and very publicly betrayed the singer by outing him to the media and naming lovers Prenter alleged were dying of AIDS complications. The scene where Mercury realizes the betrayal, is wrenching, as is its buildup, and some gay audiences will hate it, both preferring to believe that Mercury happily chose to indulge in the excesses of drugs, sex, and rock and roll and wanting to see more positive gay romantic portrayals. To find most of the gay sex in the film wrapped around Prenter will disappoint many fans.

“I was cognizant of every aspect of how we were approaching that part of the story,” says Malek. “That aspect of that part of Freddie’s life with Paul Prenter feels true to life, so it’s another moment where the decision to go there felt like it was coming from an accurate place. But I do wholeheartedly understand exactly what you’re saying. Those were decisions that were out of my control. I pushed as hard as I could to make sure we saw Freddie in a loving relationship with Jim and the evolution of that relationship. It’s the time construct of when Jim and Freddie actually met … it was around that period of Live Aid so that, unfortunately, you don’t get to see the actual love life with Jim Hutton,” because the movie concludes shortly after the concert.

Indeed, Jim Hutton (played by Shameless star Aaron McCusker) shows up as the refreshingly self-respecting gay man audiences will love. Just, sadly, a bit late. McCusker is great, as are many of the actors, including Mike Myers (absolutely unrecognizable in his role), Lucy Boytnon (as Mary Austin), Midsomer Murders star Gwilym Lee (as bandmate Brian May), Ben Hardy (bandmate Roger Taylor), and Meneka Das and Ace Bhatti (as Mercury’s parents).

“Our cast was wholly aware of the responsibility I had on my shoulders and they had my back in every moment,” says Malek. “They lifted me up in every circumstance. I will say this, Tom Hanks I worked with and he said ‘one tool sharpens another.’ It could not be better said than that, when talking about this cast. Every day we all felt the immense responsibility together and the boys, as I call them in the band, we created this shorthand between the four of us where we just felt as though we had known each other for a very substantial amount of time. So many moments in the film that evolved out of that kind of kinetic relationship were ad-libbed moments. Moments that happened spontaneously, and I think you can feel that. I was kind of shook by the level at which everyone was operating every day.”

It’s a story the cast was anxious to get right.

“Every day we all felt the immense responsibility together,” Malek says. “[Mercury] exists in all of our minds as one of the greatest performers of all time … he has one of the greatest voices of all time; arguably the greatest. I just wanted to embrace it all and challenge myself. What greater challenge than playing Freddie Mercury?”

Malek found common bonds with the musician, things he fell in love with. “His sense of wanting to belong. This sense of sharing that feeling with an audience. Just being exactly who he wanted to be was ... something that I found so inspirational and quite liberating through the entire process. Then there’s aspects of his younger life that I could identify with. There’s certain similarities there. That was a useful way in because it can be quite daunting thinking about trying to emulate his charisma and his magnetism onstage, but I could identify with the younger parts of him. Even the searching for identity.”

The actor, who is quiet and thoughtful in conversation, says he doesn’t want to talk about his own life, especially anything about his romantic life.

“In the spirit of Freddie, if I learned from him I’d say … ‘No, darling, I’m sorry. I can’t tell you that.’ I wouldn’t even apologize in the spirit of him. There’s something about just being a human being and not having to be labeled. That was the way he lived, and he held true to that in his entire life.”

Still, Malek understands why LGBTQ youth need to know artists like Mercury were queer.

“Yes, I am so, so, so very aware of the impact that he could’ve had by coming out,” he admits. “I also respect and appreciate his desire to have privacy and to exist in the way that he wanted to. ... I find it to be just a real expression of his humanity. Having some sense of anonymity at my level is difficult. I cannot imagine what it would’ve been like for him, probably one of the most recognizable human beings at that time.”

Malek says playing Mercury was more than just a role; it’s something that will stick with him.

“I don’t think I can ever just turn the dial off and walk away,” he says. “With Mr. Robot, Elliot has become almost somewhat part of my DNA. He’s in that fabric somewhere. It will take a very thorough cleansing one day to have some sort of distance from that character. It can be quite difficult, especially when you don’t necessarily want to walk away. That was the case with Freddie as well. I’ve likened it to … when you are saying goodbye to someone that you’re in love with at the airport and you keep looking back as you’re walking towards the plane. I can [feel] that they’re still there. So I keep looking over my shoulder almost, so to speak.”

Sick at a time before there was treatment for HIV, Mercury in the film is clearly thinking about his own legacy. Live Aid stands as a real testament to his desire to solidify it. Malek isn’t facing that same approaching deadline, but has he thought about his own legacy?

“I’m just hoping to play some characters when I look back and say, ‘That was a role that I think was somehow progressive, somehow [it] started a conversation, and was of course also entertaining.’ But if it made us somewhat introspective about who we are as human beings and a society or about some atrocity from the past or what it meant to be a human being struggling with identity at a certain period of time, and we can reflect on how that’s changed in our present time, then I will feel somewhat fulfilled.”

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