For Allen Leech, known for playing sweet, sensitive characters like Tom Branson, the chauffeur who marries into the aristocratic family of Downtown Abbey, portraying the manipulative Paul Prenter in Bohemian Rhapsody was something of a departure.
But Leech found a way to empathize with and get inside the character of Prenter, who as Freddie Mercury’s personal manager comes between the Queen frontman and his bandmates, then betrays Mercury in an alarming fashion. “It was a challenge to show he wasn’t just a malicious character,” Leech tells The Advocate.
It’s clear that Prenter and Mercury both felt like outsiders in England in the 1970s and ’80s. Prenter at one point in the film describes himself as “a queer Catholic boy from Belfast” whose father would rather see him dead than gay, making him just as marginalized as Mercury, a bisexual immigrant of Persian heritage. Leech says he gained an understanding of this outsiderness when talking with Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, and others who knew both Prenter and Mercury (the two men died a few months apart in 1991, both of complications from AIDS).
“Freddie and Paul were two incredibly lonely people,” Leech says. “They saw that in each other, and that’s where Paul Prenter found his power over Freddie.”
Leech was originally considered for a much more sympathetic character, Jim Hutton, who becomes Mercury’s steadfast, supportive lover. When Leech found out he wasn’t cast as Hutton (the role went to Aaron McCusker), he says, “I was devastated.” He didn’t stay devastated for long, though, as he then learned he’d be playing Prenter.
On Leech’s first day on the set, he watched his fellow actors shoot the scenes of Queen’s triumphant performance at the 1985 Live Aid charity concert, with Rami Malek as Mercury, Gwilym Lee as guitarist May, Ben Hardy as drummer Taylor, and Joe Mazzello as bassist John Deacon.
“I was blown away by the attention to detail … in every aspect of their performances,” Leech recalls. “I went back to the hotel and thought, You’ve got to up your game here.”
Actually, Leech and the rest of the cast all seem to be at the top of their game in Bohemian Rhapsody. He’s full of praise for Malek, whom he calls “sublime,” and his other castmates, and he’s proud of the finished product.
“This is such a celebration of such an icon,” says Leech, who has long been a fan of Queen’s music, which his father would play on family road trips. “I feel privileged to have been a part of this film.”
Leech, who is straight, obviously doesn’t think that only gay actors should play gay characters, but he says he understands the LGBTQ community’s need for representation, and he would never want to get a part because of antigay discrimination. He describes himself as “100 percent” an LGBTQ ally.
When his native country, the Republic of Ireland, was voting on marriage equality in 2015, Leech helped organize the “equality trains” that brought Irish expatriates home to vote in the effort that made the nation the first in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular referendum. “It was something that I was very proud to be a part of,” he says.
Leech’s future includes marriage — in January, to actress Jessica Blair Herman (The People v. O.J. Simpson) — and looking for work. In late October, he finished filming the Downton Abbey movie, which is scheduled for release next fall, an occasion eagerly awaited by fans of the series.
While Leech has amassed many other impressive credits, including Bellevue, The Imitation Game, and now Bohemian Rhapsody, he hasn’t quite escaped the beloved British period drama, which he says offers a sufficiently big story to get the big-screen treatment. “It still feels like I’ve got one foot in the abbey,” he says.
Bohemian Rhapsody opens in theaters today.