Rami Malek catapulted to stardom with his lead role on “Mr. Robot,” which will wrap its fourth and final season next year. That surge in popularity led to more opportunities, and in Malek’s case, the opportunity was “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The long-gestating project proved trickier than he could have anticipated: As Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, Malek was at the center of a troubled production that crescendoed when director Bryan Singer vanished from the set. When Malek complained to the studio, Singer was fired. Nevertheless, “Bohemian Rhapsody” reached the finish line, with Dexter Fletcher at the helm.
Even as critics have been divided on the end result, Malek’s performance has been singled out for his ability to inhabit Mercury’s onstage persona, as well as the more introspective moments leading up to his AIDS diagnosis. The actor spoke to IndieWire about his determination to land the part, contending with the drama of the set, and how he’s preparing himself for the end of “Mr. Robot.”
This interview has been edited for flow and clarity.
You put a lot of effort into chasing this role, flying yourself to London to do research even before the project had the greenlight. What compelled you to get so invested in the part?
I’ve seen the impact that “Mr. Robot” has had with people who are perhaps disenfranchised and emboldened by the story of Elliot, the story that Sam [Esmail] has whipped up. It’s been quite profound to be a part of it. I don’t take that for granted. To have something like this come my way is in that vein. It’s the legacy of a human being I see as a revolutionary, someone who was defined as groundbreaking, and revolutionized the way we think about ourselves. He’s one of the most liberating human beings that has graced the planet. It gives people a perspective from which they can live their most authentic lives. So to be able to portray someone like that is the ultimate gift.
Freddie’s sexuality is different from your own. How do you feel about the challenge involved in taking on the role in that regard?
Those things don’t even cross my mind. The role of a human being is exactly who he is. I never gave myself any boundaries. Anything that was an aspect of his story was nothing that I ever thought about shying away from, if that’s what you mean. Freddie Mercury is a gay icon and an icon for all human beings, and it’s just important to portray every facet of his life.
What sort of physical impact did this role have on you? Was it draining? You’re running around a lot, both onstage and in various party scenes.
20th Century Fox
It takes quite a bit of control. You have to know when to pace yourself. It was the first time in my life that I’d fallen asleep in my makeup chair. I was utterly exhausted every day. I just saw my makeup artist at an event the other night, for the premiere of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in London. There were some days I showed up to work and she had a lot of work to do. It was mentally and physically exhausting beyond anything I’ve quite endured in the same way. The first season of “Mr. Robot” tested all of my limits as to what my mind and body could endure. This pushed that even further.
It’s been widely reported that you registered a complaint with the studio when Bryan Singer failed to show up on the set, which led to his firing. What compelled you to take action there?
It’s difficult working on a film that everyone’s so passionate about. I’m just a very passionate human being. I just kept Freddie at the forefront of all of this. Nothing in this business surprises me anymore.
How do you feel about Singer having a directing credit on the movie?
Well, we got Dexter [Fletcher, who took over for Singer] a producing credit. It was all semantics with the DGA. Of course, I cannot thank Dexter enough. He injected us with the life-force we needed at the perfect moment. He comes from an acting background, so he was extremely helpful in finishing up this film. He did put some work in during post, so he was the director in post. What else can I say? He came in during some really intimate scenes, too, with Lucy [Boynton] and I — the Mary Austin scenes, which was just the right tone and the right moment. Our cinematographer [Newton Thomas] Sigel did a seamless job, where you’d never realize anything jarring about going from one director to another.
I’ll be interested to see how you write about our director situation. Good luck. It seems like you’re hellbent on doing it.
How did this experience impact the kind of projects you’re chasing now?
I knew that “Mr. Robot” would be special, but the impact it’s had sociopolitically was something that took me aback. It’s been the impetus for disenfranchised people to feel more confident in sharing their voice. I think there’s another incredibly defiant spirit in Freddie Mercury, who was revolutionarily liberating in terms of giving people the freedom and allowance to be their most authentic selves. These two roles have been some of the most progressive of my life, both humbling and beyond rewarding. I look at the future and I want to continue a track record of entertaining people and getting behind projects and stories that are equally as meaningful.
How committed are you to working on studio projects, especially after everything you’ve been through with “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Are you still willing to do indies?
It’s difficult. It’s a bit riskier. I don’t mind the gamble. Look at who the hell I chose to play in this film. At the same time, doing something with a studio is quite risky as well. You don’t have the type of creative control you might have when doing an indie.
When I did “Buster’s Mal Heart,” with a really special director named Sarah Adina Smith, and we were the ultimate collaborators even through the editing process. There were moments when we were doing “Bohemian Rhapsody” where it took a little bit more effort to get to the editing room and impress your opinion on everyone. I’m in the process of writing and directing something on my own that’s going to be done on a very tight budget, so I’m very accustomed to what that world is like and I never want to get to a place where I turn my back on that world, because that is the home of so many of us who strive to get stories told that might get passed on by studios looking for something a bit more broad and commercial.
Wait, you’re directing a movie?
I’m keeping that close to my vest at the moment, but in due time, when I feel comfortable sharing, you know I will.
How do you expect fans to react to the end of “Mr. Robot”?
When Sam broke the news to me, it was a little unsettling, because I love playing this character and I absolutely adore working with Sam Esmail. He is a consummate professional and the ultimate collaborator. We will be making television and film together until the day we die. Having said that, it’s sad, because this has been such a special and indelible part of my life. I got to grow with this character. I talked to Aaron Paul about when he left “Breaking Bad.” It was really, really hard for him to walk away from that. I talked to Charlie Hunnam about leaving “Sons of Anarchy” and how difficult that was for him as well. I have to just prepare myself for what the end of this year will be like. I know Sam is going to be put me through the wringer again, so maybe I’ll be so exhausted by the end of it that I’ll be ready to move on.
So you’re not done with TV yet.
Television gave me the opportunity to do this film. The producers saw “Mr. Robot” and I have no idea how they thought I’d make a good Freddie Mercury. The work that’s being done on television right now is as good as anything in cinema. I’d love to do a limited series soon, and if the right show comes along that I can devote a few years to, why not?
Peter Kramer/Universal Cable Company/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
The only official upcoming credit you have outside of “Mr. Robot” is voiceover work for “The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle,” which Stephen Gaghan is directing from his script. What is the appeal of this project, which has a massive cast of major actors contributing voices?
Gaghan is a fan of “Mr. Robot” and we met at a restaurant one random night. Robert Downey Jr., who I’ve become friends with because of “Mr. Robot,” is also a reason I’m playing a character in that film. I don’t think I’d be playing Chee-Chee the gorilla in “Doctor Dolittle” if it wasn’t for “Mr. Robot,” the TV series that keeps on giving. One thing begets another. I remember doing “The Pacific,” and that’s when Paul Thomas Anderson saw it and brought me in to read with Joaquin Phoenix for “The Master.” We’ll see what the gift of playing Mr. Mercury has in store for later.
20th Century Fox releases “Bohemian Rhapsody” on November 2.