Rami Malek’s Forever Era Starts Now

31 August 2020
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Santos de Cartier necklace, price on request, Cartier. Jacket, price on request, Fendi. Shirt, $220, Emma Willis. Belt, $435, jeans $720, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello

When he became the first person of Arab descent to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, Rami Malek had climbed the mountain. Now, with a starring role in an iconic franchise, he’s standing on one summit and staring up at a whole new peak

When Rami Malek stepped backstage after winning his Academy Award for Best Actor in 2019, his body felt so light it was almost numb. He was greeted by his agent, Doug Lucterhand, his publicist, Michelle Margolis, and a smattering of other people on his team. It didn’t take long for emotion to peak. A serving of his preferred agave-infused beverage arrived as if on cue. He savoured every drop.

From backstage, Malek could hear the rise and fall of noise as the show hit a denouement. It sounded like a faint TV broadcast, the vamping orchestra that gives way to commercial-break chatter, the way the clinking of glassware slows a little before an award is presented, and a distant announcement that the 91st Academy Awards were over. He was happy to sidestep the commotion entirely.

Malek’s clan for the Oscars was generous in size. Bohemian Rhapsody had marked many firsts for Malek. It was his first tentpole leading role. It was the first time he had a real live, on-set assistant. It was his first Academy Award nomination. It was his first Academy Award win. It felt imperative to Malek that all those who’d helped him arrive to that stage, and that win, were there. There in spirit is cool – there on guestlist is cooler. So, Jan Sewell, the film's makeup designer, was there. Polly Bennett, the British movement coach whose expertise helped Malek so eerily resemble the late Freddie Mercury, was there. Emma Hammond, his first-ever real live assistant, was there. (Ever grateful, Malek says the Oscars were, “Extremely accommodating.”)

An armada of vehicles at the ready, the Malek collective began a night of revelry. First they stopped by a Fox party, where Queen – Brian May, Roger Taylor et al – were ready to toast. A man named John on Malek’s security detail kept the knightly Oscar statuette fortified. Things got a little crowded, so they moved on, and on, and on, venue-hopping and dancing, bumping into Hollywood peers and luminaries, realising and re-realising what had just happened, until night gave way to morning.

“There was nothing compelling me to go home,” says Malek. “I danced my ass off that night.”

Eventually, they retired to a house, where Malek ended his night consuming “copious amounts of pasta in bed”.

The next morning, Malek glanced down at his phone. It had been collecting iMessages, WhatsApps and missed calls at an unprecedented rate.

“That seems to go on for a few days. There are a few people that anticipate that your phone is getting blown up, so they kind of give you some time and space out their calls. I spent about a week just responding to everyone that reached out,” says Malek. “That’s so fulfilling: to have all of your friends and loved ones, in a way, be able to celebrate that moment with you. To a lot of these people, I’m still that kid they grew up with, and was giving acting a shot, and we would all see if it would work out.”

A little over 48 hours after his win, Malek was back on set, filming the fourth season of the Golden Globe award-winning series Mr. Robot, trying to make it work out all over again.

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This shoulder-shrugging notion of fate – behind which is a knowing wink – has been a regular theme for Malek. “I may not have been the obvious choice, but I guess it worked out,” he said in his Oscar acceptance speech.

Let’s cut it plainly: there aren’t a whole lot of people who look like Malek on mainstream cinema billings. There aren’t a whole lot of Egyptians. Before Malek, no person of Arab descent had ever won a Best Actor Oscar. In many ways, Malek’s critical and box office success – particularly playing a flamboyant Parsi-Indian man, whose lifestyle was so relentlessly critiqued – felt like something of a benevolent infiltration; a hacking of a system that has traditionally been (and often continues to be) closed-off, elitist, and only begrudgingly aware of issues of diversity.

After his first GQ cover two years ago, standing in the West Hollywood sun, Malek was coming to terms with the weight of leading man-dom. By then, he had had a couple of high-fashion campaigns under his belt, but was still grasping the fact that, yeah, Bubba Rami, that little Egyptian boy down the street, was blown-up on billboards on Sunset. To him, the idea of being invited to fashion shows or fronting, say, a Dior campaign, still was wild and exhilarating. “Leading man…why not?” he said outside Cecconi’s. “The world is changing. I just hope that it’s not a fad. Not for me, but for all of us.”

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Turns out, Rami: not a fad. And, given the opportunity with his first major leading role, he returned the favour by putting in a performance that garnered a little over $900 million at the global box office, a Golden Globe and an Oscar.

It’s been 18 months since that feat. Now begins his forever era: the time in which he can go from star of a moment to star of an age. It’s Leo after Titanic, it’s Pitt after Interview with the Vampire, Clooney after The Perfect Storm. It’s one thing to do it once, a whole other to be eternal.

The start of the era, however, has been interrupted. We can talk in circles here, but there isn’t any use avoiding it: these are strange and awful and challenging times. Increasingly, despite a veil of “this is fine!”, people (me included) are struggling to remember what day it is. And, such is our pop cultural ailment, you can’t help but look to someone like Malek to recalibrate yourself. Someone to wonder out aloud to: is this normal, what we’re feeling? And, not to project, but aren’t you a little f****** up by all this, too?

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Pre-COVID, Malek’s last half-decade had been spent in a filmic and publicity sprint. His next film, No Time to Die, was weeks away from global release before the pandemic made light work of cinematic schedules. What has followed has been a prolonged, quiet pause. For Malek, that has meant many things, chief amongst them, an exhale.

“For some people, that’s exactly what they needed. I’ve appreciated that aspect of it. I’ve fluctuated between wanting to go do as much as possible in the day to just sitting back and catching up on things that I haven’t seen…enjoying all the content,” he says, the last word hitting a little wry.

Our interview happens as the UK’s lockdown has been relaxed just the smallest amount. Malek remains wary of the idea of an instant return to normal. “I’m kind of anticipating us going back into lockdown at some point. People have been going out and about without the mask like it’s New Year’s Eve every day,” he says. “Just put the masks on. That’s it. It’s simple.”

When it became clear that the pandemic may spread outside of Asia, Malek had an epiphany. He had to get to London.

“There was a chance that I’d be separated from some very close loved ones in my life,’” he says over Zoom, referring to the cast and crew of Bohemian Rhapsody, in particular his partner of the past few years, co-star Lucy Boynton. The things he says about those who worked on the film feel totally familiar, in a film junket-y way – all “family,” “extraordinary experience,” BFFL, and so on – but his actions – let’s get you a ticket to the Oscars, let’s make sure we’re in the same city for quarantine – defy cliché. When the UK’s lockdown restrictions eased, Malek’s first socially-distanced outing was to castmate Gwilym Lee’s backyard for a barbeque.

“Those relationships will be something that I am fairly confident will last the rest of my life,” says Malek. “People are always surprised to realise just how tight this group remains.”

Even through the glow of an iMac screen, his presence remains true: oversized eyes, vampiric skin (he’s a wait-no-are-you-for-real 39 years old), baritone voice that calms and commands in equal measure. Today, in late July, he wears the minimalist uniform he’s come to perfect: a grandad-collar button-up neatly peeking over a sweatshirt, topped with a cap.

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Much like the man himself, Malek’s style has been described as chameleonic. But, a forever era calls for forever thinking.

Of late, Malek has fortified a relationship with Saint Laurent (he wore a custom Anthony Vaccarello tux on Oscars night), and, more recently, with Cartier, for whom he’s fronting a campaign for the newly re-released Pasha watch. The latter comes after Malek had been flashing the maison’s high jewellery at key events for years, including for his Oscar win. The campaign itself feels achingly, unabashedly 2020, featuring a quintet of stars – including Troye Sivan and Willow Smith – whose work and character feel undivorceable from each other.

“With this particular group that they chose, I really appreciated that it was a good reflection of the world, and something I wasn’t used to seeing,” says Malek. “It was style backed with substance. That made it feel like a natural fit for me.”

More importantly than that, Malek felt like a natural fit for a brand like Cartier. This newer, bolder and more varied breed of zeitgeist-bending cultural leaders have been thrown into spotlight of late. In Cartier nomenclature, it’s a tribe. Elsewhere, there are squads. Either way, it feels as though substance has finally fought back onto level terms with style. Not a fad.

But in an era bloated with performative gestures of diversity, one of the sure-fire ways to measure true allyship? That'd be the almighty dollar.

With tens of millions of marketing dollars – whether for a jewellery campaign (Cartier), an Oscar campaign (Fox), a tentpole film budget (Bohemian Rhapsody) or a franchise-electrifying conclusion (No Time to Die), the powers that be believe in Malek. And there’s a certain understanding that, beyond the talent and marketability, it’s also investment in the character of the guy: this unconventional, sharp, thoughtful and kinder sort of leading man.

With all these bets placed, forever-era thinking also comes with a kind of paring back: With the roles you select, with the circles you orbit, even with a red carpet fit. In the rise, you can cook high and fast. These days, though, call for low and slow.

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“There have definitely been moments where I’ve looked back and thought, ‘Uhh...that was a risk,’” he says of his style. “On those two occasions especially – the Golden Globes and the Oscars – I’m very happy with the outcome. I thought it was two very nice, classic takes, that still felt current, but very elegant and sophisticated. Those things have to age well. I think I remember hearing DiCaprio say once, ‘Just wear the black tux, all the time. You can’t go wrong.’ And there’s something to be said about that. You do want to put your personal touch on it, when the opportunity presents itself. But you do have to think of the future, too.”

And really, Malek – like the rest of us – has spent manifest time thinking about the future lately. With the first meaningful pause he’s had in five years, clearer priorities have surfaced, like a pool of water that’s finally sat still.

“I’ve been run-and-gun. Going from the Oscars to shooting another incredibly intense season of Mr. Robot didn’t allow me to cultivate certain friendships in my life as much as I would have liked to. I amdefinitely coming out of this with a new perspective. Fortunately, I’m in a place where I don’t have to find the next job immediately,” he says. “I’ll be taking time to really nurture those relationships that are so important to me and to the people in my life. That’s something I’ll be very focussed on.”

And well, yeah: the next job is more than taken care of. Malek last year became the latest in a line of Oscar-winners to sign-on to a Bond villain role. No Time to Die marks a key moment for Bond: the franchise’s 25th film, and Daniel Craig’s final hurrah as 007.

While it wouldn’t be wild to assume that the invitation was extended to Malek in the afterglow of his Oscar win, in truth, he and No Time to Die’s director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, had been speaking long before the statuette ever came into the picture.

“Cary and I were talking before we ever made it to awards season. That was before the script had even been solidified,” says Malek. “We’d just been talking, having character conversations back and forth over the phone, sometimes in person. We had developed a really great appreciation for one another.”

The pair talked a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Over and over, the subject turned back to tension. What would move you? What would make your heart beat faster? “What would really terrify you, sitting in that theatre? What is one thing that would be surprising – something that would make you realise just how eerie and scary a situation could make you feel?”

“I’ve been working out my goals for the future: What can I offer? What is my responsibility? How can I continue to educate myself and be responsible for the choices that I make?”

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Malek has always devoured scripts. But after experiences both exceptional and wanting, his desire to partner up with the right visionaries has gone from nice-to-have to non-negotiable.

“It always goes back to the basics. I almost immediately know if I’m excited by something, character-wise. As I’m getting older, I’m very much more considerate of director-driven projects. And the writing’s got to be there. The writing just has to be exceptional. I feel like if you have those two things – a great director and some really unique, special words on the page – then you’re already setting yourself up to win.”

By the time Malek was announced to be playing Safin, the film’s villain, writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge had at the behest of Craig been brought on to polish the screenplay, sprinkling comedic beats and sharp dialogue through the script.

“The world is very much aware now of how talented Phoebe is, and the unique voice that she has,” says Malek. “It really lends itself to a Bond in a new era.”

The idea of a “new era” of Bond has been the subject of tweetstorm levels of debate – the now familiar cries for progress and countercries despairing a “wokeness” that has supposedly infected pop culture. Nowhere has this debate been more heated than on the franchise’s depiction of female characters. Waller-Bridge says that she was laser-focussed on the film’s own gaze.

“It has just got to grow. It has just got to evolve, and the important thing is that the film treats the women properly,” she told Deadline in an interview last year. “He doesn’t have to. He needs to be true to this character.”

After all the build-up between Malek and Fukunaga – the phone-calls and the meets, the long, drawn-out conversations – when things got moving on production, they got moving fast. Malek used a Mr. Robot shooting hiatus to hop over to Norway and squeeze in a week of shooting. Malek says that he arrived to set having had less time for the exacting preparation he was used to. “That lent itself to an element of excitement. That can aid the creative experience at times.”

The notion of Malek as a Bond villain feels at once refreshing and stupefyingly obvious. But much as the franchise has had a need to evolve in its treatment of women, so too has it had a problematic relationship with race. In a press round-table, Malek was quick to swat away the idea that his would be a Bond villain rooted in outdated Orientalist tropes: “I said we cannot identify him with any act of terrorism reflecting an ideology or a religion. That’s not something I would entertain, so if that is why I am your choice then you can count me out. But that was clearly not [Cory’s] vision.”

It feels pointless to probe Malek for detail on the film. Besides being a patently unsportsmanlike line of questioning, the man is far too disciplined to crack under mediocre Zoom call pressure, and far too deferential to the creatives involved to spoil something for the thrill of it. He instead talks of Daniel Craig’s drive and presence, and the undying energy that he brought to every take as Bond, despite carrying the weight of a historic franchise on his shoulders. He glows talking about Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, the keepers of Bond. But the outcome of the film – and the first chapter of Malek’s forever era – will remain unwritten until its expected release date in November.

You do rely on your gut for some thinking. And your gut says that Malek has the making of a Bond villain that could challenge even the most storied of the franchise’s history.

“You know me: I’m always looking for the very complex characters, the most complex characters,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be something where I’m transforming every aspect of myself to portray an individual. But I know that I need something to be pretty complicated for me to sink my teeth into it.”

The tension that he and Fukunaga cultivated will be familiar to those who know Malek’s work.

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Malek is a stingy actor. He is ungenerous. Where others will scream, he will whisper. Where others gesticulate, he remains stubborn and steady. In Mr. Robot, the clench of his jaw will cause you to draw breath sharply. In Bohemian Rhapsody, the steady shimmering of his stupidly large blue eyes substituted a crying out.

In one scene of Mr. Robot’s first season – one that may have played an outsized role in Hollywood upgrading Malek from curiosity to contender – Malek’s character confronts his therapist. The scene begins with a longing, awkward vulnerability. Malek is shot from above. He looks small. He looks tired. He looks meek and broken in a way that we all do at one point in our lives, however passing it may be.

“I’ve been lying to you.”

His helplessness hits you in the gut a little – you feel guilty for witnessing it.

But then, Malek turns.

“I sometimes watch you on your webcam. You cry sometimes. Just like me.”

He picks up the pace. The camera drops down, shooting him from below and you’re not sure how or when it happened, but Malek is dominant, he is dangerous, he is threatening.

And then, with the shimmer of a tear behind his eyes, he is exposed again.

“I want a way out of loneliness. Just like you.”

This is the light and dark of his range: the light and dark of Rami Malek.

***

While Malek’s quarantine has been filled with Zoom calls and friends and, yes, content, burning in the background is a reminder of what comes next. The chance to work it out a little more. The chance to maybe work it out as much as anyone has. He has been thinking about that, too. The slow mornings and long nights have given each of us the gift – and sometimes curse – of time to fold thoughts over in our minds, inspecting and evaluating the things we carry with us.

“I don’t know that I’ve been obsessed with ‘perfectionism’ so to speak,” he starts. “But more and more, I start to question what that actually means, and if that’s actually achievable, and if you actually do yourself a disservice by striving for that in every aspect of your work or your life. Does that set you up for failure?”

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There’s little doubt that Malek is exacting and precise – he has been known to chase and chase another take, shading a scene in a slightly different inflection in the pursuit of the elusive, intangible More. You get the sense that he applies these standards nowhere more so than upon himself.

“Even after all these awards, you can still second-guess yourself. It’s funny, but I’ve heard from a lot of actors – people you’d never think would say something like this – that they’re still concerned about whether they’re ever going to work again. Big name actors. And there’s something I
appreciate about that. It keeps you hungry. I don’t know, there’s always that feeling, I think with a lot of people: ‘Oh, we’re going to get caught out. They’re going to catch me. They’re going to realise. I’m an imposter.’ Every day that goes by, I realise that that’s not the case. A certain amount of hard work and ability have allowed for whatever success you would call this.”

With this, the pool of water sits still again, and Malek makes things clear. That he’s the guy who it worked out for, the guy who worked it out, and the guy who is working it out. And what more can be asked for?

Despite a silent determination to not centre himself in a conversation that’s wider, more diverse, and more crucial than any single one of us, Malek sprinkles our time together with acknowledgments of and reflections on power and privilege.

“This time has been particularly challenging for all of us,” he says. “I’m trying to work out my goals for the future: What can I offer? What is my responsibility? How can I continue to educate myself and be responsible for the choices that I make? And how I will be doing that not only going into work, but stepping out of this quarantine and into the world – advocating for representation and for justice? I’m working through things the same way everyone else is. I’m consistently trying to make discoveries and look after myself emotionally and physically as well.”

Malek is, as directors and critics so often praise, a unique kind of man. He is the kind of leader that prefers do go without a soapbox or a Twitter feed, swipe-ups or clapbacks. But it is worth noting that Malek exercises his power with discretion, and in doing so exhibits a hitherto unheard of Hollywood reluctance to beat his chest about the good he does and has done.

“I’ve always had a thing about fairness and justice and treating people appropriately. I just won’t tolerate any type of abuse.”

So, while he will not say so explicitly, it’s widely understood now that Malek was a driving force in ridding Bohemian Rhapsody of director Bryan Singer, who had reportedly engaged in behaviour that one cast member described as abhorrent. (Singer has not had a production credit since Bohemian Rhapsody, and in 2019 was the subject of numerous sexual assault allegations unrelated to that film.)

“Abusive behaviour is not something that I have ever tolerated,” he says. “I have always had a thing about fairness and justice and treating people appropriately. Appreciating everyone on the same level. I just won’t tolerate any type of abuse. If I see it on the street, I won’t tolerate it. If I see people abusing the power that they have, I won’t tolerate that. I will not tolerate entitlement.

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“I have been on sets where I’ve seen some ugly treatment of others. That was not something that I let slide, or go undetected. I definitely spoke my mind about it. I would do that in an even more assertive way at the onset of it, in any capacity. I wouldn’t allow for that type of environment to exist.”

At one point, near the end of the call, Malek stares down the barrel of the camera having just finished telling a story, lips forming into a wry smile. “Too deep? Too dark?” These days, is there really such a thing?

The conversation swirls around subjects, going on- and off-the-record, pausing often to let something sit, or to consider words carefully. It’s like any Zoom call you’ll ever have, like everything in this prolonged pause of life: deep, dark, flowery, peppy, awkward, pensive, vulnerable, real. And all through it, Rami is there, stingy and sweet, simmering and cool. The guy who worked it out; the guy who is working it out.

No Time to Die releases on November 19


Photography: Tom Craig at CLM
Styling: Olivia Harding
Production: Imogen Pedlar (off set), Henrietta Hitchcock (on set) at KO Collective
Junior Producer: Malaika Naik
Set designer: Derek Martin at The Wall Group
Hair & Makeup artist: Fay De Bremaeker at The Milton Agency using Boy de CHANEL and CHANEL Le Lift
Lighting assistants: KJ Cangoren, Katie Burton
Production assistant: Olivia McManus
Set design assistant: Kamilla Doungová
Styling assistant: Caitlin Moriarty