Oscar Winner Rami Malek Is On Top Of The World
Late 2017. A large paddock, somewhere in England. Rami Malek struts onto stage. A pit of fake photographers crane their heads up, tracing him across the stage with prop cameras. Malek raises a fist. He pumps it. An invisible crowd of tens of thousands is in the palm of his hand.
It’s the first day of filming for Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic. You don’t need to squint to feel like it’s Live Aid, the most transcendent gig in Queen’s history. You don’t need to squint to believe that Rami Malek is Freddie Mercury – it’s right there in the impossible jawline, the way he kicks a leg out, how he adjusts his posture with a shimmy. Six months earlier, Malek would have told you that he was scared. Biopics invite a gleefully harsh level of scrutiny. The stakes on a project like this, depicting maybe the greatest performer to have ever lived? Gargantuan. Even a near-miss could derail an actor’s career. (Six months earlier, before accepting this role, Malek was getting well-meaning looks at photo shoots that said, don’t do it.)
If you don’t yet know Rami Malek, start with this: on the very first day of the biggest job of his life, he proceeded straight to the deep end of the pool, and dove in.
If we’re living in the era of loud – the era of hyper-exposure, hyper-sharing and hyper-opinion – then Rami Malek might be the quietest celebrity that could exist in 2018. Not shy, not unopinionated, but quiet. (In an interview published last month, The New York Times bemoaned that he was “extremely reluctant to dish about himself.”)
Maybe you chalk that up to patience. This has been a grind. There was the one-off bit role on Gilmore Girls, the prominent arc on 24, a series of appearances in the Night at the Museum films. There was a string of collaborations with towering figures, including Spielberg, Hanks, Thomas Anderson and Seymour Hoffman.
Then, there was the breakthrough, Mr. Robot. For all the talent Malek has rubbed shoulders with, there may be no greater influence on him than the director Sam Esmail, a fellow Egyptian-American. Esmail, raised in a Muslim family in New Jersey, has built a body of work inspired in part by the feelings of alienation he felt growing up in America.
It was the pair’s collaboration on Mr. Robot – the dystopian TV technodrama – that brought Malek unanimous acclaim and eventually tipped his career from ‘emerging’ to ‘arriving’.
The show premiered in 2015 as something of a low-key masterpiece, in the way that Mad Men was: tucked away on a niche television network, with a leading talent and director that hadn’t yet exploded into the zeitgeist. Stepping into the role of Elliot, a talented hacker, Malek is paranoid and sensitive, relatable and scary. Above all else, he’s patently watchable.
Funny thing: even after so much waiting, when success comes, it tends to arrive in a hurry.
First, Twitter buzzed. Then, critics gushed. After Robert Downey Jr saw the show, he reached out to Malek over email. (Malek couldn’t believe it was actually him: “I responded, basically, ‘F*** off’.’ And then another email came back.”) Two seasons into Mr. Robot, Malek put on a crisp Dior tuxedo and accepted his Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor – the first non-white winner of the category in almost 20 years.
Despite a body of accomplishments like his and Bohemian Rhapsody looming like a life-changing juggernaut, Rami Malek remains quiet. This isn’t a loud actor. This isn’t a guy who trawls through Instagram DMs and posts filter-heavy stories that bear the disclaimer of a brand sponsorship. (Rami Malek’s Instagram post count, at time of writing: two. Last time of posting: May 9, 2017.)
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“I’m going to take those two pictures down one day,” says Malek, nursing a drink on a lazy Friday in Los Angeles. It’s the day after GQ’s first cover shoot. Malek and I are mourning the fact that the olives on the table have been pitted, and seemingly lost their flavour oomph along the way. “I think it’s the mechanism they use to extract them,” he shrugs.
Malek is in a career moment that’s hard to come by. It’s the split-second before a race begins; the last chance to inhale before deep-diving into the ocean. Naturally, external forces are trying their best to pull him in calculated directions – like say, Instagram.
Over the years, everyone from publicists to studio executives have badgered him to shape up, to get more familiar with his selfie camera, to engage with the digital world like a Modern Actor ought to.
“They have hounded me, and I’ve stuck to my guns,” he says, eating another olive. Malek’s energy is simmering and conscientious. He’s a vampiric 37-years-old, with one of those faces that looks young and mature, all at once. When you speak, Malek’s oversized eyes give you full attention. (Often, five or ten minutes will pass before you realise that, such are the powers of his listening and his probing follow-up questions, he’s barely uttered a word.)
After you’ve completed the celebrity interview circuit enough times, patterns emerge. You can tell when someone switches gears into something pre-prepared. You can tell when you’re being acted to. The wonderful thing about Malek? He still has the flashes of authenticity that only come from someone who isn’t rehearsed and honed. A few months ago, speaking on Jimmy Kimmel’s show about Mike Myers’ role in Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek described Myers’ character as a “recutive exec.”
“Record executive?” corrected Kimmel with a laugh.
Call it a misspeak, call it punch of nerves – but how many Emmy-winning, Oscar hopeful, leading-men-on-the-verge can still have something as unscripted as nerves? For all the wailing about the modern world’s lack of authenticity, Malek may be the anti-celebrity, the antidote. And that’s because, to date, he’s refused to be anything more or less than Rami Said Malek.
Arabic was the first language out of Malek’s mouth. His parents, Coptic Christians, immigrated from Egypt to America, steeled to build a new life for their family. They were chasing opportunity. But they were wary, too. They knew that with assimilation came risk – the risk of diminishing an identity that had been built up by generations of life in Egypt.
“It was, ‘You are not losing these roots. This is very important for us. You can’t compromise who we are and become Americanised.’ That was a thing that my father was very cognisant of,” he says.
As a child, every so often, Malek would be woken up in the middle of the night by his father. A phone would be placed against his ear. On the other end of the line was Samalut – a city a few hours away from Cairo by train. On the other end of the line was family.
Malek would speak, in his best Arabic, to 15 or 20 people. They were cousins and aunts and uncles he had never even met, but whose voices meant enough to roll out of bed at 2am to hear.
“My dad was a magnificent storyteller. He could set the picture and the tone of what his childhood was like, what it looked like, who was living there. It was a beautiful thing to pick up the phone and go from one person to the other. I grew up with them over the phone,” says Malek.
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In his late teens, he travelled to Egypt for the first time. He looked out over Cairo. It looked golden – like it was shimmering.
Malek caught a train south from Cairo, snaking down the Nile. He arrived in Samalut, the city he only knew from a crackling phone line and the stories his father had painted. Waiting at the train station, stood by a dirt bike, dressed in a galabeya, was Malek’s cousin. (Malek was in a circa-2000s phase of style: denim, a tee, and a western shirt.) The two got on the bike – Malek’s cousin hitching his galabeya a little – and headed off.
They were making their way to the town where the Malek family had lived for five or six generations. Soon, there would be long hugs and late nights, there would be laughter and stories punctuated by tables of feta and olives and fūl. But first, a stop-off.
The pair parked the bike and entered a small building: a tailor shop. Malek walked in and an old man greeted him with a hug, as though they’d known each other for decades. The man asked Malek to wait a moment, and then handed him two garments.
Malek put them on. They fit to a T.
“How did you have my sizes?” asked Malek.
“I had your father’s sizes when he was your age,” said the tailor.
There’s a reason why it’s difficult to name Hollywood actors with Middle Eastern heritage: reconciling Middle Eastern identity with working in Hollywood comes with a succession of hurdles, disadvantages and compromises. In the West, actors of Middle Eastern descent typically have two options: be ignored, or be stereotyped.
When Malek played suicide bomber Marcos Al-Zacar in 24, it was amongst the biggest roles of his career. His character was killed off in uninspiring, familiar fashion: thrown into a pressure chamber by the show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer, before being killed by his own suicide vest.
“At least the young man died a hero,” wrote The Wall Street Journal of Malek’s character, who made something of a redemptive turn before his death.
Malek’s distinct look and Egyptian heritage made him – like a lot of Middle Eastern actors in Hollywood – a magnet for one-dimensional roles playing terrorists, brutes, and a smorgasbord of Arab caricatures.
“In the past it was like, ‘Oh well, he’s an acceptable terrorist! He’s an accessible terrorist!” says Malek. “But after I did that I said to myself, ‘You know what? Bullsh**. No more. This is not how I want it.’”
I am so enamoured and intertwined with Egyptian culture. It is the fabric of who I am.
So, Malek drew a line with his agents. “Any calls that come about playing Arabs or Middle Easterners in a negative light? I don’t need to respond to any of them anymore. No more of this.”
It doesn’t seem like coincidence that after this decision, Malek’s path would cross with Esmail’s – nor that the pair would create the best work of their careers. Over the years, it’s clear that Malek’s Egyptian identity has only solidified – grown more rigid in response to every slight. You don’t need to ask him which culture he most identifies with: he’ll volunteer it.
“There’s no first-generation, or second-generation removed. I am Egyptian. I grew up listening to Egyptian music. I loved Umm Kulthum. I loved Omar Sharif,” says Malek. “These are my people. I feel so gorgeously tied to the culture and the human beings that exist there. I acknowledge that I have a different experience, but I am so enamoured and intertwined with Egyptian culture. It is the fabric of who I am.”
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When Malek was approached to play Freddie Mercury, no cell in his body would allow him to exaggerate his skill set.
“I said, ‘Look, I don’t play piano, I don’t sing, I don’t consider myself a dancer at all.’”
The film wasn’t yet green-lit – and in Hollywood, you never know. But Malek knew enough. He decided to fly himself to London. He started getting singing lessons, piano lessons, guitar lessons.
“I thought, ‘If this really does happen, there’s no way I’m going to go into this unprepared. And if it doesn’t? Well, I learned how to do a few things.’”
Malek sat down with a series of choreographers, each trying to help him break down the wild idiosyncrasies of Mercury. It didn’t work. Mercury, it turns out, can’t be broken down into a routine.
“I needed someone who could help me do it on the day, so that I wouldn’t be choreographed. So that I could just do Freddie.”
The thought of someone – anyone – being able to flip a switch and do Freddie Mercury is scoff-inducing. But then, you watch Malek’s hands strike the opening strains of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the piano. You see the bass vamp in the left hand. You see the hands cross over, the fingers arched just so. You see the shoulders rise as he hits a high note. You see the little bounce on the piano stool, part excitement, part rhythm-keeping. It’s impeccable.
Getting there wasn’t without struggle. At various points, the production of Bohemian Rhapsody was hit with drama that was wholly unscripted. Roles as varied as screenwriters, producers, directors and lead actors played a miserable game of musical chairs. This came to a head when director Bryan Singer was fired from the production, three months into filming. The film’s studio said that Singer had been dropped as director due to “unexpected unavailability”, but several publications reported that Singer had repeatedly clashed with Malek.
There’s no incentive to discuss turmoil – nothing worth taking attention away from a marathon project with an overflowing amount of promise. But Malek will say this much: “Everyone’s job is as important as one another’s. I’ve seen it; I’ve seen such ugliness on sets. Why make people feel small?”
“I’m empowered as an actor to feel like I can set a precedent when I’m on set, and that’s all I will say. I know the precedent that I want to be set, so that everyone can excel to the height of their capabilities.”
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The final product remains his singular focus. He says the film carries the burden of something greater than his own interests. Really, it carries the burdens that Mercury himself did: the chance to be a light for those who feel voiceless, forgotten or shunned.
“It’s a lofty goal, and it may seem like it’s not my responsibility, but I hope that people feel somewhat more empowered to speak their voice, and their truth, because of watching something like this,” he says.
“We were talking about identity before. Freddie’s real name was Farrokh Bulsara. Whether it’s Persian or Indian or British – everyone’s going to claim him,” he says.
“I love the challenge. When somebody says, ‘There’s no way that can be done,’ I think, ‘Well, there is a way.’ Because a guy like Farrokh Bulsara was probably told that there’s no way it’s ever going to be done. And all he did was say, ‘You know what? F*** you, I’m going to do it. And not only am I going to do it, I’m going to do it loudly, I’ll be bombastic, and I will leave behind a legacy that nobody can argue with.’”
Just there, Malek is talking about Farrokh Bulsara. But you know he’s talking about more than that. He’s entering the award circuit era of his career, criss-crossing the globe to appear at the right events, meet the right people, and go all-in on becoming a generational leading man.
It’s also the era of a career where an actor is defined. Hollywood loves to pare you back and pin you down. Its take on Malek is sometimes reductive: Here’s this quirk in this system, this Middle Eastern guy who can do neurotic character acting well. The question is, can that person become more? Can he still pivot? Or is this it? Does a career start malleable, then set in place?
As for his personal life – that’s another thing. More and more, he’s embraced the burden of the unknown. One day, during the filming of Bohemian Rhapsody, Brian May, Queen’s guitarist, turned to Malek and said, “We’re butterflies.”
“And it’s true,” says Malek. “Most of the time, we’re suspended in mid-air. We have touchstones here and there that we like to land on. But we’re so frequently on the way to the next destination.”
Life could change drastically in the next few months. Or it couldn’t. “I also feel completely in control of it,” says Malek.
When he filmed in Belgrade a few years back, he had teenagers coming up to him, giddy about Mr. Robot. It happened in Greece, it happened in Italy.
“But then I go to a different country, and nobody knows who I am. I still have this sense that anonymity is not entirely lost. If I keep doing jobs where I feel like I am not playing myself, I retain my own sense of anonymity and integrity to myself. That there’s some distance between the two,” he says. “But don’t get me wrong, I’m not foolish enough to not realise that s*** could get weird.”
As with his anonymity, Malek’s career could go two ways: either there’s more, or there isn’t. Either there’s change, or there’s not.
“I don’t want it to go the other way. I know the other way. It could have gone that way. It still can. But I won’t let it.”
Photography: Peggy Sirota
Styling: Jim Moore
Grooming: Marissa Machado at Art Department using V76
Production: Steve Bauerfeind
Style Assistant: Michael Cioffoletti
Photo Assistants: Wade Brands, Jared Burkhardt & Wacunza Clark