Rami Malek knows what people might expect from Bohemian Rhapsody. “It could easily have been a monumental piece of shit, right?”
Consider the case for the prosecution: it is a biopic, that most maligned of movie genres, and one that has wrong-footed the most surefooted talents: remember Leonardo DiCaprio as J Edgar Hoover? He may well hope you don’t. Worse, it is a music biopic, a sub-genre that has proven even more problematic: Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis?
All outfits by Gucci.
Finally, Bohemian Rhapsody is a biopic of Queen, most obviously of Freddie Mercury, one of the handful of frontmen in the history of rock who can be said to be touched by genius. Its set piece is the Live Aid Wembley concert, which not only involved assembling 72,000 fans dressed like it was 1985 but also recreating one of the single defining performances in pop, one that was watched by 40 per cent of the planet, live. (“Day-o… Day-o” etc.)
While we’re discussing difficulties, we might throw in the surviving members of Queen’s fondness for not always showing off their legacy in the best light, elements of which one suspects might have had poor old Freddie pirouetting in his grave. There is, of course, the deathless Queen musical, We Will Rock You, from a book by Ben Elton, which seems to have been playing in London longer than Trooping the Colour, despite universally horrible reviews. There have been Queen computer games, Queen collaborations with the boyband 5ive and the rapper Wyclef Jean, and a Queen Monopoly boardgame. (“Because as Freddie used to say, when they asked him if he liked being rich, ‘Yes, I like getting lots of money because it tells me that people like what I do’,” explained guitarist Brian May to a perplexed reporter. “So there is the same kind of ethos behind this game.”)
Bomber jacket, jumper, wool trousers, all by Alexander McQueen. Leather loafers, by Church’s.
Then there is Bohemian Rhapsody’s own troubled birth. The film has been in production in some form or another since 2000. The casting of Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury bit the dust after May reportedly found him “too distracting”. Then director Bryan Singer walked off set with two weeks filming still to go, to be replaced by Dexter Fletcher, who, to be fair, did have biopic experience: his last film was ski-jumping drama Eddie the Eagle (2016).
And yet, despite all this, the 40-or-so minutes of Bohemian Rhapsody that Esquire has seen very much suggest a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. And the revelation is Malek’s performance: on and off-stage, he is a terrific Mercury.
“I can safely say we did not fuck it up,” says Malek. “It’s actually quite good, yeah?”
The immensely likeable 37-year-old American — born in Los Angeles, raised in Egypt — is previously best known for his multi-award-winning role as hacker Elliott Anderson in Mr Robot, the Amazon TV series that helped set the template for longform streaming dramas. “Clever, poignant, not playing the short game at all,” says Malek of Mr Robot. “Conflicted characters who are lonely and on some path towards self-discovery. One of the first shows to be binge-watched.”
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Prior to that even Malek describes his CV as “varied”. “After theatre drama school I just kicked around New York and LA for a while, like everybody else. A lot of ‘no’, ‘no’ and ‘no’s.”
After being cast as a terrorist for “the 12th time” — “You think, ‘That’s just plain racist’” — Malek decided to take a more proactive approach to his career, even if that meant the scary prospect of turning work down.
The Mercury role, he admits, would not have come his way 20 years ago. “It would have been different casting. But one of the things I want people to discover in the film was that Freddie’s name was Farrokh Bulsara [he was born in Zanzibar], I don’t think many people know that.”
Malek has clearly put in the hard yards studying Mercury. “Keep an eye on how many times his upper lip would come over his teeth,” he says. “His nickname at school was ‘Bucky’, he was very self-conscious, quite bullied. So, of course, he found a way to compensate.”
As well as an “FM” embossed hand towel and a cut-off mic stand — that Mercury trademark prop — Malek has kept a set of prosthetic teeth from the film, which he’s had cast in gold, something you sense the late singer would have approved of, at least more than the Monopoly board. “Maybe one day I’ll auction them for charity,” Malek says.
Wool coat & leather boots, both by The Kooples. Wool trousers, by Acne Studios @ Liberty
Certainly there are easier roles he could have taken on. “You start thinking ‘Why the fuck am I doing this?’” he laughs. “‘This is a terrible idea!’
“But once it started gearing up, and everyone began to enjoy the essence of what he was, they contributed to making it as splashy and fun as he [Mercury] would have wanted it. That’s something he always said. ‘When I’m gone, don’t make me boring. I never want to be boring’.”
Photographs by Ash Reynolds; Styling by Catherine Hayward.
Bohemian Rhapsody is out on Nov 8.
Source: Esquire UK