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'You Better Own This': How Rami Malek Came To Embody Freddie Mercury


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The Academy Awards ceremony is Sunday. Today we continue our series of interviews with Oscar nominees. We begin with actor Rami Malek, who's up for best actor in the film "Bohemian Rhapsody," playing Freddie Mercury of the band Queen. The film's also nominated for Best Picture, Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. The title of the film comes from the title of one of their most famous songs.


QUEEN: (Singing) Mama, just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger. Now he's dead. Mama, life had just begun. But now I've gone and thrown it all away. Mama, ooh, didn't mean to make you cry. If I'm not back again this time tomorrow, carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters.

DAVIES: Queen's biggest hits were in the '70s and early '80s, among them "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Will Rock You," "We Are The Champions" and "Another One Bites The Dust." But those records have endured beyond their time on the charts. "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions" became popular chants at stadium sports events. Freddie Mercury was a very theatrical performer with a big personality. He died of complications related to AIDS in 1991.

Rami Malek's performance as Freddie Mercury is a big contrast to his starring role in the TV series "Mr. Robot" as a withdrawn hacker with social anxiety disorder. Terry spoke with Rami Malek in November. Let's start with a scene from "Bohemian Rhapsody." It's 1975, and Freddie Mercury and the members of Queen are in the office of a record executive, played by Mike Myers, talking about the record they're about to release. Freddie Mercury speaks first.


RAMI MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury) We'll call the album "A Night At The Opera."

MIKE MYERS: (As Ray Foster) Are you aware that no one actually likes opera?

TOM HOLLANDER: (As Jim Beach) I like opera.

MYERS: (As Ray Foster) Do you?

AIDAN GILLEN: (As John Reid) I do.

MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury) Don't misunderstand, darling. It's a rock 'n' roll record with the scale of opera, the pathos of Greek tragedy, the wit of Shakespeare, the unbridled joy of musical theatre. It's a musical experience rather than just another record - something for everyone, something that will make people feel belongs to them. We'll mix genres. We'll cross boundaries. We'll speak in bloody tongues if we want to.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Rami Malek, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's so much fun to watch you as Freddie Mercury. Was singing part of your audition?

MALEK: It ended up being part of that audition. I warned them I was not a singer. I told them I don't play the piano. What I do when I'm out on the dance floor could be considered something having to do with rhythm but probably...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MALEK: ...Not.

GROSS: Yeah. All the music credits in the movie are attributed to Queen. So you sang as you were filming, but the music that we're hearing is actually Freddie Mercury and Queen.

MALEK: It's actually an amalgamation. The large majority of it is Freddie Mercury. And in order to sync it up properly, they used bits of my voice in the beginning. It will lead in with my voice and then pick up for the majority using Freddie Mercury's voice - tops and tails, as you call it. It's very difficult to get my voice up to those high notes. At some point, my voice breaks. And it breaks pretty quickly when I'm trying to ascend what Freddie Mercury can do.

GROSS: There's actually a scene where you're at the piano singing a sketch of "Bohemian Rhapsody," and your voice breaks. Is any of that you?

MALEK: Yeah. There are parts that are me. I think the parts that break, yes, that would be considered (laughter) Rami Malek.

GROSS: (Laughter) Should we just hear that bit? (Laughter).

MALEK: Sure.

GROSS: OK. Let us know if you can tell which part is you, OK?

MALEK: You got it.


MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury, singing) Goodbye, everybody. I've got to go, got to leave you all behind and face the truth. Mama, ooh, I don't want to die. I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all.

GROSS: OK. So the final note...

MALEK: Yeah.

GROSS: His or yours - voice breaks - what are we hearing?

MALEK: Gosh. The majority of that is, obviously, Freddie Mercury. But somehow, they've found a way to put me in there. And I can't - I really can't tell you. It feels so seamless to me. And that's, I think, one of the greatest aspects of this film is even I watch it and I cannot tell.

GROSS: "Bohemian Rhapsody" is bookended by a - basically, like, a reproduction of the famous Queen performance at Live Aid. That was this huge benefit concert in 1985 for the benefit of people suffering from the famine in Ethiopia. And your performance - there were multiple stages for this. The Queen - I said your performance. The Queen performance was in Wembley Stadium in London to an audience of 72,000 people. So you, as Freddie Mercury, had to reproduce that performance, which is considered one of the great performances in rock history.

So I'm sure you must have studied it move by move, including learning Freddie Mercury's microphone technique because he'd, basically, be handed the mic on the stand but not on the bass. So it was just, like, the pole with the mic on it. And then he'd use that as a prop, you know, strutting around on stage and using it as a - you know, strumming it like it was a guitar, putting it across his groin as if it were a large phallus, you know, all the rock tricks.


GROSS: So talk to us about, like, studying, Freddie Mercury during the Live Aid concert and also, like, how he used the microphone.

MALEK: Well, I walked around London for about two months with this half mic. And I think now...

GROSS: Wait. Now I'm going to stop you. When you say half mic, does that mean, like, the pole with the mic on it? Like the...

MALEK: Correct, yeah.

GROSS: You walked around with the mic on it.

MALEK: Yeah, I walked around with the mic attached to it. I just never wanted to lose focus of what I was doing. And that was a very constant reminder. Sometimes, I would tuck the microphone into my backpack. But otherwise, you just look like you're walking around with a piece of metal. And that's quite scary these days.

GROSS: Yes, it looks like a weapon.

MALEK: Exactly. So I kept the mic on it just to remind people, hey, I'm not out to hurt anyone. It was the first thing we shot - Live Aid - day one. We came out, and it was - it's that massive crane shot that goes through the audience and comes right up around the piano and opens to Freddie Mercury - myself, playing him - singing "Bohemian Rhapsody."

And talk about a baptism by fire. I never worked that hard in my life on one particular piece of filming. I spent hours with a movement teacher named Polly Bennett. I always wanted to keep it very spontaneous but, at the same time, honor this fantastic performance that he and Queen gave.

DAVIES: Terry Gross speaking with Rami Malek, who stars as Freddie Mercury in the film "Bohemian Rhapsody." He's up for an Oscar for Best Actor. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Rami Malek, who's nominated for an Academy Award for his role as Freddie Mercury in the film "Bohemian Rhapsody."


GROSS: Another thing we should mention is your teeth. He had - what? - four extra teeth in his upper mouth. And he had, you know, very buck teeth as a result. And so you had fake teeth that you used, made for you by a famous Hollywood prosthetic teeth designer.

What was it like for you to wear them? Like, how did it change your feeling of your mouth and your ability to talk and sing? - because, like, not only did you have to sing for the performance, even though they weren't necessarily going to use your voice, you still had to sing. So you're doing something you're not used to doing - singing. And you're doing it with teeth that aren't even yours.

MALEK: Yes. The teeth were difficult to get used to. Initially, I put them in my mouth a year prior to shooting and immediately felt insecure. I felt like I was on my back foot in a way. I didn't feel like myself, which did help me quite a bit. But it was a feeling of insecurity that I had to cover them up as well. And I'd been watching so much footage of him. You see him covering up his teeth so often that I thought, how am I ever going to do that?

Well, as soon as those teeth went in, it was second nature. I found myself covering them up so often my lips would dry up, so I found myself licking my lips as he did. But another thing happened. I started to compensate physically by holding my posture better, elongating my body, sitting up very straight. And that's something you also see him do. And I don't know if that was something that affected him or he was born with the elegance that he has. But it did give me a way into understanding a little bit more about him.

His name is originally Farrokh Bulsara, and he wasn't even called that as a kid. A very strong set of buck teeth - and most of the kids in school called him Buckie (ph). So you see this young man who travels from Zanzibar and goes to a boarding school called St. Peter's in India. He travels there on a ship. He feels very, I think, removed and isolated. And when he comes back to Zanzibar, his country is in the midst of a revolution. They have to immigrate to London. And he's a young man at that point, feels like a fish out of water in the 1970s, trying to identify himself sexually as well. I mean, so much stands in the way of this man becoming who he is.

There is something burning inside of him - this dream that he wants to see realized, this music that is so vibrant and yearning to exist outside of him. And everything stands in his way. But when he gets out on a stage, he holds everyone's attention and says, hey. I may have been an outcast and a misfit. And I may feel like I don't belong. But here on this stage, we belong together. I had to demystify him somehow. I thought to myself, here's a young man, immigrated to a country, defied all obstacles to do what he loved. And that was one thing that I could understand. Not to compare myself to him in any way, shape or form, but I am a first-generation American. My family came from Egypt and sought a better life for their children in the U.S. And, you know, obviously, like so many people, they would have loved for us to be doctors and lawyers. My sister is a doctor, so she fulfilled that aspect. But it was very difficult to convince anyone that I wanted to do this and that I could do this.

GROSS: Did you feel like you were going to be letting them down if you failed? That they came here - and often with immigrants, the idea is it's for their children. So if you failed as an actor, would you have been letting them down? Did you feel guilty for even trying for an acting career?

MALEK: It's a good question. Yeah. I did feel a bit guilty. And the only way to compensate for that was just to give it my all. I was in my apartment that we were living in - four of us in a two-bedroom apartment. And I had a stack of manila envelopes. And every morning, I would get up and put my head shot and resume in the manila envelopes. And I remember my father one day standing next to my mom saying, you have a very tenacious son. And I don't think that he knows that I heard him, but I heard that. And it gave me that extra boost I needed to just keep going. And I would take those manila envelopes - I was delivering pizza - I would put them - glue them or tape them to every pizza box I would send out. I would keep them behind the register of the fast-food restaurant I would be working at. And if anyone even producorial came in, they were getting a head shot and resume in their to-go bag.

GROSS: Did you deliver pizzas to, like, famous producers or directors?

MALEK: I did get an audition out of it once, and I thought...

GROSS: Seriously? Really?

MALEK: I did. Yeah, I did. It was for a commercial and still kept in touch with that person who gave me the audition.

GROSS: Did you get the commercial?

MALEK: I did not.

GROSS: What was it for?

MALEK: It was for M&M's.


MALEK: I will tell you this. One day, I did get a call. I got a call from Mara Casey, who was a casting director for the "Gilmore Girls." And she asked to speak with Rami Malek's agent, and I said, speaking. And she said, well, can I talk to - about Rami Malek coming in for a role on the "Gilmore Girls?" And I said, yeah. And she said, and who am I speaking with? I said, this is he. And she said, you don't have an agent, do you? And I go, no, but we can work on that. And she started laughing. And she said, well, are you SAG? Are you part of the Screen Actors Guild? And I said, as of yet, no. But that's something else we can work on, as well. And she kept laughing. And she's like, listen; you're cute. Call me when you get representation. And I said, listen; we're doing all right. We're having a good time. I see that the scene has only three lines. How about giving a guy a break? And if you're laughing now, chances are I might have you laughing in the room. And she took a few seconds, and she said, you know what, kid? Come on in.

I couldn't believe it. I could not believe it. I went in on that day. And later on that night, I had a callback for that show. And in between that, one of these manila envelopes that I had been stuffing, sending to every agent in Los Angeles, happened to call me in between the audition and the callback. And the confluence of the things that happened on that day still defy me to have any explanation for them. But it was a very profoundly successful day.

GROSS: So you got the "Gilmore Girls" part, right?

MALEK: I got the part the next day.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about "Mr. Robot." Now, in this, you're somebody who has serious mental health issues, serious social problems. It's very hard for you to be with people. You're very withdrawn. You literally withdraw into your hoodie most of the time. And you're a hacker by night, but you're, like, a tech worker during the day. In the opening episode of season 1, you walk into a coffee shop - Ron's Coffee shop - and you start talking to the owner of the shop. Let's listen to that scene.


MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) You're Ron. Your real name's Rohit Mehta. You changed it to Ron when you bought your first Ron's Coffee shop six years ago. Now you got 17 of them with eight more coming next quarter.

SAMRAT CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) May I help you with something?

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) I like coming here 'cause your Wi-Fi was fast. I mean, you're one of the few spots that has a fiber connection with gigabit speed. It's good - so good it scratched that part of my mind, the part that doesn't allow good to exist without condition. So I started intercepting all the traffic on your network. That's when I noticed something strange. It's when I decided to hack you.

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) Hack...

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) I know you run a website called Plato's Boys.

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) Pardon me?

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) You're using Tor networking to keep the servers anonymous. You made it really hard for anyone to see it. But I saw it. The onion routing protocol - it's not as anonymous as you think it is. Whoever's in control of the exit nodes is also in control of the traffic, which makes me the one in control.

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) I must ask you to kindly leave.

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) I own everything - all your emails, all your files, all your pics.

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) Get out of here right now or I'll call the...

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) Police? You want them to find out about the 100 terabytes of child pornography you serve to your 400,000 users? Personally, man, I was hoping it was just going to be some BDSM stuff. You realize how much simpler that would've been?

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) I didn't hurt anyone - never did. That's my personal life.

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) I understand what it's like to be different. I'm very different, too.

GROSS: That might sound like an expression of sympathy (laughter). But right after that, Rami Malek's character is offered money by the coffee shop owner to cover this up. And Elliot, Rami Malek's character, the hacker, says that he doesn't care about money. And it turns out he's tipped off the police. And as he gets up to leave the coffee shop, the police get out of their cars. And they start walking in to bust the coffee shop owner. It's a great scene, and it kind of hooks you right at that - right at episode 1. How did you get the part of "Mr. Robot?" You weren't very well-known at the time. I mean, "Mr. Robot" is really what made you well-known.

MALEK: Correct. I got the part, actually, auditioning with that very scene. Sam Esmail, who is the creator of "Mr. Robot," had seen me do a miniseries that was from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks called "The Pacific." And at some point, I came in with another hundred actors or so, did my best and kept coming in and coming in until finally, I did a network test. And I got the role. I never thought that I would be the lead character in any show. And this proved me wrong.

GROSS: Rami Malek, it's really been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much. Thank you for your performances.

MALEK: It's been an absolute pleasure. I don't usually share this much of myself, but I figured, what better place to do it than on NPR with you, Terry? Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Rami Malek recorded last November. He's nominated for an Oscar for best actor in the film "Bohemian Rhapsody." Coming up, we hear from Adam McKay, who's been nominated for Oscars for best direction and best original screenplay for his film "Vice." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


QUEEN: (Singing) I work hard - he works hard - every day of my life. I work till I ache my bones. At the end - at the end of the day - I take home my hard-earned pay all on my own. I go down to my knees, and I start to pray till the tears run down from my eyes. Lord, somebody, somebody, somebody, please - can anybody find me somebody to love? He works hard - every day - every day... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.