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The film was so challenging, so overdue, in its birth that it’s quite surprising it ever made it to the silver screen at all.
With respect to securing the new prominence of its star, Rami Malek, the movie (a foot-stomping bio based on British rock champions Queen) was well worth the wait. Egyptian-American actor Malek wore fake teeth and a liberal cloak of “darlings” to portray Freddie Mercury – and awards judges have gone gaga.
A Best Actor gong from BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) was followed by the most coveted prize of all – Best Actor recognition, at the 91 st Academy Awards in February. Malek will be particularly well-known to a British audience, but probably only those who’ve found themselves bingeing on Mr Robot, the Amazon Prime-distributed cyberthriller that made Malek so famous in his native America that he came up with a quip for the strangers who repeatedly asked him, “Is it about robots?” “Yes,” he would deadpan, in a voice that’s surprisingly rough and deep. “Do you like robots? Because it’s the show for you.”
I live with my anxiety and fears and want to do something special with my work. I never want to look back on performances where I could have done more.
Mr Robot is not about robots. Instead, it’s about Elliot Alderson, a morphine addicted hacker (played by Malek) who becomes embroiled with the Occupy-era disruption of a global conglomerate, before, in series three, trying to save the world.
Written by Sam Esmail, the show’s punishingly dark exploration of Alderson’s psychological trauma and anxiety helped it to win it a Golden Globe award and Malek an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series – the first Arab-American to do so.
After the self-confessed “slow burn” of his twenties, Mr Robot granted Malek with critical acclaim and globe-trotting fame a decade after. While he grew up in Los Angeles, he did so in the San Fernando Valley, away from the film factory of Beverly Hills and Hollywood. “I didn’t even know it existed [until my teens] as far as I was concerned,” he said in 2016.
Malek’s parents left Cairo in 1975, inspired by the wider world his father, a travel agent, witnessed through the lens of his clients. They settled among what Malek called a “massive ethnic melting pot”; his mother became an accountant and his father an insurance salesman.
Nobody, in short, expected Malek to act. His twin brother is a teacher, and his sister is a doctor. But Malek’s talent made itself known at 12, when he was spotted by a teacher who cast him in a school production of Charles Fuller’s one-man play, Zooman and the Sign, about the race-related murder of an African American girl. “I picked it up and it read, ‘My name is Zooman.
I’m from the bottom.’ And that line just hit me,” Malek later recalled, in an interview with W Magazine. “And then the way I said it hit me. I was like, Who the heck were you right there?” When his parents watched him perform, he “saw something happen in their faces.
Like, Oh, he might be able to do something with this. It was a real emotional movement that made me feel like this could be the thing.” Malek still nurtures a love of stage acting (“that connection with an audience is like nothing else”) but he hasn’t been on one for a while.
After balancing the occasional indie film role with a job as a waiter, Malek’s first major blockbuster role was that of Ahkmenrah, an Egyptian king in the Night at the Museum series, which he said he didn’t even think about from a typecasting perspective: “I was young and eager to be in my first big studio movie. It was from Fox, with Ben Stiller at the helm and Robin Williams.
I said: ‘This is going to be fun, I’m going to get paid to do it.’” He was overlooked for dozens of other roles, including the lead in US prohibition series Boardwalk Empire (which went to Michael Pitt). Shortly after, though, Malek was picked up by Hollywood heavyweights such as Paul Thomas Anderson for his Oscar-nominated religious drama The Master – where he took acting advice from co-star Philip
“Spielberg was behind the camera recording his performance. Malik said to himself, ‘It’s now or never. Don’t blow this. Do not blow this’
Seymour Hoffman (he told Malek to “make Joaquin as uncomfortable as possible”) – and Spike Lee, in the director’s remake of Oldboy and then, two years later, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Steven Spielberg cast Malek in his “first big part that I really, really loved”, playing Snafu in Second World War miniseries The Pacific, a role Malek said was “a life changer”.
Produced by Spielberg and Tom Hanks, the latter had typed a letter – perhaps, knowing his affectation for typewriters, in the analogue fashion – to the producer, saying “This guy’s got haunting eyes” after seeing Malek audition. Halfway through doing the callback, Malek realised that it was Spielberg himself behind the camera recording his performance. “I was like, ‘It’s now or never. Don’t blow this. Do not blow this.’” History would attest that he didn’t. By the summer of 2015, those “haunting eyes” were slicked all over billboards, posters and websites around the world.
When Malek, driving at the time, first saw his supersized face, he slammed on the brakes with such force that the car behind went into him.
While he considered it a “marker for some sort of achievement,” Malek hardly considered – or considers – himself a big star. “I was born in Los Angeles,” he told The Observer in a fledgling career interview. “I come from a mindset of, ‘I know what that billboard was two weeks ago.
And I know what it’s gonna be two weeks from now.’ This business is a revolving door.” By all accounts, Malek applies a rigorous level of dedication to his work. He holds himself upheld to standards high enough to maintain an understanding of anxiety that allowed him to easily key into his paranoid character Elliot. “Ultimately I am too tough,” Malek told IndieWire in 2016. “I live with my anxiety and fears and want to do something special with my work. Sometimes I’m not satisfied unless things are as good as they can be... I never want to look back on performances where I could have done more.”
Will Malek look back on playing Mercury and worry that he could have done more? The actor flew to London, put himself up and “just got hammering away”: learning piano lessons, taking singing lessons, working with a movement coach and sinking into hours of footage of Mercury that drifted around the internet. He would go into costume fittings as the star, adopting his famous mischief, and “order a f----ing cup of tea”.
Long before that, though, Malek had done his research; getting insight from Ray Davies, Brian May and Paul Gambaccini on “the impression Freddie had on people. How he could be alone at home and be quiet and reserved and, as he sometimes referred to himself, quite boring. And then exist in such a powerful way on stage.” If Malek has another major film role on the horizon, it’s yet to be announced publicly. First, there’s the fourth – and final – series of Mr Robot. The actor will retreat back into the character’s hood, keeping fans of the show gripped one last time.