Rami Malek plays late singer-songwriter Freddie Mercury in the band biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a daunting task portraying a larger-than-life global rock icon whose voice and image are permanently embedded in the minds of millions of Queen fans.
To prepare, the 37-year-old actor went on an archaeological dig of Mercury’s life: screening performances, reading biographies, tearing through old photos and notes and interrogating Queen co-founders Brian May and Roger Taylor, who also served as producers on the film. (Bassist John Deacon retired from the spotlight in 1997.)
“You see him on stage and then almost instinctually I’d want to discover more,” says Malek. Reading letters Mercury wrote home from St Peter’s boarding school in India in his younger years, “there’s just an eloquence and elegance to him that you see when he’s on stage, and then you can [see] where all that was birthed from. I mean, not many artists are wearing an entire head-to-toe leather outfit, sipping a champagne flute and telling their audience to strip naked if they please. And he still comes off with this essence of royalty.”
The deeper Malek swam in research, the more enamoured he became of the star’s life and legacy, so much so that he continued to dive into the singer’s history long after the film had wrapped. “I don’t stop,” he says. “I reread one of the biographies the other day just to see, ‘Did I miss anything?’”
That dedication was clear to Rhapsody producer Graham King from his first meeting with the Mr. Robot star. “[We] ended up sitting around for four or five hours talking about Freddie,” King says, adding that once shooting began, “it was almost eerie how the guy can transform himself so quickly”.
Malek was intent on paying respect to Mercury in all facets of his life. Beneath the elaborate outfits and magnetic stage presence was a man grappling with his sexual identity. While Malek is proud of how the film depicts the singer’s journey, he wishes “we could delve deeper”, especially into Mercury’s relationships with men, such as long-term partner Jim Hutton.
“I just kept pushing for more of that aspect of his life,” he said. “I don’t know if we ever felt fulfilled by it.” It was difficult to work in more, Malek says, since much of the film focuses on Queen’s early days and subsequent commercial peak, and Mercury’s first relationship – with “the love of his life,” Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) – to whom he comes out as bisexual in the film.
But even with Mary and Jim in Mercury’s orbit, Malek feels Mercury – who died from AIDS-related complications in 1991 – was constantly searching for affection. That longing sent Malek back down the rabbit hole, wanting to learn more.
Ultimately, the key to unlocking him lay in the place Mercury was most comfortable: singing and writing music – something Malek absorbed by writing down every one of Mercury’s lyrics and then reading them ad nauseam. By the time Bohemian Rhapsody began shooting, the Gospel According to Freddie Mercury was pumping through the actor’s veins.
“If you listen to [the song] “Lily of the Valley”, it opens, ‘I am forever searching high and low, but why does everybody tell me no?’,” says Malek. “I thought, ‘Are you stupid, Rami? A guy who’s pouring his soul out to you right here. He’s written you his diary’.”