Rami Malek On Being Freddie Mercury In the new film Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury, Queen's frontman who shattered convention. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Malek about his role.
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Rami Malek On Being Freddie Mercury

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Rami Malek On Being Freddie Mercury

Rami Malek On Being Freddie Mercury

Rami Malek On Being Freddie Mercury

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In the new film Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury, Queen's frontman who shattered convention. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Malek about his role.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

QUEEN: (Singing) Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Queen released their 1975 album "A Night At The Opera," critics were confused. The single was this meandering, six-minute rock odyssey with made-up words and opera, for crying out loud. The New York Times called the band pretentious and irrelevant. Rolling Stone tossed the song aside as brazen hodgepodge. But Queen knew they had a hit. "Bohemian Rhapsody" shattered convention, just like the voice that created it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

QUEEN: (Singing) Any way the wind blows, doesn't really matter to me.

MARTIN: Freddie Mercury was rock 'n' roll royalty, his story worthy of any drama. A biopic had been in development for years. The first star dropped out, then director Bryan Singer was fired. And the actor who ultimately made a movie happen was Rami Malek.

RAMI MALEK: I'm not a singer. I'm not a piano player. I do move my body in a very unusual way when I'm dancing.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MALEK: And that's about the closest proximity I have to Freddie Mercury.

MARTIN: But he does make the transformation, becoming Freddie Mercury in a new movie that traces the rise of Queen.

MALEK: I - you know, I could not pass this up. It was, to me, the role of a lifetime.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

GWILYM LEE: (As Brian May) So now what?

MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury) This is when the operatic section comes in.

LEE: (As Brian May) Oh, the operatic section. Yeah.

QUEEN: (Singing) Mama mia, mama mia, mama mia, let me go. Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me...

MARTIN: The new film is aptly titled "Bohemian Rhapsody."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

QUEEN: (Singing) So you think...

MARTIN: Of course, we know Queen's wailing guitar riffs and huge vocals. The challenge for Rami Malek was finding the quieter side of the story - the complexities, the vulnerabilities, the humanity of Freddie Mercury.

MALEK: I mean, he glides onstage with a cape and crown.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MALEK: He's almost a superhuman.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MALEK: But what was most useful was, essentially, what I thought was a diary that I had right under my nose. And it was his lyrics. So when he writes, find me somebody to love, can anyone find me somebody to love, it was just - it's there, a sort of Freddie Mercury diary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY TO LOVE")

QUEEN: (Singing) Somebody to love.

MARTIN: Describe the relationship he had with Mary, the woman he describes in the film as the love of his life.

MALEK: Yeah. When I started researching Freddie Mercury's life, little did I know that he had a, you know, six-year relationship with a woman named Mary Austin, who was his supreme and ultimate confidant. He proposed to her at one point. I think they lifted each other up. They made each other feel as human and alive as two people could. And in fact, he left her half of his entire estate.

MARTIN: I want to play a clip. You all attempt to recreate this moment. It was from the Live Aid concert in 1985 at London's Wembley Stadium. Freddie does this call and response thing with the audience. Let's listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FREDDIE MERCURY: (Singing) Ayo (ph).

AUDIENCE: (Singing) Ayo (ph).

MERCURY: (Singing) Ayo (ph).

AUDIENCE: (Singing) Ayo (ph).

MERCURY: (Vocalizing).

AUDIENCE: (Vocalizing).

MERCURY: All right.

AUDIENCE: All right.

MALEK: Oh, just listening to that still gives me chills. What I think that stems from is a young man who is an immigrant, right? He grew up in Zanzibar. He went to boarding school in India, where he was shipped off to a British boarding school called St. Peter's. He came back from St. Peter's to Zanzibar. His country was in the midst of a revolution. They flew to London, the family. He immigrated at the age of 18 - extreme fish out of water. His largely protruding teeth - as a kid, he was referred to as Buckie.

MARTIN: We should just acknowledge you had - I mean, those were fake teeth, right? You had a prosthesis in your...

MALEK: I did.

MARTIN: ...In your mouth.

MALEK: I very much did. He had massive teeth. And they actually made the original size to spec. And they just overwhelmed my face. You know, so those took a while to get used to. And he grew up in a time where homosexuality was very much stigmatized, especially in the Zoroastrian faith to which he was born. It could be very difficult for any child with those circumstances to try to discover themself.

MARTIN: Right, just exist...

MALEK: Exist.

MARTIN: ...Let alone exceed and be so comfortable.

MALEK: And that's where it comes from. I think there's a tempest brewing inside of him, all of this conflict and desire and this passion. And when he gets onstage, it liberates itself from him.

MARTIN: It was the '80s, the height of the AIDS epidemic when gay men were dying at an alarming rate. And Freddie Mercury ends up contracting AIDS. He was already a lonely man in so many ways. How did his diagnosis change him?

MALEK: It's difficult to speak on it. I'm playing him in a movie, but I don't know if I can ever quite grasp what exactly was going on in his head. One thing I know is that he wanted to make music till the day he died. And one thing he told Jim Beach, who is the executor of his estate, he said, I know that you'll keep working after I'm gone; just promise me one thing; don't ever make me boring.

MARTIN: (Laughter) After spending so much time in his head, what do you think it was that made Freddie Mercury so extraordinary?

MALEK: There was a dreamer in him. And you can see this. He's not looking at the first three rows. He's looking at everyone in the back of that arena. He says, I'm a misfit. I'm an outcast. But I'm going to sing you this song called "We Are The Champions," and we can all sing that together. He's a revolutionary because he wanted people to just see one another as they were and be their most authentic selves. And Freddie Mercury could not be more authentic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS")

QUEEN: (Singing) We are the champions. We are the champions.

MARTIN: Rami Malek stars as the lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury, in the new film "Bohemian Rhapsody."

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