Starring as a paranoid cybersecurity hacker in TV’s “Mr. Robot” has given Rami Malek quite a lot: a mesmerizing role to play; breakout popularity among fans of prestige TV; an Emmy win as best dramatic actor.
Yet, the show business bible Variety describes him as “neither burdened nor burnished by already-iconic star status.”
As the hit USA Network series approaches its fourth and final season, a string of film roles is likely to give the 37-year-old actor an even greater level of fame. After playing a penal colony escapee in August’s “Papillon,” he is already winning praise for his performance in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” opening Nov. 2, as the late Freddie Mercury — the virtuosic, temperamental, outrageously flamboyant lead singer of Queen.
Personally, after a decade of acting Malek isn’t thrilled about increasing his level of public recognition.
“I’m still striving to hang onto some semblance of anonymity,” he said by phone. “I guess I picked the wrong job for that.”
He said it was impossible to resist the meaty role, which represented a genuine dream come true. Malek fell in love with Mercury’s voice before entering his teens, and before knowing any details about the singer’s charmed and tragic life.
“I think everybody tries to sing at least one of [Mercury’s] songs in their youth,” he said of such hand-slapping, fist-pumping hits as “Killer Queen,” “Somebody to Love,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
“ ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was a song that stunned me and halted me and haunted me — the first time that music had delivered on so many sensations at once. It was mystifying but I wanted to know more. And that’s when I began to build my relationship with Freddy Mercury,” whom he calls “the most exceptional and greatest voice of all time.”
“It’s certainly a dream to have this opportunity. But it also was something that, as an actor, you second-guess. I mean, you might be able to pull it off in karaoke, but are you actually going to be able to pull it off on camera, for the world to judge you on?”
As an Egyptian American, Malek recognizes points of spiritual kinship with Mercury, a personally private, creatively driven showman of Indian parentage: “He was a fully formed individual that comes out of someone who is just struggling to understand who he was.”
Malek’s performing life began with a similar struggle.
“I used to make a lot of noise alone in my bedroom, create individual characters on my own and share them with myself,” away from his brother and sister. “I didn’t know what was going on and wanted to keep it to myself until I could understand it.”
Accepting his 2016 Emmy for playing a disruptive character on the autism spectrum, he said, “I play a man who is, like many of us, profoundly alienated.” Sam Esmail, the creator of “Mr. Robot” and Malek’s close friend, calls him “a social, well-adjusted person playing a lonely guy who couldn’t be more alienated.”
Malek begs to differ. “That’s his perception of me. Who is very well-adjusted socially? You can say that about everybody else. I don’t know if you’d ever say it about yourself.”
It’s a world view that fits Mercury.
“What is so beyond special about him is that he was all things,” says Malek. “He was the most dynamic frontman you could ever ask for, and at the same time a completely private and generous loving soul who could be very reclusive.”
Mercury’s multifaceted character is the film’s dramatic cornerstone. He courted speculation about his sexuality, refused to confirm or deny that he was bisexual, while hitting the stage in tight leather glam-rock leggings or tutus, often preening in eyeliner and makeup. He disavowed press reports that he was suffering from AIDS almost until the moment of his death from a related illness in 1991.
Among controversies that Malek works to avoid is the troubled production history of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Its original director, “X-Men” filmmaker Bryan Singer, was fired last December after repeated absences from the set and reported clashes with the cast. He was replaced by Dexter Fletcher (“Eddie the Eagle”).
“Freddie and the band is an exceptional story,” Malek said. “Ultimately that’s what everyone is going to care about.”
His next starring role will also be his first film as a producer. He will play a Muslim FBI agent who infiltrates a small, U.S.-based al-Qaida terrorist cell in “American Radical.” It will be directed by Esmail, who is also of Egyptian origin.
“It’s an impression of what it means to be an Egyptian American that the world has probably not had a window to yet,” Malek said.
Malek said he expects his widening experience to expand his film career in a new direction.
“I’m not the type of actor who likes to rush back to his trailer between takes. It is a marvel of procedure that happens on set every day. I would find myself negligent not trying to soak it all up. As I get older, I’m more aware of the ability to affect my art form in more ways than one, and I’d like to take up the challenge.”