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Listen: Rami Malek Says On-Set ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Tensions Raised His Game

PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.

Rami Malek received the opportunity of a lifetime with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the role of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury. Moving from the quiet and reserved character he portrays on television’s “Mr. Robot” to the bombastic antics of a musical legend, the 37-year-old actor relished the work of diving into anything he could find that captured this vibrant and innovative persona. He studied Mercury like he was gunning for a doctorate in Queen, finding as much nuance as he could along the way to push past the rock deity we all know and find the human being underneath.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

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“It was something I would look forward to every night, whether I was working on ‘Mr. Robot’ or ‘Papillon,'” he says. “As soon as I got home and after learning my lines for the next day for both projects, I would sit and watch all the archival footage. I was enamored with him and infatuated with Freddie. And then I started to fall in love with him and felt like a bit of a stalker. I was looking at people’s cam-corded video in Japan from the ’80s. I just felt like if there was something out there that was recorded of this man, I wanted to see it. And when I exhausted all the video footage I would go to like a radio interview, because you can hear different sides of him. You could hear how he interacted with someone who was delivering him a tea or a vodka tonic, how demur he could be, how his pitch would change when he was talking to someone he liked versus, if he was ready to get out of an interview, his voice dropped a few registers.”

Malek struggled early on, and even throughout, to find the pulse and be content with what he was delivering. But by the end he was so fully enveloped that he was not eager to shake the character. He could have dragged it on for a miniseries, particularly given the density of information he was mining. He also enjoyed tackling something so completely different from his comfort zone and from the roles that have established him.

“It’s probably the loudest I’ve ever been on camera,” he says of his work in the film. “I actually prefer very quiet, nuanced performances. I remember Tom Hollander, the actor, came up to me and goes, ‘Are you always this loud?’ I was taken aback for a second. But it’s Freddie Mercury so there are moments when you have to be. But there was a spontaneity that I always wanted. I felt that it had to come from me and [Freddie Mercury], and one thing I used as a guide more than anything was his lyrics. One day I wrote them all out because I found them so informative. It was like a diary. He was pouring his heart out. That gave me the most insight into who he was.”

Much has been reported about on-set tensions between Malek and the film’s original director, Bryan Singer. Singer was fired by Fox for failing to show up to set and replaced in the final weeks by Dexter Fletcher. It was obviously a trying time for Malek, who was attempting to maintain his concentration on a very specific and complex character throughout. He doesn’t bog down in what happened but he does admit that the whole unfortunate episode focused him all the more.

“It all raised my game in a way,” he says. “There were moments when I just told myself, ‘Things are changing and what you can do right now is depend on yourself, push yourself to excel even further and take on the responsibility of not only honoring him, Freddie Mercury, but making sure everyone around me wasn’t going to fall into some kind of chaos.’ I wasn’t completely jarred by the whole thing. I actually got a little bit of rest before Dexter came in. We had Tom Sigel, who I don’t think has got enough love. He is an incredible DP and I thought, ‘If we lose our DP, then we’re going to have a problem,’ because he had such a cohesive vision.”

For more, including what Malek took away from the Singer episode as someone who wants to direct himself and plenty of Queen trivia along the way, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link below.

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Rami Malek photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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