Rami Malek: It was astonishing to get to know the very sweet side of Freddie Mercury
More than 25 years after the death of Freddie Mercury, a film about his life is coming to the big screen. Bohemian Rhapsody sees the singer played by Rami Malek, who tells Laura Harding how he fought off nerves to tackle the role of a lifetime
How do you find the human heart beating inside a legend that looms as large as Freddie Mercury? How do you get to grips with the talent, the tragedy, the scandals and the fame?
That was the daunting challenge that faced Rami Malek when he took on the role of the Queen frontman for a new film, Bohemian Rhapsody.
"Every part of me was terrified," he admits with a wry smile. "But then, what are you going to do? It's an opportunity of a lifetime. I couldn't pass it up."
Before landing the role of Mercury, Los Angeles-born Malek (37) was best known for playing hacker Elliot Alderson in the award-winning Mr Robot drama.
He had to learn a whole new set of skills to play the strutting, powerful and confident Freddie, from his early days as a baggage handler at Heathrow, all the way through to the band's famous performance at Live Aid in 1985.
"I was very cognisant of not wanting to imitate him or impersonate him at all," Malek says. "I started to think about how everything he did was spontaneous, in the moment. He is someone who lived every moment as if it was his last, I feel.
"I think that's what makes him so gorgeous. He's so authentic, and I wanted to be that authentic on stage, so I tried never to just copy his moves. I wanted them to spring from me as if they were happening to him."
While he knew the huge hits, the famous looks and the tragedy of his death from an Aids-related illness at the age of 45, Malek still had to take a crash-course in all things Freddie before filming began, just to get up to speed on all the different incarnations he went thorough.
"I knew the music, I knew Freddie's iconic look, but I did not know the glam-rock era. I didn't know the early songs, which now I'm fascinated by. It was like going to school just to study, to get a degree in Queen and Freddie Mercury," he says.
"I think most people identify Freddie as this crop-haired, moustachioed, tank-top wearing muscular man who had a ton of bravado and machismo, so it was astonishing to get to know the many versions and the very sweet side of him as well."
Luckily, help was on hand from Queen founders Brian May and Roger Taylor, who, as executive producers, were a crucial part of the team making the film.
"It was everything to have them there," Malek says earnestly, dressed in a bright red jumper that Mercury might have enjoyed .
"The first time I had to show Brian May and Roger Taylor my audition, I was standing in between them and I just couldn't believe it. I get a little starstruck sometimes when I meet actors, but it's not like meeting rock stars.
"Just getting comfortable enough to begin asking them questions about Freddie, about their lives, was a challenge."
Although filming has wrapped, they still hang out. "Brian and I have got very close, and now I'm getting some of their best stories after the film. I just said 'Why? Why couldn't I have had this earlier?'"
The other day the pair were on the streets of London when a number 9 bus rolled by with the film's poster on the side.
"Brian told me they used to ride the number 9 bus to go ask their agents why they weren't making enough money," Malek says. "He said if Freddie had seen that on a bus, he would've been so tickled."
It is the smaller, more personal anecdotes that make Mercury seem like more of a person Malek can understand. While he has been dead for more than 25 years, the fact he remains a towering figure in the common consciousness made it too intimidating.
"If I looked at him from that perspective, it would've been overwhelming. He's a rock god... he is otherworldly on stage. So I said, 'There has to be another side to this man, there's no way he walks around like that in private'.
"And sure enough, he lived a very quiet life, sometimes, behind closed doors. He had a hedonistic side, but there was also a shy side, which he refers to all the time.
"That was my way in. I thought, 'Let's get in there from this human that I can understand, and then become this superhuman thing on stage'.
"One thing about Freddie Mercury that's undeniable is his magnetism. When he was on stage, holding that half mic, or sitting at the piano, he feels capable of anything.
"What was magical about him was the exchange with everyone in the audience where everyone was allowed to feel the same thing - he could reach you as if you're the only person in the room - and it's that exchange that makes him one of the most unique and remarkable and revolutionary artists of our time, or any time."
It was by channelling Mercury that Malek took on a leadership role on set when director Bryan Singer was replaced by Dexter Fletcher towards the end of production.
While Singer is still the credited director on the film, it did add an extra layer of challenge to the cast.
"I wanted to go to work with the highest level of functioning capability I could," Malek says.
"And so we all raised our games, day in and day out. And I appreciated taking a leadership responsibility, because that's what Freddie would have done."
Bohemian Rhapsody is out now