How Fake Teeth And Fosse Walks Transformed Rami Malek Into Freddie Mercury
By Marialexa Kavanaugh with Monica Bushman & John Horn
If you're an actor playing a real person, there's even more pressure to get it right. When you're playing Freddie Mercury, the world-famous rock icon with an other-worldly vocal range and amazingly flamboyant stage presence, that pressure's much higher.
Actor Rami Malek was so ready to take on the challenge of playing the Queen frontman in Bohemian Rhapsody that he dove into preparing even before he officially had the part. That's also because his performance had to win over two of the surviving members of the British rock band, Brian May and Roger Taylor — who had the final say on casting.
"I flew myself out initially without this film being fully greenlit to go work on singing and piano and movement," Malek said. "I felt when I got there I had a bit of a leg up."
The movie's framed around the band's legendary 1985 performance at Live Aid, considered one of the best rock performances of all time. Despite being arguably the most climactic moment in Queen's career, the show was the first thing that then-director Bryan Singer shot for the biopic.
"When we shot Live Aid, I sat down at that piano, and it was a feeling like no other of seeing something you've watched over and over and over again. And here you are living it," Malek said.
Singer never finished the film. While he's still the credited director, he was fired for failing to show up on set with only a couple of weeks of production left.
Dexter Fletcher ended up filling his spot. The switch presented a challenge for Malek, who had to grapple with setting aside other people's expectations of what they thought a Freddie Mercury portrayal should look like.
"I would say singing and that are the two biggest obstacles for me. Everyone has a very particular relationship to him," Malek said. "What I realized is, here's a human being who appears to be superhuman at times. He struts on stage in a crown and cape. He's the closest thing we get to one of these Marvel characters."
It was important for Malek to try and demystify Mercury's superhero nature and instead access his humanity. In this case, empathy became more important than transformation.
"I said Rami, this is not someone that you need to fully embody," Malek said. "You want to understand him, you want to get as close as you can, but don't lose yourself entirely, As actors we're trying to get so far away from who we are, but I needed to hold onto so many things that I understood about him, that tethered us together."
To make every frame feel viscerally real, Malek had to put some of himself into the role. But emulating Mercury's wonderfully unique physical charisma provided a steep learning curve. To master this, he trained extensively with a movement coach.
"Polly Bennett was the person that allowed me to discover how he sat, how he walked into a room, and how he articulated himself while he was being a little more aggressive, when he was shy — how he would hold a cigarette," Malek said. "And then from then on we would just slowly but surely study people who inspired him — Liza Minnelli, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie. But a lot of his movements come from Bob Fosse. We spent a lot of time watching that."
Both Malek and Bennett felt it was critical that all of Malek's gestures while shooting not be choreographed.
"It was very important for me to be as spontaneous as he was," Malek said. "Not only on stage but in every seat. To go in there and feel like my fellow actors were not quite going to know what I was going to do. That the audience in the concert scenes had no idea what was coming next."
Another key figure in Malek's physical journey towards becoming Freddie Mercury: makeup artist Jan Sewell.
"I needed the teeth," Malek said. "The teeth were the first moment when I thought oh! I never looked like him, but this is going to help — this is going to help immensely. It was something that Freddie was very insecure about. I wore them and I felt pretty insecure, but I felt a little bit closer to him. She got me as close as she could."
Malek also wore his prosthetic teeth and hair to his costume fittings.
"We would not only wear the most audacious and ostentatious things, we would think about what Freddie would think would be the best way to make a spectacle, what would flow on stage and what would have great reflection," Malek said. "What would enhance the concert performance."
A large part of Freddie Mercury's worldview came from the 'otherness' he'd experienced his whole life. Originally born Farrokh Bulsara to Zoroastrianism-practicing parents in Zanzibar, then spending his formative years at boarding school in India, you can safely say that his ascension to British rock god status wasn't particularly easy.
"It was an upheaval of an upbringing for him," Malek said. "He definitely did not fit in. His name was difficult to pronounce for so many and he didn't look like anybody else."
The adversities he faced as an outsider fueled Mercury's desire to be the most inclusive artist he could be. That's something Malek deeply wanted to underscore in his portrayal.
"I think one thing that was beautiful about Freddie, something that was really revolutionary, is that he spoke to the outcast," Malek said. "You never see him in performance really looking at the first few rows. He's always looking to the back. That's something Polly pointed out to me. She said, look at where his eyes are going. He's trying to make sure everyone feels present here, everybody's sharing."
Freddie Mercury was somebody who refused to fit into any category the world tried to box him in. He would and could not be distilled to just one thing — that was the gift he gave his fans.
"He didn't want to be labeled, and he didn't want anybody else to be labeled," Malek said. "He was defiantly appreciative of everyone being their most authentic selves."
You can see Bohemian Rhapsody in theaters nationwide.
Editor's note: A version of this story also ran on the Frame. You can listen to that here.
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