Rami Malek on making cyber-punk the new cool - and how we've all been pronouncing his name wrong
We caught up with the Mr Robot star ahead of his starring role in the Freddy Mercury biopic
Rami Malek, as your mum might say, is being a brave soldier.
We’re in an artist’s loft studio in some bit of New York you’re unlikely to ever visit. It is an airless 89 degrees Fahrenheit, yet Malek entered this fiery hell box wearing a jumper and shirt. He’s ill. So ill that he’s cancelled an interview, a talk-show appearance, and was yesterday sent home from work. However, aware of how far we’ve come to see him, he’s turned up for our shoot. What a guy!
If you don’t know who Malek is, you’ll likely know his face. It’s on his head, at the front, like most faces, but it’s one of the most distinctive in this world we call Acting. Gaunt, grey and wide-eyed, it’s been front and centre of every billboard, trailer, online banner ad, every Amazon Prime Video homepage, promoting his hugely successful show, Mr Robot.
When we meet, Malek, whose name rhymes with Barmy Dalek rather than Jammy Phallic (my rhymes, not his), is shooting the show’s fourth season. His role as mentally ill drug addict Elliot requires affecting a particularly cadaverous junkie chic, topped with a haircut best described as a non-committal Mohican. Today, though, he looks particularly frail, giving a more literal meaning to the word ‘ashen’: pallor aside, it feels as if a puff of wind would scatter his slight frame across the room like a long-extinguished pyre.
Luckily for him, and nobody else here, the only breeze in this furnace of a room comes from the disappointing wheeze of a tall, sluggish antique industrial fan and an asthmatic air-con unit.
“Nice T-shirt,” says Malek, with a smile.
The T-shirt is my grey Queen ‘Japan ’76 tour’ replica. Our four eyes are locked on the main man, Freddie Mercury, who Malek will play in Bryan Singer’s upcoming Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody.
I explain that he was one of my childhood heroes, and Malek’s smile becomes a little more sheepish.
“I’m beginning to discover that he was a lot of people’s hero,” he says.
I feel bad. It was meant as an ice-breaker; now I’ve taken a man whose internal major organs have apparently taken a dislike to him, and strapped to his back the weight of a million unrealistic expectations. More on that later.
If you haven’t seen Mr Robot, no one will judge you. In the minestrone of mediocrity that is streamable content, finding a perfectly cooked noodle is tough. Mr Robot is, however, al dente.
Set in New York, it sees a ‘hacktivist’ group called fsociety go to war on big evil conglomerate E Corp: a world-domineering company with fingers in every daily-life pie. While fsociety eventually succeeds in its goal, it struggles to cauterise the wound inflicted by pulling the plug on a nation’s infrastructure.
“The show has made me paranoid,” says Malek, who last year explained away some meme-fied photos of him suspiciously staring at a parking meter by declaring that he thought it contained a camera. “I can’t even look at my phone without thinking that there’s somebody surveying every one of my text messages. I feel like everything is being watched or listened to. When you research the role, you discover just how deceptive they are. And we are offering so much of it up. We’re incredibly complicit.”
Without offering up too much information about the plot, Elliot, a computer genius, is both on the fringes and at the heart of fsociety. It is the kind of rich, stratified role that, as Malek puts it, “actors want to cut me for”. It has brought him wins and nominations in every US awards show worth turning up for, and paired him with a resurgent Christian Slater (as the enigmatic Mr Robot) in one of TV’s most engaging double-acts.
It’s also brought him into the ever-perilous arena of an actor depicting mental illness. We all know how that can go, from careful and nuanced, via desperate Oscar plea, to crass madmen and village idiots. Malek is thankfully sensitive to the situation.
“Any time you put something like mental illness on a platform where it will reach millions, you have to do it as much justice as you can,” he says. “Sadly, I’ve seen it done so poorly and incorrectly that it sends the wrong message to a lot of people about what this disease is. If it’s incorrect then it can be very destructive. I read books by people who have suffered from psychological illnesses. I watched TED Talks on it. I met with people who have had similar mental health problems to Elliot.
“Then I started seeing a therapist and they had so much great information that I took them to the executive producer. He ended up hiring them for the show. It worked out, because without saying exactly what Elliot has – we never wanted to, for fear of ostracising anyone – we do our best to portray what it might feel like. With the guilt, the shame and the alienation that comes with those types of illnesses.”
Malek’s present illness is clearly not an act. We’re sitting on a large sofa, a piece of furniture poorly suited to a two-way conversation. As we sit next to, while also trying to face, each other, Malek, in his malady, is clearly struggling for comfort. He sits upright, then reclines. The sofa is deep, so this is awkward. Eventually he sits up again. And reclines, and rises, and so on.
This fidgety conversation moves on to Malek’s increasing fame. At 36, he’s far from green and wasn’t unknown before Elliot, playing Pharaoh Ahkmenrah in the Night At The Museum trilogy, and appearing in HBO’s The Pacific, as well as critically acclaimed films like Short Term 12 and The Master. Nonetheless, Mr Robot has brought him to a new level.
“When you hit something that’s a cultural phenomenon, with the social and political commentary in Mr Robot, it has a different type of reach,” he says. “Not only popularity, but also a sense of, I don’t know, social heroism that people latch on to. I’ve never looked at myself as a kind of heart-throb or someone that people would clamber to get an autograph from. Growing up in an environment where a certain status was glorified, I never felt that I had that status physically. But because the world is changing, all of a sudden a cyber-punk outsider who’s pale with big eyes can become the new cool.”
Malek realises that this position brings power, and is bright enough to not fall into the trap of celebrities wildly opining on the social issue hashtag of the day. “Just because you have a platform from which to speak, does not mean that you understand,” he says, sagely. But he is political, joining the Women’s March in Paris in January, and also bringing attention to a topic he most certainly does understand.
Malek was born in Los Angeles to Egyptian Copt parents, a Christian minority that is legally, socially and criminally discriminated against in Egypt. Attacks on Copts have increased in recent years, and Malek feels justified in using his platform to highlight the issue.
“I feel I have a right to speak on that,” he says, “because my family is so much involved. When something happens to that particular people, I feel a necessity to say something. One of my cousins, uncles, nephews or nieces [could have been] hurt. When people have this kind of proximity to you, you are doing yourself a disservice by not saying anything. When it’s something you have no affiliation with, haven’t done adequate research about, and you wax poetics from a pedestal, then that becomes a questionable piece of work.”
Another inconvenient aspect of celebrity is expectation. Fans want you to be the person they hope you’ll be, which will never be the same person – a similar headache to, for example, playing a much-loved extravagant frontman. You require a different face. So, what mask does Malek hide behind?
“I can generally jump into a good mood,” he says. “It’s sad, but I do have this mask. Look, I’m up and I’m in a chatty mood, but had this interview not happened, I wouldn’t necessarily be in the spirit that I am. There is something twofold about the mask: perhaps it’s disingenuous, but it also opens you up to experiences you might not otherwise have. As long as I acknowledge that I can put myself in a mindset to suit my surroundings, then it’s not so scummy.
“It’s about measuring that dial and not blowing out the speakers. I mean look at him,” he says, pointing to my T-shirt, “look at Mercury. The more I find out about him, the more I understand that he was this master of when to dial it up. He was quite a reclusive individual, but he had his nights out – he liked to have a ‘boogie time’, as he called it.”
I’ll admit, I’d been sceptical about Malek’s casting as Mercury. That said, I’d been sceptical about anyone playing him. Mercury’s is as distinctive a face and character as you get. Yet, I’m beginning to see how this could work. They’re both of migrant African families. They’re both quiet men in loud jobs. Malek also appears self-conscious when he smiles a big smile, drawing his top lip over his teeth as soon as he realises a grin has escaped – particularly when the camera is pointed at him. A trait uncannily similar to Mercury.
Once we’re done, Malek walks towards a rack of Dior clothes that have been selected for our photoshoot. Summoning what I fear is the very last of his energy, he poses for the photographer in a series of outfits, gradually warming to the task. Literally. This is the autumn-winter collection – overcoats, chunky jumpers.
Finally, he appears in an all-scarlet velvet suit, with shirt to match. He looks sharp, but mischievous, like the Devil on a date. He’s beaming. He likes this a lot.
Boogie time? I ask.
“Boogie time!” he replies.
Mr Robot Season 3 is exclusively on Amazon Prime Video
Photography: Aingeru Zorita
Styling: Christian Stroble
Grooming: Amy Komorowski
Clothing: Dior Homme Winter 2017