Rami Malek became the first actor of Arab heritage to win the Oscar for best actor in 2019. Though the movie, Bohemian Rhapsody, wasn’t universally loved, Malek’s turn as the late, great Freddie Mercury was undeniably special. When he took to the stage at the 91st Academy Awards, the first-generation American used his acceptance speech to push for more diversity in Hollywood. « Listen, we made a film about a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life just unapologetically himself, » Malek said (via CNN). « The fact that I’m celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we’re longing for stories like this. »
As the son of Egyptian immigrants, Malek was able to put himself in Mercury’s shoes for the film, but in real life, he’s nowhere near as flamboyant as the Queen frontman. The New York Times put it best when it said that Malek was « extremely reluctant to dish about himself » in interviews, but since he’s hit the big time, details about the actor’s past and his personal life are beginning to emerge. From his early struggles with typecasting to his big breakthrough role, this is the untold truth of Rami Malek.
His dad didn’t get to see him make the big time
The first thing Rami Malek mentioned during his Oscars speech was his family, thanking its members for their support. His mother was in attendance, but his father passed away before Malek made it big as an actor. « I think he’s looking down on me right now, » he said, grinning from ear to ear. His dad deserved a special mention at the Academy Awards, because if it wasn’t for him, Malek’s life would have likely turned out very differently.
« My mum and dad left Cairo in 1978, » the actor told The Guardian. « My dad was working as a travel agent there, and he would pick up visitors from the west. Through them he saw this other world that existed and he was fascinated by it. » Malek also revealed that his mother (who was initially against the idea of moving to Los Angeles) and father were both initially unsure about the whole acting thing. « I don’t think my parents ever thought that being an actor would be the best use of this transatlantic trip of theirs, » he said. « You know, reshuffling their entire existence, so I could take a shot in the arts. »
When he spoke to GQ Middle East in 2018 as part of its debut issue, Malek said his parents were serious about keeping Egyptian traditions alive. « You are not losing these roots, » Malek recalls them saying. « This is very important for us. »
He wasn’t first choice to play Freddie Mercury
It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role once you’ve seen Rami Malek’s near-perfect portrayal of Freddie Mercury, but Malek wasn’t the first choice for the part. Borat star Sacha Baron Cohen was the original target, and he was totally game for it at first, but things fell apart when the comedian and actor got into a disagreement with one of the surviving members of Queen.
Speaking to Howard Stern, Cohen alleged the rock band was more interested in protecting its legacy than producing a « nitty gritty » biopic about Mercury. « A member of the band — I won’t say who — said: ‘You know, this is such a great movie because it’s got such an amazing thing that happens in the middle, » Cohen said (via Metro). « And I go: ‘What happens in the middle of the movie?’ He goes: ‘You know, Freddie dies.' » According to Cohen, the second half of the movie was originally going to show how the band recovered after Mercury’s passing, and he wasn’t on board with that. « I said: ‘Listen, not one person is going to see a movie where the lead character dies from AIDS and then you see how the band carries on.' »
When Cohen departed the project, Queen guitarist Brian May called him an « arse » and a liar and indicated that he wanted Ben Whishaw (Mary Poppins Returns) to play Mercury.
Ben Stiller stopped Fox from firing him
He popped up in Gilmore Girls in 2004 and he appeared in Medium the following year, but Rami Malek’s first memorable gig was playing Ahkmenrah in 2006’s Night at the Museum. According to the actor (who is reportedly convinced he only got the role because of his Egyptian roots), studio execs were not keen on his portrayal of the fictional teenage Pharaoh and at one stage, they supposedly wanted to replace him. Leading man Ben Stiller reportedly went to bat for the youngster, insisting that he remain on the cast.
« Fox was a little concerned about my interpretation and were looking to recast, » Malek told WENN (via AceShowBiz). « Fortunately, Stiller had some faith in me and pushed for me to stay. » Malek didn’t hold a grudge (in fact, he worked with some of the same execs on Bohemian Rhapsody), and he has some fond memories from the shoot. He recalled one special moment with Stiller and the late Robin Williams. « We shot it in New York at the Museum of Natural History and at one point we had to go outside in the snow, » Malek said. « We were freezing and told to improvise so we looted the lost and found. I had a big puffy jacket with snow boots that had rainbows on them with this coal eyeliner which I could not get off. »
He was almost typecast as a terrorist
After reprising the role of Ahkmenrah in 2009’s Night at the Museum 2, Malek landed a part in the long-running Kiefer Sutherland show, 24. Sutherland’s Jack Bauer became an iconic TV character over the years, but for the show to work, it needed a constant flow of terrorists for Bauer to foil. That’s where Malek stepped in, hired to play suicide bomber Marcos Al-Zacar for a three-episode arc in 2010.
24 was and still is a highly respected series, but playing a terrorist on it was an experience that made Malek change his entire outlook. « In the past it was like, ‘Oh well, he’s an acceptable terrorist! He’s an accessible terrorist! » Malek told GQ. « But after I did that I said to myself, ‘You know what? Bulls***. No more. This is not how I want it. Any calls that come about playing Arabs or Middle Easterners in a negative light? I don’t need to respond to any of them anymore.' »
According to Malek, he’s one of the lucky ones. Speaking on the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s podcast in 2018, the star revealed that he’s seen Middle Eastern actors change their names to avoid the terrorist typecast, something he’s never resorted to. « I was always on the cusp of, ‘well, he’s not Middle Eastern enough,’ or ‘he’s not Caucasian enough,' » the actor said (via Billboard). « So it was always a difficult thing for me to try to navigate. »
His ‘odd-looking’ eyes helped him make an impression
After his brief stint on 24, Malek was given the chance to really flex his acting muscles with a significant role in 2010’s The Pacific. Produced by Hollywood big-hitters Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the gritty HBO series (billed as a companion piece to 2001’s Band of Brothers) was hailed as « an honest, albeit horrifying, exploration of World War II » by Rotten Tomatoes, whose critics gave it a 91 percent approval rating. Malek played Corporal Merriell « Snafu » Shelton – arguably his biggest test as an actor.
« That was a life changer, » he told W magazine. « I just immersed myself in it. » He found out later that Tom Hanks remembered him from the audition not for his acting, but because his eyes were so unique. « I remember going into that audition, and afterwards Tom had written a typed letter to the producer saying, you know, ‘This guy’s got haunting eyes,' » Malek revealed. « And I was like, ‘Great. At least my odd-looking eyes are compelling enough to get a call back from Tom.' »
Malek’s physical appearance has been the subject of much discussion since he broke into the mainstream. « He’s mostly eyes, » The Globe and Mail said after meeting the man in 2016. « Giant, chalky blue eyes, the colour of one of those preternaturally still mineral lakes in the Rockies. »
The Pacific really messed with his head
Taking on the role of Snafu in The Pacific had some unexpected consequences for Malek. The stuff he had to do while in character took a real toll on him mentally, as he explained during a candid roundtable session with The Hollywood Reporter. « I was new, and I couldn’t really step out of it, » he said. « I kept all that going on in my head. »
The actor discussed one particularly traumatizing scene in which he had to remove gold teeth from prosthetic bodies over and over. « They were done so well [that] it felt so real, » he recalled. « After doing it like seven, eight takes, I’m just like, ‘I gotta stop, I’m not supposed to be crying in this scene.' » The trouble was, the emotions he was forcing himself to feel for the sake of his art were following him home after the day’s shooting was done. « Taking that home every day, and just kind of being method … it physically and psychologically kind of had a negative impact on me, » Malek said.
That was the reason he decided against taking the same approach when he was cast in the dark series Mr. Robot. « I can enjoy myself and have regular conversations, » he said of the hit show. « I need that to get through the day now. »
He blew off Robert Downey Jr.
Before he played Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek was best-known as hoodie-wearing hacker Elliot Alderson, the lead character in Mr. Robot. His portrayal of the brooding cybersecurity expert (who suffers from both social anxiety disorder and clinical depression) landed him an Emmy in 2016. Malek became the first non-white winner of the outstanding lead actor in a drama series award in 18 years. Mr. Robot became so big that it attracted celebrity viewers, Robert Downey Jr. among them.
When he appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show, Malek told host Jimmy Fallon that he’d become friends with the Marvel star — but only after he blew him off. Downey Jr. reportedly got his hands on Malek’s contact details and dropped him an email, though the younger actor (not believing it was genuine) ignored the message. « After a while someone emailed me that I knew and was like, ‘Why aren’t you answering Robert Downey Jr.’s email!’ I’m like, ‘No way, I’ve been blowing this guy off, it’s the real guy!' »
The pair struck up a friendship, with RDJ even visiting Malek on the set of Mr. Robot. « It was pretty spectacular. He watched me act, » Malek told Fallon. « It was a fascinating day. It made me the hero of the set because he showed up — he’s Iron Man, and one of the coolest people you’ll ever meet. »
He has a twin brother
Rami Malek claims he and his twin brother, Sami Malek, were born identical and started to « diverge » around the age of 18, but these two could still potentially pass for one another if they tried. When the actor was a guest on The Graham Norton Show in 2018, he revealed that he and Sami actually used to do just that. Malek had the studio audience in stitches as he recalled the time he took an exam on behalf of his twin.
« He was at UCLA and he was studying Greek studies as one of his degrees, and he was having trouble passing, he was actually not going to graduate, » Rami said. « I was coming back from acting school and he said, ‘Listen, my teacher has offered me the points that I will need to graduate, I just have to deliver a monologue from a Greek tragedy. » Seeing as he was already well-versed in Greek tragedies, Rami agreed to help.
He arrived at the right place (what Sami described as a classroom was actually a full auditorium) and started delivering his monologue, getting more and more into it as he went. « I think, ‘Okay, you actually have an audience, right? Seize the moment,' » Rami recalled. « By the end of it, I get a ton of applause from everybody, but then I think, ‘Did I overshoot it?' » The teacher was, indeed, skeptical, but Sami got the points he needed to graduate.
The truth about that viral video of him rejecting a fan
In October 2018, Rami Malek found himself caught up in some rare bad publicity after he refused to take a video with someone at a Bohemian Rhapsody Q&A event. A 19-year-old fan by the name of Xan Black started filming and got into a shot with Malek, asking if he would say hello to some friends. That’s when things got awkward. Malek politely declined, proposing that they take a photo instead. When Black posted the brief video online, it quickly went viral and the actor was criticized for not being a better sport.
Malek (who is « by all accounts one of the nicest actors in the business, » according to The Hollywood Reporter) learned about the backlash from his publicist. « I finally brought myself to watch [the video], and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not that bad.’ I don’t find myself offensive, » he told Vanity Fair. « I am happy to take photos with anyone. I just want to be aware of what people are doing in the moment. When someone films you automatically, it’s a bit intrusive. »
When The Cut contacted the fan in question to ask about the incident, Black conceded that it was simply bad timing. « I think he’s a genuine person, and this was not at the right time, because this was at night, and he was rushing, » she said. « I’m sure in a more intimate setting, in the daytime, he would be much more approachable. »
What really went down between him and Bryan Singer?
How Rami Malek managed to conjure an Oscar-worthy performance in a movie as problematic as Bohemian Rhapsody, only he knows. Embattled director Bryan Singer was ousted after repeated absences from set saw production grind to a halt, reported Variety. According to various other reports, Singer’s behavior went way beyond tardiness — numerous publications ran stories alleging that he’d had fiery clashes with his leading man.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, there was an « on-set altercation » between Singer and Malek. Sources told the outlet that the actor made an official complaint about the director after he threw electrical equipment during a heated argument. Malek did allude to his strained relationship with the director when he appeared at the 2019 Santa Barbara film festival. « My situation with Bryan, it was not pleasant, not at all, » he said (via The Guardian). He wouldn’t dish much else on that occasion, but this isn’t the only time he’s discussed Singer. During an earlier interview with GQ Middle East, Malek was a little more chatty on the topic, revealing that he’d witnessed « ugliness » on set. « Why make people feel small? » he said. « I’m empowered as an actor to feel like I can set a precedent when I’m on set, and that’s all I will say. »
The real reason protesters targeted Bohemian Rhapsody
Bohemian Rhapsody just couldn’t seem to escape controversy, even after it had wrapped. The world premiere of the movie was crashed by AIDS activist group ACT UP London, who decided to occupy the red carpet to raise awareness about the ongoing struggle against the disease.
« Freddie ‘Killer Queen’ Mercury was a migrant who died from AIDS, and today HIV-positive migrants are some of the most oppressed in the HIV/AIDS community, » ACT UP London member Jeremy Goldstein said (via Poz). « We are here today to highlight the ongoing crisis … We demand that all HIV-positive migrants are treated with utmost dignity, that HIV services stop being closed down and an end to all illegal detention of HIV-positive migrants. »
Rami Malek is doing his part to raise awareness about AIDS issues. Through Bohemian Rhapsody, he became involved with RED, an organization dedicated to fighting AIDS in Africa. « We’ve been progressive with so many issues currently, » Malek said (via WWD). « Politically, everybody is having a bit more of a voice, but it’s still not quite what it needs to be. There are so many more hurdles that we need to scale … it’s going to take a very strong and collective effort and push. »
He found love while playing Freddie
In real life, Freddie Mercury’s heart was stolen by a woman named Mary Austin – the love of his life. « All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary, but it’s simply impossible, » Mercury once said. « The only friend I’ve got is Mary, and I don’t want anybody else. » It just so happens that Rami Malek has fallen hard for the woman that portrayed Austin in Bohemian Rhapsody.
According to People, Malek confirmed he was romantically involved with co-star Lucy Boynton at the 2019 Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Film Awards Gala. When accepting the award for breakthrough performance, the actor thanked his new flame. « You have been my ally, my confidant, you are my love, » he said. « I appreciate you so much. »
Boynton was right by Malek’s side when he won his Oscar. They embraced in what Twitter quickly determined was the kiss of the night (via the Evening Standard). She was also one of many people the actor thanked in his acceptance speech. « Lucy Boynton, you’re the heart of this film, » Malek said (via Fox News). « You’re beyond immensely talented. You have captured my heart. Thank you so much. »