Coming from a breakthrough role as Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot to playing Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody and then being cast as the villain in the new James Bond film might be a tall order for any actor. But Rami Malek wasn’t just going from character to character—when he showed up for this interview at the JW Marriott Essex House in New York City, he was in the midst of shooting concurrently for two of those roles. He was filming the final season of Mr. Robot and, during hiatuses, working on the latest 007 movie.
“It is very taxing, I won’t lie,” Rami says as he plops down on a chair in the hotel’s Art Deco Salon. But he acknowledges that landing the role in Cary Fukunaga’s film “is huge”, as he gets to play a mysterious villain opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond and a cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Lea Seydoux, Naomie Harris, and Ben Whishaw.
In the meantime, he’s wrapping up his television drama series, which stars Christian Slater and is written and directed by Sam Esmail. “We want to make sure that we end on the highest possible note that we can, so there really isn’t much time to unwind,” says the 38-year-old. “But I will have a glass of wine, of course, yeah,” he laughs.
What was it like to step on the Bond set for the first time? Did you feel the weight of the franchise on you?
Yeah, I did. We’ve all grown up with Bond. The one thing I had going for me was that I played one beloved Brit—Freddie Mercury—and I pulled that off (laughs). So I can possibly have a shot at playing the villain in a Bond film.
To be part of that franchise is to be part of history again. I remember being advised to pick the right projects. I feel like I am sitting back and picking the right things now. After playing Elliot on Mr. Robot, then Freddie Mercury and a Bond villain, I can sit back and say: If I do it well, I can be proud of that. I don’t have to do everything under the sun.
I can just focus on the things that mean a lot to me and to the world at large. Sometimes I can say something politically through my work or, sometimes, I can just have a good time playing a baddie.
So what nationality is your Bond character?
I told Cary that we cannot identify my character with any act of terrorism reflecting an ideology or a religion. That’s not something I would entertain. I told him that if [my ethnic background] was the reason he picked me, then he could count me out. And that was clearly not Cary’s vision.
Are there any similarities between Elliot and your Bond villain?
I think they can both be very malicious at times even though they don’t think they are. What makes a great villain is that they never see themselves as one, right?
What stands out in your memory of winning the Golden Globe and Academy Awards?
After the Globes, sitting next to Queen was such a special feeling. Our relationship has continued — I email Brian May and Roger Taylor to check in on them. They were incredibly thrilled for all of us. You never know what’s going to happen on awards night. To have us win in those categories was an astonishing achievement.
To celebrate, we got a room to ourselves at the Chateau Marmont. It was almost as if we didn’t have to ask anyone for it. They just gave us the space to enjoy the night and spend it with my family.
Brian and Roger know my family now, as well as the gents who played our band in the film and of course, Lucy [Boynton, his co-star in Bohemian Rhapsody, and now his real-life partner].
She and I have an exceptional photograph of us grinning ear to ear, holding the Globe. To have not only the award, but that picture of us, looking at each other eye to eye and knowing the battle we fought to get there and then to have the recognition was something that you can’t take away.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
I would like to think of myself as an optimist. I think getting involved in certain types of activism in the last few years puts me in that category.
After playing Freddie Mercury, the knowledge of his disease and how swiftly we were robbed of his life was something that pained me for quite a while. I thought, what could I do?
I started with Bono’s HIV/AIDS initiative, Product Red, and went to Africa, visiting clinics and schools and talking to children. I also work for social movement Global Citizen. I think playing a character like Elliot opens your mind and broadens your horizon to what you can do. If I know that I can do it, then I have hope for what we can do as a society.
Who keeps you grounded?
I have always been close to my family and they never let me forget where I came from and who I am. I have a twin brother, so if I ever tried to be anything that I am not, he would be the first person to say: “What’s going on? Who do you think you are?”
So that’s the barometer that I measure myself with all the time. My brother is someone I look up to. Even though I am four minutes older, I have always considered him my older brother (laughs). I have a great family. I have a sister who’s an emergency-room doctor. She does such a special thing in her life and for me to say that [acting] is more gratifying or more rewarding than her saving lives… it puts everything into perspective for me.
And of course, I now have someone in my life who keeps me grounded.
Some people may look at my career and say: “Wow, what a rapid rise!” But it hasn’t been. I have been doing this for quite a long time. I heard the word “no” thousands of times. I know that you can easily revert back to that place.
This is a very fickle business. I don’t ever want to get so caught up in it that if something bad should happen, I would lose myself because I invested so much in the celebrity or fame aspect of it. That has never been what I set out to do. All I ever wanted was a job, and I got so much more.