Olivia Coleman and Rami Malek stole our hearts during this year’s Oscars race, but the buzz surrounding Rami Malek and Bohemian Rhapsody was something quite unique. The underdog with a comparatively tiny career behind him, Rami’s was the story the public wanted.
For fans of Malek’s niche, grungy, albeit Golden Globe-winning series Mr Robot, the sudden announcement that Malek would go from playing the disturbed, anxious computer hacker to the flamboyant, larger-than-life Freddie Mercury seemed unbelievable. It was great that this talented actor was getting his shot at such a colossal role, but other than the physical similarities, it was hard to believe he could pull this off.
But he did. And he fought off talent from all directions in his category – including a classic Christian Bale weight-gain transformation – to take home a little gold man.
The son of Egyptian immigrants, Malek grew up in Los Angeles, making his on-screen debut proper in Gilmore Girls in 2004, having done some voice acting for Halo 2 the same year.
Following minor roles in the shows Medium and Over There. Shortly after he took on the role of gay teenager next-door neighbour Kenny in The War at Home but it wasn’t until 2006 that Malek finally broke into film, making his debut as Pharaoh Ahkmenrah in Night At The Museum, and reprising his role for the second and third instalments.
The Egyptian type-casting continued: in 2010 he returned to TV in a three-episode role as the Egyptian-American suicide bomber Marcos Al-Zacar on the eighth season of the Fox series 24. Malek has previously spoken out about being typecast in the “quintessential terrorist role,” seeing the same Middle Eastern actors all going for the same roles at auditions.
But the same year Malek jumped into the mainstream with a role as PFC Merriell ‘Snafu’ Shelton in the HBO TV mini-series The Pacific, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. It became the most expensive mini-series of all time with a budget of a whopping $217 million.
While only in a supporting role, the hard-hitting World War Two drama gave Malek the chance to display his versatile acting abilities. He played a war-hardened soldier who seemed to revel in the chaos of bloodshed. His sadistic nature shown when he rips the gold teeth from Japanese war dead and in one scene is even seen throwing stones into a pool of blood sitting in the open skull of a corpse. Grim stuff.
Malek found himself back in Hanks’ company a year later in Larry Crowne, which sees a middle aged man, played by Hanks, going back to college after losing his job. Malek plays Steve Dibliasi, a fellow classmate. The film flopped commercially and critically. In 2012 he landed a few more smaller roles in Battleship, The Master, and Twilight: Breaking Dawn.
Fast-forward through a few more minor roles in Them Ain’t Body Saints, Short Term 12, Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and he arrives at the role that changed everything: Mr Robot.
Sam Esmail’s offbeat drama series, which follows the actions and mental battles of a cybersecurity worker and vigilante hacker, gathered an instant cult following. While it’s certainly an acquired taste, the gritty pseudo-reality in which Malek’s character Elliot Alderson lives is deeply unique and the show holds a thought-provoking mirror up to society. Malek plays a social anxiety-riddled character with deep-rooted problems, leaving him feeling outcast from society. The role truly showcased his performing abilities and earned him an Emmy win and Golden Globe nominations.
And while he was knocking on the door to the highest Hollywood honour, he slogged away in a few more roles, including a leading role in 2016’s Buster’s Mal Heart where he plays an eccentric mountain man on the run from the authorities. Positively received by critics, Malek was finally finding a place in hearts and minds of audiences, despite the unconventional roles he landed.
After a supporting role in 2017’s Papillon, which received generally neutral reviews, this was Malek’s last major credit before super stardom. For much of his early career Malek was relegated to supporting roles and smaller films, lurking in the background with oodles of talent in waiting, before being launched into the stratospheres of fame.
It’s clear to see what a drastic departure from previous roles Malek really took when he landed what we can assume is the most lucrative gig of his career. Playing Freddie Mercury is no easy feat, but audiences were losing their minds over Malek’s portrayal before the film even came out. He put everything into playing the beloved Queen frontman, meticulously studying every tiny detail about him including performing an identical Live Aid performance recreation. Amidst director Bryan Singer’s sexual assault allegations, Malek insisted he was fired from the film for unprofessionalism and creative differences, caring deeply about getting his portrayal of Mercury perfect.
Every actor has their success story which tells the struggles of their career slog, but Malek joins a pretty special club of people who found themselves in the Oscar race on a career timeline that fast-forwarded them on steeper trajectory than they could have imagined. Bohemian Rhapsody has added a massive splash of colour to Malek’s career, and within the space of a year he’s bagged something some actors can only dream of. As he put it himself, “I think about what it would have been like to tell little bubba Rami that this might happen to him one day and I think his curly-haired little mind would have been blown.” It may look like he fell into the Oscars race out of nowhere, but Malek’s career has been building for 15 years up to a fairy tale climax.