Like many fans of the band Queen, I anxiously awaited the release of the film Bohemian Rhapsody. It chronicles the band’s rise to super star status, and spotlights Freddie Mercury, its flamboyant lead vocalist. My co-worker and I snapped up the last two tickets for a show on opening night in November. The theater was so crowded we couldn’t even find seat together.
Unlike many critics, I loved the film. The music was amazing, the costumes sublime, and don’t get me started on the re-creation of the iconic Live Aid performance, but what stayed with me the most was Rami Malek’s performance as Mercury. He nailed it. He embodied Mercury’s style, gyrated, and floated across the stage and pulled off a dizzying array of 70’s and 80’s fashion with comfort and flair.
I enjoyed the movie so much I went on a one-woman campaign encouraging everyone I knew to see it. I also became a forensic Malek fan. That is, I had been totally unaware of the actor prior to seeing the film, so I began a Google research marathon, looking up his filmography, magazine articles, and watching old interviews on YouTube. I uncovered a hefty list of bit parts, voiceovers, and small, but meaty roles in several gritty, war-time films. No shade to Malek, but his television and film resume was relatively thin prior to his role in the USA Network’s Mr. Robot, and now Bohemian Rhapsody.
I became confusingly intrigued by the actor. I thought, “I’m way too old to be crushing on a movie star.” I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something thoughtful and quirky about the actor that I found interesting. Watching him on interview shows, he was a great storyteller and a quick wit. Of Egyptian heritage, I appreciated that he proudly considered himself a person of color.
At some point, I was again sharing my enthusiasm for the film and Malek with someone, and I explained that nothing in the actor’s past work definitively added up to his ability to play the Mercury role so convincingly. He was often cast as a very young, oddball characters with little depth, but in interviews he had a presence. He never reflected on the bit parts, or lame roles with embarrassment or a diminished view. He seemed more confident than the roles warranted, but not arrogant.
I read that even before he was officially cast as Freddie Mercury, he traveled to London to begin movement, piano, and dialect coaching that he paid for himself. It was as if he somehow knew he was taking on one of the most important roles of his career. And it paid off, Malek has won all the best actor awards that often signal a possible Oscar win (Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA, Critics Choice).
Malek has come to represent something more than a great performance in a fun movie to me.
Malek reminded me that we are all working toward the things that we are created to do – a breakout performance in a blockbuster film, a dream job, a great relationship. The thing that will push us, scare us, and bring out our best. We must invest in ourselves, practice patience, continue to prepare, believe that sometimes our big break happens much later in life than we thought we’d peak (Malek is 37), and even when our past doesn’t seem to add up to a spectacular future, don’t give up.
I’ll be parked in front of the television on Oscar night rooting for Malek because if the same guy that started out with only three lines on the Gilmore Girls wins the trophy, I am convinced, we all have a Freddie Mercury moment inside.
Sharnita Johnson is the Arts program director at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.