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'You Better Own This': How Rami Malek Came To Embody Freddie Mercury


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy new year. Today, we conclude our holiday series featuring favorite interviews of the year. The interview we're about to hear was one of the most popular interviews on our website. It's with Rami Malek, who stars in the movie "Bohemian Rhapsody" as Freddie Mercury, the lead singer and songwriter of Queen. The title of the film comes from the title of one of their most famous songs.


QUEEN: (Singing) Mama, just killed a man. Put a gun against his head. Pulled my trigger. Now he's dead. Mama, life had just begun, but now I've gone and thrown it all away. Mama, ooh, didn't mean to make you cry. If I'm not back again this time tomorrow, carry on, carry on 'cause nothing really matters.


GROSS: Queen's biggest hits were in the '70s and early '80s, like "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Will Rock You," "We Are The Champions" and "Another One Bites The Dust," but those records have endured beyond their time on the charts. "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions" became popular chants at stadium sports events. Freddie Mercury was a very theatrical performer with a big personality. He died of complications related to AIDS in 1991. Rami Malek's performance as Freddie Mercury is a big contrast to his starring role in the TV series "Mr. Robot" as a withdrawn hacker with social anxiety disorder. Let's start with a scene from "Bohemian Rhapsody." It's 1975, and Freddie Mercury and the members of Queen are in the office of a record executive, played by Mike Myers, talking about the record they're about to release. Freddie Mercury speaks first.


RAMI MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury) We call the album, "A Night At The Opera."

MIKE MYERS: (As Ray Foster) Are you aware that no one actually likes opera?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I like opera.

MYERS: (As Ray Foster) Do you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I do.

MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury) No. Don't misunderstand, darling. It's a rock 'n' roll record, with the scale of opera, the pathos of Greek tragedy, the wit of Shakespeare, the unbridled joy of musical theater. It's a musical experience rather than just another record - something for everyone. Something - something that will make people feel belongs to them. We'll mix genres. We'll cross boundaries. We'll - we'll speak in bloody tongues, if we want to.

GROSS: Rami Malek, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's so much fun to watch you as Freddie Mercury. How did you get the part of Freddie Mercury? Did you ask to audition, or were you invited?

MALEK: I was invited, which just feels like a very rare thing, especially when you're auditioning for someone as magnificent and iconic as Freddie Mercury. I was still shooting "Mr. Robot," and the producers, Graham King and Denis O'Sullivan, called me out to Los Angeles. And I knew what the meeting was about, so I started watching as much archival footage as possible. Sat down in their office, and about five, six hours later, I left that office being told that I had the job. It's something that I did not quite believe driving back home, but I guess, as it panned out, I did.

GROSS: Was singing part of your audition?

MALEK: It ended up being part of that audition. I warned them I was not a singer. I told them, I don't play the piano. What I do when I'm out on the dance floor could be considered something having to do with rhythm but probably not.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MALEK: I ended up flying myself out to London because I wanted to be prepared. It was never officially greenlit yet at this point, and I started practicing everything - singing, piano. I started working with a movement coach because I knew that one day we were going to do a proof of concept, which means they were going to take me to Abbey Road and film me singing as Freddie. And they had a camera on me, as well, so they wanted to see my physical interpretation, as well. So I had to sing to prove that at some point in the future, whatever I was doing would sync up to the way Freddie sang. Eventually, I don't think anybody really wanted to hear my voice as much as they would love to hear Mr. Mercury's.

GROSS: Yeah. All the music credits in the movie, you know, at the end of the credits are attributed to Queen. So you sang as you were filming, but the music that we're hearing is actually Freddie Mercury and Queen?

MALEK: It's actually an amalgamation. I will say the large majority of it is Freddie Mercury. I went out every day and sang at the top of my lungs because that's the only way to match what he's doing. He's giving everything 110 percent always. And in order to sync it up properly, they used bits of my voice in the beginning. It will lead in with my voice, and then pick up for the majority using Freddie Mercury's voice - you know, tops and tails, as you call it. What I quickly realized was no one can sing like Freddie Mercury, and nor can I. It's very difficult to get my voice up to those high notes. At some point, my voice breaks, and it breaks pretty quickly when I'm trying to ascend what Freddie Mercury can do.

GROSS: There's actually a scene where you're at the piano singing a sketch of "Bohemian Rhapsody," and your voice breaks. Is any of that you?

MALEK: Yes. Some of that is actually me. We have an incredible sound engineer, named Paul Massey, on there, who found ways to, I think, deceive all of us. But there are parts that are me. I think the parts that break, yes, that would be considered (laughter) Rami Malek.

GROSS: (Laughter) Should we just hear that bit (laughter)?

MALEK: Sure.

GROSS: OK. Let us know if you can tell which part is you, OK?

MALEK: You got it.

GROSS: So this is a scene from the movie, "Bohemian Rhapsody," where Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury is at the piano in his living room singing "Bohemian Rhapsody."


MALEK: (As Freddie Mercury, singing) Goodbye, everybody. I've got to go, got to leave you all behind and face the truth. Mama, ooh. I don't want to die. I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all.

GROSS: OK. So the final note, (laughter), his or yours, voice breaks. What are we hearing?

MALEK: Gosh. The majority of that is obviously Freddie Mercury, but somehow they found a way to put me in there. And I can't - I really can't tell you. It feels so seamless to me, and that's, I think, one of the greatest aspects of this film is, even I watch it and I can not tell. Now, I just want to reiterate that the majority of this - I mean, so much of it, is Freddie's voice. And I'd never want to ever step in and pretend that I lent myself to so much of this.

GROSS: So now that you've taken singing lessons, are you more comfortable singing?

MALEK: No. No. I say I'm more comfortable dancing and more comfortable being on stage. I enjoy the piano now. I find it meditative. At one point, I play it upside down in the film. And I thought, oh, of all the challenges you're giving me here, here comes page 20. And the stage directions say, now Freddie plays "Bohemian Rhapsody" upside down. And I thought, come on. Give a guy a break.

GROSS: Did you not play at all when you started?

MALEK: No. I'd never played a piano, never touched a piano. I had to learn the guitar, as well, for "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," which didn't make it into the film. But everything was - it was like going to a conservatory of music every day. One hour, two hours spent singing, two hours of piano, four hours in movement and choreography. It was fascinating. It felt like going back to school.

GROSS: So what can you play on your own now?

MALEK: Only "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "We Are The Champions."

GROSS: (Laughter).

MALEK: I noodle every once in a while.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MALEK: So I'll call those original works.

GROSS: (Laughter) So "Bohemian Rhapsody" is bookended by - basically, like, a reproduction of the famous Queen performance at Live Aid in 1985. And for people who don't remember or weren't alive then, that was this huge benefit concert in 1985 for the benefit of people suffering from the famine in Ethiopia. And your performance - there were multiple stages for this.

The Queen - I said your performance. The Queen performance was in Wembley Stadium in London to an audience of 72,000 people. So you as Freddie Mercury had to reproduce that performance. Now, anyone can see that performance on YouTube. It's easy to see, so I know you had no problem watching the actual Live Aid performance, which is considered one of the great performances in rock history. So I'm sure you must have studied it move by move, including learning Freddie Mercury's microphone technique 'cause he - he'd basically be handed the mic on the stand but not on the base. So it was just like the pole with the mic on it, and then he'd use that as a prop, you know, strutting around on stage and using it as a - you know, strumming it like it was a guitar, putting it across his groin as if it were a large phallus, you know, all the rock tricks (laughter). So talk to us about, like, studying Freddie Mercury during the Live Aid concert and also, like, how he used the microphone.

MALEK: Well, I walked around London for about two months with this half-mic, and I think now...

GROSS: Wait, now I'm going to stop you. When you say half-mic, does that mean, like, the pole with the mic on it. Like, the...

MALEK: Correct, yeah.

GROSS: You walked around with the mic on it.

MALEK: Yeah. I walked around with the mic attached to it. I just never wanted to lose focus of what I was doing, and that was a very constant reminder. Sometimes I would tuck the microphone into my backpack, but otherwise, you just look like you're walking around with a piece of metal. And that's quite scary these days.

GROSS: Yes. It looks like a weapon.

MALEK: Exactly. So I kept the mic on it just to remind people, hey, I'm not out to hurt anyone. It was the first thing we shot, Live Aid. Day one - we came out, and it was - it's that massive crane shot that goes through the audience and comes right up around the piano and opens to Freddie Mercury, myself playing him, singing "Bohemian Rhapsody." And talk about a baptism by fire. I had never worked that hard in my life on one particular piece of filming. Every day, I spent hours with a movement teacher named Polly Bennett. And I always wanted to keep it very spontaneous but at the same time honor this fantastic performance that he and Queen gave.

And it's like you said. There are things he does with that microphone that defy what the mere mortal can do. He whips around with it with, you know, violence at times, with elegance. He uses it as the air guitar, sometimes right in front of one of the greatest guitar players of all time, Brian May. So as Brian May is crushing it on guitar, here is Freddie Mercury air guitaring. And it is still a magnificent thing to watch. It's so compelling, and only he could get away with that.

GROSS: So I was wondering when you're on stage, first of all, did you film the Live Aid concert at Wembley? And were there 72,000 people in the audience? Was that, like, footage from the actual concert that was, like, put in in a seamless way to make it look like you were performing to the audience that was actually there in 1985? Was this CGI? Like, what was the setting? Who was actually there?

MALEK: Wembley doesn't exist at that point. There's a new Wembley Stadium.

GROSS: Oh, it doesn't even exist.

MALEK: It doesn't exist. We recreated it on an airfield just outside London. And we did bring in fans - actors - to be Queen fans who actually were Queen fans. And I thought, oh, that's terrific. We'll have a lot of support. But at one point, I thought, well, what if I don't live up to their expectations? This could be the worst thing. Maybe we should have just got people who have never heard of Queen, and I could have given them a great show. So everything felt daunting from that perspective.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MALEK: We did have at some point thousands of background actors there, supporting actors, but never, of course, 72,000. That would have taken up the entire budget to be able to do something like that, and logistically it would've been impossible.

GROSS: You know, it takes guts if you're Freddie Mercury and you're performing in front of an audience of 72,000 people in this huge stadium and you're starting your set by sitting at the piano alone playing a few chords that everybody knows and that they're already going crazy because of that, and then you start singing solo for a while before the band comes in. Did the confidence wear off on you? I don't know how confident you are as Rami Malek, but did you become more confident embracing your Rami Malek self after having embraced Freddie Mercury's confidence?

MALEK: There was a moment where I stepped on stage in a sequined leotard that leaves nothing to the imagination. And at one point, I said, listen; if you're going to play a man who rocked this thing out like nobody's business and made everything his own and spontaneously combusted in the most magnificent way onstage, you better own this. And I'll tell you, by the end of shooting, we came to another concert sequence, and I asked Julian Day, the costume designer - I said, you know the sequined leotard. He said, yes. I said, do you think you can make that for me in ruby red?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MALEK: And he laughed, and he looked at me and said, well, we've come a long way, haven't we?

GROSS: (Laughter) Another thing we should mention is your teeth. He had - what? - four extra teeth in his upper mouth. And he had, you know, very bucked teeth as a result. And so you had fake teeth that you used made for you by a famous, like, Hollywood prosthetic teeth designer. What was it like for you to wear them? Like, how did it change your feeling of your mouth and your ability to talk and sing? 'Cause, like, not only did you have to sing, you know, for the performance - even though they weren't necessarily going to use your voice, you still had to sing. And so you're doing something you're not used to doing, singing, and you're doing it with teeth that aren't even yours.

MALEK: Yes. The teeth were difficult to get used to in the beginning. Initially, I put them in my mouth a year prior to shooting and immediately felt insecure. I felt like I was on my back foot in a way. I didn't feel like myself, which did help me quite a bit. But it was a feeling of insecurity, that I had to cover them up as well. And I'd been watching so much footage of him. You see him covering up his teeth so often that I thought, how am I ever going to do that?

Well, as soon as those teeth went in, it was second nature. I found myself covering them up so often my lips would dry up, so I found myself licking my lips as he did. But another thing happened. I started to compensate physically by holding my posture better, elongating my body, sitting up very straight. And that's something you also see him do. And I don't know if that was something that affected him or he was born with the elegance that he has. But it did give me a way into understanding a little bit more about him.

His name is originally Farrokh Bulsara, and he wasn't even called that as a kid. A very strong set of buck teeth - and most of the kids in school called him Bucky (ph). So you see this young man who travels from Zanzibar and goes to a boarding school called St. Peter's in India. He travels there on a ship. He feels very, I think, removed and isolated. And when he comes back to Zanzibar, his country is in the midst of a revolution. They have to immigrate to London. And he's a young man at that point, feels like a fish out of water in the 1970s, trying to identify himself sexually as well.

I mean, so much stands in the way of this man becoming who he is. And what I discovered was there is something burning inside of him - this dream that he wants to see realized, this music that is so vibrant and yearning to exist outside of him. And everything stands in his way. But when he gets out on a stage, he holds everyone's attention and says, hey, I may have been an outcast and a misfit, and I may feel like I don't belong, but here on this stage, we belong together.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Rami Malek, who plays Freddie Mercury in the new Queen biopic, "Bohemian Rhapsody." Malek also stars in the TV series "Mr. Robot." Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar and grew up there and in India before his family immigrated to England. Rami Malek is American, the son of Egyptian immigrants. When we left off, he was talking about trying to understand and convey who Freddie Mercury was.

MALEK: I had to demystify him somehow. And the way to do that was looking at his background. And I thought to myself, here's a young man, immigrated to a country, defied all obstacles to do what he loved. And that was one thing that I could understand. Not to compare myself to him in any way, shape or form, but I am a first-generation American. My family came from Egypt and sought a better life for their children in the U.S. And, you know, obviously, like so many people, they would have loved for us to be doctors and lawyers. My sister is a doctor, so she fulfilled that aspect. But it was very difficult to convince anyone that I wanted to do this and that I could do this.

GROSS: Did you feel like you were going to be letting them down if you failed? - that they came here - I don't know if you were already born when they came here. But still, they probably knew they'd be having, you know, children or more children. And often with immigrants, the idea is it's for their children. So if you failed as an actor, would you have been letting them down? Did you feel guilty for even trying for an acting career?

MALEK: It's a good question. Yeah. I did feel a bit guilty. And the only way to compensate for that was just to give it my all. There was one moment I was in my apartment that we were living in - four of us in a two-bedroom apartment. And I was - I would wake up early. I was just - I was sleeping in the living room at that point. And I had a stack of manila envelopes. And every morning, I would get up and put my head shot and resume in the manila envelopes. And I remember my father one day standing next to my mom saying, you have a very tenacious son. And I don't think that he knows that I heard him, but I heard that, and it gave me that extra boost I needed to just keep going. I would take those manila envelopes - I was delivering pizza - I would put them - glue them or tape them to every pizza box I would send out. I would keep them behind the register of the fast-food restaurant I would be working at. And if anyone even producorial came in, they were getting a head shot and resume in their to-go bag.

GROSS: Did you deliver pizzas to, like, famous producers or directors?

MALEK: I did get an audition out of it once, and I thought...

GROSS: Seriously? Really?

MALEK: I did. Yeah, I did. It was for a commercial and still kept in touch with that person who gave me the audition.

GROSS: Did you get the commercial?

MALEK: I did not, no.

GROSS: What was it for?

MALEK: It was for M&M's.


MALEK: I will tell you this. One day, I did get a call. I got a call from Mara Casey, who was a casting director for the "Gilmore Girls." And she asked to speak with Rami Malek's agent, and I said, speaking. And she said, well, can I talk to - about Rami Malek coming in and - for a role on the "Gilmore Girls?" And I said, yeah. And she said, and who am I speaking with? I said, this is he. And she said, you don't have an agent, do you? And I go, no, but we can work on that. And she started laughing, and she said, well, are you SAG? Are you part of the Screen Actors Guild? And I said, as of yet, no, but that's something else we can work on as well. And she kept laughing, and she's like, listen; you're cute, call me when you get representation. And I said, listen; we're doing all right. We're having a good time. I see that the scene has only three lines. And how about giving a guy a break? And if you're laughing now, chances are I might have you laughing in the room. And she took a few seconds, and she said, you know what, kid? Come on in.

I couldn't believe it. I could not believe it. And I went in on that day, and later on that night, I had a callback for that show. And in between that, one of these manila envelopes that I had been stuffing, sending to every agent in Los Angeles, happened to call me in between the audition and the callback, and the confluence of the things that happened on that day still defy me to have any explanation for them. But it was a very profoundly successful day.

GROSS: So you got the "Gilmore Girls" part, right?

MALEK: I got the part the next day.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about "Mr. Robot." Now, in this, you're somebody who has serious mental health issues, serious social problems. It's very hard for you to be with people. You're very withdrawn. You literally withdraw into your hoodie most of the time. And you're a hacker by night, but you're, like, a tech worker during the day. In the opening episode of Season 1, you walk into a coffee shop, Ron's Coffee shop, and you sit down with the owner. And you start talking to the owner of the shop. Let's listen to that scene.


MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) You're Ron, but your real name is Rohit D'Temeta. You changed it to Ron when you bought your first Ron's Coffee shop six years ago. Now you got 17 of them with eight more coming next quarter.

SAMRAT CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) May I help you with something?

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) I like coming here 'cause your Wi-Fi was fast. I mean, you're one of the few spots that has a fiber connection with gigabit speed. It's good. I mean, it's so good it scratched that part of my mind, the part that doesn't allow good to exist without condition. So I started intercepting all the traffic on your network. That's when I noticed something strange. That's when I decided to hack you.

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) Hack...

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) I know you run a website called Plato's Boys.

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) Pardon me.

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) You're using Tor networking to keep the servers anonymous. You made it really hard for anyone to see it. But I saw it. The onion routing protocol, it's not as anonymous as you think it is. Whoever is in control of the exit nodes is also in control of the traffic, which makes me the one in control.

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) I must ask you to kindly leave.

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) I own everything - all your emails, all your files, all your pics.

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) Get out of here right now or I'll call the...

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) Police. And you want them to find out about 100 terabytes of child pornography you serve to your 400,000 users? Personally, man, I was hoping it was just going to be some BDSM stuff. You realize how much simpler that would have been?

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) I did not hurt anyone - never did. That's my personal life.

MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) I understand what it's like to be different. I'm very different, too.

GROSS: That might sound like an expression of sympathy (laughter) but right after that, Rami Malek's character is offered money by the coffee shop owner to cover this up. And Elliot, Rami Malek's character, the hacker, says that he doesn't care about money. And it turns out, he's tipped off the police. And as he gets up to leave the coffee shop, the police get out of their cars. And they start walking in to bust the coffee shop owner. It's a great scene, and it kind of hooks you right at that - right in Episode 1. How did you get the part of "Mr. Robot?" You weren't very well-known at the time. I mean, "Mr. Robot" is really what made you well-known.

MALEK: Correct. That - I got the part, actually, auditioning with that very scene. Sam Esmail, who is the creator of "Mr. Robot," had seen me do a mini series that was from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks called "The Pacific." And at some point, I came in with another hundred actors or so. And I did my best and kept coming in and coming in until finally, I did a network test. And I got the role. And I never thought that I would be the lead character in any show. And this proved me wrong.

GROSS: How did you prepare yourself to play someone who's a brilliant hacker but also has serious mental health problems and a very, very deep sadness and loneliness? I'm even wondering if you talked to therapists, not about your own mental health issues but about his.

MALEK: I did. I ended up reaching out to a psychologist named Jenny Maury (ph). And I asked her if there was any way we could have sessions where we would talk about Elliot Alderson, and let's talk about schizophrenia. Let's talk about dissociative disorder. Let's talk about social anxiety. And, you know, I never quite knew exactly what Elliot was dealing with to start off, so I wanted to cover all the bases. I read books on schizophrenia. I read books on everything. I watched anything I could get my hands on of someone who was dealing with any of these issues. And I just - I tried to absorb as much as I could. And she was incredibly helpful to the point where Sam and I would have conversations, and I had so much insight into it, he would ask me, how are you so informed on this? And I told him, I've been talking to a psychologist who deals with this all the time. And after a while, he said, could I have her phone number?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MALEK: And I said, sure. And eventually, she was brought on as a consultant for the show.

GROSS: Oh, that's great. That's great. What has it been like to stay in Elliot's mind for several years, in his, like, you know, depressed, anxious, social anxiety kind of mind?

MALEK: It was taxing. I'm not going to lie. There were many, many hours spent in that mind frame. And it's a very isolated, lonely place to be. He's profoundly alienated. He has an incredibly difficult time talking to people, even being physically close to people. He spends so much time viewing the world from behind a monitor and keyboard. But at the same time, he's able to have some sort of resilience and perseverance to go out and say, I want to change the status quo. And in fact, I want to go one step further. I want to save the world. Those things, in and of themselves, when you bridge them together, make for such a complex life that it's difficult every night to walk away from that and jump back into my own shoes.

GROSS: So since he hides under his hoodie whenever he's in public, I'm wondering if you've gotten interesting responses either from hackers - because he's a hacker - from people with mental health issues or from hoodie manufacturers.

MALEK: (Laughter) Before we did the pilot, I just walked around the streets of New York with my head down and the hoodie on. And I said to our costume designer early on, I want an outfit that if you are surveilling him from above or anywhere, he can put his head down and blend into the concrete. And that was the way I approached preparing for him at some points. I would go into elevators, and I remember trying to identify where the cameras were. And for days, I wanted to see if I could go undetected and not have any human contact with anyone. And that takes quite a toll on you. But it does make you aware of how much we are being watched in the world.

GROSS: So your parents are Coptic Christians, who emigrated from Egypt. Most Americans don't know anything about Coptic Christians. Were there other children of immigrants in your neighborhood? Did you live in a Coptic community in LA?

MALEK: I went to Coptic church as a child, and that's about a three-to-four-hour service, which was in a language I didn't understand. I speak and understand Arabic, but there's a Coptic language that was very foreign to me. I remember the smell of incense being overpowering. I remember sitting with the men on one side and seeing the women sit on the other side and understanding that this was a world that was very foreign to the second I exited and was in - living in the San Fernando Valley surrounded by such a diverse culture.

We grew up surrounded by a Latin community, a Filipino community, African-Americans, everything, Asians. There was everything around me. And so I felt diversity, but then there was also this feeling of a world that I was estranged from in this Coptic community that my parents were very involved in; also went to Catholic school at one point. So I couldn't quite wrap my head around everything that was happening so quickly to me in terms of the world I lived in and the faith I was - I don't - won't say imposed upon me but something that, you know...

GROSS: Born into.

MALEK: Born into, yes.

GROSS: Did you have a hard time explaining to your fellow students in Catholic school that you weren't Catholic?

MALEK: That's a very good question. Yes, I did. Yeah. I didn't know how to explain that when it came time to do confession, I wasn't going to be participating in that. I had a lot of explaining to do, I felt, as a kid. You know, I was born here, but my brother and I really didn't speak English till about 4 or 5, so it was quite difficult to assimilate. I mean, my name seems very easy to pronounce this day and age - not for everybody. But at that time, for the first, you know, 10 years of my life, no one pronounced my name as Rami. So it was very difficult, I think, forming a sense of identity. And perhaps that's why I gravitated to creating so many of my own in my own private moments of creating characters as a kid.

GROSS: Did people think your name was Raymi (ph)?

MALEK: They thought it rhymed with Sammy, so Sammy and Rammy (ph) and it took...

GROSS: Oh because your brother's Sammy.

MALEK: Correct. And it only took me till high school where I found the confidence to tell everybody, no, my name is Rami.

GROSS: Oh, so you were known as Rammy for years.

MALEK: Yeah, it's a very upsetting thing to think about, that I didn't have the confidence to correct anyone at that point.

GROSS: Did your parents speak English when you were growing up?

MALEK: Mostly Arabic but, yes, quite a bit of English. My dad was very extremely well-read. And, yeah, my mom and dad spoke English, and we split time at home speaking between Arabic and English.

GROSS: Do you know why they moved to the U.S.?

MALEK: You know, I think - look; they lived in - and Egypt was a majority-Muslim country. I think it's under 10 percent that is Christian. They're Coptic Christian. And I don't know that that was the exact reason, but, you know, my dad saw an opportunity, and his work introduced him to the West. You know, he was a travel agent and had a very specific vantage point into the West and Western affluence and lifestyle. And he loved American films as a kid. So I think there were - there was a very curious aspect of him who wanted to see part of that realized for himself.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned that Coptic Christians are very much a minority in Egypt, which is a predominately Muslim country. Six Coptic Christian pilgrims were killed in an attack in Egypt that ISIS claimed responsibility for. I don't know if you still have family in Egypt, but have their lives been changed in recent years both from, like, ISIS but also how the pro-democracy movement after the Arab Spring kind of failed and now President el-Sisi runs the country?

MALEK: I have so much family there, and it's quite sad. I keep up with everything that's happening with them. And, you know, these shootings, these bombings, these attacks, it's difficult for a family that has - you know, has a history of going to church on Sunday and seeking refuge and shelter and praying for their families and for their future and seeking that type of solace in a place that, at any moment, might be bombed, or someone might come in and come in and - to be quite brutally honest - gun everyone down. It is something that is a reality that they live with and quite a incredibly sad thing to think that they have to endure on the Sundays that they used to cherish so very much.

GROSS: And the shocking thing, too, is that some Americans have lived through that or been killed by such acts in the very recent past.

MALEK: Yeah. I mean, it destroys me when any act of violence is taken. And, you know, this one is something that is very close to me. I mean, I'm very alerted in a - with the relationship that is so immediate that it makes my heart start to pound right now thinking about it.

GROSS: One of the predicaments that a lot of actors who are of Arab descent or from predominantly Muslim countries, one of their predicaments is - and this was maybe especially true a few years ago - that the role that they were likely to be cast in was terrorists - Terrorist No. 1, Terrorist No. 3. You had your shot as a terrorist on "24." Were you conflicted about taking the part?

MALEK: Very conflicted, yeah, and to the point where I made a very resolved move to not do those roles any longer. One, I didn't want to be that - the reflection of my work or the reflection of the community as a whole. And I also didn't want to live with that in my headspace and in my soul. I mean, you invest so much into this. And I don't - I just don't want to go through any more time trying to put myself in any of that space or try to rationalize any of it because I don't think it is rational in any way, shape or form.

GROSS: Rami Malek, it's really been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much. Thank you for your performances.

MALEK: It's been an absolute pleasure. I don't usually share this much of myself, but I figured, what better place to do it than on NPR with you, Terry? Thank you very much.

GROSS: Rami Malek stars in the film "Bohemian Rhapsody" as Freddie Mercury. He also stars in the USA Network series "Mr. Robot." Our interview was recorded in November.

And that concludes our holiday series featuring some favorite interviews of the year. Tomorrow, we return to new interviews. My guest will be the author of the new book "Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps The Innocent And Makes America More Unequal." Alexandra Natapoff writes that our system for dealing with petty offenses disproportionately punishes the poor and working class. Natapoff is a former assistant federal public defender and is now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. I hope you'll join us.


QUEEN: (Singing) Can anybody find me somebody to love? Ooh, each morning I get up I die a little, can barely stand on my feet, take a look at yourself, take a look in the mirror and cry and cry. Lord, what you're doing to me. I have spent all my years in believing in you, but I just can't get no relief, Lord. Somebody, somebody, ooh somebody, somebody, can anybody find me somebody to love? I work hard, he works hard, every day of my life. I work 'til I ache in my bones...

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a happy new year.


QUEEN: (Singing) Oh, somebody, somebody, ooh somebody, can anybody find me somebody to love? He works hard every day. I try and I try and I try, but everybody wants to put me down. They say I'm going crazy. They say I got a lot of water in my brain. I got no common sense. I got nobody left to believe in. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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