Rami Malek received the Outstanding Performer of the Year Award at the 34th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival this past Friday, and rightly so. A pedestrian biopic of a beloved rock star is elevated to box office peaks and award season glory by his tender, passionate and commanding performance. Following a quick red carpet walk, Malek sat down with Hollywood Reporter correspondent Scott Feinberg for a lengthy Q&A covering his life, career and current hit film that may well propel the 36-year-old actor to Oscar gold. An hour and twenty minutes into a thoroughly charming discussion, Feinberg decided to heat up the room with a headline seeking dip into the seamy waters director Bryan Singer finds himself in. Framed with a clumsy “I know this will be uncomfortable and I shouldn’t be asking it but we’re doing this anyway” ramble, he brought up a recent article from The Atlantic accusing the filmmaker yet again with years of abusive sexual behavior toward young men and laid the whole mess at the actor’s feet, calmly but clearly demanding clarification from a man who had nothing to do with the problem in the first place. While Ramek’s response is well worth repeating and will be here, it shouldn’t overshadow the celebration of the many accomplishments that preceded it.
To begin, the actor discussed his unique heritage as an Egyptian American; his mother and father emigrated to the United States from Cairo not long before he and his twin brother were born, hoping their children would become doctors and lawyers as most parents do. A less than exotic upbringing in Sherman Oaks CA led to an even less exotic sounding theatrical education in Indiana, but Rami’s work ethic carried him all the way to a typical starving actor’s scrape for roles, which led to landing an agent and first screen role on The Gilmore Girls in the same week. He was off…to typecasting. 9/11 happened and he soon found himself playing Egyptian Pharaohs in kiddie fare alongside glowering Middle Eastern terrorists in any number of paranoid thrillers that boiled his identity down to his ethnicity, and while it made for exposure and a few paychecks he quickly decided it was time to turn down those roles and expand his horizons. Malek’s fortunes began to change with an audition for Tom Hanks’ HBO series The Pacific. Despite the intimidation of having Steven Spielberg himself handling camera duties during his initial meeting with the production, Rami nailed down the part of a Cajun soldier and made a lifelong friend of co-star Joseph Mazzello, who presented him with his Santa Barbara award and plays John Deacon in Bohemian Rhapsody. This role would become a powerful calling card for Malek; he noted that many of his following roles came from the exposure. One of the highlights of this period was landing a role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master; he read for the Joaquin Phoenix role, which he didn’t expect to get, but lobbied the director hard for some part and ultimately ended up playing Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son. Then came Mr. Robot—a title Malek assumed was only temporary but now loves. He expressed his love for writer-directors and the singular vision they bring to projects, singling out Anderson as well as Sam Esmail, a fellow Egyptian American who the actor noted seems to have clairvoyant powers when it comes to predicting dark societal trends. Asked about their shared heritage, Rami pointed out they are both dedicated to telling human stories no matter what the backgrounds of the people involved are.
When it came to Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek discussed the importance of deep preparation, since by his own admission he is no singer or dancer. That spurred him to take extensive lessons on both fronts, which served him well when he arrived on set to discover the first scenes to be shot were the thorough recreation of Queen’s famous Live Aid concert. Just like with the Spielberg-filmed audition for The Pacific, the actor gathered courage from his experience and dedication to preparation and was pleased with the results. At this point in the conversation, the moderator decided to lob a curveball and bring up “the elephant in the room,” carrying on at some length on the fall of the X-Men/Usual Suspects auteur and seeking comment. Rami visibly stiffened at the unexpected turn, but cleared his throat and let loose with an impassioned defense of the many other people responsible for Bohemian Rhapsody’s success and offered heartfelt sympathy for anyone victimized by Singer. “I’ve sat here and talked about how everyone deserves a voice and anyone who wants to talk about what happened with Bryan deserves to have their voice heard. In my situation with Bryan, it was not pleasant, not at all. And that’s about what I can say about it at this point.” The crowd cheered, and despite his claim to be done speaking on the subject, he wasn’t. “For anyone who is seeking any solace in all of this, Bryan Singer was fired. Bryan Singer was fired, I don’t think that was something anyone saw coming but I think that had to happen and it did.” More cheers as Feinberg, realizing he’d soured the occasion, finished up with a few softballs and then handed the floor over to Mazzello, who warmly embraced his friend and presented him with his award. Rami thanked the many people who’d helped him arrive at this night, including Feinberg, curtly saying “and what to say about Scott…thank you for your…thorough questions tonight.” Overall it was a delightful evening spent with a rising star in Hollywood, despite the sadly somewhat successful attempt to make it about someone who wasn’t even in the room and won’t be for any Bohemian Rhapsody related awards going forward.