With success at the box office, acclaim in fashion, and a new collaboration with Cartier, now is the time of Rami Malek.
It was a cold April evening in 2018, yet London’s stylish Lost Rivers, a hidden graffiti tunnel in the city’s south end, was positively buzzing with a crowd as A-list as an Oscars red carpet. But while Drake – the star attraction for the evening – was surrounded by a swarm of fans eager for his attention, mingling casually nearby, without a hanger-on in sight, stood Rami Malek. Fresh from wrapping Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek was upbeat, friendly, and entirely unpretentious. Despite his striking looks, he blended in with the crowd, enjoying the evening undisturbed. Little did he know that this part of his life was nearly over. Malek was on the cusp of winning the Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury; major stardom would ensue, and never again would he be just another person in the room.
Less than a year after making history as the first actor of Arab heritage to win the best actor statue, he also cleaned up at the Golden Globes, the Baftas, and the SAG Awards. Of course, Malek had recognizable acting clout before taking on the role of the legendary singer in the highest-grossing music biopic of all time – he won an outstanding lead actor in a drama series Emmy in 2016 for his role in Mr Robot. However, for the 39-year-old, global recognition came after a decade of hard graft. His journey reads like a Hollywood underdog story – born in California in 1981 to parents who had immigrated from Egypt; comes up on top against the odds. “I think about what it would have been like to tell little bubba Rami that one day this might happen to him, and I think his curly-haired mind would have been blown,” said the actor in his Oscar acceptance speech. “That kid was struggling with his identity. We made Bohemian Rhapsody about an immigrant who was unapologetically himself. It’s proof we’re longing for stories like this. I am the son of immigrants from Egypt. Part of my story is being written right now.”
Backstage, Malek, who was raised speaking Egyptian Arabic and whose parents made sure his roots were preserved, continued, “My sister was born in Egypt. I think when I grew up as a kid, part of me felt like I had to shed some of that. I didn’t feel like I fit in. I definitely felt like the outsider. As I grew up, I realized how beautiful my heritage is; now, I am so privileged to represent it.”
Perhaps it would have been all too easy for Malek to quit Hollywood when he only bagged supporting roles, with no major break in sight. But he credits his parents for his tenacious attitude. “They are both incredibly diligent people so I’ve had a certain work ethic ingrained in me from a young age. That kind of discipline was helpful when navigating a creative career that doesn’t have a clear path or clear parameters.”
Malek is conscious of what roles to accept and how it can change perceptions. “I didn’t grow up seeing a lot of actors who looked like me so it’s exciting to think that my presence in the industry could open someone up to the possibility that Hollywood doesn’t have to be as exclusive as it may seem or have seemed,” he says. “It’s important to challenge the status quo in our industry so that representation never becomes fenced in by habit or tradition. I hope the conversations that our industry is having right now will prevent the further perpetuation of stereotypes.”
In his upcoming role as Safin, the villain in new Bond movie No Time To Die, Malek was careful to make his character’s background ambiguous, only agreeing to sign up after director Cary Joji Fukunaga assured him Safin would not be a caricature of a Middle Eastern terrorist. It was a risky maneuver that could’ve seen him miss out on being part of the Bond legacy, but Malek refuses to compromise when it comes to protecting his heritage. “It’s a tremendous honor to be a part of the Bond world. It’s a great character and I’m very excited,” he says. “But that was one thing that I discussed. I said, ‘We cannot identify him with any act of terrorism reflecting an ideology or a religion. That’s not something I would entertain, so if that is why I am your choice then you can count me out.’”
Another area of his life where he doesn’t compromise is his style. He’s not afraid of vibrant colors and outlandish prints, with his attire often upstaging that of his partner of two years, British actor Lucy Boynton. A bona fide style icon, he is the face of Saint Laurent, Dior Homme, and Cartier. At the 2019 Academy Awards, he accepted his Oscar wearing a classic tuxedo, accessorized with a vintage 1993 yellow gold Cartier Pasha timepiece. “At the Oscars there’s no doubt you want to look your absolute best,” he says. “Cartier is the absolute answer to that.” The brand snapped him up as a new Pasha ambassador, alongside singer and actor Troye Sivan, singer and activist Willow Smith, actor Massie Williams, and rapper Jackson Wang. The Pasha de Cartier has been a cult watch since 1985. “It’s a beautiful and timeless piece,” says Malek. “I love that Cartier has a way of honoring what is treasured of the past and marrying that with a modern accessibility and twist.” Even in a high-tech society and fast-paced industry, the actor is still old-school cool. Favoring shirts and pants paired with smart sneakers, you won’t catch him in tracksuits and a beat-up digital watch. He’s an admirer of analog, noting, “It reminds me of a time prior to so many screens.”
While Malek is an admirer of simpler times, and renowned for keeping his personal life out of the tabloids, his profile over the last 48 months has irreversibly changed. An Oscar winner for whom nothing now appears off the table, how could it not? But despite the plaudits, he’s not about to play any games. He’s not there for success at any cost, it’s just not who he is – offering an extended hand to those of Arab heritage because of it. Be proud of who you are and never compromise. The door is now open, nothing is off limits.