A fearless chameleon with an eye for powerful stories about humans who – like him – favor extraordinary routes, Rami Malek is an innate storyteller. From his lead role as Elliot Alderson in the psychological drama Mr Robot (2015- 2019), to his Best Actor Oscar, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and British Academy Film Awards performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), and the super villain Lyutsifer Safin in No Time to Die (2021), 41-year-old Malek has slipped into the skin of many characters, shared multiple compelling narratives – and he’s just getting started. His latest cinematic venture, Amsterdam, a period mystery comedy set to be released this month, sees him with a star-studded cast that includes Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, and Robert De Niro.
Born in California to Egyptian immigrant parents, Malek’s moment of triumph at the 2019 Oscar’s ceremony was a cause for celebration the world over. His Middle Eastern features – large pools for eyes and chiseled face – coupled with his outspoken pride for his heritage make the thespian something of a contemporary Arab icon. Malek still credits his youthful charades for igniting his interest in his career of choice. “I was really shy when I was a child. I had all this bottled-up energy that I did not feel like I could communicate, or that I was comfortable communicating in public. But when I was alone and at ease, all that stored up energy would get channeled into play, into what I would now call ‘characters,’ all with fully developed voices and characteristics. I had such a strong imagination for what kind of people they were.” Malek adds with a hint of nostalgia, “It was instantaneous and powerful, so liberating and just fun. Though it would take me months to develop a character as realized as those now.”
Around the world, acting is rarely perceived as a conventional path, but such a career choice is abhorred by Middle Eastern parents, who always wish for stability and convenience for their children. “I think any parent is frightened when their kid announces they are going to attempt to enter a particularly precarious industry. They had immigrated from Egypt with the intention of creating more opportunities for their kids than they had, but I still do not think ‘I want to be an actor’ fills your heart with relief [as a parent],” says Malek of his family’s initial resistance to his career choice.
With a resolute intention to build a film repertoire peppered with impactful human stories, Malek opted for storylines from various ethnic backgrounds, always conscious to not comply to stereotypical expectations. As a pathfinder for today’s Arab talents who aim to cement their presence in a global industry, Malek believes that his winning formula starts with refusing to be boxed in according to one’s racial identity. “In an industry where you feel lucky just being seen, it is hard to take that first step in setting boundaries, but it is a vital decision, and you will not regret it because your life and dignity are more than this job. And of course, then it changes, or creates the possibility for change for the next person who comes along after you.” On the current generation of thriving Arab creatives, Malek says witnessing the Vogue Arabia curated team of Egyptians working on his cover shoot was “one of the highlights for me this year.” He continues, “I was so inspired by all the artists from my background, who were sharing their unique talents on this scale. Egypt and its neighboring countries have such an expansive history of great art, artists, and extraordinary culture. It was so fulfilling to watch this next generation in action, continuing that legacy.”
Naturally, Arab cinema is a regular on his watchlist. Among the Middle East’s abundance of acclaimed filmmakers, Malek has a long, yet precise inventory of favorites. “I do not think you can have a conversation about Arab films without beginning with Youssef Chahine. He is the maestro of Egyptian cinema and always remained true to himself and to his identity. The legacy of his work holds a very special place in the history of world cinema.” The actor furthers, “I also have a long-time affection for the intimate, emotional, and very powerful storytelling of Nadine Labaki, Hany Abu-Assad, and Elia Suleiman. Their films resonate and linger with me long after I have watched them. Mohamed Diab is another exceptional artist, who is always pushing the envelope, and I am eager to work with him as well.” Malek’s list stretches to include more Arab creatives. “Two other prolific, fearless filmmakers I admire are Haifaa Al Mansour and Annemarie Jacir. I absolutely love documentaries and Jehane Noujaim is at the very top of her game.” With profound passion, Malek also grants Mr Robot creator Sam Esmail an honorary spot, “He is a visionary that remains at the top of the list for me, Arab or otherwise. His storytelling prowess and ingenuity, as well as his ability to write and direct with a singular, revolutionary vision, really sets him apart. His influence continues to inform and impact the way I work.”
However sturdy the progress, “It is still an industry dominated by white stories,” states Malek, “which even a moment like that [his Oscar win for Bohemian Rhapsody] does not change, so I am still hunting for stories I really want to tell.” With his list of fictional heroes including the likes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Malek defines The Great Stone Face, Buster Keaton, as the character he would love to portray one day. “I relate to him in many ways, but he also reminds me of one of those full-fledged characters, who would erupt in my imagination as a child. There is something magical and fearless about him. His ability to have you simultaneously doubled over with laughter and on the edge of your seat, somehow without even altering his facial expression, is solely unique to him. He is a marvel, a deeply fascinating man,” effuses Malek of the late American actor and filmmaker.
Keen to remain in touch with the intellectual and cultural wealth of the Middle East, Malek rearranged his packed schedule to make a stop in the UAE in March 2022 during the momentous Expo 2020 Dubai. Immersing himself in the emirate’s culture as well as the event’s large offering of intercontinental attractions, one pavilion made a significant impression on him. “The Women’s Pavilion by Expo 2020 Dubai in collaboration with Cartier was an incredibly inspiring and moving space that celebrated women’s ingenuity and strength,” recounts Malek. “I find it so very poignant and powerful that this stunning pavilion, created to highlight the extraordinary achievements and accomplishments of women, was placed in the Middle East and I am grateful to Cartier for its existence.” The actor adds animatedly, “It was a genuine privilege to take part [in it]. In my time being an ambassador for Cartier, I have been able to witness their phenomenal commitment to gender equality and that feeling was only magnified in that very special space.”
Despite the fame, critics’ praise, and the multimillion-dollar Hollywood sets that are often assembled around his talent, Malek is time and again described as a humble and passionate maverick by those who meet him. Residing in the city that never sleeps, New York, the actor defines his ideal day as an opportunity to fully give himself to the city and in turn let it surprise him. And while he is a fixture on best-dressed lists, his go-to style is “offduty”; his wardrobe staples include a pair of jeans and the perfect Cartier watch. Items that feel timeless. As for his red-carpet recipe, the magic component is tailoring. “I always start with looking for something that is chic and sophisticated. For any big premiere, I want to feel as elegant as possible.” Apart from the red carpet, Malek’s image can also be seen on billboards in cities like Paris and London as the face of luxury maisons like Yves Saint Laurent.
Already busy with his next big project, Malek is currently putting together two works as producer and actor. “It has been a very fulfilling process so far. I am fascinated by the entire process of filmmaking, so it is satisfying to be involved as a producer, to get to shape a project from its genesis and see it through to its completion. As an actor you get involved in fewer chapters of that process and typically have less overall control. These projects are also very different from anything I have done so far, so I look forward to being able to share more about them.”
Style: Ahmed Rashwan
Fashion Director: Amine Jreissati
Executive Fashion Editor: Claire Carruthers
Hair and Makeup: Sophie Leach
Set Design: Yehia Bedier
Photography Assistant: Hesham Abdel Latif
Styling Assistant: Nadine Fawzi
Gaffer: Mostafa Abdu
Fabrics: Sedar Global Interiors
Creative Producer: Sam Allison