Rami Malek embraces darkness in serial killer thriller
Rami Malek is running late - but by 2021 standards, he has a pretty good excuse.
"I am in Los Angeles at the moment working on a film and that means a COVID test every day and that's what was keeping me from catching you right on time," he says apologetically. "It's very unusual, but what's more unusual is how used to it we get and realising that is part of the day now."
The Oscar-winner is thrilled to be getting back to work after the entire movie industry ground to a halt last year, but he's tight-lipped about his new project, an as-yet-untitled David O. Russell film that also stars Robert De Niro, Christian Bale, Anya Taylor Joy and Aussie Margot Robbie.
"I can't talk about the film at all unfortunately, but I will say it's going great and I am very much enjoying my time on it and I have enjoyed every second of getting to know Margot," he says. "She is an exceptional actor and I couldn't say more about her as a human as well."
Rather, he's keen to talk about his new crime thriller, The Little Things. It's his first feature film release since he won his Best Actor Academy Award for playing Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, and also stars fellow Oscar-winners Denzel Washington and Jared Leto.
Malek plays a brilliant but buttoned-down detective, Jimmy Baxter, who is on the trail of a serial killer in early '90s Los Angeles, a setting that reminded the son of Egyptian immigrants of his own childhood. Malek says he was lured by the prospect of "going toe-to-toe" with Washington, who plays a jaded, older detective, as well as the fascinating psychology of the driven souls who catch killers for real. Director John Lee Hancock arranged for two real-life detectives to be on set as consultants during filming and the more Malek pumped them for information and explored his own character, the more similarities began to emerge between the two professions.
Malek was particularly taken with how immersive and all-consuming the job became for some detectives, to the point where they find it difficult to compartmentalise their professional and personal lives. Malek realised he'd had similar experiences with his own career, playing characters such as Elliot in Mr Robot (for which he won an Emmy Award), Corporal Merriell "Snafu" Shelton in The Pacific and of course Queen front man Mercury, which he says was "the most immersive role I have ever had a chance to play".
"There is actually a phrase called 'detective myopia'," he says. "And I can see how as actors we invest in our characters very similarly. We kind of shut off from the rest of the world sometimes, don't take phone calls and immerse ourselves in a particular human being's story and then in an even larger story that becomes overwhelming and all-inclusive in nature."
Malek says there were times while filming World War II drama The Pacific in Australia - he spent the best part of a year here over 2007-08 - that were so intense that he struggled to dissociate from the character, becoming withdrawn and having "very little human contact with anyone outside of the set". Nevertheless, he remembers his time here fondly thanks to "the enormous generosity with which I was met by every Aussie person I met" and once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as learning to dive on the Great Barrier Reef.
"It was inevitably a phenomenal, extremely rewarding job and I got to see parts of Australia I might not have otherwise had the chance to," he says. "Between the people, the generosity, the gorgeous landscape and the hospitality, that will forever be the distinct perspective I have on my long stay in Australia".
It will be two years later this month since Malek took to the stage at the Dolby Theatre to accept his Best Actor Oscar but he is genuinely flummoxed when asked how the coveted award has changed his life.
"How did it change my life?," he ponders after a long pause. "It was a really incredibly sweet moment that I am extraordinarily proud of and something I look back on as an accomplishment that I had with this cast that I am still incredibly close with.
"It was the process of working on that character for two years and some type of acknowledgment that if you really invest in that work, you can be up there with the best of the best. Having said that, it still allows me to re-centre myself and acknowledge that the work is still the work and you have to get out there and keep proving yourself regardless."
The Little Things wasn't supposed to have been Malek's first film since Bohemian Rhapsody. For more than a year, James Bond fans have seen tantalising glimpses of him as the scar-faced Safin, 007's main antagonist in Daniel Craig's swan song, No Time To Die, which was initially due for release last April and been postponed several times already due to the pandemic. With a reported price tag of well over $300m, it needs to open as big as possible in October, but Malek says it will be worth the wait to see it on the big screen.
"It's a film that is a must-see in the cinema, so I am of the group that says, if you have to wait - then we just have to wait," he says. "That's just the world we are living in right now and in order for people to properly see this and to bring in the amount of fans that I think the custodians of this great franchise know they can have in the theatre is something that compels to them to keep pushing the film until there is a certain equation that works for them.
"I am happy for that to happen because I want as many people to see this as possible. Daniel Craig is just phenomenal in the film and I think Cary Fukunaga did a very special job on it as well and it's a great send-off for him."
The Little Things opens in cinemas on February 18, with advance screenings this weekend
THE DENZEL FACTOR
Director of The Little Things John Lee Hancock was over the moon when the first person he got on board was Denzel Washington, but it also came with its own suite of problems.
"You want to make sure that everyone you cast can get in the ring with Denzel," he says. "And that's not a long list."
But in casting fellow Oscar-winners Rami Malek and Jared Leto, he found he had two very different actors, with two very different approaches, who could both mix it with the legend.
"It was fascinating," Hancock says. "I think both Jared and Rami loved the idea of being in scenes with Denzel and they all brought their A game. But you could sense the camaraderie as it grew between them and the respect that was already there."
Malek says he wasn't about to pass up the chance to have a front-row seat to watching a master at work, and preferred to stay on set rather than in his trailer even for scenes he wasn't in.
"One thing that kept coming back to me is, of course, the attention to detail," he says of Washington. "A lot of actors come in and have an idea of exactly what they want to do and aren't able to move too far in one direction or another. What's great about Denzel is he as utterly in the moment as you can be; that is pretty exceptional to watch."
Originally published as Rami Malek embraces darkness in serial killer thriller