Rami Said Malek was born May 12, 1981 and is an American actor and producer.
His breakthrough role was as computer hacker Elliot Alderson in the USA Network television series Mr. Robot. In 2018, he portrayed Freddie Mercury in the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, for which he received critical acclaim and won several awards, including the Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and British Academy Film Award for Best Actor. He is the first actor of Egyptian heritage to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, to Egyptian immigrant parents, Malek studied theater at the University of Evansville in Indiana. He began his acting career with supporting roles in film and television, including the Fox sitcom The War at Home (2005–2007), the HBO miniseries The Pacific (2010), and the Night at the Museum film trilogy (2006–2014). He has done voicework for television and video games, as well as motion capture for the latter.
Malek was born in Los Angeles, on May 12, 1981, to Egyptian immigrant parents, Said Malek and Nelly Abdel-Malek. He has said he is also “an eighth Greek”. His parents left Cairo in 1978 after his father, a tour guide, became intrigued with Western visitors. They settled in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, mostly staying in the San Fernando Valley and rarely venturing into Hollywood. His father sold insurance; his mother is an accountant. Malek was raised in his family’s Coptic Orthodox Christian faith, and grew up speaking colloquial Egyptian Arabic at home until the age of four. Malek has an identical twin brother named Sami who is younger by four minutes; he is an ESL and English teacher. Malek’s older sister, Yasmine, is an ER doctor. His parents emphasized to their children the importance of preserving their Egyptian roots, and his father would wake his son in the middle of the night to talk to his Arabic-speaking extended family in their hometown of Samalut, Egypt.
As a first-generation American, Malek found it difficult to assimilate as a child because of cultural differences, even spending most of his childhood having his name mispronounced: it took him till high school where he found the confidence to tell everybody that his name was Rami. It was a very upsetting thing to think about, that he did not have the confidence to correct anyone at that point. As a result, he said it was difficult to form a self-identity as a child and gravitated towards “creating characters and doing voices” as he searched for an outlet for that energy. He attended Notre Dame High School, and was in the same class as actress Rachel Bilson. Kirsten Dunst, who is a year younger, also attended the school, and the two shared a musical theater class. His parents harbored dreams of him becoming a lawyer, so he joined the debate team. Though he struggled to form arguments, his debate teacher noted his talent in dramatic interpretation and encouraged him instead to perform the one-man play Zooman and The Sign at a competition. Reflecting on the moment, he said that on stage he had this moment with his dad with a bunch of other people [in the audience], and then he thought that something really special was happening there. It was the first time he saw his father become emotional, and his parents’ positive reaction to his performance left him feeling free to pursue an acting career.
After graduating in 1999, he went on to study theater at the University of Evansville in Evansville, Indiana, where he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2003. The college later honored Malek with a 2017 Young Alumnus Award, “given to those who have achieved personal success and contribute services to their community and to UE”.
After his college graduation, Malek wanted to attend grad school for theater; however, with college debt growing, he moved to New York instead where he shared a one-bedroom apartment with friends who were also in the theater business. His network of friends included writers and directors. Together they performed their own plays around the city. While visiting his family in Los Angeles, he met casting director Mali Finn who convinced him to stay and look for work in Hollywood. After moving in with his parents, Malek worked delivering pizza and making falafel and shawarma sandwiches at a restaurant in Hollywood to make ends meet. Despite sending his resume to production houses, he found it difficult to get work as an actor, which led to bouts of depression and a loss of confidence. He considered getting a real estate license instead of pursuing an acting career.
After a year and a half, he finally received a call from casting director Mara Casey. She asked to speak to his agent. When he confessed he did not have one, she told him to get one first. After having a pleasant conversation, however, Malek suggested they meet anyway. She agreed, and the meeting led to him getting his first role in the TV sitcom Gilmore Girls in 2004. That same year he voiced “additional characters” for the video game Halo 2, for which he was uncredited. In 2005, he received his Screen Actors Guild card for his work in two episodes of the Steven Bochco war drama Over There. Later that year, he appeared in an episode of Medium and was cast in the prominent recurring role of Kenny, on the Fox comedy series The War at Home. Kenny’s “coming out” story earned accolades from GLAAD. In 2006, Malek made his feature film debut as Pharaoh Ahkmenrah in the comedy Night at the Museum. He reprised this role in the sequels Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014). In the spring of 2007, he appeared on-stage as Jamie in the Vitality Productions theatrical presentation of Keith Bunin’s The Credeaux Canvas at the Elephant Theatre in Los Angeles.
Malek returned to television in 2010 in a recurring role as the suicide bomber Marcos Al-Zacar on the eighth season of the Fox series 24. Growing weary of playing characters he called “acceptable terrorists”, he instructed his agent to reject any role that painted Arabs or Middle Easterners in a “bad light”. Later that year, he received critical acclaim for his portrayal of Corporal Merriell “Snafu” Shelton in the Emmy Award-winning HBO World War II mini-series The Pacific. After the intensity of filming The Pacific, he chose to leave Hollywood and lived briefly in Argentina, though he says it was unsuccessful and he has “since found better ways of coping”. During the filming of The Pacific, Malek received a letter from executive producer Tom Hanks praising Malek’s performance. Hanks would then cast him as college student Steve Dibiasi in the feature film Larry Crowne, released in July 2011.
Those opportunities led to Malek securing supporting roles in a series of major films. In August 2010, it was announced that he had been cast as the “Egyptian coven” vampire, Benjamin, in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2. In 2013 he played Nate, a new employee at a group home for youths, in the indie film Short Term 12, opposite Brie Larson. He appeared in two Spike Lee films during this period, the 2012 remake of the South Korean film Oldboy, in a part that was trimmed significantly, and later in the crowdfunded picture Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. The two men have remained friends. He also had minor roles in Battleship, the Oscar-nominated The Master, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. He appeared as Josh, one of the main characters in Until Dawn, a horror game released for the PlayStation 4 on August 25, 2015. He lent his voice and likeness to the character and was fully motion-captured for the game.
Screenwriter Sam Esmail had auditioned over 100 actors to play the lead character of Elliot Alderson (a mentally unstable computer-hacker) for a show he was developing. Having failed to cast the part, he considered re-writing the character altogether. After seeing Malek’s audition, however, Esmail said, “It opened my eyes to who Elliot really was”. The resultant psychological drama, Mr. Robot, premiered on June 24, 2015, on the USA Network, with Malek in the lead role. To accurately portray the character, who suffers from mental and social disorders, he met with a psychiatrist. The role drew immediate praise from critics. His performance earned him nominations for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. He was the first non-white actor to win an Emmy in that category since 1998. The show will conclude with its fourth season in 2019.
To prepare for the role as Mercury, Malek moved to London where he employed a dialect coach and movement coach, and took piano and singing lessons. For four hours each day, he studied videos of Mercury with his movement coach, Polly Bennett. This included watching the 1985 Live Aid concert video on YouTube at least 1,500 times to perfect his performance for the movie. He also had to get used to singing and speaking with a set of false teeth that mimicked the singer’s overbite. Brian May, Queen’s guitarist who often attended filming, is quoted as saying that Malek’s performance was so accurate that he sometimes forgot he was Rami. Malek considers his performance as Mercury the most important in his career.
During the press tour for Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek said he is working on a movie, one he plans to write, direct, and produce himself on a small budget, since it is a story that he says “might get passed on by studios looking for something a bit more broad and commercial”.
Malek’s early roles established him as a character actor. He has remarked that he enjoys the auditioning process, sees it as a “proving ground to test things out”, and has created so many diverse characters for auditions that he wishes he could collect them as a package to show to others. However, after his success with Mr. Robot, he began to be regarded as a “leading man”, though an “unconventional” one. In 2017, Malek accepted an invitation to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, among 774 new members invited as part of the Academy’s efforts to diversify its members after criticism over the lack of diversity of the 88th Academy Awards.
To prepare for a role, he describes an initial stage of panic, followed by research into the character to create a world for that person. This includes finding music he thinks the character would listen to, as well as creating and imagining past memories for that person to the point he has to perform as them. His most creative times are mornings and evenings. Malek likes to do experimental takes until he finds a take that will work. Director Sam Esmail noted that Malek is often dissatisfied with his work even when the director feels he has completed a perfect take. Because of their mutual insistence on getting a scene the best it can be, Esmail considers Malek a “co-creator”. The actor has also been noted for his physical transformations to play his characters. He lost significant weight to play Elliot Alderson, Freddie Mercury, and Snafu Shelton, where Tom Hanks required that he maintain between six and eight-percent body fat. During the filming of The Pacific, Malek found it difficult to separate himself from his character, Snafu Shelton, which led to “some pretty intense mental anguish during and after filming”. He noted the most valuable lesson from that experience was learning to distance himself from his characters, otherwise he would not have been able to take on complex roles later in his career, like Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot.
Malek tends to be reserved in interviews, mentioning in one his desire to stay “anonymous” abroad. He eschews social media. He says he is the opposite of the introverted character of Elliot that he plays in Mr. Robot, he says that he is an exuberant person who thrives on affection. He likes chit chat. One of the great things about living in New York for him, is that you meet so many strangers, and he loves encounters with strangers, he loves meeting people and hearing their stories.
The actor has lent his support to charities, such as the Epidermolysis Bullosa Medical Research Foundation and the ACLU. In September 2018, Malek started working with the (RED) organization after being inspired by his Freddie Mercury role. As an ambassador to raise awareness and funds to help eliminate HIV/AIDS, Malek traveled to Eswatini to “learn more about the state of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa”.
He is the first actor of Egyptian heritage to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. While his win was celebrated in Egypt by the media and some government officials, Member of Parliament Mohamed Ismail criticized Malek’s win, saying that he was surprised by the Egyptian media’s celebration of Rami Malek, because the role played by him in the film is far from his real character. Stating that he is trying to [spread] homosexuality among the youth and that the award has a specific goal, which is to corrupt morality in the Arab world. They cited Rami as a bad example and that if he was in Egypt, he would have been hanged”.
The organization Human Rights Watch stated that the country deserved an Oscar for hypocrisy for praising Malek, given its prohibition on homosexuals being celebrated in the media.