There’s something incredibly electrifying about Rami Malek. The Egyptian-American actor may be small in stature but he is big in personality, though not in a loud, brash way. He has an intense gaze that draws you in, and an approachable manner. I first met Malek, one of Cartier’s celebrity ambassadors, on the rooftop bar of The Peninsula Hotel in Paris late last year, at the relaunch of the Tank Française, a watch that turns 27 this year. I was excited to meet him, and he was very warm and friendly throughout dinner, engaging in light-hearted conversations with everyone around him. My interview with him was scheduled for the next day. I had the last slot, which in retrospect, was not the best choice. As it turns out, Malek is an enthusiastic interviewee; the 20 minutes allocated for each journalist stretched to an hour. Multiply that by 20 journalists—you get the picture. Despite the back-to-back interviews, Malek had plenty of chatter left in him. Apologising profusely for the delay, he quickly settled down to talk about his craft, what fashion means to him, and his long-standing devotion to his Cartier Tank watch.
Guy Ritchie—what a great opportunity to film the Cartier commercial with such an acclaimed director.
We were supposed to talk about the film, and two hours later, he got up to say goodbye. I was like, “Do you not want to discuss this project?” I found it quite elegant that he just didn’t charge right into work. It was kind of an audition to see if we were going to get along, and that was most definitely the case. I wanted to get a sense of someone you’re working with, especially when you’re spending that much time with a human being.
What do you like about his films?
I like that he almost created a genre. When you say, “That’s a Guy Ritchie film”, you know exactly what characteristics those are. There’s a punchiness to it, a wit, a very unusual story—in the hands of lesser directors, it might feel a bit convoluted, but he really knows how to tether a great story together, with unique characters whom you want to embrace and who linger with you for quite a while.
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What it was like working with Catherine Deneuve?
I was introduced to films by my father at a very early age. We watched everything from the 1920s onwards. And so I knew of Catherine and had a little bit of a crush on her as a young man, having seen her films. To be on the Pont Alexandre III bridge with her, emulating iconic moments from her extraordinary career, was such a spellbinding moment. And to do it with Guy, who is one of the most
impressive filmmakers of his generation, just felt like a uniquely special experience. I thought it was so eloquent, elegant, imaginative and creative to tether all of these cinematic time travel concepts through a watch that has stood the test of time. Personally, I like to connect myself with things I believe in, that I feel are an extension of me, and are things I can stand by. I don’t do anything that I don’t believe in. There is nothing out there that exemplifies integrity and strength and commitment to character quite like Cartier. It was a wonderful way to gather all of these worlds together to make a movie about an icon, that is centred on an icon.
Are there certain stories or characters that resonate with you, which make you think, “This is what I want to do, this is what Rami is about”?
I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason for the way we make decisions. I mean, if you told me 10 years ago that I would have an opportunity to play Freddie Mercury, I would have laughed at you. As I get older, I am gravitating to more emotional stories, simple stories, human stories. I’m going to be playing the iconic silent film star Buster Keaton. Not everything has to be a blockbuster. But I’m also very cognisant of my [Egyptian] heritage, and making sure that I, at least in some way, bring myself back to that part of my culture, with perhaps directors from that area, and maybe compiling and assembling a crew from that area as well. I steered away from that for so long, because I was only getting these terrorist roles. So I think maybe I went so far in one direction, that it’s time to find a heartwarming, possibly heart-wrenching, story that brings me back to my roots.
Is there one change you would like to see in Hollywood?
I appreciate the changes that are being made right now. I can see an extraordinary difference in the way people are conducting themselves on set. We’re going in a direction where there’s definitely been a transition as to the stories we’re telling, and the people who are now invited to tell those stories in front of the camera and behind. My only concern is that this is not a fleeting phase because that would be debilitating and extraordinarily sad.
How do you prepare for your roles? What you did as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody was incredible. It was so moving and truly monumental.
Oh, thank you. That’s so kind. That means the world to me. You just know you have to honour that person. You can’t let their family or band down. I love extraordinary challenges. Of course, they’re met with a little bit of fear. But I also thrive on that. I don’t mind pushing myself to a degree and so I was just very well aware that wasn’t going to be a role that I could assemble over the course of months. The second that it was even expressed to me that I might have an opportunity, I dove head in. I had Freddie’s
teeth made by a makeup artist that I was working with on another film. And every night, I would go home with those teeth and work on his music. I tried to spend as much time with that person as possible, and if that meant dancing alone in my hotel room, I would be doing that. I also tried to just get a sense of what his influences were. And I got a choreographer who gave me insight to the evolution of why Freddie walks, talks and moves the way he does—rather than trying to emulate a specific choreography—and
tie it to his history. For example, he took boxing lessons as a young man, so when you see him on the Live Aid stage, throwing out that punch, it was instinctive and natural. Understanding those things made it much easier to wrap my head around the idea of playing such an icon. And he loved Cartier, by the way.
He loved a lot of things. He would go to Japan on tour and come back with about 20 boxes of purchases that he made. His home would be covered with framed kimonos, little Japanese artefacts and paintings. Freddie and Elton John would go to Sotheby’s and outbid each other for paintings. Yeah, he liked the finer things in life.
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What was your first experience of Cartier?
I had a Cartier Tank when I was 22, because it was the first time I made a real paycheck. I knew it would hold its value. I wanted to feel as elegant as possible and I knew there would be one thing that would be unquestionably emblematic of that. And that was the Tank. I still have it and I cherish it.
What part does fashion play in this process of getting into character both on and off screen?
I’m not afraid to say I love fashion. I love getting up in the morning and dressing well. It’s an appreciation for your sense of self, and it doesn’t have to be a designer product. If you have a certain taste and an aesthetic that feeds you, it gives you a sense of confidence and comfort in your own skin. Fashion allows you to speak of who you are without having to articulate it vocally.
And what is that aesthetic?
I don’t think you can ever go wrong with things that are timeless, elegant and sophisticated. But I am also not afraid to throw in an element of what I call ‘elegant punk’. I think when you wear a Tank or a Tank Française, it allows you to take other liberties in the way you dress because there’s an acknowledgement that you have a sense of what real refinement is. And it’s not always going to be perfect tailoring and suiting. When I sat down to play the piano on day one for the Live Aid stage for Bohemian Rhapsody, I noticed that the straps of the singlet I wore were not as thin on top as they were in the original worn
by Freddie. I was like “I’m so sorry, but something is not right”. And we compared them, went back and forth, and thank God [costume designer] Julian Day said, “You know what, you’re not wrong.” Sometimes, it’s the minor details that make all the difference. That’s how I feel about having a great watch on my hands.
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What does elegance mean for you, in terms of fashion?
You can never go wrong with black. It can be a cop-out sometimes, but it’s chic.
Are there designers who you love or Houses that you work closely with?
My first campaign was with Dior. I’ve worked with Saint Laurent. I’m working with Prada now and I love what they do outside of fashion. Madam Prada and I can sit and talk about films ad nauseam, which is beautiful. I sat down at this season’s Fashion Week with [Prada PR director] Verde Visconti, and we have developed this special relationship that transcends a normal relationship behind a photo shoot and selling a product. While trends come and go, nothing sustains timeless sophistication and elegance quite like the way a Cartier Tank watch does. It may sound like a soundbite, but it’s the truth. You can’t always go back to a fashion season or a certain collection, but you can always put on a Tank, and it is always in fashion.