Rami Malek Interview: No Time To Die, How Freddie Mercury Influenced Safin, And Working With Daniel Craig

No Time To Die

by Chris Hewitt |
Published on

Every great James Bond movie need its villain – and in No Time To Die, it’s Rami Malek’s job to frighten the living daylights out of 007. He plays Safin, a mysterious figure linked to the past of Lea Seydoux's Madeleine Swann and wreaking havoc for the future of Daniel Craig’s Bond in typically theatrical style.

To celebrate the film’s release, Malek stopped by the Empire Podcast to talk No Time To Die’s delayed release, his take on the Bond villain formula, his experiences of acting opposite Craig, and how playing Freddie Mercury changed the way he approached his performance. Listen to the full episode on the Empire Podcast now, or read the highlights here.

No Time To Die

EMPIRE: We last spoke in a hotel room in New York in December 2019. For some reason there's been a delay to the movie, I'm not entirely sure what happened. What's the delay been like for you? You must have been itching for people to see this thing.

RAMI MALEK: Honestly, it never bothered me. My friends and family would say, ‘It must be such a disappointment.’ And I would say, ‘What's the disappointment? We have a situation going on in the world that's quite difficult for everybody, so let's put movies aside and look after one another, and the time will come.’

I always appreciated the resolve that Barbara [Broccoli] and Michael [G. Wilson] had for just taking a moment and saying, ‘You know what, we're not going to throw this on a streamer,’ or, ‘We're not going to sell this. This is our baby and it demands to be seen in a cinema.’ So after two years, that's exactly what we're getting right now. I always looked at it from that point of view and said, ‘When the time is right, the time is right.’ And the time is now.

What can we expect from you as a Bond villain?

There is this line that you hear in Bond films quite a bit which is, ‘Well, Mr. Bond, you and I are a lot alike.’ There's a semblance of that you can hear in the trailer, when Safin says to Bond, ‘I could be speaking to my own reflection.’ I just find that type of mentality so interesting, that both these guys think that they're trying to save the world, they just go about it in two extraordinarily different ways. With Safin I thought, ‘Okay, I'll find a way to really sympathise and empathise with this guy and make the audience fall in love with him perhaps, because they can empathise with his pain.’ But there's something so dark and evil and sinister about him that I just had to remove myself from him and say, this is not part of my DNA thankfully, and I can just transform into somebody who I don't have to pull anything from and just create something that is exciting to bring to Daniel and 007. Because when you don't have much care in the world, you're not worried about what happens to you, and you can throw any risks out the window. That's something that's difficult to argue with or fight against.

We've held this secret for almost two years now. I don't know of any other film where that's happened in quite the same way.

It’s refreshing to hear an actor say that, because an awful lot of times an actor who plays the “bad guy” will say that they don’t think of themselves as a villain. But Safin is so toxic that even you had to step back a little bit from him.

There was actually a moment where I did have to go to Barbara and Cary [Joji Fukunaga] and say, ‘I don't know if I can do that,’ and it did not make the movie. There were aspects of the film that took us to a level where you really have to stop and say, ‘What was the cultural impact of what this might say?’

No Time To Die

What was your way into this character?

As you can see there's some facial disfigurement that he has and so I started there. I wanted to create an enigmatic ambiguity to him where you couldn't quite tell where he was from. You could probably assess what he wanted, but you didn't always know why. There's something you just always can't quite put your finger on with Safin, and that I liked. You can't necessarily put him into a box of a certain type of villain. I wanted to always keep people on their toes, and keep him on his toes as well.

You obviously have scenes with Daniel Craig. Did your approach to the character change once Bond is there?

There were moments where I would talk to Daniel, Barbara and Cary and look at part of the script and say that given what I want to do with this character, and given that it's Daniel’s last film, I think we can elevate this scene between us. We could possibly think about the philosophy here, as if we were two guys just sitting down at a pub having a beer or a glass of wine and saying, well this is this is the way I look at the world, how do you look at the world?

So we batted ideas back and forth with Cary, with Barbara, and eventually with Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] as well. She wasn't present on the day, so she got a bunch of notes at the end of the night, and I talked to her on the phone, and she goes, ‘What the hell happened over there today?’ It was more about throwing out a few petty one-liners rather than utilising them too often in a scene, and instead really have a proper conversation, where life and death is on the line.

Just a couple of regular fellas, only one of them happens to be James Bond, and one of them happens to be trying to do something to the world.

I love that it's so vague: ‘do something to the world.’ That's what’s great about this film in particular; few of us have seen it, right? And we've held this secret for almost two years now. I don't know of any other film where that's happened in quite the same way, and people have been able to not spill anything over that much time. I think it was Barbara who set the tone, because when I arrived in London to shoot my script was hand delivered to my hotel by Barbara. True story.

Empire – No Time To Die – Rami Malek as Safin

That's the gold star treatment. Do you think she does that for everybody in the cast?

I don't know if that's the gold star treatment so much as it is, 'Keep your mouth shut.’ You're not getting this from a PA, you're getting this from me.

Did you know what you were going to do on take one? How much of it was spontaneous, and how much of it was meticulously pre-planned?

I think because Safin is such a meticulous character, I wanted to be very meticulous about what I was going to do. So I had an arc, of course, and I love to come in as prepared as I can. Especially when you're facing off against a guy who has been in this franchise for five films. He knows what he's doing inside and out, there's no way I can just walk in willy nilly and say, ‘Let's try this on the day.’ But you do have to have the freedom to respond to whatever might be thrown your way.

As I've gotten older I've really learned not to get so stuck in my ways. I used to have ideas for roles and come in and just want to exact those moments as I had prepared them in my bedroom. Playing Freddie Mercury gave me a bit more freedom. This guy's so unpredictable and spontaneous, and that's what makes him so fascinating. I guess the only thing I would say I carried over is a bit of that unpredictability.

If I hadn't played Freddie, I don't know that I would have had the confidence to walk in on day one with Daniel.

You mentioned Freddie Mercury, what did the Oscar that you won for that performance mean to you in terms of tackling this role, and did it give you an injection of confidence in your career and your choices as an actor?

You know when I was younger, I had this audition with Tom Hanks to be in this miniseries called The Pacific. I was acting in front of him and [Steven] Spielberg, and in that moment I said to myself, ‘If you can't do this right now, you're just never going to be able to do this,’ and I just steeled myself and when I walked out that door I felt something in me that was heightened and a bit stronger. So in moments in front of a camera or oddly onstage, there's something that I dig deep and find that lifts my character. I sometimes wonder why I can't always elicit that in life so much, but I'm just glad it happens in those moments. That happened with Freddie at times, when you just marshal some form of leadership and gravitas. So I would like to think that having the Oscar would enhance that, but I also would like to say that there's something that was always in me that allowed me to just excel in those moments of sheer fear and chaos. I really do thrive in chaos.

However If I hadn't played Freddie, I don't know that I would have had the confidence to walk in on day one with Daniel and give it to him straight like that. A funny story about that Oscar – we get asked a lot, ‘Where do you keep it?’ And I said to Denzel [Washington], ‘I never have an answer for this. I still don't know where to put it. Where do you put it?’ Denzel goes, ‘Next to the other one.’ Only Denzel could get away with that.

No Time To Die is in UK cinemas now. New episodes of the Empire Podcast arrive weekly on Fridays – read more here.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us