Nothing quite so remarkable has ever happened in Hollywood as the advent of Rami Malek – from his foreign name and his off-kilter looks to his hit TV show, Mr Robot – one of the most complex ever to come out of a cable network.
Thanks to one of the most ingenious creative minds currently working in xenophobic America, Hoboken born Egyptian-American Sam Esmail, Mr Robot has become a watercooler phenomenon destined for Emmy recognition.
At his press conference in Beverly Hills, Malek is a little twitchy but supremely confident that now is his time.
I ask him if it was his memorable supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) that was the impetus for his current success, and surprisingly the 35-year-old cites other more recent roles such as Night At The Museum.
So how has your life changed?
My life changed quite a bit. I was recently at the Met Ball with Anna Wintour, something I never expected to happen.
It was funny because the girls on our show love to dress up, and I am the one that gets to go to the Met Ball.
So, they are like, “What are you doing tonight?” And I am like, “I’m going to some gala at the Metropolitan Museum with some lady named Anna Wintour.” I don’t know who that is.
And they just looked at me like they wanted to stab me.
But yeah, things have changed tremendously and from a work standpoint, I am meeting with directors and reading scripts that I never had the opportunity to do before.
So, now I can direct my career in the way that I want it to go.
Obviously you owe everything to Sam. How long have you known him?
I remember once auditioning for Sam, and I saw him smile when I was reading. You don’t always see Sam smile when you are acting.
So, I knew right then and there that we had established a connection.
I wanted this project to be the best it could be because we shared similar philosophies about work and the ideas behind the story and how we wanted it to be portrayed. We would just sit and talk about movies and have coffee, and we became friends.
Growing up in an Egyptian family in Los Angeles, how different was that?
I grew up in a household where our first language was Arabic. My family was surrounded by a bunch of other Egyptian families that emigrated here and were active in their community. I think they all came to Los Angeles because the climate was very similar to Cairo and there was a large Egyptian community here.
I grew up going to a Coptic Orthodox Church, not quite understanding the Coptic language but being able to sing the songs as a child and very much engrossed to the point where all I wanted was to visit my mother and father’s families in Egypt and see what their world was like, which I did numerous times.
So that world and that culture has always been a part of who I am. I am always involved with my culture and its politics, watching everything that evolves there and always hoping for the best.
Were you ever a victim of discrimination?
Growing up, you would hear a lot of comments about terrorism and the terrorists themselves. Their names sounded very similar to the names of my uncles, and I was like, “What is going on?”
And there would be jokes made, but it toughened me up. But you quickly realise it has nothing to do with your world, it’s an idea that people might associate with certain countries – Egypt being one of them – but being different and feeling different only strengthened my idea of who I am as a human being.
In Mr Robot you have a sister; in real life you have a sister who’s older and a twin brother. What was that dynamic like?
Well, I would like to say we were two cute little kids growing up, my brother and I, so my sister may have got jealous at times. It’s hard when you are the older sister and you are all the world to your family, and then these two little devils come along.
So, we had the usual growing pains, but now she is the most loving, supportive sister. She’s an ER doctor in Washington DC. So as impactful and inspiring as this show is and how heroic my character is, it pales in comparison to what my sister does. She is a real hero, as is my brother who’s a schoolteacher.
As kids, did you and your brother ever switch identities?
We have definitely done some very bad things. He always had cuter girlfriends that I wish I had, so we may or may not have changed clothes to play the same boyfriend.
But those days have passed, I assure you. As a kid he may have been more popular, his personality may have showed itself more in public; I was more in my head. But now he looks at me and how everything has changed, and he thinks, “You lucky son of a gun.”
Would you like to start a family of your own?
Of course I would love to have a family. Because I have worked hard and have begun to garner success, I don’t think I’d want to put any woman through that at the moment, because I am very much married to this craft and trying to perfect it.
So, until I accomplish those goals, I wouldn’t want to infect anyone with that type of selfishness. But yes, one day, I would like to have kids, hopefully they’ll look like her.
Are you recognised wherever you go?
It’s wild because when we started, I could walk down the street and no one knew who I was, but now in Manhattan, it’s tough.
But I will stop for anybody, because if you are a fan of this show and if you know who I am and who I am playing, that’s a real blessing.
How do they approach you?
A lot of Elliot, a lot of Rami. It’s funny when you see a girl nudge her boyfriend and then try to hide it, it never ceases to make me laugh and smile. And then within an instant those pictures are on social media.
Robert Downey Jr. came to set the other day because he is a fan of the show, and we have become friends. He is someone I have idolised since watching Chaplin.
Sam and I were shooting when he visited and we were doing a really emotional scene. After we did about four or five takes, Downey was like, “What was wrong with the first take Sam?” And I went, “Yeah, Sam, what was wrong with the first take?” And Sam said, “Well, how many takes do you usually need, Robert?” And he answers, “Two. Usually one is pretty good right off the bat, and the second is just perfecting it.”
And so since that day, Sam has been limiting my takes to two.
With all the attention you’re getting, how do you stay grounded?
My family. They have done that for me since the very beginning. And my friends always let me know who I am.
I grew up in Los Angeles and I never really left the San Fernando Valley. When I was a kid, I didn’t even know Beverly Hills existed until I was in high school.
Everyone always says don’t change or try not to get too sucked into this business or this world, but I never worry about that because of the way I was raised and who I am. I never want to look back at my life and say I cared so much about my work that I let relationships and my family fall to the wayside.
For me, that is the most important thing and an ideal and value that I don’t think I will ever lose.