At the 91st Academy Awards, Rami Malek won for Best Leading Actor thanks to his widely celebrated performance in Bohemian Rhapsody—and in doing so, became the first actor of Arab heritage to win the category. As far as being given the chance to portray the legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, Malek lightheartedly said, “I may not have been the obvious choice, but I guess it worked out.”

Among those who he thanked were Graham King and Dennis O’Sullivan. The production duo had seen Malek on the third season of Mr. Robot, in which he plays the vigilante hacker Elliot Alderson. Alderson struggles with a social anxiety disorder and vastly differs from the flamboyant rockstar Mercury. After all, Freddie was an extroverted performer who relished the connection he had with his audience. So, first off, Malek was confounded as to why King and Sullivan initially imagined he’d be a good match for the role.

But on top of that, Malek himself never really imagined he’d be given a chance to play such an iconic role. Backstage at the Oscars, he told the reporters, “Look, I grew up in a world where, I never thought I was going to play the lead on ‘Mr. Robot’ because I never saw anyone in a lead role that looked like me. I never thought that I could possibly play Freddie Mercury until I realized his name was Farrokh Bulsara. And that is the most powerful message that was sent to me from the beginning. That was the motivation that allowed me to say, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”

On the red carpet before the event, Malek stated, “As a kid, you grow up thinking, ‘I just want a job as an actor. Will that ever happen?’ So to be here on this scale, I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams.” Born in Los Angeles to Egyptian immigrant parents, Malek was raised in the Coptic Orthodox faith and speaking Arabic. After studying theater in college, he found himself delivering pizzas and working in restaurants to make ends meet between auditions. But this lifestyle was taking a toll on his confidence level. He wondered if he should just give up on acting and pursue working as a realtor instead.

Thankfully, 2004 proved to be a pivotal year for Malek. A casting director called him and asked to speak with his agent. He awkwardly admitted he didn’t have an agent. Still, he went on to meet the casting director and landed a role in the sitcom Gilmore Girls. The part opened industry doors for him, and soon he really was a working actor. Roles in which he was cast include the pharaoh in the Night at the Museum films, an Egyptian vampire in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2, as well as what he calls an “acceptable terrorist” in three episodes of the television series 24. The steady paychecks were great, but he was not happy to be portraying negative stereotypes of Middle Eastern characters. So, he put his foot down and informed his agent that, from then on, he’d be refusing such roles.

And Malek had other reasons to believe he wasn’t a good fit to play Freddie Mercury. The 37-year-old actor told Jimmy Fallon, “I told [the producers], ‘Listen guys, I’m not going to be the Hollywood actor who sells myself here; I don’t play piano; I don’t think I’m a singer; I have a very unusual way of dancing—that’s about as close as I can get with Freddie Mercury.’” As much as he wasn’t an automatic shoo-in for the role, the producers seemed to like his modesty.

So, maybe Malek wasn’t the obvious choice to play Mercury; but clearly, he was the right choice. “Getting out there and performing Live Aid in front of Queen fans is the greatest rush I could have ever asked for,” he once said. Well, maybe winning the Oscar comes in second.

What’s next for Malek? He’s stated he’s working on his own project which he intends to serve as writer, director, and producer. While he hasn’t shared specifics about it, Malek says he doesn’t regard it as big-studio material. Instead, he believes it to be important work.

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