It’s been nearly two years since Rami Malek stood on stage at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles to accept the Academy Award for Best Actor for his commanding performance as the late pop star and frontman of Queen, Freddie Mercury, in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a film that grossed over $900 million worldwide. Nothing of the moment was lost on him as he looked across the crowd.
“Part of my story is being written right now,” Malek, the now-39-year-old son of Egyptian immigrants, said during his acceptance speech, which marked the first time a person of Arab heritage had won the award.
Malek, and everyone in the room, knew what had gotten him to that point in his story. The commitment to his craft was clear in every frame of the film, as he didn’t just embody the legendary singer, but brought new insights into his character. The question that remained, even for Malek himself, is where that talent and dedication would take his story next.
The answer is “The Little Things,” written and directed by John Lee Hancock, which opens in the UAE and Saudi Arabia on Jan.28. It is Malek’s first big-screen appearance since “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He plays a detective named Jim Baxter, chasing a serial killer with the same singular focus that has made Malek himself so successful.
Unlike Malek’s tale, however, Baxter’s is a cautionary one, as his non-stop pursuit nearly ruins him. That, in fact, is what drew Malek to the role.
“It was the whole idea of when obsession starts to overtake so many other aspects of your life. I think it’s a good thing to be reminded of,” Malek tells Arab News.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down production across Hollywood only months after “The Little Things” finished filming at the end of 2019, Malek, like all of us, has had a lot of time to reflect. Through these long months, Malek has continued to think back on the last character he played, aware that a singular focus on his own career could lead him away from what matters most.
“This year probably has taught us a lot about that as well. We get so focused on certain things, get so narrow-minded and have a certain tunnel vision about what has to be achieved in life and what we have to do, that we start to neglect the most important things and perhaps Jim gave me a little bit of that,” says Malek.
Beyond that, a year in social distance has given Malek a renewed sense of his own humanity, and the responsibility that comes with that.
“[Our art] is extremely important; this thing that we get involved in — our heart and our work — and that, of course, means a lot. But loving your fellow man, the relationship you have with your friends and family, how interconnected we all are, and the sense of equality all over the world is something I think we’re all probably thinking about now in a very strong, focused way,” Malek continues.
Flanking Malek in “The Little Things” are two fellow Oscar winners — Denzel Washington and Jared Leto. Leto was offered a part after Washington and Malek had signed on, and the chance to work with Malek was something that the acclaimed actor and lead singer of the band 30 Seconds To Mars couldn’t pass up.
“If you look at Rami and what he did in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ it’s (awe-inspiring),” says Leto, who plays Albert Sparma, whom the police suspect may be a serial killer. “I remember when I saw him for the first time after that, the first thing I said to him was, ‘Forget the acting, what you did on the stage deserves the awards in and of itself.’ And, as a guy who has stood on thousands of stages around the world, that isn’t easy. They almost should have cast a musician and taught them how to act, because that’s a really a hard thing to do. For me, being a physical actor is really (what I’m interested in).”
In the film, Malek’s character Baxter latches on to the older, wiser Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon, played by Washington. That relationship mirrored their real-life interactions, as Malek basked in the chance to learn from his accomplished co-star.
“Personally, if I see wisdom and great instincts and experience in front of me, I lean on that. I think that was also inherent in the script. For someone who is struggling in a case, with so much building up, so much responsibility, to have the ability to lean on someone who had clearly been there before and seen something quite dark — there was almost a need to bring that person into your life and seek counsel from them,” Malek says. “I think Baxter knew, in a sense, it could get him down a harmful road. But there was something advantageous to working with this man that could help him solve this very difficult puzzle.”
While Washington’s presence gave Malek the opportunity to learn from one of the most acclaimed actors in film history on set, Malek also sought out meetings with actual detectives to gain a better insight into the way they operate. It was, in fact, the way that one detective cancelled on him that gave him his way into their mentality.
“(He) told me he couldn’t make it to an appointment we had set to do some research and talk about my character because he’d just come across ‘a fresh one.’ Those words stuck with me and haunted me. At some point it becomes commonplace for them that this is the job. There must be some type of numbing effect that happens for them, because I can’t imagine ever getting used to seeing what they see on a daily basis,” says Malek.
Ultimately, it is how the film resolves that makes it linger. The script, written by Hancock in 1993 and originally intended for Steven Spielberg, was meant to be both an ode to the detective film and a rebuke of the genre. According to Hancock, usually it is the resolution, where the good guys capture the evil doer, that is the least interesting aspect of the film.
“The Little Things” has no heroes, nor does it clearly have villains. Its ending has no satisfying answers, other than laying out a clear pathway to how men end up compromised and broken.
“One of the reasons I gravitated to this story is because it doesn’t have your usual Hollywood ending. It leaves you questioning your idea of how we look at people — criminals, even ourselves,” says Malek.
As Malek himself continues to reflect, he is entering the next chapter of his story with a renewed sense of what he is building towards.