With his mesmeric energy and intense eyes, Rami Malek is a unique screen star. He appeared in small but distinctive parts in films like The Master and prestige TV like the miniseries "The Pacific" — where even producer Steven Spielberg took note of his magnetism — before USA's "Mr. Robot" made the most of an unusual talent. On the show, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe, Malek plays the troubled hacker Elliot Alderson, whose air of mystery suits Malek perfectly. For the Royals portfolio, we paired him with Kit Harington, another largely unknown star who burst into stardom on HBO's "Game of Thrones."
What was the first thing you auditioned for as an actor?
I think it was a play, The Miracle Worker, about Hellen Keller.
Is there a male part in that?
Oh, I was in high school or something. It was a very small part. But I got it.
Did you love being on stage?
I did. I still love being on stage. There’s a thrill to that that never goes away. It always feels different, and the response you get from the audience is just so visceral. With film and TV, you have to wait to see what people think. And right there, that connection with an audience is like nothing else.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Los Angeles.
Did you do the circuit of the drama festivals doing scenes?
No, I didn’t. Even growing up in Los Angeles, I never thought about doing that. I never thought about being an actor when I was a kid. I lived in the Valley, and I don’t think I even went over the hill, into Hollywood or Beverly Hills, until I was in high school. I didn’t even know it existed as far as I was concerned. It was the Valley, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys — that’s all I knew. I did grow up real close to Encino, but I thought that was L.A. for a long time. I guess I was pretty sheltered.
No, that’s normal. I was on the West Side and I didn’t know the Valley. I feel like I learned the Valley from Paul Thomas Anderson movies.
Yeah. I did The Master with him. I was with Phil [Seymour Hoffman], with Joaquin [Phoenix].That was one of the most special moments of my life, working with Phil, and of course Paul. Paul always chastises me because I ended up moving to the West Side, and Paul thinks I’ve lost my Valley street cred.
So when did you decide, Okay, this is what I’m going to do?
Ah, I’m still deciding. [Laughs] I think I’m still deciding if I want to do this for the rest of my life. You know, I saw this older woman, like a grandmother, in a TV show the other night. And I wondered, Is she still auditioning for that part? That’s a thought I was thinking. What does that feel like after all of those years of working and having so much respect to audition?
I don’t know. Yeah.
Well, you probably don’t have to audition now?
Oh, I will always have to audition, I feel, because the the projects that I want to do are so competitive. And I don’t mind auditioning because I get to test myself in the room. There’s something that happens when you’re in the room, and you try something out, and you know you have the ability to do it in front of the camera when the time comes. So you feel like you have that in your pocket already.
Some people love auditioning because it’s their chance to act, you know, like if they’re not having a lot of success. You have a lot of success. But I’ve talked to actors who kind of enjoyed it because it was their 10 minute a day or whatever when they got to do a character.
What was the best audition you did where you didn’t get the part? Man. I really liked my audition for Jimmy Darmody, in "Boardwalk Empire." That ended going to Michael Pitt, but it’s Michael Pitt. I can’t be too upset about that.
Do you wear different outfits for auditions, like girls do? Or do guys not do that?
I’m generally a white t-shirt and jeans type of guy, you know, let the people behind the camera use their imagination.
What was the moment where you went, "Okay mom and dad, I’m going to be an actor"?
My folks were the types who wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor. But I’ll tell you this: I went into debate in high school to do when I thought I might be a politician or a lawyer. And I was no good at debating, but they had this dramatic interpretation, and I could do that. I had a teacher who saw that in me, and he said do this play. And it was a one-man play, Zooman and the Sign, by Charles Fuller. And I remember being like 12 years old, and I picked it up, and it read, "My name is Zooman. I’m from the bottom." And that line just hit me. And then the way I said it hit me. I was like, Who the heck were you right there? [Laughs]
And then I ended up doing that in the competition, and my mom and dad came to see me. And I saw something happen in their faces. Like, Oh, he might be able to do something with this. It was a real emotional movement that made me feel like this could be the thing.
Wow. So what was your first big part that you did get?
I’d say my first big part that I really, really loved was playing Snafu in The Pacific, and that was produced by [Tom] Hanks and [Steven] Spielberg. That was a life changer. I just immersed myself in it. I remember going into that audition, and afterwards Tom had written a typed letter to the producer saying, you know, "This guy’s got haunting eyes." And I was like, Great. At least my odd-looking eyes are compelling enough to get a call back from Tom.
That’s pretty cool. Yeah. I remember my final audition. You know, usually those auditions you have a young person behind the camera filming you. But this one was quite up there in age. And I’m doing the scene, and halfway through it I go, Holy shit. That’s Steven Spielberg holding the camera. So I was like, It’s now or never. Don’t blow this. Do not blow this.
Did you scream when you got that part?
I was screaming. I think I still scream every time I get a phone call when I get a job I want.
When you got "Mr. Robot," what happened?
Screaming. I didn’t think I was going to get it. I don’t know why, but...
Now the show's taken on this huge life of its own. I bet you can’t walk down the street now.
Some lady stopped me the other day and said, "Oh, I love your show, and I’m showing it to all of my students. And I go, "Great!" I love teachers. And she goes, "I love robots."
[Laughs] Do you know a lot about robots?
No. [Laughs] That title did kind of throw me off when I read it.
It’s a great title, though, because it’s very mysterious. And you’re a mysterious character. More than just a mysterious character.
A mysterious person. We’ll see... We'll see how long I can remain mysterious.
What were the Golden Globes like, when you won? It’s this feeling of euphoria that comes over you. I guess that’s why people get so touchy-feely. It's like ecstasy.
Ecstasy is like one long award show. I guess if you go there and you don’t win, just pop a pill of ecstasy.