Going to war changed everything for Rami Malek. Since his 2004 breakout role in Gilmore Girls, the baby-faced actor has worked at a near-frantic pace, with high-profile guest turns in Medium and 24, and a two-year regular stint on the Fox sitcom The War at Home.
In a nod to his Egyptian heritage, Malek also portrayed the pharaoh Ahkmenrah in the feature Night at the Museum and the 2009 sequel.
Then came The Pacific.
Co-produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, the epic HBO miniseries won eight Emmy Awards and has already become a bestseller since its recent release on DVD and Blu-ray. And so far, every review of the series has pointed out Malek's bravura performance as Private Merriell "Snafu" Shelton, a drawling New Orleans native dropped into the unforgiving battlefields of Peleliu and Okinawa.
Malek's tour of duty on The Pacific took up several months of his life, most of it spent shooting in Australia and other locales. He spoke to us during a recent visit to Toronto.
Was filming The Pacific much like going to war?
Everything about the film was incredibly realistic, so it still feels very visceral for me. Those images will probably linger in my mind forever. While I was working on the series, I realized I would probably never play a role in a project of this epic scope again. I hope I do, but it was still a very indelible experience.
What was your research to play Snafu?
I did a lot of work trying to wrap my mind around what life was like for a young man back then. I researched his upbringing in rural Louisiana and what he did before joining the military. I learned that he was a gambler and had worked in the Citizens Coalition Corps during the Depression. He endured a lot of hardships, and those carried forth when he was in battle. For me, I always felt there was something he was trying to forget.
Is it tougher or easier to play a real-life character?
It's extremely tough to play a real person, especially in this case. I read the book the miniseries was based on and I knew he was kind of a wild card. Whether the events in the film are as truthful as they were in real life we can never really know. Our job was to find a way to blend what we did know about him and the circumstances he was put in.
Did making The Pacific harden or mature you as an actor?
It's funny, because when I see the film now, I swear I look so much younger in the first scenes we shot. Of course I would never compare myself to someone who actually went through a war, but I definitely matured shooting The Pacific. I'm more calm and I have more patience. This type of project helps you learn a lot about yourself and the human condition, and what's worth fighting for. That carries over to other roles.
Was it almost a letdown moving on to your next acting role?
Not really, because my next role was much lighter. Not long after The Pacific, I began shooting the comedy Larry Crowne, which was also with Tom Hanks, who also directed and plays the title character. After The Pacific we wanted to do something that just had a ton of laughs, and we certainly got that opportunity with Larry Crowne. It's quite a romp.
You've also been cast in the next entry of the Twilight film franchise. Details?
I wish I could but they really don't tell us very much. It's all very secretive.
This interview has been condensed and edited.