By the middle of the Toronto International Film Festival, the last thing you expect is an unguarded interview. You've encountered too much professional blandness; you've heard too many answers with their edges polished off. And then you meet Rami Malek.
He's trim and not especially tall, 5 foot 7, but he makes a big impact. Startlingly handsome, he's 35, Egyptian American, with tawny skin and close-cropped curly hair. He wears a snazzy black and white plaid suit with a complementary tie and pocket square. He speaks in a slow, just-woke-up drawl that contrasts with his dazzling smile and anything-goes energy. And he's mostly eyes. Giant, chalky blue eyes, the colour of one of those preternaturally still mineral lakes in the Rockies. They seem to see both outwardly and inwardly. They're sad, yet amused. Thousand-mile eyes.
Malek makes good use of his eyes, and his stillness, on Mr. Robot, the critically acclaimed, instant-fan-favourite USA Network series (airing on Showcase in Canada) that just concluded its second season. He plays Elliot, a computer expert in a soulless conglomerate who becomes the reluctant centre of tangled, swirling international conspiracies. Accepting his Emmy for lead actor in a drama series two weeks ago, Malek deployed a charm bomb when he addressed the audience with his show's catchphrase: "Please tell me you're seeing this, too."
Malek is not Elliot, of course. He's cheerier and he radiates more wonder than dread. But he's Elliot enough. "I love diving into deep, thought-provoking characters and stories," he says earnestly, with eye contact so magnetic that you fear you'll be sucked into his skull. "I'm drawn to the theme of questioning our existence, how all this fits together and whether or not it can be altered by each one of us."
He opens his mouth, surprised by the torrent of thoughts he's having. "Are we relegated to the mechanics of this machine that is the universe?" he goes on. "Are we all cogs in its wheel that's moving us at its own pace? Or can we affect it? Are people born malevolent or kind, and do they have the ability to alter that? Are we guilty of the bad things we do? Or is it just the way we are?"
Malek's TIFF film, Buster's Mal Heart (still seeking distribution), addresses those heady questions. He plays a man who's born to be bad but finds a way to be good, altering fate's plan so drastically that he splits reality in two. It was written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, who studied philosophy at Columbia and cast Malek before Mr. Robot began airing.
"I had no idea how huge and adored he would become," she says in a separate interview. "He's a rare and true talent. He has a ferocious, hungry soul, with an immense will. That's what I needed for this character: a heart so strong it could go against fate."
It seems fitting that Smith cast Malek after consulting Tarot cards and that Malek signed on because he liked the raw sketches Smith includes in her scripts. She's interested in telling stories "where the so-called insane person has insights into the way the universe works," and he's interested in playing them.
"It's amazing, the lengths I can go to vindicate my characters," Malek says. "There are parts of us that no one wants to admit to, parts that are malevolent or hateful. We even compromise our own thoughts, to find a way around admitting that. If you can express that [to an audience], you can make even the most evil characters relatable. If I can get an audience to sit back and say, 'I can't believe I was rooting for that person,' then I feel, 'Yes! I snuck one in on them.' "
To find the humanity in a monster is an act of love, Malek continues. (Someone write a Frankenstein for him, please.) "What if some people are born not inherently good?" he asks, fully engaged. "What if it's in their DNA that they're born too selfish, too conniving; that they see the world in a skewed way, but to them, is not? If they're constantly trying to alter their personalities and emotions to be kinder, because they're not as naturally benevolent as someone else, then you have to give them some sort of credit. If someone is fighting to do good against their negative instincts, can't you say that they're more good than someone who is inherently genial?
"That's the way I look at Buster and Elliot," he concludes, collapsing back into his seat. "That's the way I look at myself."
Talk about unguarded. It also seems fitting that Malek has an identical twin, Sami, a teacher – a different version of him out there. The twins and their older sister, a doctor, were born in Los Angeles. Malek's late father, who had been a tour guide in Cairo, sold insurance; his mother is an accountant. Malek earned a BFA from the University of Evansville in Indiana, and quickly landed guest-starring roles on TV shows, including HBO's The Pacific. He played a pharaoh in three Night at the Museum movies, a vampire in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 and a social worker (opposite Brie Larson) in Short Term 12.
"I sequester myself when I work," Malek says. "I have gone off the deep end a couple of times, and had to catch myself and say, 'This is a job. Yes, you are passionate about it, but you can hurt yourself by going too far.' "
His tight-knit family keeps him grounded – but not too grounded. "My fear is that all this murky darkness inside of me will somehow dissipate and be resolved," he says. "I subject myself to a lot of loneliness, because I believe it's a part of my artistry that I don't want to remove."
Malek opens his mouth again, as if he's just putting this together for the first time. "It's sad!" he exclaims, with a half-horrified, half-delighted laugh. "Some really tragic moments have happened in my life and I found myself not getting emotional. Subconsciously, I was saving the grief so that, down the line, I could layer pain on top of pain. Because I want to feel that throughout my life. I want it to be easily accessible."
He laughs again. "I sound like a serial killer," he says. "But there's a part of me that wants to enjoy my pain, so I can share it with everyone."
At this moment, a publicist arrives to announce that your time is up. You both jump, because you've forgotten where you are. You've been somewhere else.
"Whoo, that was like therapy," Malek says, hugging you. "I feel better."