Why Rami Malek wasn't afraid to go up against James Bond (and what happened to his face?)
Even with an Oscar on the mantel for transforming into rocker Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody," Rami Malek was understandably intimidated entering the hallowed halls of Bond villainy in "No Time to Die" (in theaters Friday).
Some of the greatest villains in cinematic history have achieved cultural immortality facing off against James Bond across 25 films.
"It is, of course, daunting thinking about the rich legacy," says Malek, who was given license to create his eerily contained Lyutsifer Safin, working in collaboration with director Cary Joji Fukunaga.
"One thing we both wanted was to avoid creating a cackling megalomaniac," says Malek, 40. "I kept saying to myself, let's make him meticulous, fastidious and precise in his kills and his methodology."
So who is Lyutsifer Safin, the new supervillain who threatens the world and James Bond in Daniel Craig's last ride as the super spy?
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How Malek found his way to Bond
Malek earned notice as the haunted, disturbed World War II soldier Merriell "Snafu" Shelton in HBO's 2010 mini-series "The Pacific." Two years later, the actor met Bond producer Barbra Broccoli on the set of his 2013 drama "Short Term 12."
"She sat with me at a table for lunch and said, 'One day, we're going to work together,'" Malek recalls. "She held on to her promise. Which is really cool."
Portraying Mercury to global acclaim sped up those conversations – and helped ease the trepidation.
"Playing Freddie Mercury gave me all the confidence in the world to step into this role and remove that sense of fear or doubt," Malek says.
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Safin's villain face required hours of work
Safin is a new villain in the Bond canon. He was written to intertwine with Bond's returning "Spectre" love interest, Léa Seydoux's Madeleine, the daughter of assassin Mr. White (played by Jesper Christensen previous films).
The villain's "No Time to Die" backstory reveals that Mr. White poisoned Safin's entire family with deadly dioxin, with only young Safin (Malek) surviving. The dioxin poisoning disfigured Safin's face – think of the real-life 2004 dioxin poisoning of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko – and affects Safin's slow, deliberate movements.
Grown-up Safin comes for revenge on a global scale, stealing a DNA-triggered government bioweapon developed off the books by MI6. He plans to unleash the deadly weapon from his own private island.
The full facial scarring required 2½ hours a day in the makeup chair for Malek. The prolonged lull helped him tap into his deliberate villain.
"I took the time in the chair to be very still, very centered," Malek says. "That would lead me right into the correct path every day on set."
The mask is more than just cover-up
Safin first appears in a white mask, which is creepy as heck. But it's not worn out of vanity to cover his face. Safin wants to protect the idea that he's dead even when vengefully hunting down Mr. White at his home amid security cameras. He's like a "phantom coming out of nowhere to extract revenge" in the film's early flashback scenes, Fukunaga says.
It's here that Safin has a pivotal meeting with young Madeleine.
Malek only revealed the rest of the character – down to the slightly Eastern European accent – shooting Safin's first scenes with Seydoux's adult Madeleine.
Malek watched documentaries about empathy-lacking despotic dictators, but never turned too inward for inspiration. Life-destroying villains "are not in my DNA. Thankfully, this character transformation was a stretch," Malek says. "Usually I can find some part of my soul that I can attach. There were moments of that with Safin, but they were fleeting."
This Bond-villain interaction is deadly serious
Bond fans live for the moment when 007 faces off with the resident villain. For his turn, Malek kept his performance subdued in "No Time to Die."
"When you raise your voice, it's probably because you're panicking," he says. "I found it compelling to think about someone who draws you into them because they have power, they have the control."
The actor went so far as to strip out any banter from the dialogue, which is standard for Bond interactions.
"I thought that we didn't need quips and one-liners and Daniel was in the same headspace," Malek says. "A few years ago, I might've said, 'Give me more jokes.' But the importance of the moment is as serious as it could possibly be and has ever been for James Bond."
During their meeting, Malek's Safin kept his disturbed chill even opposing the world's greatest movie spy.
"I kept reminding myself that James Bond might be powerful and a hero to all," Malek says. "But there is no greater adversary, greater power or more intelligent human being than Safin. That's his vision of himself."