From director Michael Noer and based on the international best-selling autobiographical books from Henri Charrière, the prison drama Papillon follows the epic and harrowing tale of a safecracker from the Parisian underworld, known as Papillon (Charlie Hunnam, in a compelling stand-out performance), who is framed for murder and condemned to life in prison on Devil’s Island. Unbreakably determined to regain his freedom by escaping, Papillon forms an unlikely bond with convicted counterfeiter Louis Dega (Rami Malek, in an equally compelling performance), who agrees to finance what will inevitably be a harrowing escape, in exchange for his own protection.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with actor Rami Malek, who talked about why he decided to sign on for a remake of Papillon, the strong bond between Papillon and Dega, what makes these such relatable characters, and the very challenging days, during this shoot. He also talked about the upcoming fourth season of his USA Network TV series, Mr. Robot, and whether it could be its last, as well as the experience he had embodying Freddie Mercury for the upcoming film Bohemian Rhapsody, and that film’s director drama.
Collider: Did remaking a movie like Papillon, especially with how grueling it would be physically, make you hesitate about doing the film, at all, or did it just feel very different, when you read the script?
RAMI MALEK: I don’t want to do those type of movies, all the time, but when it presents itself, it’s a nice challenge to test one’s self, like that, and tell that story. That story exists. I gravitate to history, and an opportunity like this is hard to pass up. And when you can re-tell something with an acute, sharp, realistic perspective, that’s when it’s useful to perhaps give something another shot. Of course, it was always in the back of my head. We took this on with a large amount of weight and reverence to the original. Everyone has heard that film’s name, whether they’ve seen it or not, so of course, it’s very measured. It was a very, very thoughtful process of whether or not to do this. And then, you meet someone like (director) Michael Noer, who has a very unique vision and perspective and voice for filmmaking, and he knows how to tell a prison story. He’s done a couple in the past, R and Northwest, that are really good. You just can’t worry about Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. If you do, you’re going to do yourself a massive disservice because, obviously, those are iconic actors in two iconic roles. It sounds ludicrous to put yourself in that position, but I like a challenge.
What was it that got you past that hesitation?
MALEK: I would say the realism of what we could achieve, and not only with the look. We had an incredible cinematographer, Hagen Bogdanski. The film, The Lives of Others, was beautiful, in respect to photography. I thought the crafts would just step it up. That’s not to say that the original isn’t a beautiful film, but a modern re-telling could do it a newer way. And the idea of being in prison and isolated and developing not only your own human spirit, but the understanding of another human being, another man, and almost having it be this very affectionate tale in prison, is something that was always very fascinating to me. That’s what I loved about it. I said, “If we can take these characters and become similar in the perspective of what one starts out to be, and merging those two, the way you do when you spend so much time with someone and depend on someone, it would be very interesting.”
It’s so interesting to watch these two men because they are criminals. Even though Papillon may not necessarily be there for crimes that he actually committed, both men are still criminals, but you still really feel for the horrible circumstances that they’re in.
MALEK: Yeah. It’s something that you can transcend, as a viewer. I won’t speak on behalf of everyone, but I really think that it’s in our nature to have empathy and forgiveness. They may be criminals, but the stakes of what they’re dealing with supersedes the crimes that they may have committed.
Because this does seem like it was a very emotionally and physically draining shoot, was there any point where you were like, “Why did I sign on for this? How did I get myself into this situation?”?
MALEK: Of course! There were very, very difficult days. I don’t know what I was thinking. They built a prison, where we shot, so this was not the feeling of a back lot set. Everything was there and concrete and very formidable. At times, even though we were making a film, you’re surrounded by a bunch of men who, by the end of the day, don’t smell very good, and people were throwing mud on you, all day long, to make sure the continuity of your uniform was kept correct, throughout the film. What we did do that was cool was that we tried to shoot the film in sequence, which is so unusual and a very difficult thing to do, but made it somehow more palatable, day in and day out. There were definitely daunting days, being in dirt and watching it turn to mud because of all the rain. It was not the most enjoyable, but it’s my job and I’ve got no qualms with it.
I spoke to Christian Slater recently, and he told me he thought Season 4 of Mr. Robot might be the last one because Sam Esmail doesn’t want to carry things too far past where it should go, creatively. Have you heard anything about that? Has anybody said anything to you?
MALEK: I’ve heard rumors, back and forth, to be quite honest.
I know Sam Esmail has always said that it would maybe be four or five seasons, from early on.
MALEK: Yeah, he’s always said maybe four or five, and that is still pending in his head. I’ll tell you that I’m sure the studio would love to see it go for as long as it could, but he’s restrained. He’s got a story to tell, so I’m all for whatever he wants to do. He’s a very brilliant human being.
Has he given you any hints about Season 4 yet?
MALEK: What could I tell you that would be interesting? He has given me hints, yes. How about that? I will just say that I am usually privy to finding things out before most actors do, so that’s something that I always keep in my back pocket. I have to be able to keep mum.
Understood. I love the show! I think the writing is tremendous, and that everybody on it is great.
MALEK: Thank you!
I’m so fascinated by the series, as a whole.