Rami Malek on Papillon: 'Surrounding yourself with actors playing inmates all day long is an assault to the senses'
Mr Robot actor and future Freddie Mercury in the upcoming music biopic explains how acting in a new version of Papillon took a heavy toll
Papillon is a gripping adventure story with its tale of resilience, courage and a desperate struggle for survival. Even more shocking is that the book, written by Henri Charrière and first published in 1969, is an autobiography rather than a work of fiction. Charrière was shipped to the penal colony of French Guiana in South America in 1931 and where he and his fellow prisoners endured years of unimaginable hardship. Despite being beaten down, starved and locked up in solitary confinement while eking out a living in this harsh tropical environment, Charrière (nicknamed Papillon due to a large butterfly tattoo on his chest) refused to bow down and break, trying to escape again and again, including one attempt from the infamous Devil's Island.
Despite the circumstances, Charrière formed a close friendship with counterfeiter Louis Dega. 'It is essentially a prison escape film about two men who make a superficial agreement for protection in exchange for money and end up being tethered together in the most compromising of circumstances,' explains Rami Malek who takes on the role of Dega in this new adaptation from Danish director Michael Noer. 'And through the most atrocious and deplorable circumstances, they create an unbreakable bond and through that experience reveal how indomitable the human spirit is.'
While interviewing Malek, it's hard not to think of his onscreen persona as genius hacker Elliot Alderson in Mr Robot. Considered, softly spoken, obviously intelligent, he thinks over every question before offering long detailed answers. Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy, Queer as Folk) takes on the lead role but this isn't the first time the story has been brought to the big screen. Steve McQueen starred alongside Dustin Hoffman in a 1973 version. Malek was understandably nervous about taking on a part made famous by another actor.
'Of course I wavered over involving myself with a decision that would inevitably bring on those comparisons [with Hoffman]. I thought I'm not going to shy away from this simply because there is an actor who I greatly admire and respect who has played the role beforehand. I thought we could make a captivating version of this for today's audience and maybe I wouldn't do the role the justice he did, but at least we could create something that could arguably be as riveting.'
It was a challenging shoot for the cast, who were required to access and channel a level of desperation that the story required every day. They built a full-size prison in Montenegro to try and capture the reality of Charrière, Dega and the other convicts' lives. 'It wasn't the way that usual Hollywood sets are built where you turn around one wall and it's just a flimsy piece of panelling made to look like the structure of a prison: this was built of wood and concrete,' explains Malek. 'Surrounding yourself with actors playing inmates all day long is an assault to the senses. You go home at night but spending day after day in what is essentially some type of prison environment does wear on you as a human being.'
Papillon echoes Malek's big break in the Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks-produced The Pacific, a companion piece to Band of Brothers which followed the US troops in Japan during World War II. Both were based on true accounts of events where people lived and died far from home in a hostile land. 'I was very concerned when I first signed up because The Pacific took a lot out of me,' Malek says now. In fact it took so much out of the young actor that he took a break and moved to Argentina to recover after filming.
'I was worried but I feel these stories have to be told,' he insists. 'It is make believe but you struggle through fog, rain and heat with a group of guys every single day for months. It is a very harsh and brutal environment to put yourself in. I had a terrific director on my side and we had great producers who were very cognisant of the conditions, but with Charlie being there day in day out, we just ended up relying on each other and bonding so much. In a way it emulated the two characters we play.'
Malek's next big role is taking on rock icon Freddie Mercury in Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and he admits he feels the pressure when bringing the lives of real people to the screen. 'It's about filling not only the shoes of Louis Dega but all the men who were there. There are obviously leaps we take as filmmakers but there is a responsibility to the men who lived through these unrelenting, inexcusable circumstances, and I think it would be inexcusable to not give them the respect of telling their story and to do it as dutifully as we could.'
Papillon screens at The Filmhouse as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Sun 24 Jun, 5.45pm; Cineworld, Tue 26 Jun, 5.50pm.
Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek star in this harrowing and darkly inspirational updated film version of Henri Charrière’s acclaimed novel. They play prisoners shipped off to a remote penitentiary in 1930s French Guiana who decide to try and escape the prison’s harrowing conditions, where prisoners are routinely brutalised.