In Michael Noer’s prison escape movie Papillon, two actors (Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek) are put through the ringer portraying two men sentenced to life in prison within the shores of a South American penal colony — French Guiana. In the real-life story based on a classic memoir, author Henri Charrière, wrongly accused of murder (or so he claimed), and his friend Louis Dega, a white-collar criminal whose fraud convictions exiled him from France, become partners in crime — or, more accurately, partners in escape, as the lure of freedom endlessly called to them during their lives in the jungle.
Rami Malek, who plays Dega, talked to Uproxx about what it was like shooting a film inside a prison and the joys of collaborating with a co-star to tell a story.
What was the thing that first drew you to this project?
I was captivated by that book as a young man, and I saw the original film with my father growing up, so there’s a solid amount of nostalgia, I would say. And usually you leave nostalgia in its place for viewing purposes only. But Michael Noer has that rare combination of intellectual and artistic creativity. He’s a big documentary filmmaker and he’s made Northwest, and just the perspective he takes in his films is not like anything you really see out there. He has a very unique way of capturing spontaneous moments. And I will say that he’s unique in that he captured them more than some others I see.
Had you met your co-star Charlie Hunnam before this?
No, we just had a phone conversation. I think I was shooting Mr. Robot when we — no, where was I? I can’t remember, but we had a phone conversation, and we got to know each other over the course of an hour on the phone, and I just appreciated the level of dedication he already had in talking about the role, the work, the collaborative nature. I dunno, there’s something where you obviously can’t predict chemistry, it’s one of the few things you might not even know exists until you watch the film. But there was something right from our jumping off point that I knew was going to create some type of chemical interaction that would produce hopefully something remotely interesting.
You said that this was a collaborative project. How did that work?
Yeah, we shot six-day weeks, and we had the privilege of shooting almost the entire film in sequence, which is rare. What that offers is going home every day and actually knowing what preceded the events to tomorrow’s work. And that causes individuals like us to sit with that and absorb it, talk about it, and bring it to the next day. There’s this sense of camaraderie, obviously, that that creates, and there’s also the ability to influence the film in a way that you don’t often get the chance to. Oftentimes, as an actor, you go back and say, “Oh, knowing how I played this scene later, I wish I could go back and do that.” And we were afforded the ability to not have that feeling that I am always quite disturbed by.
I remember when I first learned that people didn’t really shoot movies in sequence, that was just insane to me.
It is insane. With Mr. Robot, we do — I do this television show, with Sam Esmail, and he directs every episode of it. And in order for him to direct everything, we shoot the entire ten episodes as if it was one film out of sequence. So, to get this rare treat, when you’re trudging through mud or doing continuous days of night shooting in rain, you have one rare thing working for you.
Did you guys shoot on location?
Yeah, we were on location the whole time. The craftsmen and women built us a prison in Eastern Europe, in Montenegro, which I fear might still exist there.
That must have been fun.
Who knows what they’re using it for now. These are people who don’t usually fashion film sets for a living, so it was built as durably as you would build anything else. And it felt very imposing, because that’s the nature of it.
What was it like to get into the headspace of this person who’s just looking towards life in prison?
I think this is where Michael and Charlie, the three of us, came to have more ideas about how to construct this man. Michael will talk philosophically about the construction of these guys. There’s a yin and yang to them. What I considered most was having a man who is a white-collar criminal, who looks at monetary things as the essentials of life and that’s how you get by, and there’s nothing that can get fixed without money. And then to have that person, by the end of the film, just realize that that’s an emptiness that he no longer has to subscribe himself to.
I do want to ask about Bohemian Rhapsody (Malek portrays Freddie Mercury in the film) because that’s coming up. How was it meeting the members of the band for the first time?
Well, starstruck. For sure, starstruck. And it’s not like, I dunno, it’s not like meeting a celebrity who’s someone in my own field. I think that is a bit more easily digestible. This is, I mean, they’re rock stars. That’s it. You’re meeting rock gods. And anything that happens to a man in that state, you can imagine I was trying desperately to hide.
Are you a big Queen fan?
Massive. I’m as big as they get.
And now you get to be Freddie Mercury.
[Laughs] I get to portray a version of Freddie, let’s say that. There’s only one.
Well, I’m excited for Papillon to come out, I’m interested for people to see it.
I really like it too. I hope that people write well about it. I think it’s a very special movie, and when you get into the psychology of what is happening to these two men, and their evolution, as subtle as it is, I think it could be moving. A moving little love story disguised as an escape film.
It’s like a boys’ adventure kind of story, but at the same time so much more than that.
‘Papillion’ opens Friday, August 24 in select cities.