He Will Rock You: Gwilym Lee
Interview and portraits by Etienne Gilfillan
It took a long (occasionally torturous) time, but the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody finally hit UK cinemas this month, charting the incredible rise and rise of possibly Britain’s best-loved – and certainly most flamboyant – rock group. Many actors were rumoured to be filling Freddie Mercury’s rhinestone-encrusted platforms, until Rami Malek nabbed the part, but Queen powerhouse Brian May’s role went straight to London-born Gwilym Lee. A fascinating tousle-haired yin to Mercury’s explosive yang, May initiated the film and, one would assume, cast a closer-than-average beady eye over his own casting. Did May and Lee click? Wylde decided to investigate…
Wylde: What was your first-ever acting role?
Gwilym Lee: I reckon I was about 10 and it was in a school production of My Fair Lady; I played Alfie Doolittle – I was playing above my age slightly! There’s probably a VHS video of it lying around somewhere… I’m hoping that it’ll stay hidden in the family collection and no one will see it!
What inspired you to go into acting?
I remember going to see Julius Caesar at Birmingham Rep. David Schofield had a soliloquy to the audience… I was sat six rows back and he kind of eyeballed me and gave me a wink. I remember thinking how electrifying that little moment was and how I was the only one that had had that experience in the whole audience! I remember being completely thrilled by it, so I think that was a turning point. Also, when I was a little bit older, about 16, and I was already starting to think about being an actor, I went to the National Theatre in London to see Not About Nightingales, the Tennessee Williams play. It was incredible. The play was about a high-security prison and there was this whole sequence where they were putting all these prisoners who had been misbehaving into a boiler room. When the actors fell onto the radiators, there was this big sound effect of hissing, like burning skin, and screams. Theatre at its best really transports you, and you’re part of this whole experience as an audience.
Can you tell us about the timeline of your new film, the Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody?
It starts in the early Seventies, and actually the first time you see a band on stage, it’s not Queen; you see Smile, the previous incarnation of Queen. Tim Staffell, Brian May and Roger Taylor were in that band. Tim Staffell then left Smile, believing he was going on to greater things and Freddie quickly joined, because he used to go and watch their gigs, and was quite musically minded himself. And so it starts from that moment and you see them growing the band, experimenting with different styles and recording techniques...
I was reading recently about a hilarious meeting between Freddie Mercury and Sid Vicious in the Seventies…
Yes, that was such a cool little encounter. That’s what’s brilliant about Queen; they were making this kind of irreverent, joyful, over-the-top music at a time when the country was in turmoil, when punks were strutting up and down the street. And Queen were being outrageous! And it has given them longevity; they’re just fun, and people love that kind of irreverence.
All four members of Queen got the chance to write for the band, didn’t they?
All of them had the ability to do that. John Deacon, the bass player, who was the quieter member of the band, wrote Another One Bites The Dust.
And I Want to Break Free, with its infamous video. Did you recreate that?
Yes we did! That was a blast; we were all very much looking forward to that! One of the strange things about getting this job was knowing that you would be reliving these iconic moments. The I Want to Break Free video, the Bohemian Rhapsody video with the four heads on the black background… all these things were a bit of a buzz and slightly surreal to be doing.
Did the band watch you do some of these live recreations?
Yes, they were quite often on set. We started the whole shoot with the Live Aid sequence. We shot that for about a week so that was quite an intimidating way to start; being the culmination of the film, and obviously the biggest sequence that we were going to shoot, but it was great because it galvanised us. It was good to jump in at the deep end because you forge together as a band. It was made more nerve-wracking by the fact that both Roger and Brian were there on day one to see the first run-through.
You learned to play guitar to do this role, didn’t you?
Well, I already played a little bit of rhythm guitar but I had to brush up on my lead-guitar skills, which was quite a singular task because you’re not trying to learn to play the songs perfectly; you’re trying to look like you can play them and it’s effortless as well. Sometimes I’d nail a solo and be really pleased with the fact that I got my head around it and I’d be trying to show the world that I could do it, but in so doing it looked too obvious. The fact of the matter is Brian moves his fingers so fluidly and easily he’s not trying to show anything off, he’s just doing it.
Did you ever end up jamming with him?
Yes! We had a little pre-recording session in Abbey Road. Brian took me aside and said: “Do you want to go into the studio and have a little play?”, to which I obviously said: “Absolutely, yes please!”
Did you have to shave your head to put the Brian May wig on?
No, they just clipped the wig down. There would be occasions, early in the morning, when it would resemble a dead cat, but 10 minutes with the hairstylist and some old-school curling tongs, and I turned into Brian May!
How did Brian react when he first saw you dressed as himself?
Brian knocked on my trailer door. I opened the door and he was blown away! So there were five minutes of him being in awe... and then he said: “Actually, I think my hair is a bit longer!” and he started adjusting it!
Brian’s wife also came on set. How did she react?
I think she found it quite emotional, actually, because she came over, looked at me and said: “Oh my God… You look exactly the way Brian did when we first met!” She must have been going back into a kind of time warp, I suppose!
Speaking of time warps, how did the band react to seeing Freddie “reincarnated” in front of them?
Emotional, at times, without a doubt, but it was also exciting for them to know they were in good hands with Rami, because he put so much into it and really nailed the character and the speaking voice. Freddie had that kind of cutting, acerbic sarcasm. A real quick wit; it’s a very English wit, in a way. There are some great lines in the film.
Did you ever go to the pub dressed as Brian May after a day’s shooting?
No I didn’t, funnily enough… there’s only man who could get away with that look… and that’s Brian May!
Grooming: Zoheb Jetha / Photographer’s assistant: Paolo Navarino / Gwilym wears his own clothes / Thanks to The King’s Canary and Blacks Club
Bohemian Rhapsody is in cinemas 24th October