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Bradley Cooper, Natalie Portman, Rami Malek: Actors take the stage as rock gods

Bradley Cooper, Natalie Portman, Rami Malek: Actors take the stage as rock gods
Rami Malek takes on the attitude and mannerisms of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, left, with Gwilym Lee as Brian May in a scene from "Bohemian Rhapsody." (Alex Bailey / 20th Century Fox)

To channel rock icon Freddie Mercury for his starring turn in the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” actor Rami Malek spent countless hours studying archival footage of the band’s frontman, memorizing his look, his attitude, his mannerisms. Yet nothing quite prepared Malek for the moment cameras began to roll and he was called on to re-create Mercury’s unforgettable performance at Live Aid, the 1985 charity concert seen by more than 1.5 billion people around the globe.

“It is an out-of-body experience,” Malek said. “You get out there, and you see that glossy black piano — I’d never known how to play a piano — and I’m about to play ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the outfit he was wearing with an audience of Queen fans. I’ve never felt the amount of adrenaline coursing through my veins as doing that set and feeling like you’re getting it right. It’s a magnificent feeling.”

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Malek’s turn in “Bohemian Rhapsody” has sparked plenty of awards season buzz, but he’s hardly the only actor-turned-screen-rock-star dominating the end-of-year conversation. Bradley Cooper’s update of the classic behind-the-music drama “A Star Is Born” and the upcoming “Vox Lux,” starring Natalie Portman as an emotionally damaged pop goddess, feature similarly transcendent performances just as likely to translate to awards season recognition.

Musicians have been popular cinema subjects for ages — the music biopic is such a well-worn genre it sparked its own 2007 send-up with “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” — but Malek, for one, says it’s easy to see the appeal. “Many of us as children dream of being a rock star,” he said. “We all gravitate to that in some way. We want to get introspective about what happens behind the curtain.”

For actors, the challenge inherent in such roles can itself be a draw. Months of research are often required to master a performer’s stage movements, to study their demeanor on and off stage, to learn to play an instrument if necessary, to adopt their look and speech patterns. And the rewards can be great. Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for his portrayal of Ray Charles in 2004’s “Ray.” Reese Witherspoon won for playing June Carter Cash in 2005’s “Walk the Line.”

The list of winners and nominees goes on: Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, Gary Busey as Buddy Holly, Angela Bassett as Tina Turner, Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline. And it’s not just real-life figures who have won over academy voters. Jeff Bridges was named best actor for his role as a faded, fictional country star who’s seen better days in 2009’s “Crazy Heart,” about 25 years after Robert Duvall won his lead actor Oscar for playing a middle-aged country singer in 1983’s “Tender Mercies.”

Natalie Portman and Jude Law star in a portrait of a pop star, "Vox Lux."

Portman, an Oscar winner for the dark ballet drama “Black Swan,” had plenty of experience learning elaborate choreography for a role. For her demanding turn as out-of-control pop diva Celeste in “Vox Lux,” she was again called on to master dance moves choreographed by her husband, Benjamin Millepied, for the dazzling concert sequence that closes the film.

Months before shooting began, she also recorded a selection of tracks written by Sia and singer-songwriter and producer Scott Walker — it was the first time she’d ever been called on to sing so extensively for a role.

The experience left her with newfound respect for hit-makers and performers. “Pop stars are this incredible force of nature,” Portman said. “There’s a mystery there, an internal force that propels them. It’s a really hard life. You watch any of these documentaries, and it is so much work. I think what [makes them such fascinating figures on screen] is that special charisma that everyone is attracted to combined with this unbelievable work ethic and then the very human toll it takes.”

From left to right, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in a scene from the movie "A Star is Born."
From left to right, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in a scene from the movie "A Star is Born." (Clay Enos / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Of course, one of the season’s most stunning performances is from reigning pop diva Lady Gaga, who shed her trademark costumes and makeup for an effective, stripped-down turn as Ally, a young woman who finds stardom and romance with Cooper’s country rocker Jackson Maine in “A Star Is Born.” (Notably, Judy Garland was nominated for her work in the 1954 version of the story.)

Even though she’s playing a singer, Gaga told The Times earlier this year that the role was a world away from her own personal experience and required her to push herself to emotionally raw places.

“When I wanted to become a singer, I hit the concrete running,” she said. “I was dragging my piano from dive bar to dive bar to play music. I was calling people, faking being my own manager to get gigs. I really believed in myself that I could do this and that I wasn't going to stop until I made it. ... The truth is, when we meet Ally, she’s given up on herself.”

To prepare for the concert scenes in “A Star Is Born,” first-time director Cooper took vocal lessons himself before singing live with Gaga and filming portions of the movie onstage at premier music festivals at Glastonbury and Coachella.

Although Malek did not record his own vocals for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Mercury’s voice was virtually the only aspect of the groundbreaking musician that eluded him. Beyond the dentures he wore, or the flamboyant costumes, or the wigs and the makeup designed to help him more closely resemble Mercury (which took up to two hours daily to apply), the actor says he always remained most focused on expressing the late singer’s exuberant, indefatigable spirit.

“Attempting to embody Freddie Mercury, it’s a world of sheer joy and mischief,” Malek said. “I allowed Freddie’s infectious energy to infect me.”

Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.

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