Out of the Box
A computer hacker with social problems — recruited by an anarchist — is the unexpected hero of Mr. Robot, the tech-driven drama with heart that has viewers counting down to season two.
When the cast of Mr. Robot assembled earlier this year for a top-secret download of season two, series star Rami Malek arrived at Brooklyn's Broadway Stages armed with a phonebook-sized binder full of scripts.
He'd already been trying to prepare for what he knew was coming: a marathon "binge-read" of all ten episodes over the course of two days.
Rather than hold weekly table reads throughout production — the norm for TV dramas — creator-showrunner Sam Esmail had decided to host the much more ambitious event.
"Sam had told me his plans on the phone," says Malek, who plays troubled protagonist Elliot Alderson on USA Network's gritty hacker drama. "So I knew this season was going to be even darker. It was like I was going into battle. I was trepidatious, but I was also really looking forward to it."
During the read-through, Malek's costars also experienced a mash-up of emotions, exchanging looks of shock, awe and bewilderment, depending on the plot twist. Post-its were passed back and forth with feverishly scrawled messages like, "What does this mean?" and "Why did he just say that?"
Another appropriate reaction might have been "WTfsociety?!" Particularly when it came to the season's last installments. Paranoid about leaks, Esmail had withheld the final four scripts until day two, which meant his cast only discovered some of the show's boldest twists when they read them aloud.
"There were moments where my jaw dropped," enthuses Portia Doubleday, who plays Angela, Elliot's friend since childhood. "That last script, I was like, 'Oh my God, how does someone even come up with stuff like this?' The season is such a wild ride."
Team Robot is surely hoping for a similar response from viewers when the series returns July 13. Last year, the intricately plotted, tech-driven drama emerged as an unlikely breakout hit, which means the pressure's on for season two.
Whip-smart and provocative, Robot revolves around Malek's Elliot, a gifted but solitary cybersecurity pro, who's recruited into an Anonymous-esque underground hacker collective called fsociety by its enigmatic leader, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). The goal of the Coney Island-based vigilantes? Hack massive conglomerate Evil Corp, wipe out consumer debt and spark a revolution against the 1 percent.
While fsociety fulfilled its mission in the season-one finale, Elliot continues to contend with another challenge: getting a grip on his own fractured, morphine-addled mind.
Which isn't exactly easy, considering his buggy support system, which includes Angela, who's switched sides and gone to work for Evil Corp; Darlene (Carly Chaikin), a dryly funny fellow hacker he sometimes forgets is his sister; and Mr. Robot, who, in a game-changing episode, was revealed to be his father. Or rather, a figment of Elliot's imagination who looks exactly like his dead dad.
Both an audacious thriller and a moody meditation on the longing for genuine connection in the digital age, Robot resonated with viewers, who made it one of basic cable's most-watched dramas (behind only The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul).
Premiering six months after the headline-making Sony hack, the series garnered widespread critical acclaim, the respect of the tech community (which praised its accurate representation of hacker culture) and a slew of awards, including this year's Golden Globe for best drama and a Peabody. Not too shabby for Esmail's TV debut, which airs on a network known more for breezy procedurals than prestige dramas.
"I think we knew we were making something really special," says Slater, who walked away with a supporting-actor Golden Globe in January. "But I don't think anybody could've anticipated all this."
Not even the guy who dreamed it all up.
"At most, I thought maybe we'd become a little cult hit, and I would've been 100 percent happy with that," Esmail says. "But maybe the reason I thought we'd be a cult hit is why it's broken out. We did something truly authentic [about] a culture that not a lot of people know about, but is becoming more important in the public conversation. We're reading about hacking We're seeing it on the news.
"But at heart," he continues, "the show's really about these people and their desires. It's about relationships and how technology fits into that context."
Robot's breakout star is proud to be part of the singular project. "I remember sitting down with the [pilot] script, and within the first few lines, I was in it," Malek says. "It was smart. Powerful. And Elliot was such a complicated character. I could relate to his struggle to do right and try to evolve as a young man in today's world.
"We all have bouts of loneliness and moments where we're crying alone. Here's a very flawed human being who still thinks he's capable of changing the world, and there's a strength in that I find very encouraging."
Over the past decade, the actor had been steadily building an impressive career with supporting performances in films like Night at the Museum and Short Term 12 with Brie Larson. Now, thanks to his haunting and hypnotic Robot turn, Malek has become one of TV's most buzzed-about leading men and an awards-season player. He's already racked up both Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award nominations.
"The recognition from other artists, directors and writers has opened doors for me that I wasn't walking into a year ago," he notes.
It's the being-famous part that Malek — who, unlike his introverted character, smiles easily and laughs often in conversation — is still adjusting to.
"I'm definitely getting stopped more on the street than I did in the past," he reports. "Overall, people are very kind and complimentary. But some are worried about me. They want to hug me. One guy asked if I had a drug problem, I was like, 'No, dude. Slow your roll! You've got to be able to separate your worlds, man. Elliot's not me.'"
The seeds of inspiration for this timely series were actually planted long ago. Esmail spent some of his formative years in Washington Township, New Jersey, which would later become Elliot's hometown. He was "a huge computer geek—I owned the original Commodore 64 and Windows 3.1 and other things I won't bore you with. Some of my best friends were hackers."
Esmail tried hacking also, though that didn't turn out so well. While enrolled at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in the late '90s, he hacked into another school's server, a youthful indiscretion that, he says, "caused me to go on academic probation for three months."
Even so, his fascination with tech culture grew, as did his frustration with Hollywood's lackluster representation of it. Itching for a more authentic take, the indie filmmaker began writing a feature script on spec about a New York City cyber-security tech and white-hat (or ethical) hacker who suffers from crippling anxiety, depression and delusions.
But when the screenplay became too long and unwieldy, his manager, Chad Hamilton, suggested Esmail reboot the concept as a TV series. (Hamilton is now one of Robot's executive producers, as is Steve Golin.)
"As opposed to having a crisis about all these great characters and ideas I'd have to cut," Esmail recalls, "I could deep-dive into all the storylines that I'd really started to love."
Finding the right actor to cloak himself in Elliot's trademark black hoodie turned out to be more challenging. The writer-director-producer fruitlessly auditioned more than 100 actors before his fiancée, Shameless star Emmy Rossum — who'd just binge-watched the HBO miniseries The Pacific — suggested he meet with one of its supporting players.
"Rami came in and added this layer of vulnerability and warmth to the character," Esmail remembers. "With the [previous] actors [who'd auditioned], Elliot was coming off a lot more obnoxious than I'd pictured in my head. But with Rami, I started to hear a person who's really in a lot of pain. And that's when I knew I had a show."
Signing Slater as the title character was a no-brainer. "I get asked if I wrote the character for Christian and, in a subconscious way, I feel like I did, because the archetype of Mr. Robot is this gregarious anarchist," says Esmail, who cops to owning well-worn VHS copies of two Gen-X classics in which Slater played vociferous young rebels.
"J.D. from Heathers and [Hard Harry] from Pump Up the Volume — I basically wrote those characters all grown up."
Slater had long looked for the right small-screen fit. Since 2008, the one¬time Hollywood bad boy had starred in four broadcast series, playing everything from a grieving cop (The Forgotten) to a con man (Mind Games), but nothing had stuck. And thank the TV gods, or the actor wouldn't have been available for one of the most critically acclaimed roles of his 30-year career.
"The fact that people are responding so pleasantly is a real joy," says a bespectacled Slater, between sips of lemonade at a Pasadena eatery. "I have a great deal of respect for this business, but I also know how remarkably challenging it can be. To metaphorically get knocked down, that's part of the journey. You've got to keep getting back up. I'm just trying to stay in the now as much as possible and really appreciate this."
Especially because Mr. Robot may not be built to last. The very existence of his charismatic anti-hero depends on Elliot's mental illness. So, what happens if he gets well? "I did talk to Sam about how long I was going to be around," Slater lets on.
"I can't tell you what he said!" the actor exclaims with a laugh, before cryptically adding, "At the end of the day, Elliot's getting well should be the goal, right? But I feel like he'll always be the type of character that's haunted in a lot of respects."
As Slater wraps up his interview, Malek arrives to begin his, and the two greet each other with a warm hug. "This guy's the truth," Slater says of his co-star. "I bumped into Laurence Fishburne while walking my dog, and that's how he referred to Rami: the truth. And I think that encapsulates him perfectly."
Committed would be another apt description. After landing his gig, Malek set about watching every documentary and reading every book he could find on both hacking and mental-health issues. "At one point," he reveals, "I even thought about going in to see a psychologist as Elliot." What stopped him? "I thought it would be kind of mean-spirited to the therapist."
The actor settled for picking a shrink's brain about the very real issues his fictional character faces. "I like to prepare," he says. "I spend a lot of time putting in the work so that it becomes second nature on the day [of filming]. Actors need all the confidence we can get sometimes. We can be very needy people!"
Immersing himself in Elliot's dark headspace can sometimes take a toll. "There are nights I'm just spent," Malek says. "Some days, I show up at work and my eyes are still red. I've gotten out of the shower a couple times and looked at myself pretty emaciated. And at times, I have thoughts flood through my head in the way I think must happen to Elliot. I'm like, 'Whoa, Rami. Be careful. Don't let this take over.'"
Malek's not alone in his dedication. Esmail has a strict no-green-screen policy when it comes to shots of the show's computers. "Green screens mean the actors don't know what they're seeing or typing, so it looks phony," the producer says of the method most Hollywood films and series use. "Then in post, they throw in cheesy graphics of ones and zeroes as an afterthought. It's bullshit."
On Robot, experts write real code for each episode. "We have these two guys who are absolute geniuses program everything for us," Chaikin says.
"The other day, one of them was walking me through this whole hack [for a scene], and I was like, 'How long did this take you to program?' He was like, 'Three weeks.' And it's going to be on screen for, like, five seconds!"
Significantly more time will be spent in season two exploring the fallout from fsociety's big hack. And expect a deeper dive into the backstories of Robot's major characters, as well as the relationship between Elliot and his baseball cap-sporting "dad."
"Here's a guy who realizes that he's essentially manifesting this hallucination, and it won't go away," Esmail says of Elliot. "Going down that rabbit hole, it's inevitably going to get bad before it gets good."
The drama is also adding several characters, including FBI agent Dominique "Dom" DiPierro, played by new series regular Grace Gummer (Extant).
Details on Dom have been closely guarded, though Esmail has said she'll investigate the Evil Corp hack.
Gummer's willing to say a bit more. "She's from New Jersey, so I have a Jersey accent," reports the actress, who prepared for the role by meeting with female agents in New York's cybercrime division. "She's a very complex, messy, sort of nutty but instinctually really smart woman. Sam is so good at writing all these different sides to people and their secrets. It's the hardest job I think I've had so far."
Esmail might say the same. Besides his showrunner duties, he's also directing all 10 episodes. "People say I'm crazy," he admits, laughing. "But I'm a filmmaker, first and foremost. I started writing to generate my own material to direct. It just felt organic that I would direct every episode."
It also feels natural, he says, to stick to the plan he had when he first pitched the series: to wrap it up after no more than five seasons. "There's the temptation in TV to drag things out, to go on maybe past where it should," Esmail says. "But I could not see it going on longer. I have an ending that I want to build toward, and that's what we're doing. I would rather keep the story intact and stick the landing."
For more on Christian Slater, click here.
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