BY JOANNA ROBINSON
As TV critics spent the summer struggling to find a compulsively watchable show we can all agree on, freshman series Mr. Robot emerged out of nowhere to join UnREAL as the season’s buzziest entry. The show stars Rami Malek as Elliot, a hoodie-ensconced, disorder-riddled antihero with a penchant for hacking everyone . . . especially the bad guys. The stylish show, with its distinct visuals and hooky soundtrack, has drawn comparisons to some recent classics like Dexteror Breaking Bad. But instead of mass murderers or the meth industry, Mr. Robot confronts the everyday realities of massive corporate greed, cyber terrorism, and the way the Internet makes us all very, very vulnerable. This is Walter White for the Digital Age.
We spoke with Malek about his breakout lead role in the series, what it’s like to play such a troubled character, and about that time he bled to make sure a scene turned out just right.
VF Hollywood: When I’m trying to sell people on Mr. Robot I always bump up against the same problem. No one believes a USA show could be this dark and complicated. Do you ever get that from viewers? “I can’t believe this is on USA!”
Rami Malek: It comes up almost every time. You know, they’re branching out and re-jiggering everything over there and I think it’s a great way to come in full steam with a show like Mr. Robot that is unlike anything else on the network.
The show with its off-kilter hero and anti-establishment monologues has drawn comparisons to Fight Club. There are still some people who wonder if Christian Slater’s Mr. Robot character is completely made up. Is that something you play with or have people grabbed the wrong end of the stick in terms of what kind of show this is?
I think it’s easy to question . . . you’re talking about a guy who, from the beginning of the series, explains that he’s creating an imaginary person in his head and everyone watching is a part of that. I think the more we get to know Elliot the more you’ll realize what exactly his reality is and I think he’ll also come to realize what his reality is. And as vague as that sounds, I think these questions are going to keep coming up well beyond this first season.
But there are things like all the characters referring to “E Corp” as “Evil Corp,” which is Elliot’s invention. So the reality of the entire show is all filtered through your character’s perception.
That’s true. But I don't want people to think, What if the whole thing is just in his imagination? I know we do take some creative liberties but I promise that this is not all for naught.
Well then, with the voice-over where Elliot is addressing the audience or the made-up person in his head, how does that all work technically? At what point do you lay it down, and is it playing in your ear?
I get it through like a spy device. It’s called an earwig. It’s basically an earbud that fits into my ear and I turn it on whenever there’s voice-over. I found a young lady in the P.A. department, Sarah Block, who is the voice in my head. So I have a female voice in my head. And I tried out a bunch of people but for some reason there was something really soothing about this girl’s voice, and so it just works for me. There’s something really sweet about getting all of those things through her perspective. And then I lay it down right after we’re done shooting an episode.
Does Sarah’s intonation ever influence the way you do the voice-over?
There are a few times she’s made me laugh on camera and I don’t think those will ever meet the light of day. I asked her to yell once in the scene with Christian, because I really wanted the voice-over to have a strong effect on what it did to my face. When I pulled it out—she’s going to kill me for saying this ’cause she’s really sensitive—but I pulled the earbud out of my ear and it was covered in blood.
Oh, my God!
I still don’t know exactly where it came from, but I did go see a doctor, so my hearing is intact. For some emotional scenes I’ll get some good tunes piped in there as well, which is pretty rad.
Is there any one song that you remember giving you a particularly good response?
There’s this song that I was playing in my ear. It was Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling singing “The Water.” [Malek later confirmed this was during his big emotional breakdown in the pilot episode.] I hope I don’t get to the point where I’m playing music during other people’s really wordy dialogue scenes. I think that would not be the most kind thing to do to other actors, but for some reason it allows me to concentrate better.
Mr. Robot has received a lot of attention for its creative use of music on the soundtrack. Have you discovered any new songs while watching your own show?
Yeah. I’ve searched for “Mr. Robot” on Spotify, that’s how good I think it is. I love the FKA Twigs song that came on last week, but mostly I just think what Mac Quayle and his composition is adding to this show has just been so defining of what the aesthetic of Mr. Robot is. You really can talk about how great the writing is, which I think is on a really special level, and I think the performances are pretty strong as well, but when you add in the elements of the sound, the sound design, and the cinematography, everything, all these cylinders firing together, are creating for a really immersive experience on television.
I read that early on you were consulting with a psychiatrist to better understand Elliot. Are you still in contact with her?
I never wanted to let her down. She talked to me so often about shows that really take a few too many liberties in their depiction of illness—mental illness—and their depictions of psychologists and psychiatrists as well. I really made an effort, as did [show-runner] Sam [Esmail] and the writers, to just try to tell that relationship as authentically as possible. Or as appropriately. And that’s the standard we set for the entire show.
Elliot is our de facto hero, but he’s also pretty creepily invasive with his tendency to hack everyone and anyone. Are we supposed to be rooting for that?
There are moments of altruism but there are also moments that are purely self-indulgent, and whether or not he acknowledges that is something I think he’s going to come to terms with in the future. Maybe that will lead to a more destructive Elliot or someone who people can latch on and emulate to a certain degree. But I think that’s what’s so captivating about him is he’s very human. In his attempt to be superhuman you realize just how flawed he is and how relatable he is. He’s a complicated dude.
Does the fact that you were already picked up for a second season embolden you in terms of the kind of storytelling risks you’re willing to take? You guys really went for it with a very surreal drug-withdrawal episode early on. I was surprised.
I heard about the withdrawal before we knew we had a second season. Yeah that was just Sam having the bull by the horns and telling a story he wanted to tell. Sam’s been excellent and having him kind of set that tone from the top has allowed us all kind of collectively to go as deep and dark and invest as much as we can without any worry. I have to say getting the pick-up right away from USA did allow us to embolden those choices to a certain degree, definitely. It definitely gave us that added bit of confidence.
Have you ever thought about involving your identical twin Sami in the more surreal scenes? Will we see Elliot meet Elliot?
He does all the odd episodes. I’m the evens, he does the odds.
Oh that’s how you have so much energy!