BY SARA BIBEL
Rami Malek plays one of the most memorable television characters of 2015: Elliot Alderson on "Mr. Robot." For the uninitiated, Elliot is a mentally-ill genius hacker who (spoiler alert) caused a global financial meltdown in the Season 1 finale. Malek's portrayal of the unique protagonist makes the show's blend of character drama and cultural commentary work. He spoke with IMDb about how he prepared for the role, the filming of some of the show's most powerful scenes, and what he knows about Season 2.
IMDb: "Mr. Robot" won a Gotham award Monday, Nov. 30. On Thursday, Dec. 3, the show was nominated for two Writers Guild Awards. What does it mean to you that the show is getting so much recognition?
Malek: It definitely fills me with some pride. The writers work so hard. When they got the WGA Award [nominations], I did a conference call shout-out to their table to let them know how great it was and well deserved for them as much as the show as a whole because I’ve gotten a lot of love from all for saying [series creator] Sam [Esmail’s] words and everyone at that table. Well, not just saying them. But, it all feels pretty thrilling. It’s special.
Speaking of saying the writers’ words: You’re playing both Elliot in the scenes and in the voiceover where he’s literally talking to the audience. How does that work production-wise?
First, I run it by [production assistant] Sarah Block, who is the voice in my ear, and I say it to her at the pace that I’d like to hear it. She usually keeps a pretty good time and pace with me. Besides myself, the only other people who are hearing it is anyone at video services. So, the director and the script supervisor and a few of our producers. The other actors are not privy to it. They may have read it, but it’s always a bit off-putting I think for the other actors to just be waiting for the extra dialogue [existing] in my head. But I enjoy watching their reactions... Afterward, we record it on a sound stage, and we tried playing it back previously. But that was more distracting than anything else. I could remember what I was doing performance-wise.
Did you know from the beginning that the character of Mr. Robot was a figment of Elliot’s imagination?
I knew all the way through. But there were moments where I pretended in front of the other actors that I didn’t know. That’s always amusing. But [Sam] gave me everything, which I think was a great service. Then you know it, you do all the homework and the research, and then you act it out. It's simpler that way.
One of the reasons that people love the show is that it portrays the Internet and technology accurately. What sort of research did you do about hacking? Have you heard from any real-life members of Anonymous?
I’ve not personally heard from any real-life members of Anonymous, but people have been reaching out from that community. I don’t want to out anyone, but they’re more reaching out to Sam, I think, and our executive producer than anyone else ... You can find out on the Internet guys who affected the system by hacking it, and those were the guys I tried to pattern myself after. I watched Citizenfour, which was a really cool documentary [about Edward Snowden]. I got to read a little bit of [the script for] Oliver Stone’s [upcoming] film on Snowden, which was packed with frightening information about the government’s capabilities. More than that, I wanted to research the mental process of Elliot and bridge the gap between hacking and the social anxiety and the mental issues he was having, figure out what kind of guy that person was and why he did what he did.
What were your favorite scenes to shoot?
In the pilot, where we had a little bit more time to work on, just walking the streets of New York and having that energy play so much of a role in the show was extraordinary. We got to go everywhere from Chinatown to Brooklyn to Times Square, and that was just one episode. So, after that experience, I began to think, “Wow, if we can hold onto this it could be really special.”
Then after that, I did a whole episode of opiate withdrawal, and I was having these creepy hallucinatory dreams. That was very rigorous but quite fun as well … Popping the trunk at the end of Episode 6 in the jail and finding Shayla (Frankie Shaw) was one I’ll never forget. I always liked being in the cubicle with Angela (Portia Doubleday) and Ollie (Ben Rappaport). All my scenes with Christian [Slater] seemed to be fluid and easy to do especially the one in Episode 10 where he [stares] at the American flag and then delivers quite the diatribe in the middle of Times Square. That is one for the books.
How did you film that epic Times Square scene in the finale? Was it CGI or did you actually clear out a block of Times Square?
We owned a little part of Times Square that day, which I’m sure was a very expensive piece of real estate. It was a wild experience. When we started, it was packed. We needed it packed at a certain point, which was great. We blocked it off. I don’t think anybody knew what we were shooting at that point because we were still a relative newcomer on the scene, and I don’t know how many episodes had aired, and Christian Slater looked like a filthy homeless man. So, nobody knew who that was, and I don’t think anybody knew who I was. It wasn’t drawing as much attention as, say, Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky. By the end of it, there were a few people left in the area, but for the most part, everybody had dissipated, which was quite special. I was yelling at the top of my lungs in Times Square. I don’t think that [footage] ever got used, but you walk away saying, “Probably won’t get to do that again,” though I do see people yelling in Times Square quite a bit, actually.
In your opinion, is Elliot a hero? In Elliot’s opinion, is he a hero?
I don’t think Elliot thinks he’s a hero by any means. The guy is just struggling to stay alive and communicate as a human being. If you asked him if he was heroic, he’d just turn around and walk the other way or laugh. For me, I think there are times, given the circumstances he finds himself in, he finds this really amazing way to just persevere. He’s resilient, and I think there’s something heroic that despite everything he’s been through, there’s a small part of him that believes he can help humanity, in a way. As naïve as that is, there is something quite heroic about it.
What can you reveal about Season 2? There are rumors that it will be even darker.
Sam did tell me quite a bit the other night. I had plans to go out afterward. I canceled all my plans because I was very taken aback. learned a lot. There were things that I did not expect about Elliot. That’s all I can say ... This show speaks to so many people. It’s cross-generational. It speaks to so many socioeconomic backgrounds. It speaks to all of us. I’ve got strangers coming up to me and talking about it, and whatever they were able to take from Season 1, I think they will only become more involved with it as they learn more and the story begins to really unfold in Season 2.
In Season 1, we saw Elliot using and, along with F Society, contributing inaccurate entries to Wikipedia. We also found out he was enough of a movie buff that when he was a child he convinced his father to let him see Pulp Fiction. Does he use IMDb?
He may have in the past gone on and seen people’s ratings ... for the films that he’s seen. That’s what he might have done, for the perspective.
Your first IMDb credit was the role of Andy on “Gilmore Girls.” What do you remember about it?
I submitted for it myself. I just sent in an envelope with my headshot and resume, and the casting director called me back surprisingly, like one in a million [chance] ... She asked to speak with my agent, and I told her I didn’t have one. She was like, “OK. How did you send this?” I was like, “I saw it online.” And she said, “Well, you seem very interesting. Why don’t you give me a call sometime when you get an agent.” I told her, “It’s a really small role. We probably could just knock it out. I don’t see why I need an agent for this.” She just laughed, and we went on and on. I tried my best to be charming, and she laughed a few times, enough to say, “All right. Come in.” And I went in there and got Taft Hartleyed [a way for actors who are not SAG members to gain admission to the actors’ union] the next day because I found out that I got the role, which was huge. The next day, I had a manager, an agent, and my first gig in Hollywood.