BY WILL BARLOW
A little over a month after the show's shocking season one finale, the team behind the surprise hit USA show "Mr. Robot" appeared for a panel at PaleyFest to debrief from the show's first season and speculate on its second. In attendance were showrunner Sam Esmail and stars Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Carly Chaikin, and Portia Doubleday.
"Mr. Robot" is centered around Elliot, a social outsider with crippling anxiety and a traumatic past. Elliot works at a cyber-security firm, but his real occupation is vigilante computer hacker using his technological skills to advance his own vision of a better world. When Elliot meets the mysterious Mr. Robot, he ends up joining a hacker collective that sets out to bring down the corporate goliath that is E-Corp, or as Elliot calls it, Evil Corp. While the plot against E-Corp drives the narrative, the focus is on Elliot as he struggles with drug addiction and mental health.
Here are some of the highlights from the panel at PaleyFest:
"Mr. Robot" began as a film.
Showrunner Sam Esmail comes from the world of independent film -- before "Mr. Robot" he directed the 2014 romantic comedy "Comet." So when Esmail created "Mr. Robot" it was intended to be a film, and now that same story is being stretched out over multiple seasons of television. "That's how long-winded I am," Esmail joked.
Because of this, the showrunner has a clear idea of where the plot is going. "We're staying on track for what the end of the movie would've been," he said in regards of the first season, the events of which he likened to those in the first act of a feature film.
Esmail spoke to the changing landscape as Hollywood as a reason for the fact that he and other members of the independent film community are setting their sights on TV. "It's kind of a fact at this point that in Hollywood those mid-size budget films, those dramas, those thrillers that existed twenty, thirty years ago don't really exist anymore. Filmmakers who don't necessarily want to tell stories at the huge franchise level and yet don't want to do small micro-budget films are going to gravitate towards television."
Esmail and the cast love shooting in New York.
New York City is the backdrop for "Mr. Robot," and the show is loyal to its setting by shooting on site in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Rather than follow the lead of other shows supposedly shot in New York ("probably Toronto"), Esmail channeled some of the great NYC based filmmakers in defining the show's visual aesthetic. "I can't say it enough but the way Scorsese shoots New York, the way Woody Allen shoots New York, that was definitely a big inspiration," he said, calling the influence of those directors "a big part of the DNA of the show."
Esmail loves finding small under-seen New York spaces to shoot in, but one of Malek's favorite moments was when the show closed off one of the busiest sections of Times Square to shoot a scene. "We got to shut down a pretty big important piece of real estate," he remembered. "Christian Slater's dressed as a homeless man, and people are like 'no one can get in, but that homeless guy can get in.'"
Malek and Slater agreed that there is "no better place to shoot" than Coney Island, which is an important backdrop for the show and the home of Mr. Robot's hacker collective, F Society. On the first day of filming, the two spent the entire day on Coney Island's iconic Ferris wheel shooting a scene. As Malek told it, "We had just met, we're sitting on the thing eating Twinkies. 'So tell me about yourself.'"
Slater agreed that the day was one of his favorites. "What a way to go to work. It was perfect."
The show has some uncanny parallels to real life.
"Mr. Robot" is intended to show a dystopian vision of America, in which big technology and big corporations are even more dominant over people's lives. However, even as the show was in production, a few giant real life cyber-security breaches validated that fact that these themes are relevant in audiences lives.
In Season 1, Elliot hacks the personal internet history of his therapist's romantic partner, exposing his profile on Ashley Madison (a dating site targeted at people looking to cheat on their significant others). This episode was written well before the site was hacked in July 2015, exposing the names of all its users… including Esmail's. "There are a lot of things Elliot did to hack Michael Hansen and I researched all of them," he said of his experimental Ashley Madison profile. "Of course now my name's on the thing."
In another telling moment, the infamous Sony hack happened the day the show was picked up by USA. "But that had nothing to do with it," Esmail joked. Maybe most shocking of all is the fact that the police just busted a ring of hackers who stole $50 million through malware… a hacker group calling themselves Evil Corp.
Esmail confirmed Whiterose's gender identity.
One character in the show is initially introduced as male, but when Elliot finally comes face to face with Whiterose, she appears as a woman. This led fans to speculate on the character's gender identity and the possibility that the Whiterose could, in fact, be a transgender character. When asked about the two representations of the character, Esmail responded to a question he was initially hesitant to answer. "One of them is a disguise," he revealed. "The male is her disguise."
Everything that happens on screen is technologically accurate.
One of the things Esmail obsesses about is making sure the show stays true to real life technology and hacking techniques, with consultants on hand at every step of the process to ensure everything checks out. This is a way "Mr. Robot" redefines the hacker genre, in which hackers are essentially digital wizards and computer viruses are represented by ones and zeroes in the shape of a skull. Indiewire brought up "Hackers" as a classic example of that crazy aesthetic, to which the showrunner replied "I enjoy 'Hackers', I'll watch it, but do they poorly represent hacking? Of course."
Malek, on the other hand, doesn't worry about understanding the complicated technical terminology his character uses on the show. "I did at first, but then I just stopped caring. 'Rooting protocol'? Who cares?"
Esmail is careful what he tells his actors about what's coming up for their characters.
The end of Season 1 brought some big, game-changing twists that, without spoilers, changed the role of several characters in a major way. The showrunner called it a "full-time job" dealing handling the cast's requests for information about what's in store for later seasons. "We all want to know everything," said Carly Chaikin, who plays Darlene. "We're nosy. We're nosy and we're needy."
For the most part, Esmail is good about granting those requests, considering it important to give the actors all the information they need to craft their characters. "They're my co-creators in every one of these characters," he said of that partnership. "I felt it would be weird if I kept them in the dark."
The show has made a deep personal connection with many fans.
The dark and twisted psychological profile of Elliot is off brand for USA, which is known for lighthearted procedurals like "Burn Notice" and "Psych." That's why fans and creators alike were surprised by the runaway success of the show, which is now one of the most buzzed-about programs on the air: The pilot episode was so well received during its festival run at SXSW and Tribeca that the network picked up a second season of the show before it even premiered.
The panelists described the experience as "surreal," especially Esmail, who is now getting attention from the likes of Steven Soderbergh and "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner. Esmail had faith in the show but expected that it would only appeal to a niche audience, making its huge fan response all the more meaningful.
The cast was similarly touched by the fan response. "There's nothing better in this world I think in any field or anything that you do when you're really excited about something and so are other people," Chaikin said. "We're all so passionate about this show and invested."
A particularly touching moment came when an audience member told Malek about how his performance was inspiring to his students who suffer from mental disabilities like autism and schizophrenia, and Esmail revealed that Elliot is in part based on a friend who also struggles with schizophrenia.
"We aim to be entertaining and if we reach you on that level that's great, but to transcend that and have it reach people like your students, that's just the most profound thing we can hope for," Malek said. "Everybody at some point feels that way, that they're alone in the world. The grief and isolation we feel trying to figure out our roles in the world in the society that we live in, and maybe we're all being hungry for some sort of change, I think we can all associate with that. That's another aspect of that show that speaks to people."
The cast could only speculate on what Esmail has in store moving forward.
While Esmail has the series mapped out in terms of the major plot points, he has more room to experiment with the plotlines of individual characters. The only details he would give is that at some point he is sure to explore some of the romantic tension that exists between Elliot and Angela. While he thinks their complex relationship is much more interesting than the standard "will they or won't they?", he did say that he "would be a fool not to go down that road at some point."
The cast members all offered some ideas for what they would like to see from their characters next season. Slater looks forward to the fact that he is privy to information Elliot and audience don't yet have, and the opportunity to tease out those secrets. Portia Doubleday hoped to explore the relationship between her character of Angela and Darlene, and to find out more about Angela's relationship with Elliot before the start of the show.
Chaikin agreed, telling Esmail that "whatever questions I have I'd just like you to answer them. That'd be great."
Malek, on the other hand, simply joked "I'd like to eat something," and looked forward to the surprises that are no doubt in store.
"Mr. Robot" will return for Season 2 next year on USA.