BY KATHRYN SHATTUCK
Elliot Alderson — the drug-addled, anxiety-riddled hactivist played by Rami Malek — spent the first two seasons of USA’s “Mr. Robot” destroying the world. Now, as this techno-thriller enters its third round on Wednesday, Oct. 11, Elliot is on a mission to save it.
“We begin on an adrenaline high as Elliot is off and running on a path of accountability,” said Mr. Malek, who won an Emmy for the role in 2016. “He’s become a more conscious, responsible human being who is looking to right the wrongs that he’s made and grown into more of a man. And it makes this season all the more riveting to watch Elliot go about trying to fix the world he’s broken.”
Just as Elliot is growing, so, too, is Mr. Malek, who has ridden his television accolades into starry feature roles, like the Dustin Hoffman part opposite Charlie Hunnam’s Steve McQueen in the coming “Papillon” remake, and a hotly anticipated turn as Freddie Mercury, the Queen frontman, in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
In a break from shooting that film in London, Mr. Malek, 36, who speaks in winding sentences while scarcely pausing to breathe, discussed Elliot’s tangled web, his own paranoia, and the trick to capturing Mercury’s essence. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You shoot the episodes in “Mr. Robot” out of order. Viewers can scarcely keep track of what’s happening when they watch the show chronologically. How on earth do you?
In a show as dense and rich as this, it can be quite difficult to wrap your head around where you are in the story, jumping back and forth. Fortunately, we have everything written beforehand, unlike a lot of other shows, and it’s really the only way I can accept shooting under those circumstances. When Sam [Esmail, the show’s creator] and I first sat down, he explained the story to me from the beginning to the end. But yes, it does take me at times a second and third read to put everything together.
Not so long ago, you had a Twitter account with a single post. How are your own tech skills these days?
I’m getting better with the social engineering. Someone took a selfie with me today on the street, and to see them plug in their passcode right in front of you — it’s not something I would ever do, and it’s borderline creepy, but my show just makes me so much more aware of how to conduct oneself in public. It’s little things we take for granted, like holding your passport out while you wait in line at an airport, and someone can screenshot that in a heartbeat. The amount of information that we arbitrarily extend to the world is very mind-boggling to me. It’s like we’re saying, “Go ahead,” Clint Eastwood-style, “make my day.”
The show has seemed eerily prescient in terms of hacking and our own political terrain.
Our show takes place a little bit in the past, but it could not be more relevant when you look at everything that’s occurring in our political climate right now and this feeling that we’re re-entering a period of American isolationism. And here is Elliot, who once was the most isolated human being you could ever meet, now taking a leap of courage and saying, “I want to be part of this world and change this world for the better.”
I’m finding, as a man, the same feeling — that I don’t need to hole myself up in a bedroom or a closet and remove myself from the world. You don’t get too many chances at enjoying your life, so why not step out into the world and be exactly who you want to be? Isolationism personally and politically only serves to compound our sense of loneliness. It seems like the last place you would want to seek refuge, and yet we continually find ourselves back in that same cocoon. I’m done with that, and I feel like Elliot pretty much feels the same way.
As an actor, you’ve taken your own leap of courage by playing Freddie Mercury. How did that happen?
My producers were fans of “Mr. Robot,” believe it or not. I sent in a video, and little did I know that Brian May [Queen’s lead guitarist] would be watching it a few days later. After that, when I realized this was happening, I actually had a version of Mr. Mercury’s teeth made by the makeup designer while I was shooting “Papillon.” So I was running back and forth, putting together prerecordings at Abbey Road in London and playing Elliot at the same time. It has been a feat that I think I’ll be very proud of, as exhausting as it is. It’s exhilarating playing such charismatic characters. I know Elliot does not come across as charismatic, but to me he is.
What’s the key to capturing that Mercury charisma?
One word: Mischief.