BY EMMA BROWN
PHOTOGRAPHY: HANS NEUMANN
"Hello friend," begins the pilot of USA's Mr. Robot. "Hello friend? That's lame. Maybe I should give you a name, but that's a slippery slope. You're only in my head. We have to remember that."
Elliot Alderson is an unreliable narrator—a paranoid, loner hacker who suffers from hallucinations and is addicted to morphine—but he is our only option when it comes to Mr. Robot. Everything we see, everything we are told comes from Elliot, and conspiracy theories about what is and isn't real are abundant. Is Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), Elliot's mentor and the leader of a collective of anti-capitalism hackers named "F Society," a figment of Elliot's imagination along the lines of Tyler Durden? What about Elliot's slow-burning nemesis, the icy, ambitious Danish E Corp executive Tyrell? Or perhaps it's Elliot himself who is the alterego.
However, these mysteries would not be nearly as compelling if not for actor Rami Malek. Malek's performance gives Elliot depth; he isn't just a series of quirks and tics, an amalgamation of traits that sit somewhere on the autism spectrum. Elliot is aware that he is hovering somewhere near the edge, and wants desperately to be normal.
Now 34, Malek has been acting for a decade. He has plenty of recognizable projects to his name—the HBO miniseries The Pacific, SXSW-winner Short Term 12, Night at the Museum, a Twilight film, the underrated Ain't Them Bodies Saints—but Mr. Robot is his most meaty role to date. Plenty of people are taking note. "I think I'm going to start an indie movie soon and then right after that go into a big studio film," the Los Angeles native explains. "I've had a lot of casting directors say to me recently it's nice that you've turned a corner and we've been hoping for this to happen for you for quite some time. I feel a certain sense of validation," he continues. "It's hard work to actually survive and flourish in this business, and to feel like I'm having a moment where I'm able to display a few things I think I'm capable of, it really fills me with pride and at the same time I'm consistently humbled by it."
EMMA BROWN: I read that you play music in your ear while you're acting on the show.
MALEK: Sometimes. I do it when I'm a preparing for a role quite a bit—I sit with music. It helps influence the discovery of something. Then sometimes during filming I like to listen to the same things. It brings me back to a place where I just feel more creative and focused.
BROWN: Is it music that Elliot would listen to? Or music that evokes a specific emotion in you, Rami?
MALEK: It's a combination of both. I think one time Sam Esmail saw me dressed up—we were at South by Southwest—and he goes, "Huh. This is how you dress? Like a rocker? I always pictured Elliot as more of a hip-hop guy." "I'm Rami, you know that, right?" But I find certain songs that have lyrics that inhabit what Elliot is and what his struggles are, and then there are things that get me personally going—just good tunes. Then there are sometimes where I'm like, "Let's think about what Elliot might rock out to."
BROWN: Where on the spectrum is Laura Marling?
MALEK: Oh, that's way more Rami than it is Elliot. She can just weave a story. It's poetic; it's smart. It's heartfelt and, for me, affecting. I like that. I like it when it infiltrates my whole being.
BROWN: Do you make a playlist when you're preparing for a role?
MALEK: I'll sift through a bunch of songs and if one really touches me in a certain way, I'll keep playing it over and over—almost to the point where if someone else was listening they would find it nauseating and borderline torturous. I kid you not; I can listen to the same song back-to-back for two to three hours straight. I'm not psycho; I swear. There are some songs I won't listen to any more because they are songs that helped me get to emotional places. Even if I hear it—someone's playing a song that had that affect on me in the past—I'll have to walk out of the room or turn it down. It sounds so strange but those things affect you in a certain way.
BROWN: I also read that you have a woman read you Elliot's internal monologue. Elliot's internal voice is female?
MALEK: For me, yeah. It's funny, because now that I watch the show I see how people are engrossed and get that feeling that they are right there in his head advising him in a certain way and speaking to him. It began as that female voice, but now it's this universal viewer.
BROWN: There are so many theories about the show—that Mr. Robot is a facet of Elliot, which I understand, but then that Tyrell is a facet of Elliot as well.
MALEK: That's a theory as well? What I love is that people are that engrossed in the show that they are reading that far into it. These theories are far beyond what I've allowed myself to think. It's a show that you really have to pay attention to and everyone can formulate their own opinion, which is really cool. It's not often that people walk away and can have a discussion like the one that's being had.
BROWN: I love that scene where Elliot imagines his life as a normal person to the song "Steal My Sunshine."
MALEK: Yeah, people get a kick out of that scene for some reason. When I first read it I was like, "Oh no. What are we doing here?" I was worried that it would be a bit too campy so I just tried to keep it really grounded. But it's a very funny moment. It's nice to see Elliot have those lighter moments and actually ask a girl permission to kiss her, I thought was pretty adorable. You never get to see that side where he is enjoying himself, and he does strive to be normal, so for him to explore that for a part of an episode was fun for everyone. Especially on set—there's a definite dramatic tone on set, so to have those lighter moments are always fun.
BROWN: I read that Sam envisioned Mr. Robot first as a film, and that Season One is just the first 30 minutes of the film and the real drama happens in Season Two.
MALEK: I didn't know that is was just the first 30 minutes, but that doesn't surprise me because he can be very long-winded. [laughs]
BROWN: When you sat down to discuss the role with Sam, did he tell you Elliot's entire arc? Or was is it confined to what happens in Season One?
MALEK: He told me quite a bit and I think he regretted telling me as much as he did. I think he's very happy keeping a secret, and that's become something that I think everyone is enjoying. No one can predict really what's next. Maybe that gives him some type of power.
BROWN: I know you have a twin brother. Do you have other siblings?
MALEK: I have an older sister. She's an ER doctor. I always think they are probably most happy with her. [laughs] She's really special. She does what I consider the job of healing people and sometimes I have to think about what I'm really doing and how it pales in comparison to her job, which comes down to a lot of moments of life or death. I look at her as a lifesaver. I'm very proud of her and constantly astonished by the enormous weight she has to deal with day in and day out.
BROWN: Do you call her with all of your minor medical woes?
MALEK: All the time. I try not to but it's hard when there's a doctor on your favorites call list.
BROWN: When you were little, was your sister nice to you? Or did she play tricks on you and your brother?
MALEK: Oh, she's going to kill me. I grew up with a twin, so I think there might have been moments of jealousy and there were moments where she took it out on us in a mean way, but she has gone out of her way now to make up for all of that and could not be sweeter. But yes, we had our painful moments. There were moments when she would pit us against one another: "Who's going to be my best friend for the week? Is it you, or is it your brother?" All of a sudden, your soulmate, who's your twin, the allegiance is lost. It's probably a good lesson in life for how quickly people can turn on you.
BROWN: When did acting come into your life? You studied theater in college, right?
MALEK: Yeah. I was doing this dramatic interpretation for a debate class. I had a 10-page one-man show called Zooman and the Sign, and I remember doing that in front of an audience. My parents came and I remember having a moment where I locked eyes with my mom and dad and I saw them see me have a transformative moment and it affected me in a way that was definitely cause for reflection. [It was] a moment where I felt like that there was something really special going on—the communication that I had with them that I'd never had just opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could happen in this art form.
THE SEASON FINALE OF MR. ROBOT WILL AIR TONIGHT, AUGUST 26, ON USA. TO CATCH UP ON THE FIRST SEASON, VISIT THE USA WEBSITE.
H3LL0FRI3ND UPDATE: Due to the events in Virginia, the season finale of Mr. Robot will now air on September 2 on USA.