BY SCOTT FEINBERG
The 2016 Emmy winner for best actor in a drama series — an Egyptian-American who was that category's first non-white honoree in 18 years — reflects on early stereotypical casting, great collaborators who helped him break out of it and the prescience of his current show about a disturbed hacker hiding beneath his hoodie.
"For a long time I thought maybe that would be it," says Rami Malek, the American actor of Egyptian descent, of the stereotypical roles to which he was limited early in his career — an Egyptian king (2006's Night at the Museum), an Iraqi insurgent (2005's Over There), an Islamic-American terrorist (a 2010 episode of Fox's 24), an Egyptian vampire (2012's The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2) and the list goes on. "But," he adds, as we sit down at his publicist's office in New York, where he currently is shooting season three of USA's Mr. Robot, to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast, "I always hoped that I had enough talent to transcend that kind of ideology or Hollywood belief-system." And, sure enough, he has.
The 36-year-old now is one of the most respected actors of his generation, thanks in no small part to his work on Mr. Robot as Elliot Alderson, a cyber-security specialist by day and master hacker by night who grapples with psychological issues and drug addiction while trying to free the world from heartless corporations. Last year, for his work on the show's first season, he was awarded the best actor in a drama series Emmy, becoming that category's first non-white honoree in 18 years. And this year, when the show feels as timely as ever, he might well win it again.
Born in Los Angeles to Egyptian immigrants, Malek first fell in love with acting during high school, but "had major doubts" about whether or not it could be his career. He graduated from Indiana's University of Evansville in 2003 with a BFA, moved to New York and began performing in small stage productions while also auditioning for screen opportunities — but, he confesses, "I didn't hear back from anybody for so long — I mean, it was devastating." Eventually, through a "pretty brazen" pitch of himself, he landed a small part on Gilmore Girls, and through that an agent, but the opportunities that came his way over the next few years tended to be of the aforementioned sort. "Of course it bothered me," Malek acknowledges. "It was very difficult. When those things were coming my way — when those were the auditions I was getting — I was just like, 'I think I just have to humanize these guys, and that's what I'm gonna do for a while.'"
Still, a few people were perceptive enough to go to bat for him. "I have to thank all these casting directors that did not give up on me," he says. "They really pushed. I think they could see something that the people up the ladder might have had a more difficult time seeing." As a result, Malek landed one great part — in Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' Emmy-winning HBO miniseries The Pacific (2010) — that soon begat others. "Still, today, that's probably the most transformative moment I've had as an actor," he says, noting that because of it he came to be offered readings and eventually parts in Paul Thomas Anderson's Oscar-nominated film The Master (2012) and two Spike Lee joints, Oldboy (2012) and Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014). His growing profile landed him in some big-budget studio films, such as Bill Condon's Twilight installment, but Malek shined brightest in an indie made with top-flight young talent — alongside him, fellow then-unknowns Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever — for less than $1 million over 18 days: Destin Daniel Cretton's magnificent Short Term 12 (2013). "That was a great role," he concedes.
And then came Mr. Robot. Malek was sent the script for the pilot and, before reading it, had some reservations. The title, he says, "threw me, I have to say." The fact that it was for the USA network, which was not known for edgy drama, "was a bit of a concern." And he was unfamiliar with the show's creator and the pilot's writer, Sam Esmail, who had never previously worked in television. But as soon as Malek read the material itself, he was sold. Centered around Elliot, a quiet but compelling character, it "read like a play," he says, only with voiceovers through which "you're let into his reality" (Malek actually hears a female read them into his earwig), allowing the audience to empathize with and root for him even as he does highly questionable things, leaving viewers to decide for themselves if he is a hero or antihero. "I see him as both," volunteers Malek. The black hoodie, the fade haircut and the emotionally minimalist acting were among the many things that the actor then brought to the part.
Mr. Robot was smart, edgy and prescient from the outset. The show's first season, which aired from June through September of 2015 (in the wake of the Sony hack), was awarded a Peabody, named one of the year’s top 10 shows by the American Film Institute, voted best new program by the Television Critics Association and best drama series at the Golden Globe Awards and nominated for the best drama series Emmy — and it brought Malek a boatload of accolades of his own. In addition to the best actor in a drama series Emmy, he also won the equivalent Critics’ Choice Award and was nominated for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards. Meanwhile, the show’s second season, which debuted in July 2016 and aired through September (just before the discovery of the Russian hacks that attempted to interfere with the U.S. presidential election), was comparably lauded and is the one eligible for recognition this awards season. Its third season will premiere in October. Malek, when pressed, admits that he has been told to expect only two more seasons after that. "I would be very surprised if it goes beyond that," he says with a smile.