BY ETHAN ALTER
As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs June 12 to June 26 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.
The first season of USA’s cult drama Mr. Robot was mostly about the men in our anti-hero Elliot Alderson’s (Rami Malek) life. One man in particular: the titular leader (Christian Slater) of the anarchy-minded hacker enclave fsociety, who was revealed to be a Tyler Durden-esque figment of Elliot’s addled imagination in the Season 1 finale. For the show’s sophomore year, creator Sam Esmail (who also directed each of the 12 episodes), broadened the scope beyond Mr. Robot to focus on the women in Elliot’s life. Both his sister, Darlene (Carly Chaikin), and his childhood friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday), became driving forces in the narrative, as did a new face, FBI field agent Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer), who is getting close — too close — to piecing together what happened on 5/9, the day that fsociety’s hack changed the world forever (and not necessarily for the better).
At the same time, Mr. Robot fans would likely agree that the increased focus on the show’s female cast has been a positive development for the show. “Season 2 was jam-packed with the ladies,” Doubleday tells Yahoo TV. “We were all really excited when we saw those scripts. It’s not as rare these days to see strong female characters that have arcs that aren’t dependent on the direction of a male counterpart, which I’m very happy about.” Gummer concurs: “Sam is so great at storytelling, and interested in the complexity of each character on the show individually. He’s not worried about anyone being likable or not likable or good or bad.”
We spoke with Mr. Robot‘s three female leads in separate interviews to break down their characters’ standout sequences from Season 2 — and learn how they might hint at what lies ahead for Season 3.
Dom’s Big Moment: The China Shootout (Episode 5, “eps2.3_logic-b0mb.hc”)
With an FBI agent now in the mix, it stands to reason that things are going to get a lot more physical than they were in Season 1. And Dom was certainly at the center of Mr. Robot‘s two major forays into action-movie territory. In the fifth episode, she survives a firefight while working abroad in China that claims the lives of her fellow agents. Making the sequence all the more impressive is the fact that it unfolds in a single, unbroken shot — an approach Esmail repeated for another shootout in Episode 10, when Dom and Darlene are attacked by the Dark Army in a restaurant. Both sequences are strong examples of the “show, don’t tell” school of characterization: we see Dom’s personality expressed through action, rather than dialogue.
Grace Gummer: The shootout was a single shot, and I watched playback every time to make sure I was doing all of the actions right, especially grabbing the gun on the ground and shooting it. I had no bullets or ammo or sound to shoot it with; all I had was somebody off-camera going, “Boom!” I had to react to the backfire of a gun based on someone going “Boom!” You know, it was just those little things that you have to imagine in an incredibly chaotic and insane situation.
It was a very technically choreographed thing. I had to go behind the monitor between every take, and Sam would say, “I want you right here to grab the gun sooner,” because the camera was right behind me, kneeling where I was kneeling. It was all through my perspective as soon as I went down, so it had to be very specific. Physically it was really hard on my body; I turned my back out that day because of all the bending, crawling around, and twisting and everything. I ended up on the floor for a couple days with a bad back.
There weren’t that many takes of that one; I think it was maybe the fourth take that we did where we got it. You only get a certain number of takes — you can’t really do that 20 times! I remember that I wanted to do more to make it look more realistic on my end, but you just have to trust Sam. When he says he’s got it, you know that he definitely has it. I forget the movie he referenced, but he wanted it to be very raw. I had never been able to do that [kind of scene] before, but if anybody is going to do it on the show, it had to be Dom.
What I think is so cool about her is that she’s aggressive and impulsive, tough and feminine. Deep down she’s incredibly lonely and isolated, and I think she uses her job as a cover-up for all of that. I think that’s how she’s related to every character on the show, because they all have that element to them. I thought of her as Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs or Frances McDormand in Fargo — that weirdo that somehow ends up being the one that gets the case and actually solves it. The one that cares the most, and the least likely person you would think would be able to do the job.
You can see that in the shootout [in Episode 10]. She takes it upon herself; she doesn’t have any backup. No one is going to stop her, and her whole mentality is based on that. That scene was an adrenaline rush for me every time, because I knew that if I didn’t get it right, we would have to set it up and do it all again. It was a really hard, long night, one of the hardest shots I’ve ever shot in my career. I’d do 20 jumping jacks between each take to get me into the mindset of having been running. I’d have to think about all the props that I’m going to use, at what point do I open the door, how loud should I say “FBI,” how hard should I kick the guy on the ground to make sure he’s dead. It was insane, but really fun.
I can’t really say what’s going to happen to Dom in Season 3, but she’s definitely going to be at the center of the action. The action finds her, and she finds the action.
Darlene’s Big Moment: Killing Susan Jacobs (Episode 8, “eps2.6_succ3ss0r.p12”)
Season 2’s eighth episode was a major departure for Mr. Robot in that Elliot didn’t appear on camera at all. Instead, Darlene was the central character in this particular hour, as the plan she had orchestrated with her brother started to unravel in spectacular fashion. The trouble started when Susan Jacobs (Sandrine Holt) — E Corp’s General Counsel, who helped absolve the corporation from any guilt in the deaths of Elliot and Darlene’s father — returned home to discover that fsociety had transformed her house into their command center. Darlene proceeds to take her hostage and, driven by the memory of Susan’s triumphant laugh when E Corp’s “innocent” verdict was handed down, kills her with a taser. That half-accidental, half-intentional act of vengeance splinters her fsociety cell, and eventually leads her to discover that her ex-boyfriend, Cisco, is a Dark Army operative.
Carly Chaikin: When we were talking about Season 2, Sam told me that I killed someone, and I was like, “What are you talking about? I’m a murderer now?” Reading it, it was one of those situations that most of us have [experienced]. We’ve had that personal moment where we think, “If I ever see that person again, I’ll kill them.” The hope is that 99.9% of us wouldn’t actually kill them. Darlene is put in that position thinking there would be something to stop her. But there wasn’t! And I don’t think it was a premeditated thing either. She obviously went down there with a taser, but it was more of an in-the-moment decision to actually do it.
Because she’s not a killer, I didn’t want it to be some kind of crazy lunge. That’s not real. The crazy thing is how easy it was; just one quick move. I came to set and talked to Sam about it, but he was like, “I don’t want to know anything. I just want to see what you do.” And so the performance that you saw was kind of just what I went in and did. We honed it in a little at the end, but he really liked what I came in with. Afterwards he came over and gave me a big hug and all the guys on set were like, “That was really good.”
I’m not sure who chose the swimming pool, but I assume that once they saw the location, that was the area where it made the most sense to lock Susan up and keep her isolated. It was such a great environment, because it was so echo-y. Every sound you made was bouncing off the walls. It was an enclosed area, so you couldn’t just scream and have someone hear you.
One of the things that I really held on to while doing that scene was thinking about Darlene saying, “Nobody else saw but me.” That lonely isolated feeling of seeing this woman [laugh], and everyone else being like, “What are you talking about?” Having that be embedded in her, and with all of the s**t that has happened to her family as a result of E Corp. She has a face to put to that, which is Susan’s face. Susan encompasses all the evil that happened, and being able to put a face to that incident helps her. It provides a feeling that getting revenge on this one person would somehow make everything better.
All the characters on the show do things where we think we know how they’re going to turn out, and then things obviously go very differently than what we expected. Like the way fsociety thought that we’re going to start a revolution and change the world, and now we’re seeing what actually came of that. We’re going to see what comes of killing Susan. Coming into Season 3, I had to think about taking in everything Darlene went through from her brother being in jail, to destroying the world, to killing Susan. Where is she going to go from here?
Angela’s Big Moment: The Karaoke Meltdown (Episode 8, “eps2.6_succ3ss0r.p12”)
Welcome to your life, there’s no turning back. Those prophetic words were first sung by Tears For Fears in their immortal 1985 ballad “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and they become the anthem of Angela’s long-overdue emotional breakdown. Since accepting a gig at E Corp, she’s been compromising, and compartmentalizing, her feelings about working for the enemy, even as she also attempts to use her status as an “inside woman” to help Darlene. Pulled in so many directions, she’s teetering on the edge of sanity and, on that karaoke stage, she appears to plunge over. The person that winds up pulling her back is Whiterose (B.D. Wong), leader of the Dark Army, who gives Angela a unique test that she winds up passing.
Portia Doubleday: There’s a certain honesty that comes out when you sing that you can’t hide as an actor, even if you’re in character. I sing for fun, but I didn’t think that Angela was the singing type. It was a moment for her to finally break this veneer that she’s been holding together the entire show — this necessity for control. That moment was atypical of something that you would see her do, so I was really excited to see what would happen.
Originally, Sam and I were thinking about a couple of songs, including “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore. But there were a couple of covers that had come out, and we thought, “Let’s pick something that might not be out there currently.” And that song is also just very on the nose about Angela’s journey, and how she feels about working in that environment of E Corp. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” speaks to all of the characters on the show, although they go about it in very different ways. It was so much to do with what Darlene wants in her rebellion, and what Elliot struggles with constantly. That’s a perfect song to demonstrate the struggles of all the characters, and Angela has a taste of it herself. If she’s in an executive position in that company, how do people become like Terry Colby? It’s not like he started out that way. Perhaps he was very similar to Angela, but inevitably, he made that decision that completely compromised her life, and Elliot and Darlene’s.
That scene was actually more difficult than I expected it to be, because you’re acting. I sing karaoke, and it’s fun, but it’s a lot different when you’re interpreting the language. We also didn’t want it to become a performance, if that makes sense. There was one take where I was like, “I need to sing it worse than this!” It was awkward for me to sing off-key at certain points, but also interesting because I was able to say these things with conviction, with where they’re actually coming from as opposed to singing a perfect song.
I don’t remember how many times I performed the song. Maybe seven times or something? Around there. I’m not sure if he cut different ones together. It sounds like they used one take, because I remember messing up at one point and I can hear it [in the episode]. I’ve never quite done a scene like that. The song is your master, in a way. You kind of have to just keep going and tell the truth to do the song justice. And the song is great! I was so obsessed with it.
I will say that’s a turning point for Angela. She thinks that her life is over, and what a perfect moment for Whiterose to kind of swoop in and say something to her. She has no idea what’s going to happen to her; everything is broken at that point, and she has everything to lose. I don’t think the audience will predict what inevitably happens with her in Season 3 in any way. It’s going to open up into a completely different version of Angela. Angela 3.0!
Season 3 of Mr. Robot premieres in October on USA.