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Dark, surprising and smartly scripted, the techno thriller “Mr. Robot” became one of the biggest hits of the summer, and an unexpected win for USA Network.
With viewers and critics alike waiting expectantly for the second season, the series’ creator and stars sat down with journalists at New York Comic Con to discuss what comes next, and just how “Mr. Robot” ended up on USA in the first place.
“I have to say, I get asked this question a lot,” said creator Sam Esmail. “They were in a place where they wanted to reinvent their brand. They really loved the show and were passionate about the show. … It was kind of a great opportunity where they really needed us, we needed them, and it just brought about this great relationship where they gave us this creative freedom.”
That creative freedom led to the development of some of TV’s most unique characters. Rami Malek’s Elliot Alderson even introduces himself in the first episode by saying, “I am very different.”
“I think that’s what it is,” Malek said. “He’s his own creature, but he accepts who he is to a certain degree, and he’s not that closeted guy living in his mom’s basement. He does have these grand aspirations to be normal and to do something about the society he lives in. I think that’s endearing.”
The series follows Elliot, a young programmer who works as a cyber-security engineer by day and as a vigilante hacker by night. He finds himself at a crossroads, however, when the mysterious leader of fsociety, an underground hacker group, recruits him to destroy the company he’s paid to protect. Of course, there’s much more to “Mr. Robot,” including a twist in the penultimate episode that turns the series on its head.
Carly Chaikin had the uneasy task of playing Darlene, the sister Elliot doesn’t even recognize. “I think that she knows Elliot’s weird,” she said, “so there are some things, like, in the second episode where he asks how I know where he lives. And I give him a look like, ‘What? Why wouldn’t I know where you live?’ You can see those things in my performance, I hope, but I think that it progressively got worse. … But all those other weird kind of things she just let go as this is Elliot.”
Chaikin actually learned the show’s big secret when she tested for the role, as it would greatly affect how she played the character. In fact, all four leads knew. “But the table read during that, the other half of the table everyone goes, ‘What?!’ and was freaking out,” she recalled.
Elliot’s best friend Angela, played by Portia Doubleday, goes through some of the most dramatic shifts during the first season, something the actress doesn’t see Esmail easing up on anytime soon.
Angela may be dipping into the dark side by joining Evil Corp at the end of Season 1, but Doubleday said, “There is something interesting about that, because you’re essentially watching — like, how does Terry Colby become Terry Colby? He doesn’t start off with the perception that he has. He was slowly corrupted over time. What does that look like to go from someone who is completely kind of innocent and naive but intelligent, and how does that corruption slowly lead somebody in the wrong direction?”
Martin Wallström’s Tyrell Wellick had a fascinating relationship with his wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen) throughout the first season, and the actor revealed they have an interesting backstory. “I don’t think in America you notice, but she’s actually speaking Danish and I’m speaking Swedish. From the beginning they thought of her speaking Swedish, so me and Stephanie talked about that, and we know a lot of Swedes, Danes married to each other. And we thought, ‘Well, you speak Danish, I speak Swedish. That creates sort of a backstory, that they’ve been together for a long time.'”
Wallström also touched upon what draws Tyrell to Elliot. “If you see Tyrell with his wife, you don’t have that kind of sexual tension between them,” he said. “But between Elliot and Tyrell, there’s really something. There’s a tension. I mean, he will always use things to get what he wants, but there’s something about Elliot that’s more than just fsociety, Evil Corp. He wants to consume him.”
“I think Tyrell is desperate for Elliot’s approval” Esmail added. “In Episode 2, when Elliot rejects him, he walks away like he just got broken up with.”
As the title character, Christian Slater had the most complicated acting obligations, playing both Elliot’s secret father and simultaneous imaginary friend. The veteran actor said playing a person who wasn’t really there presented obstacles, but Esmail was on hand “98 percent of the time,” guiding the scenes. “There were moments where just being an actor, I would have an instinct and sometimes I would have to play against that particular instinct because it would have revealed too much or given something away,” Slater said, adding that he enjoyed the challenge.
Rather than portraying Elliot’s father, Slater said he played an ideal. “It’s made up of a lot of different elements and aspects and movie icons and ideas, I think the ideal of what he would have liked his father to have been,” he explained. “Because I think in the reality, he was not necessarily, as far as I know at this point, the most heroic sort of character.”
Now that the secret is out and Elliot is aware of who Mr. Robot really is (or isn’t), don’t expect the dynamic to change much in the second season. “It’s the same thing,” Malek said. “If you ask him, Sam’s never going to give [Elliot] control of anything. You give him control, I think you take away from having any other major struggles… If he’s powerless, and struggling to find that power I think is more attractive.”
However, the relationship between Darlene and her family is something Chaikin hopes will be explored. “One of the things that I’m most curious about is Darlene and Elliot’s relationship before fsociety, and what that looks like,” she said. “When [Angela] told [Darlene], ‘You guys were never that close,’ that to me was really surprising, because I didn’t know that. … And when we filmed the scene when he was at his grave, I had a whole moment there too where I was like, ‘This is my dad also.'”
But Esmail isn’t even telling his cast members what’s coming. “For us for as much as anybody else it’s going to be interesting to see where Sam takes it and where it goes,” Slater said.
One thing he will say, though, is that Season 2 is a bit of a soft reboot in the vein of ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ or ‘The Leftovers.’ “We were just in the writers’ room talking about how in a lot of ways this new season is a little bit of reboot,” Esmail revealed. “But it’s very much a continuation of what happened in Season 1, and really a reaction and consequences and repercussions of what happened in Season 1.”
Whatever happens, the show will certainly still address some weighty, current themes like hacking and financial disparity. “There’s a lot of concern out there I think universally,” Slater said. “Making a show like this, a lot of the things that have been happening in the news have been great for the show, but scary in the world in general. A show like this is helpful in shedding light on a lot of that stuff.”
Of course, the actors live in that world when not on screen, which makes for an interesting work-life dynamic.
“Having gone through all these situations and learning more about just the ills of society, it just affects me as a human being now,” Malek said. “It’s taught me a lot more about who I am and the things I want to do with my life. And I think that’s the effect it has on a lot of people watching it. It’s entertaining, but it has so much more value, not only to myself, but to everyone who interacts with it.”