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A Playboy Conversation with Sam Esmail and Rami Malek of Mr. Robot

A Playboy Conversation with Sam Esmail and Rami Malek of Mr. Robot :

Ask anyone who knows the world of computers and they tend to say the same thing: Hollywood never gets hackers right. Finally, there’s a show that properly exploits the drama of 0s and 1s – Mr. Robot.

The new hit show from USA boasts a depth of character, offers binge-worthy storytelling, and its anarchist hacker characters feel so real that the hacker collective Anonymous gave the show its vote of approval. The gospel of wealth, Forbes, called it, “The best show of the summer.” Critic Andy Greenwald of Grantland said, “The series doesn’t begin so much as it explodes with an almost messianic confidence…”

The messiah of this darkly fun show is a morphine addict who has the erratic confidence of a mad genius. His name is Elliot Alderson (played by Rami Malek), and he’s a loner geek at a tech company. He’s also secretly pushing himself to collapse, working with a team of hackers to overthrow capitalism. Their battleground is our modern networked world.

Armed with the superhero powers of genius hackers, it may be best to think of the group as the anti-Avengers. Unlike your average superheroes, they want to use their powers to disrupt the world. They want to bring down the corporate institutions that run society. They want destroy it all to level the playing field. And these are the good guys.

Mr. Robot is highly combustible, yet it looks cool to the touch. It has the visual appeal of well-made cinema. It’s a world where anything can happen, even though the camera almost never moves. These sort of subtle juxtapositions, these tiny tensions, give Mr. Robot a smartness and rawness that results in the sort of suspense that grips your mind. You’re seized by the show, left wondering: what’s going to happen next? And this happens five, six, seven times an episode. Meanwhile, each episode feels like a one-hour movie.

The titular character of Mr. Robot is played by Christian Slater. He shines in the role of the iconoclast-with-a-heart-of-gold. But the show is not about him. He’s more like a demented mentor for the protagonist, Elliot. They are a karmic father and son crime team; they agitate each other and better each other.

Elliot is something new. He’s a positive force of anger and revenge, strong enough that he can battle the corporate giants, the ones labeled “too big to fail.” Like other superheroes, Elliot wrestles with his great power and his sense of responsibility. Ultimately, if he destroys, he wants to do it for good. But what is good? All of these questions and contradictions are well-expressed by Malek, the actor who plays Elliot.

If you watch just a few minutes of an episode, he’ll grab your attention. He’s the anti-hero who speaks right to us in hypnotizing narration, calling us his imaginary friend, sharing what feels so terribly intimate. Yet his utterances might all be the self-congratulatory ravings of a charismatic monster slowly losing his mind.

For an inside view of the most exciting new show on television, we spoke with Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail and the show’s star Rami Malek. In a conversation with Playboy, they talked about bad hackers, Christian Slater and the Bechdel Test; they also explained how Quentin Tarantino and the Arab Spring inspired the show.


© Christopher Peterson / Splash News / Corbis

© Christopher Peterson / Splash News / Corbis

Mr. Robot is centered on an unreliable narrator. Do you think about the question: How do I win the trust of the audience? How do I keep them on this ride?

Rami Malek: To my detriment, that question is always on my mind. Elliot’s relationship with the audience is unique because it’s one of the only times I can remember in television, or film, where the viewer is actually living the experience with him – sharing it through his eyes and in his mind. I have to be very careful about where I’m leading them. There’s a mutual dependency that Elliot has with audience, and I don’t want to let either of them down.

Every screenwriting teacher and Hollywood executive will tell you that a voice-over is a bad choice. Sam, were you nervous going into the series relying so heavily on the intimacy of a voice-over?

Sam Esmail: No, not all. I remember in screenwriting class hearing that, and being the one bratty kid in class who’s sitting there thinking: But what about Clockwork Orange? What about GoodFellas? What about Taxi Driver? Those are some of the greatest movies of all time. Not only was voiceover used, but it was heavily used and in very different ways. I think that rule comes from how it can easily be used as a crutch, if you’re lazy. Personally, I’ve always loved voice-over because it adds this other dimension that you can’t do with dialogue.

You guys are way past that old Raymond Chandler adage of “…when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” For instance, you will spike a scene with a surprise kiss, or you’ll end one with an arresting visual like a pregnant woman happily biting down on a ball gag. Sam, do you enjoy playing the game of suspense?

Sam Esmail: Usually compelling characters lead to compelling situations, like a kiss, or a ball gag. When you have interesting people, really cool things happen. I think that’s what draws people in more than anything else. Because you know, if you try to force a suspenseful plot on not really developed characters, it starts to show, and it starts to feel thin. So, engagement with characters is of the utmost importance.

Rami, your character’s story motivates all the constant expansion of the show’s plot. What’s it like opening the shooting script and seeing whatever surprises Sam has in store, where he wants Elliot to go next?

Rami Malek: It’s exhilarating. I truly do feel like we’re making a movie every week. It’s a testament to Sam’s vision that we’re able to accomplish that on a seven-day shooting schedule. He continues to blow our collective minds with each week’s revelations, and how intersected all the storylines are becoming. There’s a method to all the madness in Mr. Robot; and there’s a sense among the cast and crew that what we’re doing feels inspired and groundbreaking.

Sam, you’ve said in interviews that you’re inspired by the youthful energy of anarchism, and that the germ for the show grew out of the cultural conversation around the financial meltdown of 2008, the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street. Are you compelled by these narratives of people using technology to channel positive anger?

Sam Esmail: Yes, absolutely. In fact, one of the big inspirations—other than the 2008 financial meltdown, or Occupy Wall Street—for me, it was the Arab Spring. I’m Egyptian. When all of that went down, I went out to Egypt, right after Mubarak was forced to resign. I talked with a lot of my cousins, who are in their 20s, and who are part of this big movement, and I remember feeling the energy of how they were young and able to leverage technology to affect change. They were able to channel this anger they had at the status quo because the older guard didn’t really understand technology. They couldn’t control it. I just thought that’s amazing and inspirational and definitely something I wanted to engrain in the show.

Nowadays, hackers have these digital powers akin to real world superheroes. Do you think of your show like an “ultra-smart superhero show?”

Sam Esmail: I think hacking has become a modern-day superpower. And it usually falls into the hands of people who are a little bit withdrawn from society. They also usually tend to have alter egos. So, just by virtue of all those ingredients, hackers posses the qualities of a superhero.

Rami, I’ve read in past interviews that you’re not what most folks would call technically proficient, certainly, not at the level of a hacker. How do you make sense of all the tech talk so that you can turn something like a hack, or thwarted DDoS attack, into a satisfying emotional progression?

Rami Malek: All the tension-filled moments of hacking or thwarting a hack on the show are often tied to protecting those we care about. I think that’s what’s helped us elevate the tech aspects the show to some exhilarating heights. There are some great people working behind the scenes that help me achieve those moments. They’re very focused on showcasing an authentic portrayal of the hacking community, and they’re making me look damn good.

Sam, I’ve also read in interviews that you say you were a ‘bad hacker.’ Are you stoked that Anonymous is on board with the show?

Sam Esmail: Yes. Mostly, I want to be as accurate as possible. One of the reasons I wanted to make a show about hackers was because hackers, and really, anyone in tech, are typically poorly portrayed in Hollywood. I wanted to make a show that was more authentic to what the real world culture is like. Getting a vote of confidence from Anonymous was a huge validation for the accuracy we went after, so I really liked that.

You guys have ‘Hard Harry’ from Pump Up the Volume —the inimitable, Christian Slater. Is it super fun to have him deliver lines you wrote?

Sam Esmail: Fuck, yeah. Christian is awesome. The other thing is, I’m obviously a huge Pump Up The Volume fan, a True Romance fan, a Heathers fan. I mean the guy is legendary. I grew up watching everything of his, multiple times. The fact that he signed on to the project was a dream-come-true. The other thing is, the guy is totally fucking cool. He’s grounded. He’s a normal guy. He’s not a prima donna at all. He doesn’t even act like he’s aware that he’s a huge star. (laughs) It’s really refreshing. There are a lot of times on the set where he’ll say, ‘Can I say this instead of that?’ Or he’ll just do it and start throwing out alt lines, and it’s just really cool. It’s fun writing for a guy like that because you can just hear his voice in your head. I mean, I’ve been listening to him for the last 20 years of my life.

02 Mr Robot PB Conversation

The fans seem to agree: Rami is one hell of an actor.

Sam Esmail: I got lucky because I was able to find Rami. The guy’s a brilliant actor, and if he didn’t pull off what he pulled off people would have bailed on this show a long time ago. I don’t even think we would have gone to series. Having an unreliable narrator can get really frustrating to an audience. It’s hard to engage with someone if you don’t know if what they’re experiencing is real or if it’s in their head. But Rami is able to masterfully ground it in a way that honestly just elevates the entire show to whole other level.

Rami, you certainly have the rare ability to express a wide range, from a very real manic restless energy to a powerful stillness; and at any point on the spectrum you seem to access the deeper swirls of emotional pain.

Rami Malek: I mostly try to justify the destructive tendencies of each character I play by discovering their redeeming qualities and making them accessible.

Over the first five episodes, I’ve noticed how the characters of Shayla, Angela, Darlene, Trenton, have all grown richer and stronger, more nuanced, and their influences are felt in every aspect of the show’s interwoven storylines. By the way, congratulations, Sam, you passed the Bechdel Test.

Sam Esmail: Um, what is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test is feminist film theory. It’s used to determine if a work presents developed female characters. The Bechdel Test asks three questions:
1. Does your movie have at least two female characters?
2. Do those two women talk to each other?
3. When they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than a male character?
So, as you can see, you passed that test.

Sam Esmail: Oh. Okay. Great! It was unintentional. But I’m glad I passed the test. I love passing tests.

Well, then, it seems that you’re an inherent feminist.

Sam Esmail: (laughs) Female characters are—it’s weird to even specify gender—but obviously, female characters are really fun to write for, and they take things in a very different direction than male characters. It’s not as if anything is that pertinent to the gender, because it’s all a spectrum—what men will do, versus what women will do—but it’s not necessarily gender-specific. It’s fun writing for our female characters. They’re so interesting and fascinating and different. But, hey, happy to hear that we passed the Bechdel Test. (laughs)

The show mixes countless influences, like the paranoid thrillers of the 70s, and dark and gritty films of the 90s. Who are your influences? Who motivates your imagination?

Sam Esmail: You can’t help but be influenced by the things you loved to watch growing up. But very personally, for me, I remember Quentin Tarantino’s films. I was 16, maybe 17, when I saw Pulp Fiction. I’d already seen Reservoir Dogs on VHS or whatever. I think I saw Pulp Fiction 19 times in the movie theater. I wanted to watch it as much as I could. Back in the day, you’d have to wait, like, a year before a movie came out on video. You had to get in as many viewings as possible before it left the theater. I was in a small town in Jersey. I didn’t know how long I had before the next big feature would come out and take its spot. It had this sort of audacious spirit. This “I don’t give a fuck. This is what we are. I’m going to pay homage to a bunch of things, and I’m going to rip some things off. I’m going to be original and fresh and mix it all together. I’m going to break screenwriting rules. I’m just going to do it all in an effort to tell an entertaining story that has depth and interesting characters put in interesting situations.”

I just remember that it had everything I ever wanted to experience in a movie. And the spirit—the spirit of this kid Tarantino, at the time, I mean, he was not even 30. Or maybe he just turned 30. He said, “Fuck everything! I’m just going to blow it out of the water, and shoot for the stars, and make this great collage of interesting stories and characters.” That movie was a huge inspiration for me. His streak is one of the best streaks I’ve ever seen by a filmmaker. He’s nearly flawless.

Often, American actors are not nearly as well-trained as their British and Australian counterparts. What was your acting training like?

Rami Malek: I learned from some great teachers at the University of Evansville and following that honed my work more personally with Saxon Trainor, Annie Grindlay and John Markland.

04 Mr Robot PB Conversation

Sam, you have a main character of Arabic descent advocating the overthrow of Western capitalism on the USA Network. So, with Tarantino in mind, how proud are you of this level of “fuck everything” cultural disruption?

Sam Esmail: (laughs) The character wasn’t written as him being Arabic.

Yes, that’s clear. His name is Elliot Alderson.

Sam Esmail: Exactly. Rami just happened to be the perfect person for the role. And it didn’t really have anything to do with the character. I think it’s great that there’s a minority. I think it’s great that he’s the lead of a major network show. That’s awesome. I hope that happens more. Not just for Arab-Americans but for every minority. But culturally speaking, the fact that we’re working with this strongly anti-corporate universe in our show, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’re doing so many crazy things with this show, culturally speaking, and somehow we’re getting away with it. In fact, we’re getting major support from USA. I have to feel lucky.

Sam, I’ve noticed you play little games with your character’s names. But Tyrell–the main villain. This seems like the most literal shoutout. Tyrell is the name of the big corporate villain in Blade Runner. Is this on purpose?

Sam Esmail: That was 100 percent intentional. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s probably the first cyber-punk film. I had to have an homage to that film. I thought what better way than to give it to the villain. One of the great things about that movie is that everybody is in a moral grey area, even Harrison Ford’s character. But then, you get to the end of the movie, and even the villain you can’t hate on. I’m a huge fan of the way they put the characters in that sort of morality soup.

You’re already signed on for a second season, correct?

Sam Esmail: Yes, we were signed before the pilot premiered, just based on online viewers.

Do you have an ideal number of seasons you’d like to go for to tell the story that you imagine?

Sam Esmail: It’s four or five seasons. I’m not entirely sure how it’s all going to map out, but I’d say that’s the right ballpark. If we’re lucky to go that far.


Mr. Robot airs Wednesday at 10 PM on the USA network (and streams online).


Zaron Burnett III is a roving correspondent for Playboy.com. Twitter: @Zaron3


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