On the first day of shooting the new USA Network techno-thriller Mr. Robot (premiering on Weds, June 24th), Christian Slater faced one of those scenes that can make or break a television series. The show revolves a dangerously alienated super-hacker named Elliot (24's Rami Malek) who's recruited by Slater's mysterious "Mr. Robot" to join a band of cyber-saboteurs. In a nod to the 1949 movie classic The Third Man, the two men talk on Coney Island's Wonder Wheel, as Slater's character lays out his ideology and his plans to change the world — in other words, he's got explain the entire point of the story in one fell expositional swoop. If the actor botched this moment, audiences might tune out before the first episode's credits have even rolled.
For someone who's been around as long as Slater, these are the challenges that make the job fun. "They threw Rami and I into that cage and basically let us go," he recalls.
Malek, meanwhile, took that long day on the ferris wheel as a chance to get to know his co-star. Because they had to rotate all the way around to the start every time they did another take, the two men had a lot of downtime, to "build up some rapport."
"Just straight up, he's a really good dude," Malek says. "There's a reason why he's had the career he's had."
Given that he's been in the public eye since the Reagan era, it's sometimes easy to forget that Slater's only 45 years old. But the man has been around: As the son of actor Michael Hawkins and casting agent Mary Jo Slater, he grew up around show business; by age 11, he'd already been on Broadway and started appearing in movies and television shows while still in his early teens. In fact, Slater had nearly a decade of work on his resumé when he took on the two roles that made him a Gen-X favorite: the psychopathic high school anarchist "J.D." in 1989's Heathers, and the pirate radio DJ Mark Hunter in 1990's Pump Up the Volume. (The latter film, Slater says, is still what "I'd love to be remembered for.")
Slater's character should seem familiar to fans of those movies and those who caught his recent short-lived TV gigs — as a crook turned security expert in Fox's Breaking In and as a con man for hire in ABC's Mind Games. Once again, he's playing an enterprising, charismatic semi-criminal. Ask the star if he could picture himself as the real life leader of a band of tech-savvy outlaws, however, and he'll just laugh: “Not. A. Chance." To play this part, he had to school himself in hacking vocabulary, and even then, once he arrived on set he discovered, "I was learning really old, outdated terms and had to start [over] from scratch."
"There are some hilarious outtakes floating around that make the case that Mr. Robot is the crazy one."
That's where a lifetime of experience with playing anti-heroes comes in handy. Slater may not watch a lot of television (although he cites Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, and The Voice as favorites), but having a familiar screen persona is helping him anchor this series, where his character has to remain ambiguous. For the sake of the plot, the audience can't know right away whether Mr. Robot is a bona fide revolutionary or simply a crackpot. Slater's assignment is to make sure that at least he's always compelling, charismatic and capable of generating good TV.
Mr. Robot was created by Sam Esmail, who wrote and directed the eccentric 2014 sci-fi romance Comet, and no one in the cast knows exactly where the showrunner is going to take this story. "I've been given little bread crumbs along the way," Slater says. "But Sam has been very secretive and protective of my character's background." Both he and Malek say one their favorite parts of the job so far has been reading through every new script they get with everyone else — "usually with shocked facial expressions," they say.
Because the entire series is told from the limited perspective of Malek's character — a man who's juggling a handful of crippling personality disorders — the actors aren't even sure whether or not they're both just creations of Elliot's distorted point of view. Referring back to the Wonder Wheel, Slater explains, "Sam chose how to shape the scene and we tried to provide him with as many options and possibilities as we could. There are some hilarious outtakes floating around that could probably make the case that Mr. Robot is the crazy one."
Malek is finding "that path to discovery" in scenes with co-star to be rewarding, while Slater says of Malek, "He's an actor that I love to watch and I love to be around." Mostly though, the man with over 30 years of professional experience is taking Mr. Robot as an opportunity to get back into the kind of edgy character that propelled his career back at the end of the 1980s.
"I just want to keep taking chances," Slater says. "I want to do things that scare the hell out of me."