When we left Sam Esmail’s Golden Globe-winning dystopian thriller Mr. Robot last August, brilliant-yet-schizophrenic computer programmer Elliot Alderson and the hacktivist group fsociety had engineered a meltdown of the global financial system. At the beginning of Season Two, which debuts tonight, Elliot has retreated to a computer-free exile in Brooklyn, a shift that sets the stage for a compelling addition to the cast.
During his recovery, Elliot befriends a character named Leon, who gabs to the mostly catatonic protagonist about Seinfeld during prison-like meals at a local diner. Hip-hop-savvy viewers will note that Leon is played by none other than Joey Bada$$, a 21-year-old Brooklyn native better known as one of the brightest stars in New York’s recent rap renaissance.
The MC’s 2015 album, B4.Da.$$, peaked at Number Two on the Billboard 200 album chart, capping a startling rise that found him leading a wave of rappers dubbed “Beast Coast” and recording acclaimed mixtapes such as 2012’s 1999. We talked with the artist about landing a plum role in one of the hottest TV shows of the summer, how a high school play about John Cusack prepped him for the experience and why you won’t see him in the forthcoming Barack Obama biopic.
How did you get involved with Mr. Robot?
There was a casting call. I auditioned for the role of Leon. I got three callbacks, and I was finally casted. That’s pretty much how it happened. My character is basically speaking to the main character in this diner, so it wasn’t hard at all. It’s simple, actually. I just went in the audition and I had my lines memorized, like, literally, five minutes before I walked into the room, because I had no time to rehearse because of my business schedule. And yeah, I just went in there and Sam [Esmail] was right there when I auditioned. I had him laughing from the very moment that I started doing my lines. I was pretty confident after that.
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When did you meet Rami Malek?
First time I met him was on the first day that we shot. That was in March. The first day I shot, I had scenes with him and Christian Slater. For me, it was like, they set the bar high. It was a little bit of pressure on me because I’m like, “Wow, I’m right in between these two amazing actors. I’ve got to be great in their presence.” But they gave me a lot of confidence and pointers. They made me feel comfortable so I could do what I had to do.
Have you done any acting prior to Mr. Robot?
Yeah, briefly in high school. I got accepted into my high school theater, so I was in a couple of plays and productions. And that’s pretty much it for my acting history. I went to Edward R. Murrow. Basquiat also went there, and Adam Yauch, and then also Joey Bada$$ attended that school. [Laughs]
Which high school plays were you in?
I was in this one play that was written by one of the upperclassmen. At the time I was a freshman. It was called John Cusack Is Not a Famous Actor. It was a pretty cool play, actually. I was also in one of the upperclassmen’s rendition of Alice in Wonderland.
John Cusack is Not a Famous Actor is a weird title.
Yeah, it was super funny. That play was super funny, man. It was weird and random, actually, but it was dope. It really wasn’t about anything, to be completely honest. It was, like, John Cusack living through his life with, like, a lot of weird, random shit happening to him. It made no sense, but it was hilarious. There’s no way for me to actually explain it to you.
Is acting something you have wanted to pursue? You’re obviously well known as a rapper.
Yeah. I pretty much auditioned to get into Edward R. Murrow. Acting was what I was set to do. Every school that I applied for, I had to audition to get inside because I wanted to be part of the acting programs in those schools. By the time I was 14, 15, I was really committed to becoming an actor. It was just that when I got to Edward R. Murrow, I met all the guys from my [Pro Era] crew, and we were all so interested in music. So I realized in high school that music is my calling.
“By the time I was 14, 15, I was really committed to becoming an actor.”
I decided that, if music works out, acting will be relatively more easy. I could just use music as a leverage to get into acting. ‘Cause, especially coming out of New York City, there’s so many people trying to get into acting, just like there’s so many people trying to get into music. It’s almost like the same amount of people in the pool of it, you know. So if one is taking off already, I just decided I’d rather use that one to leverage to get to the other one. But they’re both things that I’m really passionate about. Of course, music being my number one, but I’ve always been passionate about acting.
Have you auditioned for any shows or movies before Mr. Robot?
Yep. I actually was casted for this film titled Barry, which is about the early life of Barack Obama. But I couldn’t do it because I had to do Coachella. The week that they wanted to shoot was the week that I had to play Coachella. So I missed out on the Obama movie for Coachella. That’s one hell of a story to tell. You’re the first person I’ve ever told that to in a public space.
Were you slated to play Barack Obama?
Naw, I was supposed to be his best friend. I was the guy who was supposed to show him the projects, and show him how black people was living in America at the time.
Going back to Mr. Robot, were you a fan before you joined the show?
No, I did not know about the show until I auditioned for it.
What are your impressions of it? It’s such a unique show. It’s very dystopian.
I loved it off the top: The whole conspiracy theories, overthrowing the government, hacking everybody’s computers. I loved it. Off top, I was like, “This show is tight!” It’s like a new-age show, and I love that about it.
But you didn’t actually watch it until you became part of the show.
Yeah, I didn’t know about it until the audition, and then I did all my research. Coincidentally, they just won the Golden Globe [for Best Television Series – Drama] two days prior to the audition, so that gave me more energy to be into it as well. I was like, “Oh, shit, they beat Game of Thrones?” All of my friends watch Game of Thrones, so this show must be something, you know? That really got me excited.
What are some of the methods you used to prepare for the role of Leon?
I just rehearsed my lines over and over. I had to watch a lot of Seinfeld because my character is really in love with that show. What else? I watched the whole first season to know what was going on and where we was at. That’s pretty much it.
Obviously no one’s seen the second season yet. Can you talk about the relationship Leon has with Elliot in the show?
Leon becomes a new friend of Elliot’s. He really likes Elliot, and he really thinks he should look out for Elliot. That’s all I can tell you without getting in trouble.
On the show, Elliot doesn’t talk to anybody – except for the imaginary Mr. Robot. How is Leon able to get through to him?
Leon is just different. Elliot pretty much doesn’t talk, but Leon is really talkative. So I guess that’s where the relationship works. Elliot can sit there and just listen to this guy just babble off about a whole bunch of random stuff, including Seinfeld. So they build a dope relationship over Leon talking and Elliot listening.
Turning to your music career, you just released a new single, “Devastated.” It’s starkly different from the other music you’ve released.
During the making of this song, I wanted to give people something different from the rest of my catalog, and something more uptempo. My main objective was to give people a feel-good, uplifting song, ’cause a lot of music in my catalog is really introspective or meditative, critical-thinking type of vibes, or really aggressive type of vibes. So I wanted to switch it up and give my fans something new, like something they can listen to and feel good about. Something that you could play for the whole world – you know, kids, grandmoms, everyone. Something that everyone could relate to.
I thought it was interesting how you were scheduled to perform at this year’s Hot 97 Summer Jam, and they put you on the second stage [before the second stage performances were canceled due to weather]. Yet your 2015 album B4.Da.$$ debuted at Number Two on the Billboard 200 chart. It seemed like you should have been on the main stage.
Yeah, right? That’s what’s up. But it is what it is, man. You’ve just got to keep proving yourself in this world, and me, I’m not one to back down. So I’m gonna do what I got to do to get to where I’m going. I’m a soldier, man. I’d rather be on a stage then no stage at all, you feel me? Sometimes you’ve just gotta just bite the bullet.
What are your thoughts about how urban radio doesn’t support you even though you’re having so much success on the album charts?
It’s a lot of politics in this game, man. To be honest, I really hate politics. But as I grow older and wiser, and I gain more experience from this industry and this music game, I realize the ins and outs of it, and what you’ve got to do to be there and be this and be that. It all comes with growing up and seeing it for what it is. At the same time, I’m independent. So if I could crack the radio system, I win.
You call yourself independent. Do you consider yourself an underground rapper?
No, I don’t. It’s funny, because I don’t consider myself a mainstream rapper, either. They need to make a new term for me. I’m like a major-indie. Yeah, that’s what I am. I’m not underground, I’m not major label, I’m just major-indie.
It seems like you, Chance the Rapper and a few others are pioneering this new category.
Dude, these major-indies are here, man. That’s what it is. We’re “mindies.”
Going back to Mr. Robot, are you a good guy or a bad guy?
I’m a good guy, man. I’m one of the good guys, for sure. But who knows, man? Stay tuned for the plot twists.