‘Mr. Robot’: Inside TV’s Hacktivist Breakout Hit
On the second floor of a warehouse-turned-office in industrial Brooklyn, through a glass door marked EVIL CORP, the man behind last year’s most inventive, cinematically dazzling, mind-fucking new show is hard at work on a gorgeous Sunday. “Sorry it smells like Mexican food,” Sam Esmail says. “We had burritos for lunch.”
The tall, bookish Esmail, 38, is the creator of Mr. Robot — the hacker-themed techno-thriller that came out of nowhere (the USA Network, of all places) to become 2015’s breakout hit. With its high-wire plot about a group of Anonymous-like hackers called fsociety plotting to take down global capitalism, the show didn’t just borrow from the headlines, it often predicted them — like when Mr. Robot‘s protagonist, the brilliant-yet-troubled cyber-vigilante Elliot Alderson, hacked into someone’s Ashley Madison account, and then a few weeks later, the website was hacked for real.
For Season Two, which premieres July 13th, Esmail is hoping to satisfy towering expectations with a storyline that dives deep into mental illness and economic revolution. But this year, he’s signed up for an even trickier undertaking: directing the entire season himself. It’s a feat of auteurship that’s not unprecedented in prestige TV (see True Detective, The Knick), but those directors weren’t also co-writing every episode. Esmail says it’s actually more efficient to direct himself, because he’s such a control freak — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In January, when Mr. Robot took home the Golden Globe for best TV drama — upsetting ratings juggernauts such as Empire and Game of Thrones — Esmail celebrated with a milkshake with his fiancée (actress Emmy Rossum), then flew straight back to New York to rejoin the writers room. “I don’t know when I’m going to crack,” he says, laughing. “It’s looming.”
Rami Malek, who stars as Elliot on the show, says that when Esmail laid out his Season Two plans for him, “My first response was, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ Sam was like, ‘It may fall flat on its face. But I think it’s going to work.'”
The show — which also stars Christian Slater as the titular Mr. Robot — was inspired by the 2008 financial crisis and the Arab Spring. Esmail initially conceived it as a movie, but when he got to page 90 of his script and hadn’t even finished the first act, he decided to rework it for TV instead. He shopped it to the AMCs and HBOs of the world, but, he says, USA was the only network that offered to make Mr. Robot exactly how it was. Esmail suspects executives were put off by the show’s darkness and interiority (the main character is a mentally unstable, morphine-addicted loner who often cries himself to sleep), along with the fact that — as he heard more than once — “people on keyboards aren’t interesting.”
And then there’s that title, which sounds like a goofy Eighties android buddy comedy. “Everybody was like, ‘Really? You want to go with that?'” Esmail says. “But I was pretty stuck on it. I remember growing up in suburban New Jersey, and all the computer stores were like, ‘Motherboard Mayhem’ and all these cheesy names. I just felt like it was the perfect vibe for this.”
Much about Mr. Robot was inspired by Esmail’s early life. “I was pretty much an outsider,” he says. “I’m Egyptian, and my parents stupidly decided to move us down to South Carolina when I was five, which was pretty brutal. I got called ‘sand nigger’ all the time — to the point I didn’t even know it was a slur. I just thought, ‘That’s who I am.'” Even after moving back to New Jersey in high school, Esmail still got beaten up a lot. “People thought I looked weird, that I talked weird. My parents were very strict Muslims, and they weren’t shy about showing it. I wound up bonding way more with my black friends, because I had a sort of kinship with them that I didn’t have with white people.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the show’s subject matter, Esmail is also a lifelong computer nerd who used to do much of his socializing on “this rudimentary text-based BBS [bulletin board system],” pre-Internet. At age nine, he got a Commodore 64 and would “copy programs, and all those things you’re not supposed to do with a Commodore 64.” He started writing his own code a few years later, but says he wasn’t any good at it: “I could come up with ideas for software. But to actually sit and write every bit of code, every command — I just didn’t have the patience.”
Lucky for Esmail, he was also a budding movie geek who, at age 14, organized a sleepover to watch every Stanley Kubrick movie. At NYU, he majored in film and minored in computer science — a fitting preview of what he’s doing today. After graduation, he started a Web company called Portal Vision, which built software for Internet service providers that was easy to use like AOL (this was in 1998), then licensed it to AOL’s competitors. “We raised $6 million, and I ran the company for two years,” Esmail says. “And then, in 2000, we went bust with the crash.” He went back to film school, directing his first indie feature, Comet, in 2014. Around the same time, he started writing Mr. Robot.
“A lot of people, when they read [the script], said, ‘Why don’t you do it as a movie that ends with that reveal?’ I wanted to do more of the aftermath: What do you do when you become aware that you have this disorder?”
—Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail
In addition to the computer stuff, some of the show’s darker elements come from Esmail too. “One of the big things in my life that overlaps with Elliot is that I have tremendous social anxiety,” he says. He mentions a scene in which Elliot stands outside a bar during a friend’s birthday party, watching through the window but afraid to go in. “I did that same thing — I would get all the way there, then leave,” he says. He also says Elliot’s addiction to morphine — which the character uses to self-medicate — was pulled from his own life. “There’s a loneliness [to anxiety], and with that comes a lot of pain,” Esmail says. “I lucked out and was able to quit cold turkey — I didn’t have to go to rehab. Whatever makeup I have, I’m grateful I can turn it off.”
A couple of mornings later, the Mr. Robot crew is in midtown Manhattan to film a scene for the Season Two premiere, in a fancy hotel suite overlooking Times Square. (Vice President Biden is staying here, and it took a while for the Secret Service to check everything out.) Esmail — perched on his director’s chair in the same jeans and black hoodie he had on two days earlier — calls “Action,” and three actors playing Evil Corp executives launch into a tense conversation about digital encryption and ransomware that suggests the fsociety hackers aren’t finished with them yet.
Robot‘s first season (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet) ended with fsociety successfully hacking Evil Corp and erasing millions of dollars in debt, while sending the international financial system spiraling toward collapse in the process. This season, which Esmail promises will be “darker,” opens 30 days later, with the world still struggling to process the shock waves. “We’ve pulled the trigger, and the bomb has gone off,” Esmail says. “The reactions and consequences will go all over the place.”
“What this show does that’s so cool is that we create this whole financial meltdown and revolutionize society, but we also deal with the fallout,” Malek says. “It’s not like one of these superhero movies where an entire patch of New York gets blown up and no one has to clean up the rubble. Sam is asking, ‘Who’s going to clean up the rubble?’ “
Meanwhile, Esmail promises that the central twist of Season One — that Mr. Robot is just a figment of Elliot’s imagination, a hallucinatory projection of his long-dead father — is a mere jumping-off point. “A lot of people, when they read [the script], said, ‘Why don’t you do it as a movie that ends with that reveal?'” he says. “That wasn’t interesting to me. I wanted to do more of the aftermath: What do you do when you become aware that you have this disorder? There must be a lot of denial and shame and self-loathing. So that’s what Season Two is all about: watching Elliot figure out, A) can you live with this? And B) if you can’t, then what do you do about it?”
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