When Mr. Robot debuted back in June, the show was pitched as a ripped-from-the-headlines techno-thriller, with the return of Christian Slater to TV as its main attraction. Now, two months and 10 episodes later, the USA network has an unlikely hit on its hands: a visually striking, subversive, and often surprising drama about the dehumanizing effects of our corporate-controlled, internet-addicted modern world. And a lot of the credit for the show’s out-of-left-field success belongs to the man who plays the series’ troubled hacker hero — the 34-year-old character actor Rami Malek.
After a decade of popping up in memorable supporting roles in everything from A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian to The Master and the HBO miniseries The Pacific, Malek is finally getting a chance to prove he can be more than just the intense-looking guy on the edge of the screen. As Elliot Alderson, he has the responsibility of holding down the center of a tricky story, about a drug-addicted, antisocial genius who may be plotting with a team of cyber-rebels to bring down the global financial system — and may or may not be able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. (The first season’s finale will air on Weds, September 2nd.)
Getting the lead in an unexpectedly popular cable series is a long way from where the Egyptian-American actor was a decade ago, when he was staying up all night in his family’s cramped apartment to stuff resumés and head-shots into envelopes. “I heard ‘no’ a lot back then,” Malek laughs. “But like my dad would always say, ‘This kid’s tenacious.'”
According to Mr. Robot‘s creator Sam Esmail, that tenacity has turned his show into a true collaboration. Even before they shot the first episode, the two men had marathon conferences in restaurant booths, where they picked over every aspect of Elliot, hashing out the origins of his crippling social anxiety and his connection to Slater’s mysterious, anarchic title character. The showrunner says that throughout production, the two words he heard most often from his star were, “Let’s talk.”
“I’d lived with Elliot for so long that I knew a lot of little details that I never thought an actor would want to know, necessarily,” Esmail says. “But Rami couldn’t ask enough questions. Some of things he asked I’d never thought about before. But I knew the answers. It was strange.”
Malek didn’t just confer with the writer-producer, either. On the set he had long conversations with cinematographer Tod Campbell, asking what lenses were being used and which camera angles were being employed for each shot. He’s taken a similar approach to Mr. Robot‘s many voice-overs, which are an essential part of the overall design of the show; Malek has always had an earpiece, and an assistant reading the script to him in a low whisper, in order to carry Elliot’s thoughts with him in his performance. “There’s something about having a voice in your ear at a low decibel,” he explains. “It creates some type of mental reverberation. It alters the way my eyes move. I notice the difference.”
For Esmail, working with someone as diligent as Malek requires more than a little finesse, especially given that a lot of Mr. Robot has been about what the main character does not know. But the producer says he’s trusted his star with most of the show’s big twists from the beginning…even (spoiler alert) the revelation that Elliot’s hacking co-conspirator Darlene is actually his sister, and that Slater’s “Mr. Robot” is an imaginary version of their late father. The showrunner’s feeling is that his star should know what’s-what — not just to keep from making choices that derail the story, but also because deep down, the character knows these things, even if he’s too disoriented to remember them.
“It raises some pretty dark questions about the world we live in,” Malek says of the show’s wobbly-reality tone and plot twists. More importantly, he excited to be working on “one of the finest shows on television…it feel like it’s bleeding out of the screen,” which may explain why it’s captured the attention of people who don’t ordinarily tune in to USA. It doesn’t look or feel like anything else on TV — and with his sunken eyes, sharp jaw, and deep, halting voice, neither does its star.