Mr Robot's world

Mr Robot's world

Tele talk

Mr Robot's world

Unlike most Hollywood attempts, the computer-hacking scenes in TV series Mr Robot are both cinematic and realistic-looking. But they aren’t so easy to shoot.

On the show’s set in Brooklyn (New York), a scene’s makeshift Wi-Fi antenna kept falling over, the screen of a prop cellphone wouldn’t stay lit and, in one fraught moment, a new laptop slid out of its box and crashed to the floor.

“I hope you bought the warranty,” the show’s star, Rami Malek, clad in the signature black sweatshirt of his character, Elliot Alderson, told a producer. Malek swore, exasperated. “I thought I was supposed to be good at this tech stuff!”

Such moments underscore the sweat equity that goes into rendering the taut, remarkably assured world of the series, which was created by Sam Esmail and has returned for its second season.

Unexpected success

Arriving last summer as a grim, haunted curiosity on a network known mainly for dimpled dudes in suits, Mr Robot went on to become one of the most acclaimed shows of 2015. Inspired by real-life movements like Anonymous and Occupy, the tale of anarchist coders waging war on corporate culture was a hacktivist inversion of Silicon Valley cliché: The “fsociety” hooligans of Mr Robot sought to make the world a better place by destroying its financial foundations.

Aside from Esmail, the person most responsible for whether Mr Robot is a one-season wonder or a show with some staying power is Malek. The 35-year-old actor gave a breakout performance as Elliot — a gifted but mentally unstable hacker with social anxiety and a morphine addiction — and is the face of the show in every conceivable way, from posters to point-of-view.

The audience watches the story unfold largely through Elliot’s shifting, unreliable perspective. His high-beam gaze vibrating with intensity one moment and wounded vulnerability the next, Elliot physically manifests the anxious, fractured themes of Mr Robot as explicitly as the boorish, brooding Tony Soprano did for The Sopranos or the slick but troubled Don Draper did for Mad Men.

But unlike those complicated white men, Malek, who like Esmail is of Egyptian descent, embodies a time when television — through shows like Orange Is the New Black, Fresh Off the Boat and Transparent — is finally starting to reflect the diversity and multiculturalism that define American life.

The face of ‘hacktivism’

On an urgently modern show, he is an urgently modern leading man, though the phrase makes him chuckle. “Five or 10 years ago, I would have never been considered for the lead of a show,” Malek said. “Even going into the audition it was like: ‘No way. Ultimately they’re going to go with someone who looks more conventional, someone society would be more accepting of.’”

The new season explores the fallout and fills in some of last season’s blanks — we still, for example, don’t know how the cyber attack actually was handled — as it devotes more of its focus to characters like Elliot’s friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) and his sister and fellow hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin).

Viewers can expect gloomier visuals to signify Elliot’s continuing mental disintegration, Esmail said. In a rare move for television, he is directing every episode, using a block shooting schedule — all the scenes in a given location are shot in a chunk, despite which episode they appear in — more common to feature filmmaking.

Esmail sees the new episodes as the start of the second act of a story he expects to last four or five seasons.

“The Mr Robot reveal wasn’t the ending; it was the setup,” he said.
The real story of the show is Elliot’s journey to resolve a convulsive identity crisis and make some sort of sense of himself.

“The idea of how he’s going to reconcile this relationship with Mr Robot — it’s the title but it’s also the central conflict of the whole series,” Esmail said.

Esmail had never worked in television before Mr Robot, which began as a film script before he decided the complex narrative would work better as a serial. But after auditioning many “great actors” for Elliot, Esmail began to wonder if what he’d written was too caustic to watch at all.

“I thought it was the material and that I would have to start over — it felt like we were getting yelled at by this guy,” he said.

That changed when Malek infused Elliot’s scorn with a warmth and vulnerability that suggested the emotional fragility that is, in effect, the foundation of the show.
“I did not know that’s what he needed until Rami brought it,” Esmail said.

Malek knew nothing about hacker culture before Mr Robot and remains skeptical of what he regards as the phoniness of social media — he once posted photos of himself and other actors onto his Instagram account, only to delete them all. (It remains empty.)

Films and television tend to depict hacking haphazardly at best, and it’s a point of pride for Esmail that any code that appears in Mr Robot is at least rooted in legitimate programming language. Malek stopped asking what any of it means some time ago.

There are easier TV gigs, Malek acknowledged, but “these are the characters that, as an actor, you dream of playing.”

“I don’t think I’ve really come to grips with it,” he said of his burgeoning stardom. “But I’m beginning to realise that yes, something special is going on here.”