Don’t let the title fool you: Elliot (Rami Malek), the main character of USA’s new drama, Mr. Robot, isn’t made of steel and chrome. Instead, this socially maladjusted computer specialist is all too human, and his fragile mind is being pushed to its breaking point by what he views as a society shot through with greed and corruption. And who or what does he blame as the root cause of society’s ills? An omnipresent corporation that he’s mentally labeled “Evil Corp.” Enter Christian Slater’s mysterious underground hacker, Mr. Robot, who claims to be capable of bringing the conglomerate to its knees, with Elliot’s help. As conceived by creator Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot is less of a sci-fi movie than a ‘70s thriller with darkly comic flourishes. Yahoo TV spoke with Esmail and Slater to discuss the show’s leading man, hacker culture, and the lasting influence of Pump Up the Volume.
The show has a really compelling mix of dark comedy and paranoid thriller. How did you arrive at that tone?
Sam Esmail: That’s an interesting thing about the show; it’s definitely a drama, but I am taking a somewhat satirical take on corporate politics and corporate intrigue. It’s hard not to do that with some humor, and it’s more entertaining that way, too. If I try to make it too serious, it starts to feel preachy and heady, and that’s not something I want to do. Adding the comedy allows me to have those moments where Elliot rants and raves and it doesn’t feel so overwhelming. It was all done by design — like calling the company Evil Corp is a satirical choice I took on when I wrote the script. If I were to reference something, it would be American Psycho, which is incredibly dark film, but it has really fun, light moments, too.
The humor also extends to casting. The parallels between Mr. Robot and Pump Up the Volume’s Hard Harry can’t be entirely coincidental.
Christian Slater: I think I first heard the Pump Up the Volume talk was when we were in Austin screening Mr. Robot at the South by Southwest festival. I can’t believe that film was more than 20 years ago. At the time, it was pretty crazy material and the technology we had available at the time was a HAM radio, so he was sort of the first blogger, really. He put his thoughts out there in the universe. In that film, there was a corrupt school board and here we’re dealing with a large corporate conglomerate. The enemy has gotten larger, but they still need to me taken down and wiped out. And, hilariously enough, I’m still the guy to do it. [Laughs.]
Esmail: Hard Harry is a huge inspiration for Mr. Robot. It’s fun to write a character like that. He’s the mouthpiece to your id, and it can come off incredibly corny or annoying or whatever if it’s not the right guy. But here I get Christian Slater, who couldn’t be more perfect because he played that part in Heathers and Pump Up the Volume, which were huge parts of my childhood.
Rami Malek has a distinctive screen presence that has helped him stand out in small roles in The Master and The Pacific. What has been the experience working with him in his first lead role on Mr. Robot?
Esmail: We needed a person who could strike that perfect balance of being convincing as an outsider, but also has a warmth that people can relate to. To be frank, we were very worried, because we auditioned a lot of people, and you start doing that thing where you second-guess yourself. Like, did I write the right character? And then Rami came in and blew us away. He elevates it.
Slater: I liked Rami from the first moment I met him. The first scene we shot together was a scene on Deno’s Wonder Wheel at Coney Island. I’d just been hired, and had about two days to get it together. They threw us into that ferris wheel cage, and it was really just me, Rami, a bag of Twinkies and a cameraman. It was very contained and a nice way to start, and I found him to be professional and committed to the project. I ad-libbed and he ad-libbed and we played off each other very well.
How much research did you do into hacker culture?
Slater: Basically, just what’s in the script. But one of the fascinating things about doing a show like this is that it opens doors to a lot of organizations. We did a talk at Google, which was exciting and fun. Sam has some history in that world, certainly more than I do — my history is based in HAM radio. [Laughs.] Going to Google with Sam was like being at Disneyland. What’s exciting is that technology is such a huge part of our world today, and there are a lot of shows made about it, but Sam’s not relying on special effects. He’s doing everything as realistically as possible.
Esmail: I didn’t want to add a sci-fi element to the show back setting it in the near future. Elliot’s antics can happen; people are out there doing it. We’ve said that the show takes place in a slightly alternate reality filtered through Elliot’s perspective.
Does the show have a five-year plan?
Esmail: When I first wrote it, it was with the intention of making it as a feature. I turned it into a pilot, and the first season is really the first act of what the feature would have been. I had an ending in mind for the feature and the series will definitely end the way I envisioned in my head. Along the way, we’re going to figure things out, but we’re building to an ending that I’m very specific about and can’t imagine deviating from. We’re always fixated on getting to the end and we want to do it as efficiently and entertainingly as possible.
Slater: Sam is a fan of shows like House of Cards and Breaking Bad so those are the templates that he’s working from. His plan is to not do an episodic sort of thing where each week we’re taking down a different organization; we’re just taking down Evil Corp, doing everything we can to systematically dismantle it and erase it from society. As tech-y as it is, Sam wants to fill it with as much heart and soul as he can and figure out Elliott’s story.
Mr. Robot premieres June 24 at 10 p.m. on USA.