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'Mr. Robot': On the set of USA's new hacker drama

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Right now it’s easier to find a realistic dragon on television than it is a believable hacker. Since the ’90s, the bespectacled computer whizzes have been a TV staple, available whenever a password needed cracking or a file required decrypting. But as hacking scandals like Sony’s massive digital break-in continue to make headlines, isn’t it time for pop culture’s cybercriminals to grow up?

Mr. Robot creator and executive producer Sam Esmail thinks so. His new show follows Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a do-good hacker hero with a morphine habit who works at a cybersecurity firm protecting major corporations during the day, but then teams up with the Anonymous-like collective known as fsociety and its mysterious leader, the title character played by Christian Slater, on the side.

“As much as I love Hackers for being fun-bad, it’s not really a great movie,” Esmail, a self-described “techie nerd,” says. “With minor exception, [on-screen hackers] have been pretty much a fail to me.” Those frustrations—plus the recent media-fueled social upheaval in Egypt— served as Esmail’s inspirations for the corporation-toppling operations that Elliot and fsociety pull off together. And while the hacks are dramatically heightened, they’re also entirely based on real technology.

The call for authenticity on Mr. Robot extends beyond the hacking. As I saw when I visited the set in New York City’s Silvercup Studios, the production crew has meticulously recreated actual locations from the pilot, including a Coney Island arcade and Elliot’s Chinatown apartment building, where Malek and Slater perform a scene from the series’ sixth episode. It’s a relatively rare sight for the top-billed actors, as Malek and Slater don’t share the screen that often. Given his character’s secretive nature, Slater doesn’t appear on the show as often. (“I’m not complaining. I think it’s frickin’ fantastic,” Slater says. “The wife and I are very happy about it.”) But the chemistry between them is apparent as they run through the lines. “We just connect with each other,” Malek says. “It sounds crazy. You can have this dynamic with your female love interest, but I have it with Christian Slater.”

Watching the scene play out on the monitors, it’s easy to forget which network Mr. Robot is airing on. Everything from the moody cinematic lighting to the scripted f-bomb Slater drops suggests a darker atmosphere than the network’s string of rompy “characters welcome” hits in the early 2010s. The most noticeable difference is Malek, who plays Elliot as a fiery (but well-intentioned) near-sociopath, hiding behind the veil of a morphine addiction. Malek’s wide-eyed intensity on camera, however, gives away to a funnier, quieter wide-eyed intensity in between takes. He speaks in a hushed, sly voice, as if he’s got a secret he shouldn’t share but does anyway, and listening to him describe his character’s hacking abilities, it’s hard not to take him seriously.

“Elliot is more powerful than needing to grab a gun. Elliot can do a Sony hack. He can do an Entertainment Weekly hack,” Malek says as I nod and delete emails.