At the heart of Mr. Robot — the surprise summer hit (and maybe the most surprising USA series ever) — is Rami Malek, who stars as the morphine-abusing, possibly insane computer whiz Elliot. The 34-year-old actor talks to EW about befriending Christian Slater, staying sane through acting, and the joys of being blindsided.
The reception for the show has been great!
Yeah, we’re kind of floored by it. We always felt like there was definitely something special going on, but the way people have been responding about it, I think that speaks to people being pretty taken by it. I can’t ask for more.
How did you start acting?
I used to spend a lot of time alone as a kid, creating characters and doing voices in my room, and I thought to myself. I’m either going to go absolutely nuts or I’m going to find something to put that energy into. That was the real impetus. I just felt very creative as a kid and wanted to do something with it.
Were there any actors you looked up when you were younger?
I always loved Hanks in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump and watching how versatile he was. That shaped my impression of what someone was able to do. Of course, everything De Niro came up with was always something I was taken by. Guys like Daniel Day and Joaquin now and Phil Hoffman. Guys that could immerse themselves in a role and become an entirely different entity and have so much depth. That’s something I always aspire to do.
You worked with a few of those guys?
When you get to meet them in person and see how different they can be from the roles they’ve played, to watch how deep someone can go as an actor and how convincing they can be. There are guys that I’ve looked up to for who they are and what they do outside of acting, as well. Tom’s been influential in that sense, just how great of a human being he is beyond the work.
When it comes to TV versus indies and studio films, is there a type of project you prefer?
I love film. I’ve always been enchanted by doing film. It’s something I grew up watching — classics and directors I admire — so that’s something I’ve always been passionate about. But today’s TV offers a world where you can play characters that you’re not having the opportunity to on film. That’s something that’s been afforded to me by this show. I get to delve into some of the most creative experience I’ve had as an actor on Mr. Robot. I think there’s a wide opportunity for actors to do that now more so than ever on television.
What’s the biggest challenge playing a complex character like Elliot?
He’s a guy who is incredibly complicated, and he has his faults, and he can go down a really dark rabbit hole every once in a while. So I just try to pull him out of that and not make him an alienating character, but someone who is relatable and has redeeming qualities as well.
How do you react to something off-the-wall like the withdrawal episode?
I get pretty excited when I see something like the withdrawal episode. For me, the challenge is enticing and enthralling, and I have to go to some dark places. As I’ve matured as an actor, I’ve found ways to do that without ending up in that dark, negative mindspace for too long. I’ve discovered that I have the ability to pull myself out when I need to and revert back to a normal life, rather than sinking some really ugly places and feeling trapped in them.
Is it fun when the show goes fully bizarre like that?
It is as long as we keep it grounded, so if you’re doing it for just the sake of doing something off-kilter, it’s not going to make sense, and I don’t think people are going to appreciate it. But when you look at all of the characters and the stretches they take, you allow that to exist because of how grounded they are in their story. The characters have been fleshed out so well that the choices they make, as radical as they are, feel true to what Sam’s created. For an audience, it’s believable. The fact that somethings we do are outlandish and believable speaks to the world that Sam’s created.
How much do you know about where the show is going next season or even years down the line?
I’m not as aware as sometimes I’d like to be. There’s something really great about being caught off-guard every week and not knowing the exact trajectory of my character. The other thing that keeps me from falling off of the edge is knowing that Sam has woven this story that intersects in a way that is finite. You can already start to see that play out as storylines cross over one another.
What is it like recording the voice-overs after the fact?
I try to do it almost immediately after we’re done shooting an episode, so that everything is still fresh in my head. I’ve known that the times where it’s taken a bit longer, it takes me maybe more time than I would like to get to that place. When it’s still fresh, it’s really easy for me to implement, and I really enjoy that aspect as well. It’s fun. You get to convey so much as Elliot, just how he exists on-screen, and then to get into his mind and lend my voice to another aspect of him, it only adds to his depth.
On set you told me that you and Christian Slater really get along. What made you click so well?
With Christian, the first time that we shot a scene together was on the ferris wheel in Coney Island. There was something nice in between takes, just sitting on the ferris wheel talking. We got to know each other. It was just a candid, enjoyable time together. I got to know him more personally, than as an actor, right off the bat. I think that’s why we’ve become so close.
What’s been the twist that shocked you the most?
Getting pushing off the pier. I didn’t see that one coming either. I actually questioned that moment for a while and if that was necessary. I think that was something Christian questioned as well, but I’ve come to realize that Sam’s intentions are always very clear and have a long-term impact. Everything happens for a reason.
What’s coming up for Elliot?
I think it will be interesting watching Elliot try to compose himself and formulate a new plans as his world is crumbling before him.