USA Network isn’t the USA Network you know. Not anymore. Not after “Mr. Robot” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, taking home an audience award before screening at the Tribeca Film Festival and SeriesFest and getting a sneak peek online for anyone with an internet connection. The thriller from creator Sam Esmail bucks just about every association viewers have made with the NBC Universal cable network, ditching the blue skies and episodic storytelling for black hoodies cloaked by night and a gripping, serialized character study.
At its center is Rami Malek, a name you may not know yet but a face you’re sure to recognize — and remember liking. Malek, despite his young age of 34, has appeared in everything from critically-acclaimed miniseries (“The Pacific”) to breakout indie darlings (“Short Term 12”) to big-time studio blockbusters (“Battleship”). Now, he’s taking his talents to USA, a decision he had to deliberate on before signing. Below, Malek speaks with Indiewire about going to acting school in Southern Indiana, how he made an anti-social hacker empathetic, and why he’s so glad to have made the leap with his new series — especially on USA.
I saw that you went to the University of Evansville for college, and that’s where my mom spent a lot of time as a kid, as did I. You grew up here in L.A., so what made you choose the University of Evansville?
I really wanted to get out of Los Angeles. It’s all I kind of ever knew. I loved it, but I had a love-hate relationship with it at times.
I just wanted to get the best education, I thought, from a theater standpoint. I went to Chicago, I went to New York and as much as I loved those cities — I really do — I wanted the best program. I went to a play there; I saw “The Merchant of Venice.” They’re doing Shakespeare in Southern Indiana, in this tiny school, and they were killing it. So as much as I didn’t want to go to Southern Indiana, forgive me, I ended up having a blast and met some incredible friends, got a great education. I’m so happy that I did.
A lot of people feel that they need to go to a school that is hooked into the industry, and I would guess that the University of Evansville is more about the art itself than being an industry-driven system. Do you just feel your education would help you get work later?
Look, I’ll be quite honest: I don’t know if school is for everyone. In a lot of ways it helped incredibly, [but] there’s some habits that I had to break that I learned in school. For me, it was always about developing my craft, and I knew if I had that the rest of it would be handled on its own. I wasn’t necessarily looking to go to a school that was connected to the industry.
That’s probably the better choice to make, anyway.
Oh, yeah. What are you depending on after that? You’re depending on someone else.
So, how did you get involved with “Mr. Robot”? How’d you first hear about it, and what was the process like?
I got my hands on it from my agent. He wanted me to read it, and said it was really good. Soon as I read it, I knew that I had something special in my hands. Sam Esmail wrote a phenomenal script and a majority of that takes place in the mind of Elliot, a very complicated mind — a relatable one, a dangerous one, a lonely one. I wanted to be a part of the inner-workings of that. I felt like I may have had some skills that would have allowed me to bring him to life in a way that he deserved to be.
That actually was one of my big questions because if you look at him on paper he’s an anarchist, he’s very anti-social and he has kind of a pessimistic bent. When you watch him and your portrayal of him, he’s very endearing. Was there something that you just connected with to help with that, or how did you go about making him so relatable?
At his core, he’s a very lonely guy. He’s suffered a very tragic loss, and he’s grieving. I thought everybody could connect to that on some level. Who can’t connect with going home and bawling their eyes out after a long while? There’s a lot of pain we all share, and once you get close enough to say the similarities of that, I just wanted to accentuate that in a way. I wanted to show that this guy’s got a lot of issues, but they stem from things that we all can relate to. He definitely has a very strong opinion on things, but there was something that was so powerful about him transcending all the difficulties he’s had; to not only be opinionated but to want to affect those opinions and put them into play and alter the society he lives in for better or worse. Here’s a guy who, on paper, should not be surviving. Yet he thrives in a certain way; he doesn’t thrive, but he’s able to act still. If it’s fight or flight, the kid’s going to fight.
Everything you mentioned about this character, I felt was very unique to this network, specifically. When you came on board and you knew it was a USA show, did you watch a lot of USA shows? And did that matter to you — the fact that it was on a network that, before this, has put out a very different brand of series?
How am I going to answer this? [laughs] Yeah, quite honestly, I hadn’t been tuning into USA. I know they’re in a period of rebranding, and they’re taking some pretty bold chances, as evidenced by picking up our show. I had the discussion with my agent. I said, “Is this show going to have a big blue sky in it? Is it all going to be gumdrops and rainbows and roses? On paper, it’s nothing like that.” I was assured by a number of people that USA was definitely changing their perspective, and it’s very evident now. They’re taking some risks and they’re very bold, and I’m pretty thrilled to be part of a movement like that — a company that’s in a transition of risk-taking. I think that’s the place you want to be. And we’re on cable. They’ve been exceptional in allowing us freedom. My agent said to me, “If there’s content that you will enjoy, you’re going to find it these days.” He didn’t want me worried too much about that, but I’m proud now to be part of this network for what they’re doing.
It’s easier to see as a TV critic because I’ll see the posters and the trailers and hear a little bit of the buzz, so sometimes I can tell when a show is off-brand or part of a new perspective. But at the outset, when you’re just reading the script, I’d have those same questions you had.
I did ask a bevy of questions as to how this was going to be produced.
And you’ve had a lot of experience over a wide array of mediums. You’ve worked in television before, you’ve worked in indie films, you’ve worked in blockbusters, you worked in kind of a blockbuster miniseries when you were on “The Pacific.” So do you really just boil it down to the character when you’re looking for projects? Do you just say “This is a great character, this is a great opportunity”?
That’s an excellent question, Ben. Early on I wasn’t fortunate enough to be as particular as I am these days, so I did take some roles in blockbusters. There was really no choice at that point, and I have no regrets about that.
You’re talking to a big fan of two of them, at least. I loved “Battleship,” and “Need for Speed” was good, too. So I’m not coming at it from a side of “How dare you do that!”
I get to mix it up. I do definitely balance my judgment on character, of course. “What can I do with the role?” But overall I look at the people that are involved. I look at the writing, but definitely it all boils down to “Is this a role that I want to live in the skin of?” and “Is it complicated enough?” This and playing Snafu in “The Pacific” were two roles that I felt were incredibly dynamic, complicated human beings that I wanted to put everything I had into. I’m going to continue to do that in the future, but I’ve definitely been privileged to have a number of great roles and a wide array of films, television and theater.
Like you mentioned, too, TV is changing a lot these days. Committing to TV is a longer commitment than a movie. So when you were asked to do this show, were you ready to leap back into TV?
I’m fortunate enough right now that scripts are starting to come my way, and it’s something that I knew [if I took it] I would have to pass on — a lot of great things. Was it worth it? For me, it is worth it. Elliot is a rare gift for an actor. He, through the course of this season, will get to do things that I wouldn’t be able to do in four or five different movies. It was an opportunity that I could not pass up, nor did I want to.
What do you see as the biggest difference between doing a big blockbuster film and doing a serialized TV show?
Time constraints. On films you have the liberty of working out the details, the psychology, taking maybe more risks and takes than you can in television just because you can’t be figuring things out on the day. For me, I’m pretty prepared as an actor, and it’s forced me to go beyond that. Other than that, we’re approaching this show from such detailing and a cinematic aspect that it feels a lot like a film. There’s an edginess to our show that is uncharacteristic of primetime television. The way it’s shot, the way it’s directed, the pace of the show, the music; [they] all reflect a really edgy, haunting indie film.
That world that Elliot lives in is such a different world than a lot of us are exposed to. Did you talk to people who kind of live that life, or how did you get into that tech-centric world?
Our creator, Sam Esmail, has a pretty extensive background in that world, so I picked his brain. And then I do what we do these days: On the computer, I went and found any documentary I could that referenced hacking. I watched them all.
Any that helped you out in particular?
I’d have to go back and look at the names again. There’s a BBC one that was really good. I think it was voiced by Kevin Spacey, which made it all the more palatable. So that helped immensely. I watched a lot of interviews of hackers, and I tried to find a common thread between them all and incorporate that into Elliot’s character. but I also wanted him to be unique. I didn’t want him to be the guy in his mother’s basement who has become the way we envision hackers these days. I wanted him to be relatable, and I thought that would come from more investigating his childhood, his upbringing and why he has such animosity for society as it exists today.
That really comes through, too. I couldn’t get over how much information was packed into that pilot, and how much of it was paralleled in your performance, which has a lot of different little mannerisms. Even the way you speak and deliver specific lines is very distinct to this character. Was some of that in the script, or more something you pulled from your own research?
It’s not in the script. What is in the script is maybe his inappropriateness, at times, or he doesn’t conduct himself the way we are supposed to. He deflects quite a bit. He answers honestly, to be frank. He does what we don’t normally do. He’s a master at hiding, but at the same time he’s just blunt. I didn’t want to shy away from that, and I think that helped create a character that was awkward, but at the same time that you could associate with — that you would almost look at and say: As socially inept as he is, there are times when I want to talk the way he does.
Those little truths that he tells are necessary at times, and usually cut through a lot of the stuff we have to put up with in day-to-day society.
He has the ability to be a voice for not only our generation, but ones to come and the older ones as well. In the voiceover, the way it puts you right in his head; he can be doing the exact opposite of what’s going on in his head, but he allows you to get an inside look at what’s going on in his world. I think that could become iconic in a way.
For all of the stuff that he’s going through in the pilot, and obviously he’s still learning and growing, what do you think Elliot’s goal is? What do you think he wants above anything else?
Elliot would like to flourish. I think he’s seeking a home for himself that’s not lonely. He’s seeking a human connection and a way to remove himself from a sense of feeling like a robot, and become more — sadly — normal. He’s seeking all the things that I think we all do to a certain degree: a sense of having a home, a place, that you can come back to and feel a sense of appreciation and love. He’s definitely searching for love.