[Warning: Spoilers through the end of “Mr. Robot” Season 1 below.]
While there’s no denying that the star of Sam Esmail’s “Mr. Robot” is the captivating Rami Malek, there’s also no denying that multiple scenes of USA’s hit summer drama were owned by co-star Christian Slater, continuing a long tradition of playing roles seeped in anarchy.
The season finale, which aired tonight, saw the show enter a brand new world brought about by the actions of hacker group fsociety. But the final episodes also packed a major twist, as Elliot (Malek) was forced to come to terms with the fact that the man known only as Mr. Robot (Slater) was actually a figment of his imagination — specifically, a projection of Elliot’s father, who died many years earlier. Speaking on the phone the day before the premiere, Slater told Indiewire when he guessed that twist, what role he thinks Mr. Robot plays in Elliot’s psyche and what we might expect to see change in Season 2.
So I feel like an easy place to start is this — when did you find out about the twist?
I read the pilot and I just had a funny sense — I kind of went back and forth, like, “Could this…Could they do this? That would be interesting, I don’t know.”
And then I sat down with Sam and Chad [Hamilton] and Niels [Arden Oplev] and we had a nice lunch meeting and I just asked Sam, “Ooh, look, I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes or anything like that, but is this guy really there?” And Sam said, “Do you really want to know?” And I said “Yeah, I think I do,” and he said, “No, you’re not there.”
And I got very excited after that, because I just found it to be a very unusual direction for a television show to go and a character to go and it made me very happy — I was very happy that I’d picked up on it and that Sam and I were on the same page from our first meeting, from day one. So I walked away from that meeting very happy.
Then he filled in some of the other details about the relationship that Mr. Robot has with Elliot, which was extraordinarily helpful because it added into how I would treat Elliot, because the relationship between a father and his son is very unique and very special and runs obviously very very deep, especially for Elliot. So it just sort of changed the tone of how I would deal with him, and in what sort of loving manner would I deal with him, and how much compassion I would have for him.
Yeah, because you have the father-son relationship, but then you also have the whole additional level of how it’s his projection of how the father-son relationship should be.
Right, right, exactly. And it’s it really has become this emotional journey of this tortured and very isolated young man. Which I think is very fascinating because you’re sort of able to get inside Elliot’s mind and try to unravel what’s going on in there and experience what he’s going through and that level of confusion. And for Sam to be able to pull that off and for all of us… The most frustrating thing has been having to keep a lid on it. And keeping quiet and not revealing things and not saying things too soon. Since the show started airing, I’ve been asked this question over and over again — is he real, is he not real — and I’ve been completely unable to comment on it. So this has become a great relief, now that everything is out there in the open.
I’ve seen people, when confronted with that sort of question, they just flat-out lie.
Yeah, which I am not comfortable with. I am also not a great card player. My answer was always “ask Sam.” I put it all on the creator.
If you hadn’t know, if for some reason Sam had buttoned up and refused to tell you until that script came out, how do you think it would have affected your performance?
I think I would have certainly been shocked and… I would have been completely… I don’t know how it would have affected my performance. It probably would have changed it in a lot of ways, just in how I chose to respond to Elliot and how I treated him. I mean, knowing all the long that this was my son, and having a son of my own, and having compassion for him, and how I feel about him, I was sort of able to pull some of those feelings into this particular performance.
You talked about representing a part of Elliot — what part of Elliot do you think Mr. Robot represents?
I think Elliot is a very kind-hearted individual, and I think the relationship between the two of them has a real push-pull to it. Certainly in the earlier episodes. Whenever there is something that Elliot is particularly uncomfortable doing, or scared of, or unsure about, those are moments when Mr. Robot will step in and do what Elliot is maybe not comfortable doing. He’s found a way to detach himself from doing some really questionable things. Necessary things but things that he would, if he was always himself, be unable to do. He’s managed to find a way, mentally, through isolation, to create another part of his personality that can pull the trigger.
And that would be you then?
Mmhmm. I would be the one to pull the trigger.
In terms of that — looking forward to Season 2… Okay, because you’re just going to tell me to ask Sam, I don’t want to ask you what your role is going to be like in Season 2. But I am curious — is there stuff you’re looking forward to evolving?
Definitely. This relationship, it’ll be very interesting to see where it does go and how Sam is going to continue to develop this relationship. After reading Episode 9, I sort of sat back and thought, well, okay, now it’s out there, where do I go? Because I really enjoyed this ride and I’m enjoying this character a lot. So after putting the script down, I sort of had a lot of thoughts about it, and some fear and panic, which forced me into a clearer thinking mode, and I thought, well, who’s the person to call in this situation who may have the answers? And that of course would be Sam.
So we talked about it, and I asked him, and he just said “Listen, Mr. Robot is to Elliot what the Hulk is to Bruce Banner. Whenever Elliot is backed into a corner, or in some sort of uncomfortable or difficult situation, or some area that he feels overwhelmed by, I believe Mr. Robot will come in and either help him, manipulate him, or take over completely.”
Interesting. That gives you a lot of things to potentially play with.
Yeah, it definitely got me excited again. And that’s one of the great things about Sam Esmail, is that he’s not a guy you call and he says “Hey, can I get back to you on this? I need to think about it.” He’s a guy who has an answer ready on deck and it’s an answer that tends to get you very jazzed and excited about continuing.
Yeah, from everything I’ve heard, it sounds like he has a real sense of how this show goes on for seasons. How does that affect the production on set, knowing that there’s this plan behind it?
I think it affects it on every possible level. He was there, I would have to say, 98 percent of the time. And you know when you do a TV show, they bring in a new director every week, and you gotta get to know this new person. You sort of look at that first season as “do I like this director, do I like this director, okay we’ll bring this person back if we get a second season.” There’s a lot of hoopla — there’s a lot of confusion. With this particular situation, so much of that was removed because Sam was there so much of the time, and I’m so grateful that he was there because he was the only one who really knew what we were doing all the time. He’s the only one who has the whole blueprint for the entire story. So there’s nobody else that could possibly have been as knowledgable or informed as he was. And the fact that he was so involved just added to everybody’s performance and the ability to tell a consistent story and have faith that things were going to move in the direction they ended up moving in.
It sounds like this was a pretty different experience from other television you’ve done.
You know, I’ve had some great experiences in television. One experience I loved was working with Adam Goldberg — we ended up getting the opportunity to do two seasons of a show [the 2011-2012 series “Breaking In”] and I’ve always just been a huge fan of his. He’s a guy who I also have to say is a guy who thinks things through. But there are so many elements that have to come into focus for people to even see a show. So I have to definitely take my hat off to USA and how they trusted Sam and were phenomenally supportive from the get-go for his vision. There wasn’t a lot of micro-managing from what I could tell and the way they presented the show I thought was insightful, innovative and new. Putting the pilot out on all these other platforms that we have now today was great. Giving it that opportunity to build some momentum and curiosity I thought was brilliant on their part.
When you talk to people who say they’re watching the show, are they watching it online or are they watching it on traditional television?
You know, from what I understand, what I’ve been told most and what I’ve heard most is that it’s become Wednesday night viewing. That’s what people have come and said to me — “this is my Wednesday night commitment and I’m really enjoying it.”
That’s a really powerful thing these days, actually.
I guess, yeah. It’s highly unusual. The whole experience has been highly unusual. Things that we’ve done on the show have somehow mirrored what’s happening in the world. Which has been unfortunate in a lot of respects because my god, you don’t want the dystopian universe being shown on TV to become the world we’re actually living in.
Definitely. I mean, I watched the pilot this morning, and then I drove to the office listening to the radio talk about the stock market…
Yeah, no, without a doubt. I mean, this show has definitely made me a lot more aware of what’s going on in our world and certainly made my level of awareness greater. So I’ve been paying a lot more attention — and yeah, it’s pretty crazy to watch the final episode of this season and then see how things are kind of mirroring what’s happening in the world. Hopefully we can hold up the mirror to the actual hysteria that’s happening, and have a moment of sanity and take a break from it and realize that this too will pass.
To wrap things up — you mentioned some of the weirder stuff you’d gotten to do over the course of the season. Do you have any particular favorite memory that comes to mind?
I love working with Carly [Chaikin], that’s one of those moments where Elliot really does sidestep his body and it was the beginning of Mr. Robot having that opportunity to really take over and push Elliot aside. And working with Carly was great. And as an actor, it’s always kind of fun to throw some things around and smash things. It was kind of Hulkish and very therapeutic.
That sound very apropos then.