Christian Slater looks like a kid on Christmas, even though it’s an overcast March morning. The cast of Mr. Robot has gathered for a second day of preproduction table reads at the show’s Brooklyn production offices, and Slater is all smiles, giddy even. He couldn’t sleep the night before. “Too excited!” he tells me. The gift he’s eagerly anticipating? Final script pages to the new season of the show that earned the Hollywood vet his first Golden Globe just two months prior. His costars seem a bit more reticent, possibly nervous. Maybe it’s the weather, or maybe it’s that by the end of the day they’ll have read through every word (and every surprise) of season 2, and what it holds for the characters. In some cases it’s the first time they’re finding out.
Every aspect of the show (which returns to USA on July 13 at 10 p.m.) is guarded with a layer of fiercely protected confidentiality: Series creator and executive producer Sam Esmail stands at the head of the mass of tables to speak before the read-through begins. He tells the cast that they won’t receive electronic copies of the scripts for the last three episodes of the season. They’re too easily emailed, accidentally or otherwise, so until those final three hours are read aloud, some actors won’t know the fates of some characters. Rami Malek, Mr. Robot‘s star, keeps glaring at the one reporter in the room — a scary sight until I later learn that he’s a known practical joker. “We’re all going to die,” half-jokes Carly Chaikin, who will return this season as Darlene, one of Mr. Robot‘s team of myriad hackers.
The need for secrecy is a champagne problem in the world of scripted television. On top of being a ratings win for the network — it was USA’s most streamed new series in five years — Mr. Robot fostered communities of message-board scribblers and Reddit theorists that combed every frame for hidden meanings and clues as to what, exactly, is real: something Esmail, 38, had always dreamed his show would inspire. “One of my favorite things about TV, which is very different from movies, is the community aspect of it. My friends and I would meet up and watch every episode of Lost together,” he remembers. “Then we would have these hour-long conversations about what that meant and where that story line is going and our theories.”
But not that long ago, Mr. Robot‘s cult following — not to mention winning two Golden Globes and a Peabody Award — was anything but a foregone conclusion. By whatever rubric development execs use to vet TV series, its first season shouldn’t have worked. The pilot introduces “fsociety,” a ragtag group of hackers — who are, as screen criminals go, pretty dopey — led by a possibly psychotic figurehead called Mr. Robot, played by Slater. The show’s hero, Elliot Alderson (the then virtually unknown Malek), is a morphine-addicted loner and unreliable narrator who sets out to take down E Corp, a company he refers to as Evil Corp that is an amalgam of Apple, Lehman Brothers, and Big Brother. When he does speak, Elliot spouts off bitter bons mots about Facebook culture and technologically imposed isolation, often directly to the audience.
The unlikeliness of Mr. Robot‘s success was never lost on Esmail, who with a grin recalls shooting the show’s fourth episode, much of which occurs inside Elliot’s withdrawal nightmare. “I would say, ‘So this is the episode where we’re going to lose half of our viewership and then we’ll get canceled.'”
That, of course, didn’t happen. Everything that made Mr. Robot stand out — Malek’s electrically idiosyncratic performance, the show’s cold-cool visual style — brought the series plaudits from critics and famous fans, including Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof and Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr., who made a personal visit to the set this season. “To have Downey come down and want to see some of the show and hang out is a huge compliment,” Malek says. “I asked him if he’d consider doing anything in season 3, and he didn’t rule it out.”
For Esmail, the road to Mr. Robot‘s success began at the age of 5, when the New Jersey native’s parents took him to see E.T. As the credits rolled, the tot walked out thinking he could do better. “I was an arrogant 5-year-old,” Esmail says with a laugh. After graduating from New York University with a degree in film and television production, he dabbled briefly in the tech world and founded, PortalVision, a software start-up for which he raised $6 million in seed capital before the bubble burst in 2001. Then it was off to study at American Film Institute, where he gained recognition for writing screenplays like his still-unproduced Norm the Movie, about a guy who blacks out after a night of drinking only to wake up in a PG-13 film. It was a start, but not quite enough: “In this town, people did not view writers as filmmakers,” Esmail says. “They’d rather get the hot up-and-coming commercial director or hot and up-and-coming music-video director or a guy who just posted a viral video that looked amazing.”
It was during prep on his directorial debut, Comet, a low-budget, cerebral romance starring Justin Long and Emmy Rossum (to whom Esmail is now engaged), that Esmail began work on what he intended to be his follow-up feature — the story of a hacker who topples the largest corporation in the world.
Like Lost wasn’t just the story of people stranded on an island, Mr. Robot was never going to be just a hacker show. Esmail, who is of Egyptian descent, crafted a story that crashed headlong into contemporary issues — the social upheaval of the Arab Spring, how technology shapes our lives — in a way he wasn’t seeing in pop culture. “Films and TV shows ignore technology,” he says. “They have cell phones and text messages and emails, but the characters aren’t actually reflective of living in a world where you’re emailing and texting as opposed to actually meeting up with people, because of plot machinations.”
Elliot Alderson had to be a real hacker, someone who could realistically navigate the back alleys of the internet as it existed in 2015, the way Esmail did in college, when he wound up on academic probation for what he refers to as his own “poor attempt at hacking.” The character would be just as socially anxious and pissed off, but his cyber-breaking-and-entering would have a purpose. As Elliot explains near the end of season 1, he wants to save the world.
While the Mr. Robot movie took shape and Esmail figured out the beginning, middle, and end of its story, he realized that he had something bigger than a feature. At the same time, the first season of HBO’s True Detective served as proof for him that the medium could be as bold as he wanted for Elliot’s story. “I loved that show,” he says. “The look of it was very cinematic. It felt like a feature, in all honesty.” Fortunately for Esmail, networks were hungry for prestige dramas — Emmy darlings like Mad Men or Breaking Bad — and USA snapped up Mr. Robot based on the pilot script and series bible. Esmail the filmmaker unexpectedly found himself in the world of TV.
Before Mr. Robot, Rami Malek belonged to one of two very different hemispheres of the film industry, depending on whom you asked. Either he was the breakout of respected cinema like Short Term 12, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and The Master or he was that guy from blockbuster franchises that keyed into his Egyptian heritage like Twilight and the Night at the Museum movies. After Mr. Robot premiered, Malek became more recognizable than ever before. “I’ve never been the guy who gets stopped on the street,” the 35-year-old says. “It’s shocking to see your face up on a billboard or a bus stop. I’ve asked that my face not be used for the season 2 campaign, but I don’t know how many of my prayers will be answered…to the chagrin of my agents and managers.”
Like the series itself — which unflinchingly presents graphic S&M sex scenes, extended sequences performed entirely in Danish and Swedish, and BD Wong as a transgender woman — Malek offered an alternative to what audiences had grown used to expecting from lead actors. Elliot doesn’t look like, sound like, or think like anyone else on TV. One moment he can be nearly invisible, his heavily lidded eyes cast downward, mumbling in monotone, and then explode with searing anger in the next. Malek could hit each of those levels with uncanny believability, but more than anything, he embodied the uniquely modern strand of loneliness that Esmail set out to capture with Mr. Robot. “If it’s the 12th take and it’s still not right and it’s 2 a.m. and the crew hates us, Rami and I are still going to go for that extra take because we want it to be the best it can be,” Esmail says. “I just consider him a co-creator.”
Away from set, Malek only resembles Elliot in his husky voice and wide-eyed stare. He’s playful and dry — and quick with a conspiratorial smile — like someone who knows more than he’ll say but doesn’t worry much about hiding it. It’s no wonder that he’s become the target of cast and crew members sniffing around for future story details. “They think that I have all of the secrets and have Sam’s ear, so I must know things,” Malek says. “It makes being on set a much, much sweeter experience when everybody is extra nice to you because they think you have the golden ticket.”
**For all those who haven’t watched season 1 of Mr. Robot, we recommend treading carefully past this point.**
Slater had been a part of the show from the start, but his character’s role raised more than a few eyebrows along the way, including his own. “I read the pilot script; there was nothing specific in there that jumped out at me, but I had a funny sense about it,” Slater recalls. “I remember saying to my agent, ‘I don’t know if this guy is really there.'” It was never clear whether other fsociety members acknowledged their supposed leader. His relationship with Elliot oscillated between adviser and abuser, depending on the episode. By the time episodes 8 and 9 revealed in a seismic one-two punch that, yes, Mr. Robot was Elliot’s father, and no, he didn’t exist outside of the hero’s head, viewers had either their minds blown or their deeply held suspicions confirmed.
For Slater, the big reveal meant finally sharing what thrilled him about his role in the first place. “When Sam told me who the character was and what his relationship to Elliot was, I remember throwing my hands up in excitement,” Slater says. “This wasn’t going to be in any shape or form a paint-by-numbers experience.”
Once season 1 wrapped up, plenty had changed. Fsociety (with the help of inside man–turned–missing person Tyrell Wellick, played by Martin Wallström) had infiltrated Evil Corp and erased all debt. During the attack, the Mr. Robot part of Elliot took control, and now the sane half can’t account for three days. So where does a show go when the finale laid waste to both America’s financial structures and its hero’s grasp on sanity? If the Evil Corp hack and the truth about Mr. Robot made anything certain for season 2, it was that Esmail & Co. couldn’t repeat themselves. “There was the temptation to hold back because this is so different and people really liked the first season,” Esmail says. “[I thought] ‘Maybe we should try to retain those elements for the second season.’ That’s when I knew that kind of thing would get us in trouble.” When Esmail and the cast tried to explain the major differences between the first and second seasons, one word popped up again and again: “darker.”
The second season picks up about 30 days after what has become known as the Five/Nine hack, and Elliot’s in even worse shape. “He’s pretty psychologically f—ed when we start,” Malek says gleefully. The fsociety leader is living in self-imposed isolation at his mother’s town house in Queens, away from computers and in the company of a talkative new friend, Leon (Joey Bada$$), in hopes of sticking to a rigid routine and limiting Mr. Robot‘s control. “Being around his mother, as negative as it has been in the past, allows Elliot to be reminded that he’s had a home and that that world exists,” Malek says. “As bad as it was, there is a world that exists outside of his compromised memory that he can trust.”
With Elliot on the bench, his sister Darlene (Chaikin) has taken over fsociety and its renewed campaign to sink Evil Corp. But as President Obama promises in the trailer, the FBI is on the case, and Agent Dom DiPierro — played by new cast member Grace Gummer — is hell-bent on finding Tyrell Wellick, whom she believes to be their leader.
In a very rare move for a cable series, production has been rejiggered in season 2 to allow Esmail to direct all 10 episodes. For the actors, this means shooting scenes from different episodes over the course of a single day, which on any show — let alone Mr. Robot — can be disorienting. The trade-off is that Esmail is always around to answer (most) questions.
“There have been moments where I’d look at Rami and say, ‘Do you have any idea what’s going on here? Because I forgot what this means,'” says Portia Doubleday, who plays Elliot’s best friend, Angela. “And he’d be like, ‘I don’t know. Just ask Sam.'”
Though the scheduling gymnastics may require an adjustment period, the effects are already apparent. Two weeks into production, Esmail says the show is “10 times better than the first season,” and that he can’t imagine not directing the rest of the series (possibly with a longer break between seasons if he gets his way). And the new arrangement is working for Malek, who has learned to trust Esmail beyond any doubt: “When he presented this second season to me, I said, ‘Really? This is where you’re going with this?’ I was a little bit skeptical, and then I thought, ‘Every time you were skeptical of anything in the first season, he proved you wrong.’ I think he’s going to shock a lot of people. It’s as intelligent and risky as the first season.”
Perhaps the biggest change between seasons 1 and 2 of Mr. Robot is the evolving landscape of television at large. At last month’s upfronts, where networks preview their new series, Malek noted the impact of his onetime underdog show. “A lot of the shows have a tinge of Mr. Robot in them,” he says. “Me and Christian were like, ‘Wait, is that our score?… They’re making a girl Elliot, aren’t they? Look, she’s got huge eyes. You can’t tell what ethnicity she is, and she’s trying to save the world in a flawed way.’ Is this going to be the recipe?”
From underdog to top dog in less than a year? Even for fsociety, that’s quite a coup.