Described as The Social Network meets Occupy Wall Street, USA’s Mr. Robot (airing Wednesdays at 10/9c) has, in just a couple of short weeks, become one of the hottest techno-thrillers on TV. Starring Christian Slater in the title role of an anti-corporate anarchist leader who seeks to recruit young Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) as the latest member in his band of vigilante hackers known as “F Society,” the show offers compelling, ripped-from-the-headlines drama in which information is the most valuable form of currency and those who control it the world’s true superpowers. Slater, Malek, and creator Sam Esmail recently spoke with us about Mr. Robot‘s inspirations and influences, and whether or not hacking is the police genre of the twenty-first century…
On Mr. Robot’s manipulation of Elliot…
Christian Slater: I think he is being seductive and maneuvering him into this F Society organization, absolutely.
Sam Esmail: I always look at that F society as a little bit of a cult, and we always talk about the character being ‑‑
CS: David Koresh‑like… He’s recruited these people, and he’s screened them all and found this particular young man and wants to use his skills in order to achieve his end game.
Rami Malek: What better actor to play David Koresh than Christian Slater? [Laughs.]
On the genesis of the show…
SE: Well, I always break it up into two parts… I was always a nerd and a techie when I was growing up. I knew a lot of hackers growing up, and the culture is just so fascinating and compelling. I always thought, oh, there’s some great storytelling to be told here. That’s really kind of when I started to formulate the character of Elliot. There was the passion to say, “I have to tell a story about one of these guys who are just so socially awkward and inept yet are so brilliant and can know the intimate details of everyone’s life.” What a power to give to an antihero like that. Then the flip side to that is I had a lot of frustration when there would be television shows or films about hackers. They were so poorly represented and didn’t really reflect the authentic world that I had seen. It was like a good perfect storm of anger and passion.
On who the character of Mr. Robot is based on…
CS: We did talk about cult leaders and people like that.
SE: We also talked about characters you played. Pump Up the Volume, Harry Hard-on.
CS: Yeah. I guess there is an element of a Hard Harry sort of grown up and hanging out in an ’80s arcade looking to take over the world again. In that, it was a much, obviously, smaller scale, and my equipment was a ham radio.
SE: But that was like the original hacker back in the day.
CS: I guess so. There you go. This generation’s version of that.
SE: What we’re saying is we ripped off Pump Up the Volume. [Laughs.]
CS: That’s correct. Instead of taking over a school, now we’re taking over the world and erasing corporate debt and getting it off the shoulders of the students.
On the show’s social and political influences…
SE: I’m Egyptian, so I went to Egypt right after the Arab Spring. I would say that definitely was one of the inspirations for the show, because the whole Arab Spring was about this angry youth that was just fed up with their world and their society, and the leverage that they had over this sort of controlling older generation was technology, and they used that. They channeled that anger into something really positive and productive and really made a difference. It’s the reason why the hacker group is called F Society. It’s that sort of angst that Elliot has, that youthful angst, that revolutionary spirit, which is really kind of the heart of the show.
On the show’s use of voiceover…
SE: The VO is just a whole other dimension and character in and of itself, and we will be hearing a lot more of those thoughts. I’ll probably write a lot more. You’ve got to remember, also, he has a relationship with us. He’s talking to his imaginary friend which, basically, is the audience. So, yeah. That’s a huge important aspect of the show.
On whether or not hacking is the new police genre…
SE: To me, a great show isn’t about the genre. It’s not about whether or not they’re cops or lawyers or doctors or whatever. It’s really about the characters and how compelling are they and what they want and how they’re going about it. Hacking, in terms of our show, has become the buzzy thing because it is so relevant and it is so timely.
I have to say I hope it doesn’t become a genre. Because when it’s done poorly, in that procedural way, I guess I should say, it becomes really reductive. Because, to me, hacking is really about the social engineering aspect of it. It’s about [how] Elliot hacks this guy because he asks him to borrow his phone or he reads people and can find ways into a system or a network or whatever. So it really isn’t about a guy sitting at a computer and corny graphics flying around, which is often times what it gets turned into in Hollywood.
So for that sake, I hope it doesn’t become a genre, but I will say this… There is a genre of literature called the techno‑thriller, where technology is kind of embedded. Even techno‑dramas, where technology is sort of like a commentary on how technology in society are mixed up, and you see that in shows like Black Mirror, and that I definitely encourage, and I would say we fall more into that genre than the other.
RM: We address great communication verses great loneliness. There’s that topic as well. Is the way we communicate with one another and the advances in technology allowing us to get closer or is it pulling us further apart? I think that’s something that the other shows don’t acknowledge as much as we do.
CS: It’s Elliot’s journey. It’s a human story, and it’s his emotional journey.
SE: At the end of the day when you watch a movie and it resonates with you… You don’t remember Elliot at the server farm and the code. I hope to God you don’t remember that. Hopefully you remember him.
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