'Mr. Robot' Lead Rami Malek Isn't Your Typical Leading Man (And He Likes It That Way)

by Philiana Ng 8:15 AM PDT, June 24, 2015
Photo: USA Network

Rami Malek, star of USA Network’s hacker drama Mr. Robot, doesn’t fit into a box – and it’s just the way he likes it.

The 34-year-old actor has quietly amassed a resume sprinkled with critical hits (Short Term 12, HBO's The Pacific), mainstream successes (Fox's 24) and blockbusters (the final Twilight film). He's played every role imaginable, from an ancient Egyptian pharaoh in the Night at the Museum trilogy to a loyal member of a cult religion in The Master. But it's Mr. Robot that may propel Malek to the big time.

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Mr. Robot centers on Elliot (Malek), a high-functioning cyber-security technician at Allsafe Security who moonlights as a vigilante hacker. Elliot, who has a social anxiety disorder, finds himself at a crucial crossroads when Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the mysterious leader of an underground hacker group, recruits him and offers him the chance to destroy the conglomerate he is paid to protect (and the powerful CEOs he believes are ruining the world).

Mr. Robot is already resonating with audiences. More than a month before its debut, the drama – eliciting comparisons to The Social Network in tone and reminiscent of AMC's Rubicon – took home the Audience Award at South by Southwest, an early sign USA had something special.

"It speaks to how proud we are of what we have on our hands, how special, unique and riveting the story is," Malek tells ETonline of the show's strong reception. "Viewers will straight-up dig it.”

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Ahead of Wednesday’s official premiere, ETonline caught up with the actor as he waxed poetic about the intricacies of human connection in a tech-reliant world and why superheroes aren’t the only heroes worth rooting for.

ETonline: What initially drew you to Mr. Robot?

Rami Malek: It’s something everyone can connect with at this time – wanting to do something courageous despite the situation that they find themselves in. At the base level, Elliot is a really complicated, multi-layered human being who is struggling with his life. He’s emotionally troubled and conflicted, and people can relate to that in today’s society no matter what their age or their gender, wanting to do something about who they are and the society they live in. It’s a story about how we connect to one another and how we’re not connecting. How technology is driving us apart or is it allowing us to better communicate? These are questions we’re all asking ourselves.

ETonline: The show is timely in that sense – we seem to be more disconnected even though we’re “connected” via the Internet and other forms of technology. Is Mr. Robot commentating on that aspect of society and using Elliot as the mouthpiece?

Malek: Yeah, the show has a lot to say about the society we live in and the corruption. It’s not all a crazy diatribe about the [world] we live in but it definitely asks questions. The idea of us being disconnected or connected is something that comes up quite a bit on the show. It asks the viewer as a whole to step out from behind their phone and their monitor and go outside. Going outside is kind of like looking in the mirror now than just staring at your social media sites and seeing your life through that screen.

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Photo: USA Network

ETonline: In the first episode, we learn a lot about Elliot’s perspective on the world through his internal dialogue. What intrigued you about him and is he still a mystery to you?

Malek: There’s a very blunt aspect about Elliot that I really gravitated to. In one instant, you get everything he’s thinking about in his head and you know when he’s lying because he just told you the exact opposite. But there are other times when he says things like “I’m OK with it being awkward between us,” which is something that I found audiences – when we screened it at South by Southwest and Tribeca – laugh at because it’s something we all want to say and Elliot is the vehicle for that. This guy is relatable. He isn’t someone wearing a tight leotard or skin-tight superhero costume, and that is all something we can all get down with. He’s inspiring because he looks like one of us.

ETonline: You mentioned superheroes. Is Elliot the everyday “hero”? Is that what he is building to?

Malek: Elliot’s on a search for connectivity with human beings, to try to connect with people on a very human level. As basic as that sounds, that’s incredibly difficult for him to achieve at this very moment in his life. In doing so, there are some heroic aspects on a basic human level that come out of that. In the grander scheme, he’s going to try to take down a society that he sees as corrupt and in doing so, some of his actions will really wreak havoc on people he cares about and at other times, will do a lot of good.

ETonline: Elliot has a unique dynamic with Christian Slater’s character Mr. Robot, the leader of the underground hacker group who recruits Elliot to help take down the multinational corporations. What can we expect between them as the series moves on?

Malek: Mr. Robot is the catalyst for getting Elliot to do these audacious things he wants him to do, things that Elliot might not be able to on his own or have the wherewithal to do on his own. They have a very up-and-down relationship. It’s very much working through things together, learning from one another, hating one another. It’s another one of Elliot’s many complicated relationships, but Mr. Robot can, at times, inspire Elliot to go beyond what he thinks he is capable of. But he can also push him in really pointed ways. (Laughs.) It’s one of those relationships where you really know how to push the other’s buttons to get them to do something, as all of our complicated relationships are – it’s a marriage of sorts.

ETonline: What’s your elevator pitch to those not familiar with Mr. Robot yet?

Malek: It’s a very timely, unique, cool psychological thriller for a controversial period of time that we live in that tackles a lot of social issues, like technology and the effects of technology today, and the effects it has on human relationships.

ETonline: Mr. Robot doesn’t feel like the typical USA show…

Malek: That’s the other thing. USA is really allowing us, the writers, [creator] Sam Esmail to push the envelope with the show and I think audiences are really yearning for something different. As Elliot says in the show, “I’m very different,” and so is the show – but in a very good way.

Mr. Robot premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. PT/ET on USA Network.

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