The Summer TV Heartthrob No One Saw Coming
Rami Malek went from "hey, it's that guy" to the breakout star of the season as Elliot Alderson on USA's new hit dark drama.
It turns out the man behind the most socially anxious, self-medicating loner on television is kind of a people person.
Wandering through Chinatown — the neighborhood in which Mr. Robot’s Elliot Alderson lives — the actor who plays him, Rami Malek, has taken it upon himself to defy the unspoken no-eye-contact rule of the New York City sidewalk on this sweltering August afternoon. Mid–photo shoot, he’s decided to approach various passersby and extend his hand.
Some people recognize him and light up — teenagers who stop for a photo, a man who yells his love for USA’s surprise summer hit across the park — while others are bemusedly charmed by this lanky, enthusiastic man with a camera in tow who just wants to say hi.
It’s a nod, Malek says, to his nickname on set, "The Mayor” — which, if you’ve surrendered to the addictively bleak Mr. Robot, is an indicator of all sorts of extroversion that takes a beat to reconcile with the isolated character he plays on the show. Malek may be everyone’s new favorite introvert on TV, but in person, he’s a lot more at home in his own skin.
Mr. Robot is, like fellow summer standout Unreal on Lifetime, a dark blossom of a show on a cable network known for lighter fare. While it’s a drama set in the present day, it has a sci-fi spirit. Its creator, Sam Esmail, is a newcomer with only an indie romance, 2014’s Comet, under his belt. Its most famous cast member is Christian Slater, who plays the title character, but most of the story is carried by less familiar but no less interesting talents, including Portia Doubleday, Suburgatory’s Carly Chaikin, Swedish actor Martin Wallström, and, of course, Malek. It's been a critical hit and a change of pace for USA, a channel known for successful comfort-food dramedies like Suits and Royal Pains and for the perky slogan "Characters Welcome."
But there's nothing cutesy or quirky about Elliot, a cybersecurity technician who has a taste for morphine and hacking everyone in his life, from his childhood friend to his court-mandated therapist, peeking into their private accounts for all the secrets they don't care to share. He likes to play vigilante in his spare time, a tendency that’s escalated as he’s gotten drawn into fsociety, an Anonymous-style hacktivist group that aims to erase the credit record and isn’t afraid of getting rough. He's intensely lonely. He’s not affecting awkwardness, he says the wrong thing often, and more often than that, he doesn’t say anything at all.
Except to us. Elliot unleashes his alienation on the audience in a fourth-wall-breaking voiceover that turns the viewer into his imaginary friend and closest confidant. And while the iron grip he’s had on the story has started to loosen, he’s been an all-consuming but unreliable narrator, the full extent of which we're only starting to understand as Mr. Robot’s first season comes to a close. Things are largely funneled through his point of view, i.e., every time someone mentions the conglomerate Elliot blames for his father’s death, we hear his nickname for it instead — Evil Corp.
The instability of Mr. Robot’s subjective universe has only increased (spoilers ahead, for anyone not caught up) as the season has gone on, until, in the penultimate episode, it was revealed what many of us suspected all along: That mysterious, erratic head of fsociety, played by Slater? He doesn’t exist. He’s never existed, not in the form in which we’ve known him. He’s a delusion who looks like Elliot’s dad and who dwells only in Elliot’s head.
Elliot has been Mr. Robot all along.
Malek isn’t in on every detail of the show’s plan — USA renewed Mr. Robot for a second season before the series premiered — but this is an unveiling he’s known would be coming from the start. He’s aware that it’s the sort of development that requires a leap of faith, even in a series that, from the beginning, established Elliot as paranoid, unstable, and uncertain about the truth. He’s maybe even been a little nervous about it.
“I have to remind myself always that it's a tightrope with him. One episode, you probably want to kill him. And the next episode, I'm sure you feel for this guy,” Malek says later, sitting in the gratifyingly air-conditioned Silk Road Cafe on Mott Street. Elliot may sometimes traipse into the morally questionable territory of a Walter White or Don Draper, but he’s considerably less sure of himself and of his world, to the point of being someone who seems in need of help rather than some grand act of white-hat corporate terrorism.
“My hope is that the audience comes together with Elliot to try to get him back to reality in some way,” Malek says. “I understand that it is hard to watch someone's perspective that is, at certain moments, not real. Or a figment of his imagination. But that's the ride you're on with him — so I guess you gotta take it or leave it.”
He pauses, then leans forward and asks, “You wanna take it with him?”
Mr. Robot is Malek’s first starring role, but it’s hardly the Los Angeles–born 34-year-old actor’s debut. He’s been working for over a decade, as supporting characters that register more than they normally might because of his charisma and because he’s got the kind of face you notice. He stripped down at the office in Need for Speed, played the new hire at the group home in Short Term 12, and was one of Tom Hanks’s community college classmates in Larry Crowne. He’s been a bit of a “hey, it's that guy!”
Speaking about himself and Mr. Robot, he has the careful patience of someone who hasn’t yet gotten ground down by doing press, but who likes to play at some fourth-wall-breaking of his own from time to time. “Does that work?” he asks, after struggling to arrive at just the right term, “empirical” for the opposite of “intuitive.” He also turns to his sister, an emergency room physician visiting from D.C., who accompanied him to the interview, for help with Taylor Swift’s nickname. And after an anecdote involving his eyebrows almost getting sacrificed for a part, he jokes to his publicist, “Am I getting too campy?”
If the gap between the real Malek and the fictional Elliot can feel startling at first (though, the actor admits, Elliot’s paranoia has bled into his life a bit: “I microwave all my electronics now,” he deadpans. “I've had to buy three new computers since this show started”), that just speaks to how thorough a character Malek has brought to screen. Elliot doesn’t feel like a creation, he feels like someone who exists, which is why, as with any performance this absorbing, there’s this instinct to ascribe the character’s qualities to the person playing him.
But Malek actually got his start on a multicamera sitcom, laugh track and all. His first steady gig was in The War at Home, a half-forgotten Fox show starring Michael Rapaport. Malek played Kenny Al-Bahir, a family friend whose coming-out storyline earned accolades from GLAAD. “I think people have a hard time thinking that I could've done a sitcom,” Malek admits of his current fame. But “people used to think of me as a comedy actor.”
Or a character actor. Except that he’s so compulsively watchable in Mr. Robot as an ungainly antihero trying to become a hero (or vice versa) that he’s a reminder that “character actor” is what we tend to label people who are too interesting for the confines of the typical lead role. The pleasure of watching him in the series is not one of discovery but of the knowledge that he should have been given a bigger platform earlier.
Malek seems to have more sclera than the average human — as Elliot, he can seem like he’s all eyes underneath the tech kid hoodie he wears like chain mail. He’s an unconventional heartthrob, a geek pinup, and, as Elliot, a testament to how entrancing a little good ol’ elusive, brooding intellect can be. (“I think they love him because he shuns them,” Malek says with a laugh of the several women — it’s complicated — in Elliot’s orbit.)
Malek is also Egyptian-American (mostly — “An eighth Greek,” he adds, “Mediterranean”). He’s played a pharaoh in the Night at the Museum movies, a suicide bomber on 24, and an Egyptian vampire in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, but has otherwise managed to elude Hollywood’s perniciously narrow ideas about the sort of roles that go to actors of Middle Eastern backgrounds.
“I'm just trying to play against ethnicity,” Malek says. “I got to play a guy from Louisiana in The Pacific named Merriell Shelton, and now I'm playing Elliot Alderman.”
If Elliot’s racial ambiguousness has been, for some, frustrating — a character with no apparent ethnicity isn’t a stand-in for one of color — Malek’s casting has nevertheless made him the most visible actor of Middle Eastern descent on television, and that’s something he’s proud of. “I'm pretty thrilled that I get to say that it's me,” he says. “I like how receptive people are to that. I don't know if that would have happened 10 years ago.”
The success of Mr. Robot, which counts Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and directors Paul Greengrass and Rupert Wyatt among its fans, means that more people have been calling — Malek says he’s in talks for a bigger movie and a smaller one that he hopes to squeeze in before the show goes back into production in March.
He already has a decent record of attracting the attention of high-profile directors, even if his parts have a tendency to end up on the cutting room floor. That’s what happened with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, in which he played Clark, the sycophantic son-in-law of Cause leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). “It's so funny to see how everybody works, and they're different,” Malek says of the film, adding, “The experience was everything to me.”
He also bonded with Spike Lee while filming the remake of Oldboy. “He let me run amok,” Malek said. “I brought him ideas of what I wanted to wear, which kind of had a dominatrix look to it.” When the part ended up getting snipped down to a death scene, the director, in typical Spike Lee fashion, shrugged to Malek, “Tough business” — but ended up casting him in his next film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
It’s a tough business indeed, though one that’s granted Malek the opportunity to have a hit like Mr. Robot in his mid-thirties. And it’s the scene-stealers who sidled onto the scene from the sidelines that he looks up to — actors like Michael Shannon, John Hawkes, and Chris Cooper. “I admire people who have gone a long period of time and are having their moment in the sun as they get older,” he says. “People who have just persevered through it. It can be tough to battle when you know you have something to share and people don't recognize it.”
Mr. Robot is making up for any lost screen time — Elliot’s not in every scene, but he’s in most of them, his interior monologue a steady presence. Malek performs with an earwig microphone in his ear so that a production assistant can read the scene’s voiceover, which he records later. “She's really soothing when I listen to her,” he says. “It feels like we have this little secret we get to tell each other every day.”
Elliot’s sardonic narration (“Am I crazy not to like this guy? Among some of his Facebook likes are George W. Bush's Decision Points, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, and the music of Josh Groban. Must I really justify myself any further?”), like the revelation about Mr. Robot’s identity and fsociety’s plan, is a hat tip to Fight Club. It’s a relationship the show finally made explicit by using a cover of the song that played at the end of the 1999 David Fincher film, the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”
“Look, we all love Fincher, especially Sam,” Malek says of the homage. “But it works for Elliot — that's his story as well. So he can't shy away from it.” While Fight Club was centered on a Gen X crisis of masculinity, Malek sees Mr. Robot as more idealistic in its personal catastrophes — more a story about a new generation’s sometimes floundering but sincere aspiration to do good even when effecting change seems impossible.
“For all of Elliot's foolishness and mistakes, he does have this desire to have an effect on society and to help others,” Malek says. “He may go about it in the worst ways at times, but at least he's giving it a shot — and I think that's something people can respect.”
Themes like that, for him, are what the show is about as much as the technology in which it’s centered. “It is about how people deal with intimacy,” Malek says, pointing out the amount of time we spend with screens these days. “That's the world we live in. And I'm not chastising it in any way. That's what society has become, and it's cool that our show gets to talk about that.”
Mr. Robot already has an endgame in mind — Esmail first conceived of it as a movie and has said he sees the story as lasting four or five seasons. At one point, the showrunner talked Malek through where things were headed, but he claims that, like Elliot, he’s managed to block out a lot of essential details.
“He asked me, ‘Are you the type of actor that wants to know everything or would you want to be surprised?’ And I thought I wanted to know, but now I've really enjoyed being surprised by certain things,” Malek says, calling out what happened to Frankie Shaw’s character Shayla as a shock that “made [his] heart skip a beat for a second.”
That said, Malek has also clearly enjoyed keeping mum about what he does know, especially with his family, who’ve been watching along with him. His sister flees the café the moment it looks like we’re getting into spoiler territory. And he watched the episode with the Mr. Robot twist with his identical twin brother Sami, a teacher. “He looked at me like, You're such an asshole. He was like, 'I didn't know you could keep a secret that well,'” Malek recalls with a laugh.
If being able to talk about the show without letting any of its secrets slip is becoming just as momentous a task as being its lead, Malek’s wearing his new stardom lightly and well. He offers the most unhelpful of teasers for the season finale, which airs Sept. 2, regarding Elliot’s relationship with Tyrell Wellick (Wallström): “You learn even more after the next episode!” If you’ve come this far with Mr. Robot, nothing needs to be said to get you to show up for the big finish.
And in the meantime, with a second season already set and potential new projects bubbling this fall, the future’s looking pretty good for Malek. But like any good mayor, he’s open for feedback about what he should take on next.
“I'm up for anything,” he says into the recorder as the interview comes to an end. “Let me hear your thoughts.”
This story has been updated to reflect the new date for the Mr. Robot Season 1 finale. It was delayed after the shooting in Virginia due to "a graphic scene similar in nature" to those events, USA said in a statement. "Out of respect to the victims, their families and colleagues, and our viewers, we are postponing tonight’s episode. Our thoughts go out to all those affected during this difficult time."
The film version of Fight Club was released in 1999. An earlier version of this post misstated that date.