The revelation at the end of the first season of Mr. Robot was far more than a plot twist or neat narrative resolution: The twist fundamentally altered the nature of the show’s protagonists, and even how the actors playing them interact on set.
In brief: Mr. Robot, the hard-charging, Dickies work coat-wearing revolutionary played with extreme urgency by Christian Slater, is actually an extension of troubled genius hacker Elliot (Rami Malek), both as figment of his imagination and his sometimes alter-ego. (He functions much in the way Brad Pitt was the hit man for Edward Norton in Fight Club). Elliot, being the ultimate unreliable narrator, realizes the hard truth at the same moment the audience does, which means the beginning of the second season finds him struggling to understand and contain his inner demon. It makes life harder on the character, but a more self-aware Elliott offers a whole new set of choices and opportunities for Malek, who was just nominated for an Emmy for his work in the first season of creator Sam Esmail’s hit USA drama.
Add in the fact that Elliot is also reckoning with both his role in the hacking of Evil Corp. — the massive corporation whose instability could topple the entire economy — and his culpability in the death of his old boss Gideon, s Malek had a lot of room to explore in his performance.
“I went to Sam when we first started shooting, and I said, ‘Obviously Elliot has to come to terms with this, so how is he going to [do that]?’” Malek explained to Inverse at an event for the show at Comic-Con in San Diego. “I work with this psychologist and she taught me a lot about the feelings that occur after the discovery: shame and denial, all these regrets that happen. And then some acceptance of that. With the acceptance of it, I told Sam, ‘I’m not going to look at Christian a lot, I’m not going to give him anything. I said, ‘Christian’s going to have a hard time acting with me this year’.”
Elliot spends the first three episodes of the season punishing himself with rules that might help constrain the monster within and allow him to reckon with the global destruction his actions have wrought. He follows a strict diet and activity calendar — three meals a day at a local diner, journaling furiously in between each — and self-medicates when his battles with Mr. Robot get particularly intense. And in those moments, Malek has kept to the early season promise he made to Esmail.
“I feel like Sam probably keeps all the looks I do give Christian, but there have been many takes where I don’t even acknowledge Christian,” Malek said, laughing. “And I feel bad as an actor, I say, ‘I’m so sorry man, I’m giving you nothing.’ He’s like, ‘You’re fine, you give me nothing anyway.’”
All jokes aside, Slater also admits to tweaking his approach to playing Mr. Robot — whom he calls an idealized version of the father Elliot lost at a young age — now that the audience is in on the big reveal.
“I think there is a level of freedom there, it gives me the opportunity to feel a little bit more unleashed and push the envelope a little bit more,” Slater told Inverse. “And I think the relationship is just getting clearer and clearer. Now that the cat is out of the bag, it’s like, what is the purpose? Why was I there? Where is that going to go?”
Given the secrecy surrounding the show, Slater was in no position to provide any actual answers. But he did hint at an heightened version of the role Mr. Robot played in the first season, with even more moral ambiguity.
“I’m there to challenge Elliot, I’m there to do things that he might not normally be able to do,” the actor, who was also nominated for an Emmy last week, said. “And Im also there to protect him and give him an out at times when hes unable to follow through with something.”
And after he helped Elliot follow through with crashing one of the world’s most powerful corporations, it’s hard to imagine what else Mr. Robot has in mind for his poor alter-ego.