“The tagline for season one was ‘Our democracy has been hacked,’ and that was before our democracy actually was hacked,” creator Sam Esmail said at a Tribeca Film Festival panel on Sunday.
Fans of Mr. Robot have had a long and painful wait since season three’s climactic finale, which aired in December of 2017 and wrapped up the season on a colossal twist followed by more than one cliffhanger. Creator Sam Esmail and stars Rami Malek, Christian Slater and Carly Chaikin assembled Sunday for a ‘Farewell to Mr. Robot’ panel at the Tribeca Film Festival — where the pilot premiered back in 2015 — for a conversation ahead of the show’s fourth and final season, which will premiere later this year.
The panel, hosted by The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg, saw Esmail and the cast share memories from Mr. Robot’s early days, tease the upcoming final season, and reflect on the disturbing relevance the show has taken on since its debut.
“Our tagline for season one was ‘Our democracy has been hacked,’ and that was before our democracy actually was hacked,” Esmail noted dryly. “At the time, we were talking about something that was bubbling right underneath the surface.” But the relevance of the show became apparent even before Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election came to light. “The day we got picked up, the Sony hack happened. The Ashley Madison thing happened a few months later. And then a year later, it happened in our election.”
He noted that the show is still set in 2015 for that reason, because tech-focused shows always risk feeling dated. “It’s almost like a period piece of current day, and that was a really important thing to us.” Asked how the show would be viewed now if it debuted in 2019, Esmail joked: “It’d be cute now! It’s like, quaint. I think about that with Veep all the time… it pales in comparison to what’s happening in real life.” The panel concluded on the new revelation that season four will take place over the course of a week in December of 2015, which Esmail jokingly called “a week-long Christmas special.”
Esmail revealed that he had been having severe doubts about the show before discovering Malek. “When we started auditioning Eliot, I really thought I had a turkey on my hands. I thought about pulling out, like, this is just not good, this Eliot guy’s really annoying!” He auditioned more than 100 good actors, he said, but none of them convinced him that the show or the character had legs. “And then Rami came in. That’s honestly what convinced me that maybe there’s something here.”
When he first read the script, Malek said he was immediately hooked but unsure about how it would work on the USA Network, which was at the time known for more upbeat “blue skies” programming. “I was quite honestly intrigued as to how it was gonna be done on that network. I think they took a great risk in making a show that a lot of people thought might not be a cash cow, per se, or daw an immediate audience. It was a very unusual story about a very unusual human being who does some very extraordinarily unusual things.” Esmail then shouted out the network for taking a risk on the show, and for allowing the pilot to be produced and aired with minimal changes.
Slater also admitted to being skeptical about the network, and also about the title. “I picked up the script and thought, ‘Oh God, what is this gonna be?’ I was imagining I’d be playing like, a butler who was animatronic, and there’d be wires and shit!” Esmail, laughing, then recalled that Slater guessed the twist — that his character is a figment of Eliot’s imagination — very early. “We had our first meeting,” Slater said, “and I was like, ‘Come on, what’s the deal with this guy? Is he really there?’ And I remember being so excited [that he wasn’t], because usually you play it safe, and you don’t go for that. This was, from the get-go, just extraordinarily unique and different.”
As the cast discussed their auditions, Malek noted that as an actor of Egyptian descent, he didn’t have high hopes of being cast in a leading role. “At the time, TV shows I don’t think represented the diversity of our culture in the way that they do now.” Esmail, who is also of Egyptian descent, said that Malek’s ethnicity was a non-factor for him. “It had no bearing on casting, I just thought he was perfect for the role. For me, it was never a big deal, but I do remember there were conversations about, should we change his name to something different from Eliot Alderson? And I was like ‘why?'” Malek said he was relieved when Eliot’s name remained unchanged, and acknowledged that the role was a game-changer for him in breaking away from stereotypical portraits of Middle Eastern men.
“I had played a pharaoh in Night at the Museum, I’d done a few terrorist roles prior to that, and I at some point put my foot down and said ‘That’s gonna be it for that.’ It was a great decision. I would get offers of that nature, and you always want to work as an actor, but you realize that’s not worth it. I’m not representing myself or the community well, and I’m capitulating to an idea of what this culture is like,” Malek said.
Chaikin, meanwhile, was coming off her role on the ABC sitcom Suburgatory when she auditioned for the role of Darlene, and was similarly unsure that she would get the role. “I had platinum blonde hair, a spray tan and was wearing like tight pink clothes and high heels. Perfect, right?” she joked. “Thank God for Susie Farris, our casting director. They originally wanted me for Angela, and then came back and said Darlene, and I loved them both. I read for both characters, but Darlene always felt like more me.” Chaikin enthused about playing a woman in tech, and specifically discussed how the show has “changed the image of what a hacker looks like. People have this idea that it’s someone in the basement of their mom’s house, and I was always down to create our own thing. Here’s this cool girl who’s really smart and a great hacker.”
Though details on the upcoming final season were scarce, Malek did tease that the show would come to a “phenomenal end,” while Esmail confirmed that this is the ending he has had in mind from the beginning. Since he originally conceived of Mr. Robot as a feature, that endpoint has not changed, he said. “We were always building up to that from the first season, so it’s all about finding a way to get to that ending in a way that earns us that place. Our compass has always been Eliot’s journey, and everything else folds around that. It’s not about finding puzzles and tricks and ways to fake people out. It all starts with how does Eliot feel about this?”
Discussing the show’s origins, Malek described the measures he took to get into Eliot’s isolated mindset, recalling that he spent a lot of time moving through New York City in character. “Physically, what I did every day in the city was put the black hoodie and black shoes and pants on, and walk around with my head down, trying not to talk to anybody… Not making eye contact, or sometimes making a little too much eye contact,” he recalled. “I would go to the grocery store and not look up, just pay without interacting with the cashier, and that is not like me. I found that terribly lonely, but extremely helpful. I’d try not to touch anybody, just avoid as much human contact as I could, because I was trying to do what Eliot would do, which is hide from the world.”
Malek added that his newfound level of fame since his Oscar win this year has given him a new perspective on hiding from the world. “Only recently because things have changed in my life, I find myself having to do that more. Sometimes you want to say hi to everybody, but sometimes you just have to get from Point A to Point B, and you just gotta keep your head down and get there. And that sucks! But it’s a part of all this, and I’m very blessed and privileged to have this in my life, so it’s a small price to pay.”
As the panel wrapped up, Malek took a moment to acknowledge how the show had changed his career, in light of his recent Oscar win and the news that he will be playing the villain in Bond 25. “I’m gonna be trying to take down Daniel Craig! What happened to my life?” he joked, adding that he was only cast in Bohemian Rhapsody because producers had seen Mr. Robot. “This show put me in a position where people could see what I was capable of doing… It revolutionized who the characters we wanted to follow were, and what they had to say. It gave me a platform to run the gamut of emotions. It has been the great experience, with the greatest people, and I will be so sad when this is over. I think it’s going to come to a phenomenal end.”