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'Mr. Robot' creator Sam Esmail: How Arab Spring influenced his hit show

An image from the USA TV show Mr. Robot.
An image from the USA TV show Mr. Robot.
An image from the USA TV show Mr. Robot.
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26: (L-R) Christian Slater, Sam Esmail and Rami Malek attend Tribeca Talks After The Movie: Mr. Robot during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival at Chelsea Bow Tie Cinemas on April 26, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival)
Rob Kim/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribec

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"Mr. Robot," the hacker drama on the USA Network with Rami Malek in the lead and Christian Slater in the title role, is born from the brain of Sam Esmail.

Originally conceived as a feature film (Esmail had never worked in television before), this propulsive, serialized drama tackles hacker culture, corporate America and consumerism while blowing away any illusions we may have of privacy. It is currently in the running for six Emmys, including for Best Drama.

At the center of the show is the troubled character of Elliot Alderson (played by Rami Malek). He's a brilliant hacker whose precarious psychological state makes him a not-so-reliable narrator.  

When we reached Esmail by phone this week, he was in his Brooklyn offices where he’s editing the final episodes of the second season. We discussed the personal origins to Elliot's character, why he cast Rami Malek, and how the Arab Spring influenced the creation of the show.

Hear the full interview by clicking the play button at the top of this post. Highlights below.

Interview Highlights:

On the origins of Elliot's worldview:

I'd be lying if I wasn't saying it's partly me ... probably at a very young, much more foolish age. Hopefully I've gotten smarter. But it's also partly based on the community of friends that I've grown up with that are in tech, some that have been hackers and some that haven't. And partly based on reading about hackers. Or even just message boards because I read the theories that some of these guys and gals come up with. I love reading about other people's world view. So it's sort of just a mixed bag of all of that. In terms of Elliot, I just started piecing together [that] he is a hacker who's going to go to these extreme lengths. I have to buy that and part of that involves the deep insecurity. But that can't involve just my day-to-day social anxiety. It has to be a lot more deep-seated than that ... Then there's the psychology of it, which is also a really important factor. We have a psychologist as a consultant and I really wanted to depict that part of his mental illness too. 

On casting Rami Malek as the lead:

We auditioned several actors, I would say close to 100 actors. Great actors. The more I auditioned the more concerned I became about the show. What happened was, it started to feel exactly what my fears about Elliot Alderson's character were, which was that he was going to come off too obnoxious, too didactic and that he wasn't going to be accessible ... Then it just dawned on me that I didn't write a great script and this wasn't a great character and I should essentially just stop this process. I started freaking out and I went to that deep-seated insecure place. And then Rami Malek came in. The crazy thing is, he was nervous to a certain extent, but I didn't know if he was nervous or if he was being Elliot, who [is] also nervous and anxious ... And the fact that I couldn't tell a difference was one of the biggest reasons why I thought he was perfect. It just felt so organic and natural.

Esmail says it was when Malek performed the "F--- society" speech that "it all just clicked." See the speech as it was played in the pilot episode:

On whether his being Egyptian-American influences the show:

Yeah, it can't help but not be. Growing up, my parents were very much about the Egyptian culture. They never really wanted to assimilate in American culture ... I had a funny last name and I didn't look like everybody else and I got faced with a lot of racism. I got called "sand n----r" quite a few times. As a kid I didn't even know that was a slur. At a certain point I just thought that was something I was. That was probably the cause of a lot of my social anxiety, and my parents' distancing themselves from the culture. And I think that informs a lot of Elliot's character — his sense of alienation, his sense of loneliness. All of that informs his character and his journey ... Rami actually said it great in his speech at the Critics Choice Awards when he said, "It's not only good to be different, but it's better [to be different]." That's exactly the growth that I went through and is a little bit the journey that I want Elliot to go on in the show.

On how Arab Spring influenced the creation of "Mr. Robot":

The one thing that I know from the personal experiences that I've had with hackers, and from people in tech who are brilliant at this thing, is there's a lot of angst ... What I didn't want was to follow around this angry guy. So I went [to Egypt] nine months after Arab Spring happened.  I have lots of cousins there who are young. So they had that youthful angst that I was talking about and they were all involved with this revolution. The thing that was great about it was it sort of reframed my mind about that negative thing about angst that I didn't like. They had actually used this anger for good. That's when I really realized that anger doesn't have to be negative. It can be positive. It could be the thing that fuels something into positive change. It could be the thing that brings a community together to take something down and to overcome obstacles. It could be the thing that really inspires people to make a difference. That's the part of angst that really excited me and that's the last thing that really clicked for me in terms of writing this show. That's what Elliot's got to be about. 

Season two of "Mr. Robot" airs Wednesday nights on the USA Network. Season one is available to stream on Amazon.

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