Mr Robot's Rami Malek: 'The world is in chaos – and all we do is hyperconsume'

The star of the most prescient show on TV has killed capitalism, torched the web – and sparked a haircut trend

“I went to the barber’s yesterday and the barber burst out laughing,” says Rami Malek. “She said, ‘Sorry for laughing – it’s just that everybody comes in asking for your haircut. And now you’re here yourself.’”

Malek shouldn’t sound so shocked. Since Mr Robot burst on to our screens last summer, the hacktivist thriller has been one of TV’s most talked about shows – and given us a new trim for our time. It’s already won a Golden Globe and is tipped to dominate the Emmys, with Malek among the favourites to land best actor.

Mr Robot is an addictive journey into the dark heart of modern America. Full of twists, the show follows reclusive hacker Elliot Alderson in his attempt to bring down corporate giant E Corp, which Elliot simply calls Evil Corp. In his now-iconic black hoodie, he stalks the streets of New York, shoulders hunched and eyes wild as his hacks cause mayhem.

Elliot is helped on his quest by the titular Mr Robot (an unshaven Christian Slater channelling his bad-boy Heathers heyday) who recruits him to join his hacking collective fsociety, which is run out of an abandoned amusement arcade in Coney Island. Or does he? Of all the twists in the compulsive first season, the best was the revelation that Elliot cannot trust his own mind: his life is upended and suddenly he is TV’s most unreliable narrator. As the second series kicks off, Elliot is alone once again – only now, the world is on the verge of financial collapse.

Elliot the reclusive hacker.
Elliot Alderson the reclusive hacker. Photograph: USA Network

“He’s my polar opposite,” says Malek now. “I’m an exuberant person. I thrive on affection. I like chitchat.” Our own chitchat is taking place in a New York hotel, where Malek, sharply dressed in an immaculate blue shirt buttoned to the top, couldn’t be further from Elliot.

“One of the great things about living in New York,” he says, “is that you meet so many strangers – and I love encounters with strangers. Wait, that sounds odd. What I mean is I love meeting people and hearing their stories.”

Rami Malek as Elliot with Christian Slater as Mr Robot.
Malek as Elliot with Christian Slater as Mr Robot, channelling his bad-boy Heathers heyday. Photograph: USA Network

Malek’s parents were Coptic Egyptians who moved to Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, which he describes as “a massive ethnic melting pot – my friends were mostly first-generation Americans”. His mother is an accountant and his father, now deceased, sold insurance. His older sister is a doctor and his identical twin brother, Sami, a teacher. “We’re all very theatrical,” he says. Although he always knew he wanted to go into acting, his parents saw it as an unstable career, a feeling that doubtless intensified as Malek could hardly be said to have shot straight to the A-list.

Instead, he spent 10 years building up a solid reputation as a character actor, most notably in Steven Spielberg’s war drama The Pacific and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Along the way, there were parts as a terrorist in 24 and an Iraqi insurgent in military drama Over There. Was he angry about that typecasting? “I believe things are going to change,” he says. “In this day and age, the American son no longer has a quintessential look. I think Mr Robot reflects that.”

The show changed everything. “People look at me in the street now. I don’t know if they differentiate between me and Elliot. There’s this look, like ‘There’s our little hero walking around New York!’” For all the jokes, he obviously relishes the attention: he mentions a young doorman in Manhattan who “told me how timely the show was and how it speaks to him. Then the other doorman, who was 20 or 30 years older, said, ‘I agree. That show is really affecting.’ I was shocked.”

Malek as Merriell ‘Snafu’ Shelton in The Pacific.
Malek as Merriell ‘Snafu’ Shelton in The Pacific. Photograph: Allstar/Dreamworks Skg

There’s a certain irony to the fact that Mr Robot, a show that reflects our desperation to connect in isolating times, has resonated so strongly with fans. There are Reddit forums dedicated to unpicking its many mysteries and Tumblrs full of theories about how much of what we see is real and how much simply the product of Elliot’s fevered imagination.

The iconic black hoodie.
The iconic black hoodie … Malek as Elliot. Photograph: USA Network

Then there’s its prescience: last season seemed to anticipate the Ashley Madison and Sony hacks; this time the chaos following fsociety’s attack on the global financial markets echoes the current turbulence.

Is Malek surprised by show creator Sam Esmail’s predictions? “Definitely. Mr Robot resonates because we’re all concerned about what’s happening in the world right now – the sense that it’s just undulating right beneath our feet. At the same time, Sam’s making all these points about hyper consumerism and the way we use technology. We spend all our time connecting by typing on devices or viewing the world through lenses. There is something inauthentic about that. So much of how we live is manufactured rather than real.”

Does that make him anxious? “Absolutely. I’ve always been concerned with where we’re going and this show’s only made me more so.” How? “The world is chaotic at the moment and we’re shining a light on that. This show is asking exactly what effect this chaos might have on all of us. Do we all ultimately feel as uncomfortable as Elliot?”

There are, however, times when it all feels a bit too much. “Our audience is so enlightened. I like engaging with fans, taking selfies with them on the street. But one day I was hanging out with Sami and we were getting approached a lot. So he said, ‘Give them the Elliot – no one messes with that guy.’”

Mr Robot airs in the US on Wednesdays at 10pm on USA Network and in the UK on Amazon Prime every Thursday from 14 July.


Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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