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For 'Mr. Robot's' Rami Malek, the connection to Elliot goes far deeper than the hoodie

For 'Mr. Robot's' Rami Malek, the connection to Elliot goes far deeper than the hoodie
Rami Malek (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Rami Malek has an Instagram account, though he has never shared anything. OK, yes, if you want to get technical about it, the "Mr. Robot" star did post two pictures while walking the red carpet at the Golden Globes in January, selfies he took with Taraji P. Henson and (he's pretty sure) Bryan Cranston. But 10 minutes later, Malek deleted the photos.

"I thought, 'What are you doing? Who do you think you are? This is not you,'" Malek says, the horror of the experience still fresh in his mind.

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"People are spending so much time staging photos -- what they're eating, how much fun they're having ... even the way they shape their faces in the pictures is contorted," the 35-year-old actor continues, getting on a roll. "Everything is filtered. Everything is manicured. It's a house of cards and it's going to come crashing down one day and you with it."

Now with a diatribe like that, you might think that playing "Mr. Robot's" antihero, Elliot, the lonely, delusional cyber-vigilante aiming to bring down the world's biggest corporation and, in the process, eliminate debt and right income inequality, has seeped into Malek's psyche.

It has -- and it hasn't. Sure, that's Malek's black hoodie that Elliot wears along with the black denim. (No elastic, Malek says emphatically. "Elliot does not wear stretchy jeans into urban combat.") And, yes, the show's cautionary look at the collective slumber brought about by blind consumerism speaks deeply to him, as does its pessimism about the technology that threatens to overwhelm our lives.

"This show asks you to step out beyond the monitor and take a look at the world around you," Malek says, launching into a story about sitting in Thompson Square Park in New York's East Village recently and watching a group of friends do nothing but look at their phones.

Malek possesses the self-awareness to note that he's saying all this while clutching his own phone. ("How many times do I check it in a day?" he wonders. "I bet the number would astound me.") This quality, combined with an openness to engage just about any subject (though, after giving him a restaurant recommendation, don't press him on whether a special someone will be joining him) and a genuine humility and thankful spirit, separates him from the prickly, anti-social Elliot.

In fact, when initially promoting "Mr. Robot," which premiered on USA Network last summer and quickly became one of television's most acclaimed dramas, Malek said it was easy to leave Elliot's alienation behind each day because it was so unlike his own well-adjusted life.

Rami Malek portrays a hacker named Elliot in "Mr. Robot," a surprising success story for the USA Network.
Rami Malek portrays a hacker named Elliot in "Mr. Robot," a surprising success story for the USA Network. (Peter Kramer/USA Network)

This show asks you to step out beyond the monitor and take a look at the world around you.


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"Um ... I don't know if I was being exactly honest with that quote," Malek says now, smiling. "This guy definitely brings all my nerves and emotions to the surface, so there have been moments when I feel very vulnerable myself as a human being. He can make me a very emotional person sometimes. And I'm not afraid of that."

"He also brings out some of the better qualities in me," Malek adds of his character. "When you constantly work on someone like Elliot to figure out how they tick, it can't help but allow you to ask the same personal questions. And when that happens, it can be either uplifting or quite devastating and sad."

Malek puts the ratio between the two extremes at 50/50. Talking in a Midtown Manhattan office on a recent Sunday afternoon, the actor reveals he's finished shooting the first four episodes of "Mr. Robot's" second season -- though, given the cone of silence enforced by the show's creator, Sam Esmail, that's about all he can divulge. Well, that and the tidbit that there will be an homage to "Taxi Driver," one of Esmail's primary influences -- along with Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher -- in the season's first episode. ("Hello, friend. Yes ... I'm talking to you.")

Oh, and apparently Esmail, who is directing all 10 of Season 2's episodes, is already plotting out the third season.

"The other day we were talking about Michael Shannon and Sam said, 'I really want to use him for this role I'm writing for Season 3 and ...'" Malek says. "And I'm like, 'You're already there? That's the head space you're in? I need you right here. Episode 3 of Season 2.'"

Esmail, reached by phone (Malek says his collaborator doesn't sleep, a fact Esmail confirms with a sigh), praises his star's infectious energy, as well as the way he made Elliot accessible to audiences.

"You could have a bad reaction to that character if someone wasn't channeling his pain and vulnerability that is underneath the loneliness in the right way," Esmail says.

"Mr. Robot" continues to shoot all over New York, though it can't be quite as inconspicuous as it was last year when Malek was known mostly for playing an Egyptian vampire in one of the "Twilight" movies. (Malek's parents are Egyptian.) But even the newfound notoriety is limited. Malek says most fans yell out "I, Robot" (the title of a Will Smith thriller), which, he notes, is "in the neighborhood. Good enough."

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"It's altered my life that's for sure," he adds, noting, for one thing, that he finally just paid off his student loan thanks to the show's success. (Mr. Robot would be proud.) Also that, for a time, he abandoned his go-to disguise for going out in public -- his hoodie -- for obvious reasons.

"I got one of those skull cap beanie things and glasses, but I just felt like an ass, so I reverted back to the hoodie," Malek says. "I like talking to people anyway, so I'm OK if that armor doesn't always work."

Twitter: @glennwhipp

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