If you could hack into an evil corporation’s bank account and shuffle its wealth to the 99%, would you? That’s the Anonymous-era quandary a young, brilliant hacker grapples with in the new USA drama, Mr. Robot, which premiers tonight at 10 p.m. I got a chance to hang out with the cast as they were filming in New York.
The pilot’s been up on YouTube for a few weeks now, though—something unusual and refreshing for a cable show—and if you haven’t watched yet, watch.
Here’s the gist: Main character Elliot (Rami Malek) is an antisocial computer genius who works at a cybersecurity firm that protects a sinister, Enron-like megacorp. But he moonlights as a vigilante hacker, busting scum like kiddie porn wranglers for fun. One day, he’s drafted by an underground hacker group that’s led by Mr. Robot, played by a scruffy Christian Slater. He asks Elliot to help him unleash cyber doom on Elliot’s uber-rich client in a digital Robin Hood-like raid of history book proportions.
Talking to the cast, it sounds like prepping for their hacker roles scared the crap out of them. They talked about putting tape over their laptop webcams, paranoid that someone could hack into it to look at and listen to them.
For star Rami Malek, who kills it as ultra-neurotic programmer Elliot, training to play a hacker who’s able to slay Earth’s biggest, greediest corporation took a lot of work. Malek, and the rest of the cast, attended lectures led by real hackers. In one session, the professional hacker was able to get two people in the audience to call each other without their involvement or consent, by hacking into their cell phones in the room, on the spot.
“I watched Citizenfour and I realized how many different ways a person can hack into your life, like using PRISM and XKeyscore,” Malek says. “It’s incredible to see how much you can follow a person behind closed doors. It’s unnerving and dangerous.”
Carly Chaikin, who plays Mr. Robot’s badass, malware-coding second-in-command, Darlene, said she primed herself by reading Hacking for Dummies and Hacking 2.0. “It’s relevant and it’s terrifying,” Chaikin says about the show’s zeitgeisty story. “Computer hackers have become the most powerful people in the world. They can [take down] anybody, anything.”
Mr. Robot viewers likely know this, which is why they’ll gobble up the show. In conjunction with the premiere, USA led a survey of 1,000 18 to 49-year-olds, asking them about cybersecurity and Internet matters. According to the survey, “86% of 18 to 49 year olds agree that the next world-changing terrorist attack is likely to be a digital one, and that cyber warfare is a bigger threat in America today (53%) than physical warfare (47%).” But here comes the irony: nearly half of the respondents, 43%, said that their passwords are unchanged across services.
“Fifty-five percent of young people say that if they could start fresh, they wouldn’t join social media at all,” the survey continues. “And 75% say that they are somewhat likely (29%), likely (23%) or highly likely (23%) to deactivate their social media accounts if major digital security breaches continue.”
Portia Doubleday plays Angela, Elliot’s childhood friend, and coworker. Meaning, if Elliot goes through with bankrupting their Enron-ish employer, his pal (who he also might like like) defaults on her suffocating student loans. Decisions!
But reality came close to imitating art when Doubleday was “majorly hacked” IRL the day the Mr. Robot pilot got picked up. Not only was her bank account hacked, but strangers were able to call her grandma, claiming Doubleday had been kidnapped, and demanded ransom. They said if she wanted to see her granddaughter again, she had to meet them at a preplanned Los Angeles street corner. Doubleday, unaware of the “plot,” just happened to drive through that corner, who saw her grandma on the phone with the “kidnappers.” When Doubleday grabbed the phone and demanded an explanation, they hung up.
“For three hours, [my grandma] was having to go to all these banks, writing notes saying, ‘someone has my granddaughter,’” Doubleday says. “The whole time I was two blocks away. I was driving, and she said they said, ‘Oh, she’s coming. She’ll meet you at this corner.’ I don’t know if they had me on Google Maps. I don’t know if they knew where I was, or knew where I was driving.”
The crazy thing is that, when the show started filming, the Sony hack hadn’t even happened yet. And Malek says that’s especially creepy—because unlike a lot of TV shows, which pull from the headlines, Mr. Robot seems to be a couple steps ahead of the headlines. He gets a new script, reads it, and days later, something similar happens in the real world.
“There are moments that are eerie, because I feel like we’re ahead of what’s about to happen,” he says. That being said, the show tackles a lot of demons plaguing America: “Classicism, income inequality—they’re huge issues in today’s day and age and here’s a young man who finds a way to challenge the society he lives in.”
Malek said the show’s creator and executive producer, Sam Esmail, wants Mr. Robot to be a show that portrays hacking accurately, and Esmail, who has a hacking background of his own, freely vetoes things on set that don’t mesh with reality. For example, Malek said Esmail doesn’t want Elliot to be shown using a mouse, because apparently hackers don’t use a wired computer mouse.
And there’re lots of people on the show hacking—and being hacked. Living in a wired, developed nation in the year 2015 A.D. requires a certain amount of stoicism in the face of having your personal and fiscal info at the fingertips of strangers lurking behind the glow of a monitor. What’s more, is that the Internet almost makes the notion of an “identity” pretty arbitrary.
“I’m not on Facebook, yet I have fifteen Facebook pages claiming to be me online. Someone found a way to verify my [fake] Instagram. It’s not me,” Malek says. “There’s a fake Rami Instagram account and it’s verified. Social media is, in one sense, an incredible way to communicate, but it’s also disconnecting.” In the pilot, Elliot uses Facebook in his nighttime vigilantism for some light sleuthing (and stalking), as well.
It’s a somewhat turbulent time we live in, in which privacy is turning into more of an idea rather than a guaranteed right. Mr. Robot nails a dark tone that totally jibes with that dystopian notion. But it also twists it and frames huge corporate hacks as something that could be, potentially, heroic. Whatever choice Elliot makes in his new mission, Mr. Robot hits a ton of themes that’ll resonate with viewers: debt enslavement, data breaches, feelings of alienation caused by social media.
Watch the pilot on USA tonight or on YouTube here. (And if you follow the cast’s suit and slap tape over your webcam while doing so, no one’s going to judge you.)
Images courtesy NBCUniversal