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‘Mr. Robot’ works because it’s about hackers — not hacking

Creator Sam Esmail explains the difference on the latest Recode Decode.

The 21st Annual Critics' Choice Awards - Show Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

How do you make a movie or TV show about technology interesting to watch?

Sam Esmail grew up in New Jersey in the 1980s, fascinated by both hacker culture and the early internet. But he was let down by Hollywood’s portrayal of both.

“Being a tech nerd, being in the culture, my friends and I were obsessed with the same thing,” Esmail said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “‘Hackers,’ ‘The Net,’ ‘Pirates of Silicon Valley’ ... When they got to the hacking, they always defaulted to these CGI 1s and 0s. It always fell flat.”

Esmail ultimately combined his childhood loves of tech and movies when he created “Mr. Robot” for USA, which recently finished its second season and won two Emmys, including one for star Rami Malek as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. Esmail said the key to making a show about hacking was to focus on the hackers and the other human facets of tech.

“The whole great thing about hacker mentality, it’s finding the flaw,” he said. “Whether that’s the flaw in the person, finding embarrassing emails or finding the flaw in the system, which is designed by a person. All this stuff that has our planes running, and our traffic lights, was designed by a human, who by their very nature can make mistakes.”

After more than 100 auditions for the lead role of Elliot Alderson, a vigilante hacker who is enlisted to take down the conglomerate E Corp, Esmail nearly threw in the towel.

“I thought we were in real trouble,” he said. “I was contemplating not doing the show, because we were not finding the guy. Then Rami came in and totally transformed the character. He added the warmth.”

“A guy who’s going to rant and rave about society and has mental illness and is a drug addict, there’s all these things to not like about this person and [reasons] to not want to spend time with this person,” Esmail added. “It takes a really precise take to add that warmth. This is all happening because he’s in a lot of pain, and there’s a forgiveness you, as an audience member, can have when someone performs it like that.”

On the new podcast, he also shared the story of how Christian Slater won the role of the title character Mr. Robot, noting that Slater’s characters in “Heathers” and “Pump up the Volume” were hackers, of a kind. Esmail said Slater intuited his character’s depths with minimal information.

“He had just read the pilot, and he knew the secret of Mr. Robot right away,” he said. “That was one of the first questions he asked me, and I was like, ‘Well, if I answer it now, he’s gotta be my guy.’ So I answered it: ‘Now that I’ve answered it, you are my Mr. Robot, because you can’t walk around knowing the big secret.’”

You can listen to Recode Decode in the audio player above, or subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher. On Wednesday, we’ll have a bonus episode of Decode in which Kara talks to former AOL executive Ted Leonsis — a timely chat, given AT&T’s recently announced plan to buy AOL’s old flame Time Warner for north of $85 billion.

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher. Tomorrow, we’ll have a bonus episode of Recode Media in which Peter talks to Defy Media president Keith Richman.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge's Lauren Goode, answers the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
  • And Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, including the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.

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