Why the Hacker Drama Mr. Robot Needed a Gay Character

Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail (center) with two of the show’s stars, Christian Slater (Mr. Robot) and Rami Malek (Elliot). 

Photo by Chris Haston/NBCUniversal

USA Network’s new series Mr. Robot, which premieres June 24 at 10 p.m. ET, tells the story of Elliot Alderson, a vigilante hacker who becomes part of an underground group dedicated to bringing down overreaching corporations. I asked the show’s creator Sam Esmail why he felt it important to include queer characters, what inspired the show, and why he made an effort to have the techy content feel believable.   

Gideon, Elliot’s boss, is gay and comes out to him in the first episode. Why did you want to have a gay character on the show?

What’s interesting about Gideon having to come out and about sexuality in general is that it’s now something that there’s a pressure to divulge. The show’s about technology, and privacy is such a big theme in that world. Gideon’s character even says: My partner doesn’t want me to keep it from people, so I guess I have to tell you I’m gay. He feels the need to divulge something that’s pretty intimate, and that’s sort of expected of the LGBT community. I just thought what an interesting way to talk about privacy without talking about it directly.

It was interesting that you had Gideon say it out loud, because Elliot has an uncanny ability to notice things. Generally speaking, people don’t have to tell him stuff. He picks up on little clues they’re giving off without even realizing it.

There’s a sort of father-son bond between the two of them, where Gideon really trusts Elliot because he doesn’t ask. He doesn’t want to know everyone’s intimate details, because he’s not trying to socialize with them. That created the safety net for Gideon to open up. There’s an irony with Elliot’s character that I play with—he’s a guy who can’t interact with people in real life but then knows everyone’s intimate details. Here I directly put him smack in the middle of that situation.

Will Gideon’s sexuality come up again?

Yeah, you get involved in his home life; it comes to the forefront later in the season. There’s also another character who hasn’t been introduced in the pilot who’s a lesbian. Sexuality is such a spectrum, and so you’ll see in the following episodes that sex, the act itself, whether it’s homosexual or heterosexual, can be used for manipulation, can be used for love. We run the gamut in that regard. I don’t look at it as here’s my gay character; here’s my lesbian character. It’s our tapestry. We’re in New York City, people cross lines.

Where did the show come from?

I’m Egyptian. I have a lot of cousins who are in their 20s. I was there right after the Arab Spring happened, and I was so inspired by that. One of the things that defined Elliot’s character is that revolutionary spirit I saw in my cousins. These are young people who are tech-savvy, who use technology to their advantage to channel the anger against the status quo and try and make a change to better their lives. That is something that’s beautiful and fascinating to me, and that’s what I really, really want the show to be about. It’s set in the world of technology, because I think that is a tool that young people can use to bring about change. I mean, look at the LGBT community: What massive changes have occurred in society just in terms of marriage and trans issues being more public and open.

It’s really interesting to hear about being inspired by your cousins, because that is a part of the world where we think people are using technology and their comfort with it to bring about change. Whereas elsewhere, we think of hackers as people who are breaking the law, people who are our selling our personal data. Was it an issue for you to have a hero who’s breaking the law?

I don’t look at that as a bad thing. I look at that as a great thing. Do I want a character who just has the best motives and the best intentions, zero flaws, and is doing things for the right reasons? No!

Did you have any concerns about presenting computers and technology accurately? TV often shows computers that are miraculously quick and have unbelievable graphics, but we know how frustrating real computers can be.

I’ve never worked in television before. You get on the set, and you get a crew, and they’re amazing, and they’ve done lots of television, but the one thing about this amazing crew that’s done lots of television is they do the computer and technology part in a certain way, because most shows don’t care about it. They green screen it. They put it in later.

“If we want to geek up a screen, we’ll just add the big red delete button or the big red execute button and a countdown.” It’s this silly shit that no one really decided to pay careful attention to. Then here I come, and I say, “Oh, no, no. We’re not doing that. We’re actually going to get the real stuff, the real details from our tech expert. We’re going to show 20 screens, not just the one screen with the big red button. It’s going to be a lot more work, and we’re not going to green screen any of it.”

So we have to build them all before we shoot, and the actor has to actually interact with the screen and not stare at a green screen and not know what the hell’s going on. They actually have to type in the commands that we see on screen, so of course everyone’s looking at you with evil glares because that just creates a whole amount of work, and thought, and planning.

But I was very stubborn about it, and they wound up getting into it, and they wound up doing a great job, but it’s difficult because not only did they not think that stuff mattered, they didn’t think the audience cared, either, and I just fundamentally disagreed with that. I’m hoping it pays off.

In the first episode, there’s a lot of voiceover. Typically that’s been seen as lazy, but it seems like there’s been this almost reemergence of voiceover in shows like Jane the Virgin and iZombie that use it very well.

I love voiceover. I never understood this idea that it was lazy. Well, yes, there are those movies or TV shows that use it as just a way to get out exposition. But you know what? That’s just bad writing. I use voiceover just like I use dialogue. There’s a way to give out information or give out insight to the character or give out their worldview, and maybe you have to slip in exposition, but it’s all about how you write it. VO can be really powerful, because it’s an intimate relationship you take on with the audience that you can’t really do in dialogue. If you do it well, it can be really, really cool, and it’s a totally different dimension.

You’ve made a show that’s in part about the evils of giant corporations, and you’re on an ad-supported network where your story will be interrupted by commercials, some of which will be for giant corporations. Did you think about that when you were creating your story or choosing your storytelling methods?

We obviously see the hypocrisy, but look, I always am very close to Elliot, the main character, but I am not Elliot. I like to think I’m a lot more functioning than Elliot, and I don’t think all of Elliot’s opinions about the world are necessarily on point. I strongly agree with most of them, and I do think the current mixed economy system that we have in this country is broken. It doesn’t do what it’s set up to do, which is to value the best product made by the best companies. We are part of the machine, because we get paid by them to basically sell their products, but I’ve been pretty firm that we’re not toning things down. If advertisers still are brave enough to put their commercials on this show that maybe is offering a different point of view on our economy, I think that’s kind of cool of them, but the minute I start censoring myself, when I start watering things down, that’s where I would draw the line. Then I shouldn’t tell this story in this format. But I haven’t run into that. Knock on wood. Not yet.

This interview has been edited and condensed.