Casting directors Beth Bowling and Kim Miscia watched the rapid rise of USA hacker series Mr. Robot to the upper echelons of television with a sense of déjà vu. They couldn’t help but recall their casting of a pilot, way back in 2006, for another runaway series-turned-cultural phenomenon; a series called Mad Men. While neither series was an obvious green light for executives at the get-go, both were the apple of the critic’s eye from the first moment, racking up Golden Globes and other major accolades in their first seasons. Beyond a certain poignancy and strong sociopolitical relevance to the world today, Bowling sensed the presence of a singular voice and vision in the form of series creator Sam Email. “I was like, ‘Wait, am I reading this world correctly?'”, she laughs. “This was dark, this was deep, this was edgy; it really resonated and struck a chord with me.”
Casting duties for the pilot of Mr. Robot—including the make-or-break casting of the show’s lead characters—went to Susie Farris, with Bowling and Miscia picking up casting thereafter; and like Bowling and Miscia, Farris was taken aback in the best possible way. Farris credits Esmail, in no small part, with the show’s extraordinary, out-of-left-field success; with managing to translate the drama of the hacker’s jargon-filled, exclusive and little understood world to a wide audience. “Some of the things [Sam] would say on the phone, I remember just being like, ‘Are you kidding? What?’”, Farris remembers. “And I think that’s what makes the show so good, is because he did have such a vision, and that’s not necessarily what happens in episodic television always.”
The challenges faced in casting Mr. Robot were unique; while Esmail’s vision for the series was solid, it wasn’t so easily communicated to actors on the page. With excitement, curiosity and trepidation in equal measure, actors shared the casting directors’ initial experience of Esmail’s material.“The auditions last season took a lot longer because no one was used to the tone. I don’t know if it’s because of the network that the show was on, but they would come in and we would have to bring it down and think of it as an indie,” Bowling explains. “People would come in, and it was about helping people find the tone, because they weren’t able to access it yet.”
Along the same lines, though Esmail provided his casting directors with the first eight scripts up front, the show’s complex characters weren’t quite accessible to actors in the early reads. “I think that this is a show that reveals itself as the series goes on,” says Farris. “And so, for these roles, the actors really had to either take a leap of faith, or come in with a stack of questions about, where is this character going?”
Facing these initial hurdles, it’s surprising that a number of the show’s key roles fell into place quite naturally, including the role of Elliot. “We all knew that Rami was special,” Farris adds. Esmail wanted to cast the series in an offbeat and unexpected way, filling the series with unconventional leading men and women, and Malek fit that mold. In the audition process, Farris threw several of Elliot’s meatier scenes at the actor, including the coffeeshop confrontation monologue from the pilot. By the time of his second read, Farris knew she had her guy. “We were all super excited about him; he was just mesmerizing, with his voice and his eyes and his cadence. What’s amazing is how much his face says even in between the lines. I knew that nobody held a candle to him.”
Through an extensive process, the casting trio rounded out an ensemble matching Malek’s level of gravitas. Malek isn’t the only actor involved capable of commanding pathos with a simple look; one of the standout casting moments for Bowling was the audition of Gloria Reuben for the role of Elliot’s lonely therapist, Krista Gordon, which made them weep in the room. “She happened to be leaving town to shoot a film in Canada, I believe, and she couldn’t see Sam in person, so she had to come into our office with no time or preparation,” Bowling remembers. “Her audition was one of those when someone just gives you chills in the room and becomes the role in front of your eyes. Her vulnerability and her empathy for Elliot, and the pain that you just saw she had. I remember telling Sam, ‘She made me cry.'”
With Season 2 of Mr. Robot, premiering on July 13, Bowling and Miscia once again had a leg up, with all ten scripts delivered upfront thanks to a deal between Esmail and the network. While some changes and tweaks have been made to scripts since the show resumed production on March 7, there was much to be gained from the advance intel. “It’s such an advantage to have the arcs and see what you think might be a small character has a huge reveal later on, and being able to audition that huge reveal,” says Bowling, perhaps hinting at exciting things to come, while declining to comment in concrete terms.
In terms of Season 2 castings that have been reported, including Fear the Walking Dead actress Sandrine Holt and Extant’s Grace Gummer, one of the most intriguing is the casting of The Office alum Craig Robinson in a recurring role. While taking on a dramatic turn in 2016 Sundance breakout Morris from America, for which he won the Special Jury Prize, Robinson had been previously, broadly known for his work in the comedy world. “I think Sam is into the idea of rediscoveries,” Bowling says. “He doesn’t want anything to feel like in the TV world, so he always wants to cast things differently than what people would necessarily think it would be.”
To watch the trailer for Mr. Robot Season 2, click here.