Working steadily in his native Sweden for almost two decades, Martin Wallström made a visceral, forceful debut stateside last year in USA hacker drama series Mr. Robot. Assuming the role of cunning, intense and dangerously ambitious tech exec Tyrell Wellick—a Patrick Bateman type with a penchant for power and classical music—Wallström admittedly sees a few shades of himself in the character. “I’d say we share the same country of birth, we share a fascination of watches, and then I guess music. Let there never be more than three of those,” Wallström laughs, without a whit of Wellick’s false, fumbling air. “We kind of look like each other, but that’s it.”
Preparing his self-tape for the role overseas, Wallström saw in the part an exciting mystery, and a powerful rollercoaster ride to come. Memorably, in his first read, Wallström enacted Wellick’s darkly humorous scene from episode 3, slapping himself in the face repeatedly while giving himself the world’s worst pep talk. Taking in this scene on the page, did Wallström have any idea who this character was, or who he was to become? “No, not at all,” he admits. “I think I was on the right track, but I discovered that he was very driven by fear—driven by stuff that he’s afraid to lose, or things that he doesn’t want to become.”
A showrunner who generally keeps his cards close to his chest, Sam Esmail surprisingly welcomed Wallström into the hazy world of Mr. Robot by divulging a bit of backstory, though the notion of a driving fear was what the pair returned to time and time again. “Sam and I talked a bit about the backstory—but backstory, that’s the whole life, and you can never cover and know everything about the character,” the actor says. Secure in the leadership of Esmail, Wallström welcomed the atmosphere of total uncertainty fostered by the series, finding satisfaction in making his character discoveries in media res.
The character that Wallström discovered is a skittish elitist on the verge of living his worst nightmare. A villain among villains, Wellick’s façade of control cracks as his corporate power dissolves, leaving him to face the instantaneous, shattering loss of everything he has. “I thought a lot about it: how can I relate to losing everything in one second—my entire world?” Wallström reflects. The answer came, unfortunately, in immersing himself in personal tragedy. “My father passed away 10 years ago, and that was a phone call where you lose everything in a second. I guess that’s the way I can relate to the fear,” he shares.
In inhabiting the character, and reaching his own understanding, Wallström also contemplated the possibility of mental illness, in all its varieties. “I talked to a lot of people about whether he’s a psychopath, or a sociopath, and there’s all these different ‘paths’ you can be,” he explains. “I think that he is not fully blown of anything, although I think he is very aware of how to use the best of a psychopath. He’s wearing these masks, but we can see that it’s just falling apart.”
As with any series of pressing real-world relevance, Mr. Robot seems to not only elicit, but demand a discussion of the issues and politics at its core. In an amusing, perhaps informative sidebar from a recent interview, Wallström revealed that one of Wellick’s pivotal scenes—introduced with a breathtaking cliffhanger in episode 1—was filmed at the top of none other than the Trump Soho in New York City. Given that production on Season 1 began in April of last year, with Trump formally announcing his presidential candidacy in June, perhaps this just a strange coincidence.
Then again, perhaps not. “Sam is very aware, politically, and a lot of people involved are. I think, of course, it’s inevitable that [Mr. Robot]’s getting this political,” Wallström says. “And also, as Sam has talked about, he wants to do a series that is now. I remember him talking about that—people would say, ‘But how good will this be in five, ten, or fifteen years?’ And it’s like, I don’t care. This series is contemporary. The important thing is now.”
Tight-lipped about Season 2, Wallström shares little about what’s to come. “I can promise you—and I can quote Sam—that it’s going to be a lot darker and the effect of the 5/9 hack will be more revealed to the audience.,” he says. Viral clips released recently by USA paint a clearer picture of Wellick’s trajectory in Season 2, indicating that he may be on the hook, not only for the murder of Sharon Knowles, but for the fsociety hacks, as well.
Awaiting the return of Mr. Robot, Wallström suggests that idle viewers might turn their attention back to Season 1, if time allows. In the wake of major, mind-bending reveals late in the season, as Elliot’s mental status is called into question, much of what has already transpired on the series is called into question. “You look at something—for instance, when we discover that Darlene is Elliot’s sister. I remember that table read; everyone was so shocked,” Wallström recalls. “But when you go back, if I would have seen this again, I guarantee you that we would see evidence planted along the way, where you would then understand, ‘OK, OK.’”
“I think it’s a matter of great minds writing scripts—you might want to see it one more time,” he adds. “You can play Sherlock Holmes.”
Mr. Robot will return for Season 2 on July 13.