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[This story contains spoilers for Mr. Robot season four, episode six, “406 Not Acceptable.”]
Looking out at the Mr. Robot battlefield, the stage is set for a brutal battle between Rami Malek’s Elliot Alderson and BD Wong’s Whiterose — even if the latter combatant insists the two of them are on the same side. But the Dark Army and the Deus Group leader is just one of Elliot’s many antagonists still on the board.
Of course, there’s Elliot’s internal battle with his own demons, even if these days, he’s getting along rather well with Christian Slater’s titular Mr. Robot. (In fact, it’s Mr. Robot who is most repulsed by Elliot these days, not so much the other way around, especially after the young hacker’s latest actions: driving a woman to the point of attempting suicide, all in service of defeating Whiterose. “406 Not Acceptable,” indeed.) On an external level, one of Elliot’s oldest enemies is still in play: Fernando Vera, the violent drug lord played by Elliot Villar. A key player in the first season, Villar’s Vera disappeared from the scene after escaping jail and ordering the death of Elliot’s girlfriend Shayla (Frankie Shaw), only to return in the final scene of season three. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter in 2017, creator Sam Esmail described Vera’s return as an attempt to narrow the focus of Mr. Robot, even as Elliot was starting to turn his attention to taking down Whiterose.
“The first words Elliot said to us in the pilot were about that top one percent,” said Esmail. “By the end of [season three], he finally realizes who they are and he wants to target them. At the same time, I’ve always said this show is about Elliot’s internal and emotional journey. Vera hits that button, given the huge loss Elliot suffered in the first season — and really, I would say his only true connection we’ve seen in the show, his connection with Shayla. This absolutely brings clarity to Elliot’s mission moving forward into [season four].”
For his part, Esmail has played Vera’s impact on the final season of Mr. Robot rather close to the vest, only utilizing the character in fits and starts through the first five installments. Vera’s role escalates significantly in “406 Not Acceptable,” as he kidnaps Elliot’s therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben) as a means of getting closer to Elliot himself. For Vera, the goal is simple: become the king of New York City, and do it with help from Elliot. Is there a world in which the computer hacker signs on for Vera’s vision? With both Elliot and Krista kidnapped at the end of “406 Not Acceptable,” Mr. Alderson may not have much of a choice — and besides, Esmail has already warned about a world where viewers will find themselves rooting for the Mr. Robot rogues gallery.
“Anytime you can get the audience to actually root for the villain’s goal is really fascinating,” he previously told THR. “It’s one of the reasons why Se7en is one of my favorite films. By the end of the film, the villain is asking [the hero] to kill him, and if that happens, he wins. Now you’re rooting for him and against him at the same time. I always find putting the audience in that position really interesting and really engaging. You tend to want to lean in more. You’re so conflicted that it makes you engage on multiple levels. Not just an emotional level, but an intellectual level. When you have the audience there, then you can start to play with expectations from episode to episode.”
Ahead, THR speaks with Elliot Villar about hacking into the mind of Fernando Vera, what he knew about the villain’s journey heading into the final season, the smiling psychopath’s two key “superpowers,” and why he fully believes Mr. Robot will build to a satisfying conclusion when the dust settles a few weeks down the line.
Elliot breaks Fernando Vera out of prison in season one, and then he’s gone — right until the end of season three. What did you know about your potential return in the time between appearances?
When I left season one, I just had my fingers crossed. I just thought, “Wow, what an amazing experience.” With the way the storyline ended, I was keeping my fingers crossed and saying, “I hope I get to come back.” I mean, it seemed like we had to deal with this Shayla and the trunk thing, right? But I was watching with the fans. I became a fan of the show. There was static, right? There was just radio silence.
About two years after I finished that prison break scene, I got a call that they wanted me for this teaser [at the end of season three]. So it wasn’t until then that I got Sam on the line. And even at that point, I think he was like, “Look, there’s plenty of time until we get to season four,” so he held his cards close to his chest. But I remember when I saw him on the day I showed up to get into wardrobe, and before I got to the wardrobe, I showed up on set and I saw Sam, and he hugged me and he said, “Are you ready to be the king of New York?”
Wow. It’s always a big deal where Vera and hugs are concerned!
Yeah! I was just like, “Wow.” And then I walked into my trailer and saw this big, lion-furred coat, and I just went, “Okay. All right. This is going to be intense.” The writers were doing their thing and Sam was doing his thing, so I didn’t have all the pieces. I didn’t get the whole storyline. All of my questions really weren’t answered until much closer to the scripts all being set for us to sit down at the [final season] table read. But at that point, it was all there. It was all in the text, all of the questions that I had about where I went, and what I was doing in that time, and why I came back.
Even with season three, though, Sam making that comment: “Are you ready to be the king of New York?” It certainly gives you something to aim for.
Yeah, and what he did tell me was there was this singular purpose: to own New York. And it’s already set up even in the first season, this obsession that Vera has with Elliot. I think he sees himself somewhat as [an equal]. He even tells Elliot, “You remind me of me when I was younger, when I was depressed and wanting to kill myself.” He sees something of him in this other person. It’s even just from that initial moment that all of a sudden these two people are linked. When I came back for that teaser, that set things up, knowing that there was this singular purpose: to own New York, and somehow, I needed Elliot to do that.
In the fandom, there’s a lot of attention on the rivalry between Elliot and Whiterose. It feels like endgame material, what with the Deus Group and the mysterious project, to the point that there are some who wonder about Vera’s purpose in the final season, and whether there’s even time left for Elliot to deal with him. With the way this episode ends, it’s effectively Vera telling both Elliot and the audience: “Like it or not, you’re going to make time for me.” If Whiterose is Elliot’s global problem, then Vera is the local one — he’s the human reckoning.
Yes. I love how contradictory he is. Vera is very human. He’s a paradox of nature, right? He’s so shallow, but also so deep. I mean, this is a guy who says he deeply cares about the meaning of a person’s name. He can’t believe that Elliot has never googled his name and doesn’t know what it means. But at the same time, his AOL account or whatever is “bigpapi6969.” (Laughs.) He’s obsessed with Elliot. He truly, deeply respects and loves this person and yet he’s willing to hurt him like no one else has ever hurt him, by [killing] Shayla. I mean I think what you’re talking about — the macro and the micro — that’s definitely there. And it’s interesting because like I said, they’ve been linked from the very beginning. There are some interesting parallels to their storylines, right? They’re both trying to make the change they want to see in the world. They both use these exploits, to fight rising wealth disparity and the failures of capitalism, but the way they go about using these exploits are completely different. Elliot is using hacking and using computers, and Fernando Vera is using physical violence and psychological control, but there is that link, at least. And so I think that’s where they’re going to come sort of smashing heads together.
Vera reveals some of his backstory in this episode in the form of the story about the baseball bat, the bully and “the little bitch.” How did it inform your view of the character?
This was such a fun role to play. I mean, I obviously had to bring a lot of myself to the work, but I also had to transform into this character. I’m probably the furthest thing from an eccentric, manic, deadly drug dealer, you know? I’m sitting here talking to you and my five-year-old twins are downstairs watching a movie! (Laughs.) What I had to bring to this was my imagination, my strong sense of truth and my curiosity and my empathy, because I had to seek out all these clues in the text and things that. The way I kind of linked into him was, “Well, he’s a storyteller.” That’s what I found out. I mean, in this episode, man, is this guy a storyteller, right? “I’m going to tell you a story.” And like any great storyteller, I think he can see things. He intuits dynamics. I think that’s why he was so pissed at his guy in [episode “403 Forbidden”]: “Why the hell can’t you see what’s so clear in this picture, that Elliot needs Krista?”
Right — and if you can’t see it, what value do you provide? Hence the sudden execution.
Right. I mean, it’s a power that he has. But even that idea, again, there’s a complexity to it. With most people, when you think of power, you think about believing in yourself, right? Someone who has power has got to believe in themselves, right? But here’s this guy who was like, “No, I hate myself, and that’s where my power lies.” It’s these contradictions. But I had to look for the ways that I can connect to him, and it’s right there: he’s a storyteller. I mean, we can all connect to our ego at some point, right? He wants power. He wants to be the best. And I think we can all connect to our own fragility. That’s what the scene is about: all of those times we’ve felt less than, felt powerless and felt bullied.
The scene also involves a tremendous amount of work with Gloria Reuben as Krista, another character who has been part of the series from the beginning, and one I’m very nervous to see interacting so closely with Vera.
Working with Gloria was fantastic. I mean, she’s just so deeply focused, dedicated, courageous. The props master kept trying to swap in a plastic grapefruit spoon for our takes when I come up to her and threaten her with that spoon, and Gloria kept insisting: “No, I don’t want the plastic spoon. I want the real metal grapefruit spoon. I trust you.” She trusted me enough, but she also was in it and wanting to feel it and, I mean, it was wonderfully fun at the end of takes. At the end of the day, we’re going through these really intense scenes. You saw how much threatening happens, the physical, psychological violence that’s happening towards her. But at the end of the day, it was like we were doing this piece of theater, and when we were done, she would turn to me and say, “That was fun, wasn’t it?” She would be smiling at me, giving me a hug. She’s like, “That was so fun. That was so fun.” And I was with her! I was like, “Yeah, bizarrely, that was fun.”
Do you believe Vera sees more in Krista than someone who is just a blunt instrument toward getting to Elliot — more than just the baseball bat, as it were?
I think if Vera has another power, beyond being a storyteller, it’s that he’s deeply connected to something else: a spirituality, a cosmic nature. You wouldn’t think this person would be connected to their emotions, to his feelings, but I think he really is, and that’s why he’s able to intuit behavior and figure people out. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t use it for the best of purposes. I think that it’s certainly a surprise to him that this woman who he sees in this photo is Elliot’s therapist, or at least is this person who does this for a living. But once he knows that, I think he is keyed into, “Well, this is it. This is the gold.” I mean, she’s going to deliver, because ultimately, it’s all about weaponizing knowledge so that he can be the one in control. He wants Elliot to be on board, but he’s the type of person who wants to make sure he’s controlling all the pieces.
There are still so many questions left surrounding Elliot and Vera’s resolution, not to mention the resolution of the series at large. For you, the questions are over. Without giving up what you know, what was your satisfaction level with how Mr. Robot ended?
I had many predictions as to where this would would go, and I’d say few were right. I was really surprised with Vera’s journey, with the journey of the show, in a wonderful way. It was amazing when I sat at the table read and got to discover where we were headed. My acting teacher at Yale, Ron Van Lieu, always used to say: “In the pursuit of illuminating the human condition, aspire to the expenditure of soul; that is the artist’s great task and reward.” And I feel like these scripts and the story to tell, that was our task, and the reward is what we’re seeing and what the fans are about to see with how we’ll end up finishing off this season. I think a lot of the questions that the fans have had are going to be answered — and I think they’ll be quite satisfied.
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