[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the first season of Mr. Robot]
Fictional hackers and real computer programmers came together Sunday for the Mr. Robot panel at South by Southwest, and it was clear that there was a lot of mutual respect.
A packed auditorium let out cheers when the creator Sam Esmail and stars Rami Malek and Christian Slater took the stage. And nearly every attendee who asked questions throughout the panel thanked Esmail for his honest portrayal of the tech industry.
The panel signaled a return to the festival for Esmail, Malek and Slater following the USA hacker drama’s premiere during the 2015 show, where it won the episodic audience award.
This year, the stars were accompanied by a 100-foot Ferris wheel as part of a festival experience designed to look like Coney Island. “They let us bring a Ferris wheel here, so we must be doing something right,” cracked Malek. “We really can’t thank you guys enough to get that response, and to have people eager for this next season. It’s a real honor and humbling.”
The show, which will return this summer, struck a chord with many of the techies in the audience because of its commitment to depicting tech culture in a realistic way. That includes Malek actually typing what is seen on his computer screen. “There’s no green screens involved,” said the actor, who won a Critics Choice Award for his role as engineer and hacker Elliot Alderson.
Esmail, who will direct all 10 episodes of the second season, said that authenticity was important to him in the creation of the show. He noted that the classic TV nerd who is bullied or has few friends “is not true to life.” Instead, he explained, Elliot’s loneliness in the show comes from a different place. “He’s not just lonely because people don’t want to talk to him.”
Added Malek: “I saw a really complicated character I was drawn to. A guy that was suffering, struggling to survive in his own skin and be normal.”
The Egyptian-American Esmail also revealed that the Arab Spring had a big influence on the creation of the show. He explained that he traveled to Egypt not long after the uprising and spoke with family members who had channeled their anger to enact change. “That, to me, was the third piece of Elliot, anger channeled in a positive way,” he said. “Anger that makes a difference in your society, that was quite critical in developing Elliot’s character.”
The panel quickly took care of the problem of season one spoilers, a concern since the series had several big twists, by showing an exclusive clip that detailed the plot of season one in specific detail. But when it came to season two spoilers, Esmail was coy.
He did tell the crowd that the upcoming season, which the cast and crew are currently shooting, will deal with themes of privacy and encryption, an especially relevant topic given Apple’s current fight with the the FBI over unlocking a phone used in the San Bernardino attack. “I’m not trying to say I’m a fortune-teller,” Esmail joked, explaining that he wrote the second season well before recent events. “I think privacy is going to be a huge issue in the next decade.”
He also teased that season two will focus on the consequences of Elliot’s actions. “Elliot committed a crime in the first season, and we’re going to see the ramifications of that in the second season,” he added. “That drives a lot of what the second season is all about.”
Even though Slater’s character from the first season is revealed to be Elliot’s dead father and only a figment of his imagination, Slater will also return for the upcoming season. But Esmail had to calm Slater’s fears when the script featuring the big reveal first came out. “I’ve had conversations with him: ‘You’re in season two. You’re not going away,'” said Esmail. “But he pulls me aside after reading episode nine and says, ‘Are you sure? I just read this and it kind of feels like I’m done.'”
Esmail added that it’s been hard to keep the plot a secret now that the show developed such a following in its first season. “I’m very paranoid,” he admitted, adding that even during season one he was worried about the scripts leaking.
But now that season one’s big plot twist has been revealed, it’s the actors who have to answer questions. “Rami and I traveled here together, which was very weird for people,” joked Slater.