“Mr. Robot” may be synonymous with helping USA redefine its long-touted “blue-skies” strategy into its current “we the bold” motto, but the series was also career-defining for those involved — particularly creator Sam Esmail and actor Rami Malek.
Malek’s resume included a few key credits including HBO’s “The Pacific” and “Short Term 12” before taking the role of hacker Elliot Alderson in the thriller, but Esmail had only a few shorts to his name. Giving him the plum showrunner position, as well as letting him direct right out of the gate was a risk. But it was one the network didn’t balk at taking.
“Sam was super-impressive from minute one, starting with the script, which we got on spec,” says Alex Sepiol, USA’s senior vice president of original scripted programming. “He had a whole document that laid out both the first season in tremendous detail, but also the whole run of the show, which he’s largely followed to the finale. Even though he hadn’t run a show before or worked in television before, he had such a vision and such a handle on how exactly he wanted everything. And not just the storytelling or the writing, it was his complete vision for the filmmaking.”
Then-Universal Cable Prods. brass believed so much in that vision they also inked a seven-figure overall development deal with Esmail in 2015, a contract that was renewed for four years last February and is reportedly UCP’s biggest deal ever. Through those agreements and under his production banner Esmail Corp., the producer has gone on to deliver Amazon Prime Video’s “Homecoming,” the mind-bending military series responsible for bringing Julia Roberts to television, and the upcoming Rosario Dawson-led anthology series, “Briarpatch,” for USA. Looking toward the future, Esmail’s deal has him producing content for linear and OTT providers, including NBCUniversal’s streaming service that’s expected to launch next spring.
Also coming next spring is “No Time to Die,” the 25th James Bond pic in which Malek plays an anticipated villain. It’s a role he took on only after confirming with producers would not have stereotypical, religious-extremist views, a demand he was in a position to make after having portrayed the Oscar-winning role of Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The 2018 film grossed more than $900 million worldwide following a $52 million production price tag. And to think it all started with the role of an antisocial hacker intent on bringing down the status quo.
“There’s no way I could overstate what Rami did for ‘Mr. Robot,’” Esmail says. “Brilliant actors auditioned for the role, and they came off very cold. At a certain point I thought we had to rewrite the script. I was pretty down on the fact that I didn’t think anybody would understand the emotions this person was going through. Rami somehow found a way to thread that needle and let you in on this person’s pain that was underneath all that coldness and anger. He brought that hurt and that vulnerability underneath that. It’s what gave the show its heart.”