On USA Network’s hit series Mr. Robot, Rami Malek is a man divided. His cyberpunk hacktivist Elliot Alderson has been wrestling with himself, so to speak, throughout a second season that’s also seen the 35-year-old breakout star earn his first Emmy nomination and the biggest buzz of his career to date.
A week before the Emmys, Malek debuted another rumination on the theme at the Toronto Film Festival. He stars in the Y2K-set Buster’s Mal Heart as a man whom life’s ponderous forces has split into two, a role that suggests there are more personalities to the enigmatic searcher he’s been playing for mainstream audiences on Mr. Robot.
The similarities between these kindred tormented souls are no accident. “I see huge parallels,” Malek told me this week in Toronto, where the surreal character piece from writer-director Sarah Adina Smith (Midnight Swim) both confounded and charmed critics. “Big time.”
“I look at what I do on Mr. Robot—what Elliot goes through on Mr. Robot,” he corrected himself, “as a crisis of man questioning his place in society. It’s a very sociopolitical issue and problem that he’s addressing. With this story, it’s a greater question of man’s ability to effect his place—and when I say ‘his’ I mean his and hers and ours, in the universe.”
“If we are able to alter the progress of the mechanism of our universe… do we have the ability to alter anything? Do we really have freedom?”
Approaching the end of a day filled with interviews, Malek sipped fernet and Coca Cola, a taste he acquired while unwinding in Argentina after filming 2010’s The Pacific. “I went to live in Argentina,” he explained. “I thought I was going to live there. I thought, ‘I’m done—I’m living here until I fix my head again.”
The reset must have worked, because in the ensuing years Malek started booking some of the biggest films of his career. Roles in studio blockbusters like Battleship and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn boosted his IMDb Starmeter, and a run of smaller films boosted his indie cred: The Master, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and his 2013 breakout, Short Term 12.
But, the fernet: “It’s got 40 fucking medicinal herbs in it,” he grinned, offering Smith a taste. “It’s gross, and I think it’s so fucking delicious.”
Malek’s intensity and versatility are put to mesmerizing use in Buster’s Mal Heart, a fractured tale that sees one man navigating three disparate, cosmically connected realities. As Jonah, the night manager of a nondescript hotel in a middle-of-nowhere town, he whiles away late nights staving off a tedium that’s slowly driving him mad, the dream life he longs for with his wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and young daughter inching away with each passing shift.
Looming over Jonah’s nights is the escalating paranoia of Y2K mania, underscoring how few films truly remind us how terrified we were that the year 2000 would end modern life as we knew it.
“I was preparing myself for death,” admitted Smith. “I really thought mutually assured destruction was going to happen, all the nuclear arms were going to go off and the world was going to end. It was a great moment for me because I fully accepted death—and then nothing happened.”
“I think everybody at one point was like, it’s midnight, and I might die, but I probably won’t—let’s just see what happens,” laughed Malek.
Malek also plays a lone wild-eyed mountain man terrorizing the winter homes of Montana and a fisherman adrift at sea, whose fates are all tied to a mysterious drifter who shows up offering big answers and warnings of doomsday (DJ Qualls).
“I think there are different facets in all of us, and if you invest in one aspect wholeheartedly you can create another being out of that,” said Malek. “We looked at this idea of love and freedom and the question of, if those are such big feelings, can they exist together in equilibrium? There is a man in the heart of Jonah who wants to love so much, and it’s overwhelming to a degree where that love is so strong that it splits a man into two. I think one is still searching for a knowledge of what it is to exist with love, that type of power—and the other wants freedom. The two, for him, cannot co-exist.”
“It was a profound piece,” Malek said of Smith’s script. “I felt like I was reading a short story, and one that I was riveted by. You know how you want to read short stories because inevitably there’s a lesson for you at the end of it? You feel like, OK, that was written with purpose and I enjoyed the hell out of it, I am moved, and I am different for some reason or another.”
Smith met with Malek before Mr. Robot came out, became a cable network hit, and plastered his face all over town on billboards and bus ads. Malek remembers his nerves: “As an actor you’re always skeptical somewhat. You think that you have the opportunity and then there’s always this doubt; am I going to ruin this for myself by sitting down and actually meeting someone?”
“As an artist and actor I knew he was right for it but was worried we were somehow too late to this boat, that we missed the train,” Smith smiled. “When we sat down in that coffee shop somebody recognized him right away and I was like, ‘Oh, fuck.’”
Smith’s sophomore feature has been described, for lack of more convenient terms, as an experimental drama. It’s more like a philosophical exploration whose themes are big and universal, and to Malek’s alter ego, tragically elusive.
“Life, in a big way, can be very graceless and it’s funny for that reason,” she said. “Even in our darkest moments you think the universe can align to give us some grace, but often times it’s not—it’s banal, or it’s clumsy, and I thought that was true to life.”
“I think one of the marks of going crazy is that you begin to infuse meaning where normally there wouldn’t be,” she continued. “I wanted to tell a story about a guy whom that’s happening to—but maybe it is leading somewhere, maybe it is pointing in a direction that sheds some truth on the nature of the universe.
“You know what’s crazy?” Malek countered. “When you go off on those trips, you start questioning: ‘Why did I infuse meaning where there was really none?’ That was just me in that moment. But you so adamantly know it when you’re in that place, that it’s right.”
He admits that the striking parallels between Mr. Robot and Buster at first gave him pause, worried about repeating similar notes on the same theme. Then, he says, he decided to lean into the recurring questions that kept drawing him in.
“I thought, I could shy away from this because there are similarities,” he said, “or I could go full steam ahead and get more invested in something I am concerned about, and I think many people question. Questions that I’ve been asking myself. And I think the more attention that we bring to that, the more progressive we will ultimately be.”