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'Mr. Robot' Creator Says His Own Anxiety And Hacking Helped Inspire The Show

Oct 30, 2019

Editor's note: This interview contains a racial slur.

Sam Esmail, the creator, lead writer and director of the TV series Mr. Robot, has always identified with computer programming and hacker culture — in part because of his experiences with social anxiety.

In college, he shied away from parties and instead took refuge in the computer lab. It felt safer to talk to people online than in person, Esmail says. But working in the computer lab sometimes created problems; at one point, he was put on academic probation for hacking.

"Where you're just behind a computer and essentially replacing a social life with that," he says, "it tends to be a slippery slope to then learning ... how to get into people's email accounts or people's social media accounts."

Now in its fourth and final season on the USA Network, Mr. Robot stars Rami Malek as Elliot, a hacker who infiltrates giant corporate computer networks — while also trying to withdraw from the world.

"I wanted to tell some sort of story that authentically represented that world [of hacking]," Esmail says. "A lot of the movies that came out of Hollywood, especially in the late '90s and even then in the 2000s, were very corny and had nothing to do with realistically what hacker subculture was all about."

Esmail adds: "It's not about what firewall or security protocols are on your phone. It's about: How do you exploit people, and, using their vulnerabilities, figure out a way to break into a system?"


Interview Highlights

On how the financial collapse of 2008 and the Arab Spring also inspired him to create Mr. Robot

Those two things helped me develop the character of Elliot and why he wanted to be a hacker, why he wants to go into this culture, why he had this sort of grandiose vision of starting a revolution and changing the world; because I was so moved, I was so horrified by the financial collapse and how the top 1% were doing these really criminal activities on a large scale and getting away with it. And then seeing how technology helped people in the Arab countries rise up and have a voice and start a revolution.

On why he gave Elliot dissociative identity disorder (a mental health diagnosis previously known as multiple personality disorder)

I wanted to really represent his loneliness in a very authentic way, and because his isolationism is part of what drives him to hack people. ... He's so alone, but yet he's able to access sort of the most intimate details of everyone around him. To stay true to that kind of person, that extreme that Elliot goes to, dissociative identity disorder fit what Elliot was experiencing, because he wasn't able to essentially connect to people and the contrast to that is he just dissociates from them. ... D.I.D. was just something that really fit, I think, what Elliot's journey was ultimately going to be about across the whole series, which is about this young man who cannot, through this deep fear and this deep isolationism, can't find a way to connect with other people.

On casting Rami Malek

When we were auditioning people, and we must have seen I would say close to 100 guys if not more ... we had great actors coming in. ... They would do these beautiful interpretations of the scene, but the character just came off very cold, very obnoxious, and I was almost going to tell USA [Network], "Let's not do this. This doesn't make sense," or, "I got to rewrite this. I think this guy is annoying and I don't think anybody is going to want to spend every week with this person."

Then Rami came in, and when he did the scene, he added this vulnerability ... where it doesn't come off [as] commanding or egotistical, even though the words are that — he added this subtext that it was coming from a place of real pain and real vulnerability and real wanting to connect. And that was the spark that really made that character come to life.

On why Elliot wears a hoodie all the time

This is something directly lifted from my life. I wore a hoodie every day. And for me, that was easy to visualize. I'd visualized it just with myself walking down the street, knowing where to put the camera, and I loved that you could see that he was hiding. Even though I couldn't see his face at all times ... we could see a piece of him. ... It's not about capturing someone's face. It's about capturing that person, that character, and always trying to tell a story with wherever you put the camera on that person. So it's not about getting both eyes and having it symmetrical. We wanted a frame and [to] always express what Elliot is doing, who he is, and so it was easy. That made it easier, because the limitations of where you can put the camera when Rami was in that hoodie made us closer to who Elliot was.

On growing up in New Jersey and being bullied for being Egyptian American and Muslim

I remember when I was 5, I think, I was called "sand n*****" so much that I didn't even know that that was a pejorative until I think I said it out loud in front of adults. My parents didn't even know it. ... I got beat up. I remember the first day [of] kindergarten. My older sister Nancy, she was born mentally challenged and so she would get picked on a lot, and therefore I would get sort of residual bullying from that. ... So of course I tried to stand up for her and then I just got beat up by about five kids from the neighborhood. One of them actually ended up being one of my good friends, ironically enough, after that. But yeah, I probably got into more fights than I can remember all through elementary school and middle school.

On being dropped off by his parents at the theater alone as a kid

They didn't care about anything related to American culture. ... They would drop me off at noon at the movie theater and buy one ticket. And then I would stay until 10 p.m. and I would theater-hop, and you sneak into other movies at the multiplex. We'd see four movies and then they'd pick me up at 10 p.m. at night, and I was 8, 9 when I was doing this. ... They wouldn't even come into the movies with their son who's that young, and they would just, rather than spend the money, they would just pay for my ticket and leave me there.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Sam Esmail is the creator and lead writer and director of the TV series "Mr. Robot," which is in its fourth and final season on USA Network. "Mr. Robot" stars Rami Malek as a hacker who's tried to withdraw from the world while, at the same time, he's trying to control it through his ability to hack into a giant corporate computer network.

There's a blurry line between his attempts to be a force for good and his attempts to just burn the system down. Shadowy networks he's up against have made it hard for him to tell if he's the one in control or if he's being manipulated. He also doesn't know what's real and what's a figment of his imagination, and neither do we because he has dissociative identity disorder, DID, a mental health diagnosis previously known as multiple personality disorder.

Director Sam Esmail is pretty knowledgeable about computer networks and hacking. In college, he was put on academic probation because of hacking. When he was 20, back in the dial-up era, before broadband, he created a startup designed to give easier dial-up access to the Internet. But his real ambition was always to make movies.

Let's start with the opening scene of Season 1 of "Mr. Robot." Elliot, Rami Malek's character, is a hacker who, at this point in the story, also works as a cybersecurity expert. He's just walked into a cafe called Ron's and has sat down at a table opposite the owner.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROBOT")

RAMI MALEK: (As Elliot) You're Ron. But your real name's Rohit Mehta (ph). You changed it to Ron when you bought your first Ron's Coffee Shop six years ago. Now you got 17 of them, with eight more coming next quarter.

SAMRAT CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) Can I help you with something?

MALEK: (As Elliot) I like coming here because your Wi-Fi was fast. I mean, you're one of the few spots that has a fiber connection with gigabit speed. It's good - so good it scratched that part of my mind, the Part that doesn't allow good to exist without conditions. So I started intercepting all the traffic on your network. That's when I noticed something strange. And I decided to hack you.

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) Hack...

MALEK: (As Elliot) I know you run a website called Plato's Boys (ph).

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) Pardon me?

MALEK: (As Elliot) You're using Tor networking to keep the servers anonymous. You made it really hard for anyone to see it. But I saw it. The onion routing protocol, it's not as anonymous as you think it is. Whoever's in control of the exit nodes is also in control of the traffic, which makes me the one in control.

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) I must ask you to kindly leave.

MALEK: (As Elliot) I own everything - all your emails, all your files, all your pics.

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) Get out of here right now, or I'll call the...

MALEK: (As Elliot) Police? Do you want them to find out about the 100 terabytes of child pornography you serve to your 400,000 users? Personally, man, I was hoping it was just going to be some BDSM stuff. You realize how much simpler that would have been?

CHAKRABARTI: (As Ron) I did not hurt anyone - never did. That's my personal life.

MALEK: (As Elliot) I understand what it's like to be different. I'm very different, too. I don't know how to talk to people. My dad was the only one I could talk to. But he died.

GROSS: Sam Esmail, welcome to FRESH AIR. That is one of the great opening scenes in TV history.

SAM ESMAIL: Oh, wow. Thank you.

GROSS: (Laughter) It's so - it's really so good. And you know, it's funny because so much of what we hear in that scene comes in one way or another from your life. I mean, it's not autobiographical, but you can draw on what you know from it. I mean, so you did some hacking when you were in college.

ESMAIL: (Laughter).

GROSS: You edited porn, so you know something about the porn world - when you were scratching around for a living.

ESMAIL: (Laughter) Right.

GROSS: You know about being different because you grew up Egyptian American and Muslim in New Jersey. So, like - so many of the talking points in that opening scene I'm sure you could relate to. But you took what you know and then you drove it to a totally different place that I really think you did not know (laughter).

ESMAIL: Yes, for sure. Honestly, it's - that outsider mentality is what I think the Elliot character and my life sort of overlap, and it has a lot to do with growing up in an Egyptian American household while trying to assimilate into American culture and that sort of tension, you know, because not only was I born in Jersey, then my parents took me down to South Carolina, which was (laughter) somewhat cruel for an Egyptian to be raised in, and then North Carolina. And yeah, I've always kind of constantly had to deal with this concept of this idea of being very different than the others.

GROSS: What was your initial idea for "Mr. Robot?"

ESMAIL: Well, I think, you know - I always say there's three factors that kind of led to creating "Mr. Robot." No. 1 - you know, growing up being really into programming and kind of being a little fascinated with the hacker culture, I wanted to tell a movie or a television show or some sort of story that authentically represented that world because a lot of the movies that came out of Hollywood, especially in the late '90s and even then in the 2000s, were very corny and had nothing to do with, realistically, what hacker subculture was all about.

I'd say the second and third things - because it kind of happened very close to one another - was the financial collapse in 2008 and then the Arab Spring that happened a few years after that. Those two things - this concept of a revolution, which is so tied into, again, the hacker subculture, those two things sort of kind of helped me develop the character of Elliot and why he wanted to be a hacker, why he wanted to go into this subculture, why he had this sort of grandiose vision of starting a revolution and changing the world.

Because I was so moved - I was so horrified by the financial collapse and how sort of the top 1% were kind of doing these really criminal activities on a large scale and getting away with it and then seeing how technology helped people in the Arab countries rise up and have a voice and start a revolution. And so all those things sort of coalesced into the character of Elliot. And it started there, and then from there, the story of "Mr. Robot" kind of spun out.

GROSS: Elliot is mentally ill. He has dissociative identity disorder, which used to be known as multiple personality disorder. So parts of himself he's kind of fragmented into other people who he thinks he's talking to or seeing. And we, the audience, it took us a very long time to learn that Elliot's father was actually one of - you know, a part of Elliot's personality, that Elliot's father is actually long dead. Why did you want Elliot to have dissociative identity disorder?

ESMAIL: I think when we started - when I started piecing together who Elliot as a character is, I wanted to really represent his loneliness in a very authentic way. And because his isolationism is part of what drives him to hack people - I mean, that was the sort of irony or twist in his characters, is that he's so alone, but yet he's able to access sort of the most intimate details of everyone around him, to stay true to that kind of person, that kind of extreme that Elliot goes to. Dissociative identity disorder sort of fit what Elliot was sort of experiencing because he wasn't able to essentially connect to people. And sort of the contrast to that is that he just dissociates from them. And in fact, there's also this very profound fear that he has in even just talking to them. And you kind of see that in the pilot when he can't even bring himself to go into his friend's birthday party. So DID was just something that really fit, I think, what Elliot's journey was ultimately going to be about across the whole series, which is about this young man who cannot - through this deep fear and this sort of deep isolation, can't find a way to connect with other people.

GROSS: Part of what we heard the Elliot character say - Rami Malek's character say, in that opening scene was the fantastic Wi-Fi at this coffee shop - he says, it scratched the part of my mind that doesn't allow good to exist without condition, which is a beautiful way of saying too good to be true.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But I really like the words you chose to...

ESMAIL: Thanks.

GROSS: ...Describe that. But does that describe you, that you're always thinking, this is too good to be true? This - that your mind doesn't allow good to exist without condition?

ESMAIL: I think that - I mean, you know, I suffered a lot from social anxiety disorder. I still work through that even now. I had a deep fear of the world around me, and I think that's part of the journey we wanted to tell about Elliot. Honestly, again, that's something that we drew from hacker culture. There's a lot of paranoia; not only paranoia but, kind of beyond that, just a lot of distrust in what's going on around us. And I think that's where that line came from, is that can we fully allow ourselves to feel good about something without feeling like the other shoe is going to drop? And I think that's a constant anxiety that's just prevalent in society right now.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Esmail, who is the creator and lead director and writer of the series "Mr. Robot," which is in its fourth and final season. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Esmail. He's the creator and lead writer and director of the USA Network series "Mr. Robot," which is in its fourth and final season. And he was also the showrunner for the TV series "Homecoming," which was adapted from a podcast of the same name.

For the character of Elliot, the social anxiety and the dissociative identity disorder go hand in hand with him being a hacker because, really, the only way he can connect with people is through technology, and the only way he can learn about who people are is through hacking them. For you, did social anxiety issues connect with your - I don't want to say obsession. I don't know how - if you were obsessed or not, but connect with how involved you were with technology when you were in college? I mean, you created a startup. You worked in the computer lab. You did some hacking.

ESMAIL: Yes. The short answer is yes. You know, I had social anxiety, which meant I did not want to go out a lot because I was afraid to go out. I was afraid to go to parties. I was afraid of embarrassing myself. So I stayed in my dorm room and - or I went to the computer lab, and instead, I tried to talk to people online. It felt safer. And when you are in that position where you're just behind a computer and essentially replacing a social life with that.

So that when you're behind that computer and you have the sort of wherewithal to sort of pick up and try and learn how to get into people's email accounts or people's social media accounts - when I was in college, it was specifically email accounts - then that becomes your form of socializing with people. I think that's honestly the kind of more common route that hackers find themselves in. It's sort of the way hackers sort of - at least in my experience, the hackers that I knew growing up, that's how they became - that's how they started going down that road, is that - finding that replacement of connection with people.

GROSS: And was that true for you, like, in your limited career as a hacker?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did you feel like you were replacing intimacy with hacking people's emails?

ESMAIL: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you know - I think I've spoken about this, and I'm not exactly proud about this - but I definitely hacked my girlfriend. Or you know, at the time, we were sort of off and on again, off again back in college. And then - I don't know. I hacked her college and sent out this email. And I was talking - you know, I was trying to essentially show off to her. And I sent out this blast email to the entire campus of her college and then got busted.

And again, I'm not a very good hacker, and I got busted pretty easily because I used a - I worked at the computer lab at NYU, and they essentially traced it back to the employees' computer at the lab. And you know, it was time-stamped so - at the time when I was working there, and so they found out. They caught me pretty easily, and I got fired and put on probation. So that was sort of my - that was the time where I was like, OK, well, I'm going to give up on this hacking pursuit (laughter). It's just not for me.

GROSS: Until you were caught, did it feel good to hack your girlfriend and her college? Or did it feel like you were violating her?

ESMAIL: It - I'm trying to - I want to be honest - right? - because I think I should say, no, it felt terrible, and I shouldn't do this. But in the moment, it felt like the only way to know the truth. I guess that's the only way I can say it, is that I wanted to know how she actually felt about me because I didn't trust if she - if what she was telling me was true. And so I wanted to know if she really liked me. I thought maybe she didn't know or maybe she liked somebody else or - you know. And I don't know. I had - probably had 20 theories back then about what it was that we weren't connecting on.

GROSS: And did you find out what you wanted to know?

ESMAIL: No. No, I think it - ultimately, I think we weren't right for each other. I mean, I think that's the answer, right? I think I was not in a very healthy place with my social anxiety. It was way worse than it is today. I wasn't coping with it at all; I was indulging it. I was probably getting worse. And I think it was probably very difficult to be in any kind of relationship with me, not just romantic, friendship or any sort of one-on-one connection because I was - I had this real deep insecurity and deep fear of other people.

GROSS: And now, I mean, like, you're a director. You have to not only connect with people; you have to give them advice about what the emotions are that their character is experiencing. You have to hold everything together and make sure that relationships are good on the set. They're hopefully good on the set (laughter). So how do you deal with your social anxiety in your job as director?

ESMAIL: Well, I think my wife really - if it wasn't for my wife, I don't know if I would be able to handle my social anxiety as adequately, I will say (laughter), as I do right now, which is to say that - you know, on set, though, I will - you know, to me, the work is the work, right? I'm there to make - to tell the story as best I can. And I don't really have those same fears as if I'm at a party, where the whole point, the whole purpose, is to socialize and to chitchat and to share - you know, to share, open up about your private life and to ask people about their private life. And that's where my wife really, really was able to hold my hand. You know, I couldn't even go to any of the awards shows that first year - with "Mr. Robot" - without her being there holding my hand the entire time.

GROSS: I want to ask you about casting Rami Malek. He's so good in the series. And man, his eyes are just so expressive. You can tell just by looking at his eyes what his state of mind is, like how paranoid he is at that moment, how worried he is. How did you realize through auditions how good he was? How did you choose him?

ESMAIL: Well, I got to be honest with you. It was - in that sense, it was easy because when we were auditioning people - and we must have seen, I would say, close to 100 guys, if not more - the scene that we auditioned with was that coffee shop scene, and there was also this scene later on with his therapist where he kind of goes on this rant about society. And everybody - and again, we had great actors coming in. So it wasn't them. I always thought it was the script because they would come in and they would do those scenes, and they would do these sort of beautiful interpretations of the scene, but the character just came off very cold, very obnoxious.

And I was almost, you know, going to tell USA, let's not do this. This doesn't make sense, or I got to rewrite this. It's just - I don't - I think this guy is annoying, and I don't want to - I don't think anybody's going to want to spend every week with this person. And then Rami came in. And when he did the scene, he added this vulnerability. It's almost - like, I can hear it in his voice just in that clip that you played, where it doesn't come off commanding or egotistical, even though the words are that. He added this subtext that it was coming from a place of real pain and real vulnerability and real wanting to connect. And that was the spark that really made that character come to life.

GROSS: Why don't we hear the scene that you just mentioned, where he's talking to the psychiatrist?

ESMAIL: OK.

GROSS: And she basically wants to know, like, why are you so angry? Why are you so afraid? Like, what's bothering you? And he won't tell her anything, but what we're hearing is what he's thinking. This is Rami Malek from "Mr. Robot."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROBOT")

MALEK: (As Elliot) Oh, I don't know. Is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man, even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children? Or maybe it's that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeits, the world itself just one big hoax, spamming each other with our running commentary [expletive] masquerading as insight, are social media faking intimacy? Or is it that we voted for this, not with our rigged elections but with our things, our property, our money? I'm not saying anything new. We all know why we do this; not because "Hunger Games" books makes us happy, but because we want to be sedated, because it's painful not to pretend, because we're cowards.

GROSS: That's a scene from "Mr. Robot." My guest is Sam Esmail, the creator and lead writer and director of the series. "Mr. Robot" is in its fourth and final season on the USA Network. After a break, we'll talk about growing up in an Egyptian Muslim family in New Jersey and South Carolina and Esmail's first film job editing porn. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Sam Esmail, the creator and lead writer and director of the TV series "Mr. Robot," which is in its fourth and final season on the USA Network. "Mr. Robot" stars Rami Malek as Elliot, a hacker who can't connect with people and feels uncomfortable around them. He's tried to withdraw from the world while, at the same time, he's tried to control it through his ability to hack into a giant corporate computer network. We see the world through Elliot's eyes, but we can't always trust what we see because he has dissociative identity disorder, or DID, a mental illness that used to be called multiple personality disorder.

Rami Malek wears a hoodie in the character of Elliot. And, I mean, he wants to hide from the world. He doesn't want to be seen. He wants to look as invisible as he kind of feels. And when I interviewed Rami Malek in November of 2018, I asked him about wearing the hoodie. And I want to play for you what he had to say about the hoodie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MALEK: Before we did the pilot, I just walked around the streets of New York with my head down and the hoodie on. And I said to our costume designer early on, I want an outfit that if you are surveilling him from above or anywhere, he can put his head down and blend into the concrete. And that was the way I approached preparing for him. At some points, I would go into elevators, and I remembered trying to identify where the cameras were. And for days, I wanted to see if I could go undetected and not have any human contact with anyone. And that takes quite a toll on you, but it does make you aware of how much we are being watched in the world.

GROSS: So that's Rami Malek. And Sam Esmail, I'm wondering what it was like for you to shoot him in a hoodie so much of the time because, as he said, he wants to be invisible from surveillance cameras. But you are a camera. I mean, (laughter) like...

ESMAIL: (Laughter).

GROSS: Your job is to train the camera on him. So as the director, what were the pros and cons of the hoodie?

ESMAIL: Why I...

GROSS: Of course, he takes it off, you know, often, like, in conversation.

ESMAIL: Right, right, right. Well, I don't really know if there are any cons, honestly, because one thing about him wearing a hoodie in every scene is you don't ever (laughter) have to worry about continuity, and you can kind of always, like, you know, swap scenes around and not have to worry that he wasn't wearing that in the prior scene. He's always wearing that hoodie.

But, you know, to me, I - that - so this is something directly lifted from my life. I wore a hoodie every day. And for me, that was easy to visualize. I'd visualize it just with myself walking down the street, knowing where to put the camera. And I loved that you could see that he was hiding. Even though I couldn't see his face at all times, it was the fact that we could see a piece of him, framing it that way.

To me, just because you're - to - it's not about capturing someone's face. It's about capturing that person, that character, and always trying to tell a story with however you put - wherever you put the camera on that person. So it's not about just getting both eyes and having it symmetrical and - you know? We wanted the frame and always express what Elliot is doing, who he is. And so it was easy to - it was - it made - that made it easier because the limitations of where you can put the camera when Rami was in that hoodie made us just closer to who Elliot was.

GROSS: So one of the characters in "Mr. Robot" now is a trans woman named Whiterose, who heads a group called the Dark Army, played by B.D. Wong. And publicly, she's known as Zhang, the male Chinese minister of state security. I want you to describe the character and why you wanted to create a trans woman character for this series.

ESMAIL: Well, you know, DID is all about identity. And so we - so just starting with Elliot, here's a guy that wants to hide from the world, that wants to hide his identity, that wants to make it as anonymous as possible by hiding in a hoodie, blending into the concrete, like Rami said. And then to kind of then think about the opposite of that person, the ultimate sort of antagonist to that person, nemesis to that person, is this person that knows who she is, knows her identity. And it's the rest of the world that forces her to hide it. And I just thought that was such an interesting kind of counterpoint to what Elliot's emotional journey is about. Here is a woman who knows who she is but is told by society that she can't be that, and so she has to then find a way to still kind of hold on to that identity and stay true to that identity in spite of that. And so in that way, she's stronger than Elliot because she wants to define that person that she knows she is, that she believes she is. And so I love when a protagonist, antagonist really mirror each other like that in, really, the most, you know, sort of opposite extremes because it's that contrast that, I think, really kind of makes the most interesting conflict between the two.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Esmail, who is the creator and lead director and writer of the series "Mr. Robot," which is in its fourth and final season. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Esmail. He's the creator and lead director and writer of the TV series "Mr. Robot," which is in its fourth and final season on USA Network. A heads up to parents - the next chapter includes a section that might not be suitable for young children. We'll be talking not explicitly about his first film job, which was editing porn.

I think your first job working in film was editing porn. And was that your first?

ESMAIL: Yep.

GROSS: OK.

ESMAIL: That would be my first.

GROSS: So we got to talk about it (laughter).

ESMAIL: Yeah, let's do it.

GROSS: So, first of all, I mean, your parents are Egyptian and Muslim. So I - did they know that you were editing porn?

ESMAIL: No. And, I mean, honestly, they didn't know - I didn't tell them - I got away with a lot because they were sort of closed off to American culture. And they weren't, honestly, that interested in my life. I mean, I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 8. They kept being - I told them that, but they were sort of in denial about that for a long time and to the point where when I went to NYU, I just lied and told them I was going to - because they weren't going to pay for it if I went to - if I said I was going to go to film school. So I just told them I was in computer programming. And so - yeah. So I kept a lot of my sort of ambition into filmmaking, you know, a secret from them. And in fact, even now, I don't even - I mean, my mom kind of knows I have a TV show, but it's such a vague concept to her. She doesn't watch the show. She doesn't - I don't think she really sort of, you know, wraps her mind around it.

GROSS: OK. So when you were editing porn, did you get turned on while you were editing?

ESMAIL: No.

GROSS: No.

ESMAIL: No, I got turned off. I mean, you know, it's a lot of close-ups of human anatomy and not necessarily, like you know, the most hygienic human (laughter) anatomy shots. And, you know, it's - and it's a lot of - you get to see a lot of, like, the mechanics of it in terms of, you know, OK, stop, now do this and, you know, and there's a pause. I don't know how graphic you want to get, but, like, there's a lot pauses of, you know, people needing to - a refresher to get back into the mood. There's a lot of that going on. Yeah, it's not a turn-on at all. It's the opposite, I would say.

GROSS: You probably can't describe it. I'm really wondering what the outtakes were like (laughter).

ESMAIL: I mean, again, it's a lot of soft penises...

(LAUGHTER)

ESMAIL: ...If you want me to be honest. It's a lot of guys freaking out and having to - 'cause, you know, the porn that I was editing was, you know, a lot - amateur porn. So it wasn't, like, big porn stars. So it was a lot of guys doing it for the first or second or third time. And, you know, they would freak out and a lot of times - you know, because I was also on the shoots, too, sometimes. And a lot of times, we would have to cancel it because it wasn't going to happen, you know?

GROSS: So how did you make a salary editing amateur porn? 'Cause I always assume amateur porn is edited by the amateurs.

ESMAIL: Oh, no, no, no. I mean, when I say amateur porn, I mean that they're not necessarily porn stars.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

ESMAIL: They're still - the production's still, you know, a porn...

GROSS: Like amateur B films (laughter).

ESMAIL: Exactly, exactly. Like - yes, the Roger Corman of porn. Yeah. I mean, honestly, that - it was - yeah, it still paid extremely well. I mean, at least, you know, being 26 and just having graduated film school, it paid my rent and then some. So I was kind of - you know, it was kind of, like, not necessarily happy to do it, but for me, because editing was, you know, came easy and it was on a computer and I kind of understood tech really well and I could figure out how to use Final Cut pretty easily, it was pretty easy for me - easy money for me.

GROSS: And are we talking about the Internet porn era or is this still for theaters?

ESMAIL: No, no, no. This was Internet porn for sure. Yeah.

GROSS: OK. So titles - there are some great porn titles that are puns or plays on the titles of real movies or TV shows. Do you have any favorites?

ESMAIL: No. The ones that I made were spinoffs of reality shows because reality shows had started to get really popular. And so what porn did was kind of jump on that. So I think the porn that I ended up editing a lot of was this one called "Blind Sex Dates" because at the time, there was a show called - I believe it was just called "Blind Date" and it was a reality show. It was obviously super fake, but it was a reality show where two people were on a blind date, and they followed them around. And so the spin on this was, like, you know, they were on the date for two minutes in the episode and then they went home and had sex for, you know, 45 minutes. And that was the "Blind Sex Dates" show. So that was the one that I worked on the most.

GROSS: But then you ended up working on actual reality shows, right?

ESMAIL: Yeah, which I got to say is not that different. It's just essentially the same thing minus the sex.

GROSS: Can you mention the shows you worked on?

ESMAIL: I worked on a reality show called "I Married A Princess..."

(LAUGHTER)

ESMAIL: ...Which was about Casper Van Dien, who I was a huge fan of because of "Starship Troopers." And he, I guess, married a princess, and they have this beautiful family. And the show was just about sort of their life - their home life. And then I briefly worked on a reality show for HBO called "Tourgasm," which was Dane Cook's. It was, like, a one-off reality show where Dane Cook went around on tour. And it was just sort of behind the scenes of that. Then the DVD boom kind of happened. And that was back in the day when everyone was, like, buying box sets and special deluxe editions of every movie. And so we were editing all the making-of documentaries, you know, like, the behind-the-scenes footage of those movies. And that was really cool because, obviously, you know, wanting to be a filmmaker, I was able to kind of, you know, glimpse into the sort of - what the set life was like on all these big studio films.

GROSS: So you grew up mostly in New Jersey, briefly lived in South Carolina. Your parents emigrated to the U.S. from Egypt. They're Muslim. Were you bullied or feeling left out because you were different when you were growing up in Jersey and South Carolina?

ESMAIL: Oh, constantly. I remember when I was 5 I think I was called sand nigger so much that I didn't even know that that was a pejorative until, I think, I said it out loud in front of adults. My parents didn't even know 'cause I would say it in front of my parents and they wouldn't even know. Yeah. I got beat up. I remember the first day of kindergarten at - my older sister Nancy, she was born mentally challenged. And so she would get picked on a lot. And therefore, I would get sort of residual bullying from that. And so they were picking on her, I remember, on the first day of kindergarten at the bus stop and so, of course, I tried to stand up for her. And then I just got beat up by, you know, about five kids from the neighborhood. One of them actually ended up being one of my good friends, ironically enough, after that. But yeah, I probably got into more fights than I can remember all through elementary school and middle school.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned you have a sister who's mentally challenged, and I'm wondering if that figured into your decision to create the Rami Malek character in "Mr. Robot" as somebody who is cognitively different.

ESMAIL: I think so. I think - ultimately, it's more about being different. It's more about - I think it's more about that and that all - it's cumulative, right? It's a piece of that. It's a piece of just maybe being just not able to easily fit in with other people and being socially awkward. And it's - a lot of it had to do with being Egyptian and just being different. You know, my real name isn't Sam, and I changed it into Sam when I was 8 because that's how much I got bullied about it and made fun of at school. So...

GROSS: Can I ask you what your name was?

ESMAIL: I don't actually tell people.

GROSS: Well, that's fine.

ESMAIL: Sorry, Terry.

GROSS: Yeah, that's fine. Yeah, I respect that.

ESMAIL: Yeah. And, I mean, honestly, that's why - and that's how traumatizing I think it was for me growing up. So it's really about that. It was really about the fact that I was sort of pushed to - cast aside a lot. And I think it was all cumulative. I think it was all - the kind of being different, not being able to connect with other people and all of those things, all the details, my sister, my parents and the way I grew up in South Carolina - all that kind of fed into who Elliot became.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Esmail, and he's the creator and lead writer and director of the USA Network series "Mr. Robot," which is in its fourth and final season. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAC QUAYLE'S "3.0 6-WEDID17.TMP")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Email, and he's the creator and lead writer and director of the USA Network series "Mr. Robot," which is in its fourth and final season.

You love movies.

ESMAIL: Yes.

GROSS: Did not seeing yourself represented in movies make you feel left out or distanced from what you loved?

ESMAIL: No, it did the opposite. I thought I was not normal and the people in the movies were. And it just made me aspire to be them. So the reason I think my avenue (ph) - the reason why I love movies so much is that I could escape into that world and pretend I am those people, people that were normal, people that were more accepted, good looking people who were connected with other good looking people and who were powerful and successful and charismatic and could talk to each other. And it wasn't until later when, you know, I started watching Kubrick films that I realized, oh, you could actually talk about outsiders, too. You could actually channel the person that I knew I was deep down as well. And that's when I started to kind of realize the power of what - in terms of, like, what I could bring to it as a storyteller and how I can bring my experiences to the storytelling. Because, initially, it was just all about escapism. And then it became about something - channeling something more real inside me.

GROSS: When you were watching movies and aspiring to be the attractive people who were friends with other attractive people, who were some of the people you were aspiring to be like?

ESMAIL: Michael J. Fox, "Back To The Future;" Ralph Macchio, "The Karate Kid," getting Elisabeth Shue. I mean, actually, weirdly, Elisabeth Shue was also in "Back To The Future." Well, she was in the sequel, "Back To The Future Part II" - or Bill Murray in "Ghostbusters," you know, and then I would watch - like, "The French Connection" I was obsessed with, and I was obsessed with Gene Hackman. And even though I - you know, my concept of good looking wasn't - it wasn't necessarily about that, but it was just about the energy, right? Gene Hackman was a badass in that movie. And he was going to go get the bad guys in these awesome car chases and, you know - so, yeah, those are the people that - or even, I'll tell you this, "A Few Good Men," weirdly enough. I was 12 years old when I saw that movie. I didn't understand all the courtroom lingo, but I was obsessed with that movie. And Tom Cruise, you know, the way he sort of approached - his personality - I don't know if you remember the film, but his personality was so outspoken, so charming. He was cocky but in this fun way, in this endearing way. And I just remember so desperately wanting to be like him in that film.

GROSS: What about Jack Nicholson saying you can't handle the truth?

ESMAIL: Well - but then Tom Cruise, you know, brings him down and it was - so I was more - I mean, as much as I love Jack Nicholson and, you know - and he's obviously, you know, someone I admired in his own right, it was Tom Cruise being on the good side. I was never actually - it's weird because I think of Elliot as this morally ambiguous character. It's not quite the hero. He's, you know, described as an antihero. And I do love that about that character. But I think as a kid growing up watching the movies, I was always on the side of the hero. I was always on the side of the person who wanted to do good even if they didn't realize it. And so, yeah, I was - yeah, I was more on Tom Cruise's side or Daniel Kaffee I guess is his character's name.

GROSS: Was it frustrating for you that your parents didn't like movies - they didn't care about movies? I don't know if they liked them or not, but they didn't care. They didn't go. You didn't go with them. So that was - like, something you were obsessed with was something you couldn't really share with them.

ESMAIL: It was incredibly frustrating. I mean, now that - you know, that doesn't even - you got to remember; they didn't care about anything related to American culture. So yeah, movies, they would drop me off at noon at the movie theater. I would buy one ticket, and then I would stay until 10 p.m. And I would theater hop and, you know, sneak into other movies.

GROSS: Oh, at the multiplex?

ESMAIL: Yeah. I would see four movies. And then they'd pick me up at 10 p.m. at night. And I was 8, 9 when I was doing this, 10. They wouldn't even come into the movies, you know, with their son who was that young. And they would just - rather than spend the money, they would just pay for my ticket and leave me there.

GROSS: So did you get to see adult things that you wouldn't have been able to see?

ESMAIL: Oh, yeah. I mean, I remember I saw "Robocop" when I was really young. I think I was nine. And I don't know if you've ever seen "RoboCop," but...

GROSS: I have.

ESMAIL: ...There is a scene where they just torture Peter Weller's character and shooting limbs off with a gun and kind of laughing about it, and it's horrific. And yeah, I was 9 years old. And I think I bought a ticket to "Karate Kid Part II," saw "Karate Kid Part II," and then snuck into "RoboCop."

GROSS: So what impact did that violence have on your young mind?

ESMAIL: Well, you got to - you know, prior to that, I was obsessed with slasher films, too - so "Friday The 13th," "Nightmare On Elm Street." So I saw gore. And I don't - see, to me - and this is the weird thing about people I know who are scared of watching horror films, you know, adults that are scared of watching horror films - I never took the violence in films that seriously. They never scared me, you know, to that extent. It was almost - I loved the visceral experience of it, the sort of high stakes of it. But it was never something that actually permeated me past that into some deep fear or anything like that.

I just remember loving the impact that that could have on someone. And so, of course, then as me just being a young person who was aspiring to be a filmmaker, thought how do I use that as a storyteller to give off that same experience that I'm experiencing right now?

GROSS: So was there a pivot point where you thought not only do I love movies, I'm going to make them?

ESMAIL: It was "E.T." I hate to bring this story up because it sounds like I'm dissing on Steven Spielberg, and I don't want him to think that. But if I'm being honest - and again, I'm a huge fan; let me just preface this by saying I'm a huge fan of Spielberg. And I love a lot of his films. And I would - but I would say that when I saw "E.T.," and I remember - it was the first movie I saw in the movie theater. And I remember everyone in school talking about it. And I remember just wanting - like, you know, I had not been allowed to go to the movie theater. I remember being like - and because back then, movies weren't coming out on video for a long time. So it was going to be years before I could see it on VHS.

So I finally convinced my parents to let me go see it. And I was so excited. I mean, again, it was about - I remember hearing what it was about. It was about aliens. It was about a little boy who encounters aliens, and I just - and it was this action-adventure film. And so I was really excited. And then I saw it, and I remember being really bored. Again, this is the first time in the movie theater, and I was bored because I did not feel that visceral experience that I had watching "French Connection" or any of the bad slasher films I would watch.

I didn't - it was more of a drama. I mean, you know, "E.T." is more of this sort of lovely friendship between a boy and an alien. And it was - it wasn't - it was sort of not what I was expecting. But I do remember just being this egotistical little kid. I remember walking out of the movie theater disappointed and thinking, I can do better than that. And I remember that was the first thought I had about being a filmmaker.

GROSS: Have you met Spielberg?

ESMAIL: I have not (laughter).

GROSS: You should prepare for the meeting.

ESMAIL: I hope to God he's not offended. I know, right?

GROSS: Figure out what you're going to say (laughter).

ESMAIL: But you got to - I mean, look; I'm a huge "Jurassic Park" fan. I mean, that was a ride that I still remember and I still go on. Every once in a while, I'll pop that movie on. "Schindler's List" is obviously a masterpiece. So, Spielberg, if you're listening, I'm a fan.

GROSS: Sam Esmail, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

ESMAIL: Likewise. Thank you.

GROSS: Sam Esmail is the creator and the lead writer and director of the series "Mr. Robot," which is in its fourth and final season on USA Network. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, as the impeachment inquiry gains momentum, our guest will be the New York Times correspondent in Ukraine Andrew Kramer. He'll talk about the impact of President Trump's dealings with Ukraine on that country, the difficult balancing act facing Ukraine's new president, and why President Trump says Ukrainian officials tried to sabotage his campaign. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILLERMO KLEIN'S "MELODIA DE ARRABAL")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILLERMO KLEIN'S "MELODIA DE ARRABAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.