To Live and Write in LA

SXSW: Christian Slater and Lucy Lawless Get Creepy in ‘Mr Robot’ and ‘Salem’

(Originally published on Blogcritics.org)

Christian Slater and Lucy Lawless were on hand at SXSW 2015 to explain just why they are so creepy. Not, personally, of course, but in their new roles. Slater (Ask Me Anything, Assassins Run) stars, along with Rami Malek (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), in the new sci-fi seriesMr. Robot (SXSW Audience Award Winner – Episodic) premiering on USA Network. Lucy Lawless (Xena, Spartacus) joins the cast of WGN America’s Salem for its second season.

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‘Mr Robot’ stars Carly Chaikin and Christian Slater with writer Sam Esmail

Having been a computer programmer for almost 30 years, I usually cringe at the silliness of portrayals of hacking in film and TV, even shows I like.  At the Q&A after the screening ofMr. Robot, I had to pay a compliment to writer/director Sam Esmail. He did the best job of portraying this process in a drama that I have ever seen.

So, why the hacking?

Rami Malek plays a disaffected programmer at a big computer security firm. In the pilot, Slater’s character, who is a so far nameless, attempts to recruit him for an underground group of hackers with anarchist tendencies. They want to do things like erase all the credit card accounts in the world.

The cast around Slater and Malak are an impressive group and Esmail has created “mirror worlds” around Eliot for them to inhabit.

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Rami Malak plays a hacker with a heart of gold on ‘Mr Robot’

In Eliot’s day job, the somewhat insecure CEO, played by Michael Gil, is the opposite of Christian Slater’s mysterious loner.

Portia Doubleday (Mr. Sunshine, After the Ball) plays Elliot’s old flame and current supervisor. She is desperate to work her way up the corporate ladder, but is deficient in tech skills.  Her opposite in hacker world is played by Carly Chaikin (Suburgatory, Bad Blood) — all tech, no suave.

During the Q&A, Chaikin and Doubleday said they had both read for both parts.

It is Malek’s character, Eliot, who leaves the biggest impression. He is a creepy, anti-social looser with a flawed understanding of economics, whose only friend is a fish. He connects to people by hacking them. Elliot makes Melvin Udall, Jack Nicolson’s classic anti-hero in As Good as It Gets, look like Mr. Rogers. But, don’t worry; he has a heart of gold.

I asked Esmail if there was a character arc in Eliot’s future. Esmail said he had originally started writingMr. Robot as a screenplay. “When I got about three-quarters through, I realized I had to do something with Eliot.” No spoilers allowed, but it’s safe to say Eliot will grow. And, unlike Melvin Udall, he doesn’t throw dogs down the trash chute – he saves them.

Meanwhile back in Salem, things promise to heat up in season two, and that’s not just because Lucy Lawless joins the cast.

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Shane West and Lucy Lawless discuss their roles in ‘Salem’ at SXSW panel.

In this version of Salem, the witches rule the roost, with Janet Montgomery (Entourage, Made in Jersey) as reluctant witch Mary Sibley dominating the townspeople. Her former boyfriend, John Alden, played by Shane West (ER, Nikita), is rallying the opposition. Enter Lucy Lawless’ character, a German witch, and we have Witch Wars.

SXSW attendees got a sneak peak of season two, a chance to meet the cast, and ask questions at a press conference. The panel included Montgomery, West, Lawless, and show creators Brannon Braga (Star Trek) and Adam Simon (A Haunting in Connecticut).

I asked Braga and Simon if by turning history on its head in Salem, they were risking losing the history majors or flirting with the possibility of writing themselves into a corner.

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Janet Montgomery plays witch Mary Sibley on ‘Salem’.

Braga responded that if people were looking for history, they were in the wrong place. They should read a book.

Simon expanded on their vision for the show. “We had lots of inspirations,” he said. “Middle Earth, Narnia. The question we asked ourselves was could we take early America and re-envision it as one of these great fantasy landscapes.”

Braga added, “We fell in love with these characters and we are going to move forward with them. We’ll see more of Boston and we’ll be moving in and out of the Indian culture.”

Lawless said that she was really excited about this project. “I was raised by a father who told us nothing but vampire stories.  When Brandon contacted me, I watched the whole series and I really loved the actors and I thought I could learn from them, so I knew they would write me a kick ass role.  She’s not literally kicking ass…yet.”

We still hear: “There are no strong roles for women.” Whoever says that has not seen Salem.

Montgomery pointed out: “I think, especially this season, there are no weak women; there are a lot of strong women. Being able to work with so many lead actresses is great”.

West said that his character is changing. “John is a lot more focused,” he said. “He’s made the decision that he’s been spurned by love too many times. He’s become a witch hunter, but, ironically he’s taken on some witch like traits.”

Montgomery added, “My favorite part of playing Mary is that she has all of her emotions bubbling on the surface. Being able to throw things around is great fun and good therapy.”

West likes his character, too. “What’s great about the show is that the characters have so many layers,” He said. “It’s fun being able to play the Clint Eastwood cowboy type.”

Lawless plays a German witch who comes to America. “Although she is a terrific villainess, she is also very giving of herself, yet she is the soul of violence.”  Lawless added, “And she has some aspects of her personality that would make the Housewives of Atlanta blush.”

One of the fans in attendance asked Lawless if she would be doing a German accent. She said that they thought about it. “If we did that,” she said, “then everyone would be waiting all the time for me to say, ‘I vont to suck your blood’. So, no accent.”

The first season of Salem is available on Netflix. Season two premiers Sunday, April 5, on WGN America.

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