Rami Malek, star of 'Mr. Robot,' is ready to start dressing like a grown up
"Could you imagine Elliot going shopping?"
Rami Malek is talking about the black hoodie, the one his complicated character, cybersecurity whiz Elliot Alderson, wears for almost the entirety of the first season of USA Network's breakout series "Mr. Robot."
If you've seen the show, then you know it's essentially Malek's sixth co-star, getting just as much airtime as anyone else in the startlingly talented ensemble cast (which includes Christian Slater -- yes that Christian Slater -- as the titular character).
It's hard to imagine Elliot going shopping because it's hard to imagine him walking into a store. I wonder aloud if he has a stash of identical black cotton hoodies, or whether he just wears the same one every day.
Malek ponders the question as seriously as if I had just asked him to explain what a honey pot is to a non-hacker. "It's not that he's unkempt," he says. "There's just a level of callousness to the way he treats things like getting dressed. He likely prefers a uniform because it's one less thing to think about."
He wants to be clear about this wardrobe choice, because he had a hand in it. In fact, he was the one to suggest to the show's creator, Sam Esmail, that his character's look be a little austere.
"They initially came to me with sketches from the designer that included this very loud and colorful backpack," he says. "And I'm like, 'I can't wear this. This guy wouldn't wear this.' I kinda had this mild panic attack inside, like 'This is not the way I see things. Where are we going with this?'"
I work with a lot of celebrities in my job as a stylist, so it's rare that I get starstruck. But when I saw Malek for the first time -- sitting across the runway from me last month at the John Varvatos show during New York Fashion Week: Men's -- he looked like he belonged in a different movie from the rest of us. He was sandwiched between co-star Slater and iconic fashion photographer Bill Cunningham in a buttery-leather Varvatos jacket and slim-fitting jeans, legs politely crossed. A day earlier and I might not have recognized him. But as timing would have it, I had just begun binge-watching the first three episodes of season one of "Mr. Robot" the night before.
The show is the sleeper hit of the summer, and Malek has been called masterful in his portrayal of the oft-kilter genius and unreliable narrator, Elliot. (His now-too-familiar raspy voice-overs are themselves worthy of Emmy consideration.) He's so perfect in the part, it's hard to envision the show with anyone else in the complex lead role. As TV critic Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix says, "The show is Rami Malek and Rami Malek is the show."
Malek kept to himself during the event -- barely even chatting with his notable seat mates -- and treated the spectacle before him like a performance piece that he was lucky to witness. (He later confirmed it was his first fashion week experience, and Slater had just invited him earlier in the day.) I was charmed. There was a magnetic elusiveness to him.
Naturally, I called my friends at John Varvatos the day after the show and said, "How can I get in touch with Rami Malek? I need to style him."
"I call it 'OG hoodie' -- I can always tell if the hoodie in a scene is part of the B team"
"I really wanted Elliot's clothes to feel like it was a bit of an urban combat uniform," Malek says. "We needed the wardrobe to reflect his desire to disappear from the world. So I suggested a hoodie. Well, maybe I shouldn't say 'suggest.'"
What does that mean?
"Well, the show had gone to great lengths and spent beaucoup bucks trying to create the perfect 'worn-in' sweatshirt, but nothing was working," he says. "So I came in one day before we shot the pilot with my personal hoodie from B:Scott that I'd had for years. But I knew that I couldn't just offer it up like, 'Hey, look at this!' I knew that wouldn't fly, as everyone wants to come up with their own idea. So I just kinda paraded myself around the office until the powers that be said, 'Hey! Did wardrobe put you in that?' And I said, 'Oh, this old thing? I've had this for ages,' and they were like, 'Why can't he wear that?'"
Just like that, a TV touchstone was made.
"At first there were no doubles, so I ended up trying to preserve that one hoodie," he says, laughing. "I remember a girl actually left my house one night in it, unbeknownst to me -- after we had already shot the pilot. So I called her frantically and she must have been like, 'This guy's losing it. It's just a hoodie.' So she brought it back and then later, after she must have seen the pilot, I hear from her and she says, 'Oh, now I know why you were so adamant about getting that thing back.'"
Before long, the show's costume designer, Kim Wilcox, reached out to the designer and got 20 or so versions replicated -- apparently it was the liner of a jacket B:Scott had made years ago. Still, "nothing ever feels to me like the original," says Malek. "I call it 'OG hoodie.' I can always tell right away if the hoodie I am wearing in a scene is part of the B team."
Since Malek is a real person and not his character, he is down for shopping. Last Friday, I took him to Carson Street Clothiers in SoHo to try some things on; he is a bona fide celebrity now, after all. He needs new outfits (or, as we call them in the styling world, "looks"). We decide to start with knits. Luxe ones, expensive ones.
Rami arrives wearing a faded pink T-shirt, frayed jeans (that matched my own, actually), and black high-top sneakers. He gives me a double-cheek kiss.
"I've never done that before," he admits immediately afterward. "But I feel good about it."
Up close, the first thing you notice about him is his mouth. It would be easy to say his eyes, which are wide-set and intense-part of what makes his vigilante hacker so compulsively watchable. But it's his mouth, with permanently pursed lips and a slanted grin, that gives his face its personality.
And as for those eyes, where Elliot's show disconnect and paranoia, Rami's are kind and engaging. He's also almost hypnotic with his eye contact.
He's small (5-foot-7), but there's a wiry manliness about him; he has a large presence, but few pretensions. He's also warm and polite, greeting everyone that comes up to him during the five-hour shoot, always looking them in the eyes. He's game for anything I throw at him style-wise and never once complains. Even when I ask the Los Angeles native to stand in the middle of Crosby Street with "New York City" sprawled across his chest in cashmere. He is, after all, the city's newest antihero. And he's embracing it.
At 34, Malek is perhaps most widely known for his small but memorable film roles as King Ahkmenrah in the "Night at the Museum" franchise, Benjamin in "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2," and Clark in "The Master." And rumor has it that Mr. Robot creator Esmail's girlfriend, the actress Emmy Rossum, recommended Rami to him for the part of Elliot after seeing him in the HBO miniseries "The Pacific."
"When I did The Pacific and I played Snafu, I walked away and I said, 'Ahhh, it's never gonna get better than that.' So I thought, 'Well, that was that' and moved on," he recalls. "Then I got to work with Paul Thomas Anderson on a film ["The Master"] and was like, 'Wait, maybe it's not all downhill from here.' "
After all, Malek exclaims, "I still feel young! That's something that Christian would say."
"Then I got the gift that is Elliot and 'Mr. Robot,'" he says. "I think he's going to teach me a lot about myself as we travel down this winding road together. Elliot and Rami -- hand in hand, hoodie and hoodie."