Few television shows have arrived with as much critical acclaim as Mr. Robot. The USA Network drama created by Sam Esmail and starring Rami Malek and Christian Slater debuted in May 2015 to near-universal praise, taking home best television series – drama at the 2016 Golden Globes among a slew of awards that also included individual honors for Slater (best supporting actor, TV series at the Golden Globes) and Malek (outstanding lead actor, drama at the 2016 Emmy Awards).
The show, a hacktivist drama that centers around Malek’s lead Elliot Alderson and Slater’s shadowy title character as they struggle to take down a global corporate behemoth, was quickly picked up for a second season, which debuted in July 2016. Along with that season came a new character named Leon, a friend to Elliot who himself has a shady background, and who quickly became a fan favorite on the show.
But Leon wasn’t just a beloved addition to an already-beloved cast; the character also served as the primetime acting debut for 22-year-old Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$, who studied theater in high school before dedicating his considerable abilities to his music first. And if the part seemed to fit the young MC — who is set to release his sophomore album, All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$, on April 7 — perfectly, that was by design; Esmail wrote the character with Bada$$ in mind, and was so intent on getting the rapper to play the role that, he tells Billboard, he was ready to scrap the character altogether if the pairing didn’t work out.
At some point later this year, the cast of Mr. Robot will begin shooting for its highly-anticipated third season, tentatively scheduled for 2017. With All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$‘s release less than a month away, Billboard spoke to Esmail about Joey Bada$$’s acting skills, development and future in the cinematic world.
Had you heard about Joey Bada$$ before he was cast on the show?
Yeah, I was a huge fan. Also, weirdly enough, I actually think the first time I heard him it was his music videos that spoke to me; they were just raw, I loved the filmmaking of them, but obviously I also loved his music and started to listening to all of it. In the first season, I wanted him for something — I don’t even know what it was — and I told my casting director to just track him down and reach out to him to see if he was even interested in acting. She couldn’t get a hold of his representation, so I kind of just let it go. And then in the second season, I was so determined to get him on the show that I wrote a character with him completely in mind. I was fully committed to the fact that if he had not wanted to do it or was not interested in acting, I would probably just abandon the character altogether.
What was your first impression of him as an actor?
The thing about Joey is he’s just raw, he just gives you who he is. With acting, a lot of it has to come from that real, honest place. Even great actors who transform who they are still go to a really honest place; I think that’s sort of that special skill that actors have. The thing about Joey is, because I kind of discovered him first through his music videos, he just has that on-screen presence. He can’t help but come off very genuine, very charming and brutally honest, in a sort of interesting mixed bag of traits. It’s brutal but it’s charming and it’s raw and it’s honest. That’s sort of the thing that resonates with me, and that’s what inspired me to try to get him on the screen.
What did he bring to the set in terms of his energy or his personality?
Just a completely different point of view. He’s one of the youngest actors we have in the main cast, but his worldview and the way he grew up is very different from anyone else’s. And he just also has that musicality; the way he does dialog and the way he even memorizes dialog. There’s a scene in the second episode where I wrote that his character speaks backwards, and my full intention was to do that in post-[production]. But Joey literally played the line backwards and memorized the lyrical way it sounds and phonetically memorized the backwards line and read it that way. For me, that’s just a whole different way of coming at it. He was just a new, fresh point of view that we had on set.
Even though you wrote the part with him in mind, was there anything about how he fit into that character that surprised you?
Even though he’s young and even though I wrote the character in this way where he’s naively optimistic in a lot of the things he says to Elliot, the way Joey played it — and this really surprised me on set — it really comes off way wiser than I intended. My initial instinct was this sort of naive optimist, this naive millennial who is trying to be uplifting to Elliot. But when Joey says it, he does it with such conviction that it feels like he’s wise beyond his years. That definitely took me by surprise, for sure.
Did you give him any advice?
He definitely fit into the role organically; I wanted it to be organic in terms of what Joey would bring to the character, so I didn’t really want to interfere with that process at all. I think the other actors, because he’s got such an amazing social personality, definitely talked to him, especially Rami, and I think because Joey’s sort of new at the whole acting thing Rami would kind of pull him aside every now and then and talk to him about it. But honestly, I tried to limit the interference, because I think that was the whole purpose of the character: to get that raw thing that Joey would bring to it.
What do you see as his future in the acting world?
I think the guy has an on-screen presence that is very raw and honest. That’s just a great combination for any actor, and hopefully he takes advantage of that. I thought he did a great job in the second season and there’s a lot of love for him and his character and I hope that that continues to give him opportunities in the future. But at the same time, it’s gotta be the right role. I think because Joey is so unique, he’s very specific. And that’s not to say he can only do one thing, but there’s a dimension that he can bring to certain characters out there, certain roles out there, that’s really going to pop out of the screen. And I look forward to watching him do that, because I think it’s going to be something that we haven’t seen before and I think it’s going to be really fresh.