INTERVIEW: Stephanie Corneliussen on Playing the Villain on Mr. Robot

Aug 18, 2016 by Steven Schott

If there’s one trend we’re excited to see in popular entertainment, it’s the noticeable uptick in strong, confident female characters. Whether it’s in the superhero genre, political dramas, or cop procedural action fests, viewers are being richly rewarded by these well-written, wonderfully acted, stereotype-bashing characters.

Mr. Robot, by now a cultural phenomenon and just this week re-upped for a third season, came out of nowhere last summer and added to the chorus by giving us one of the most compelling female “villains” we’ve seen in a while: Joanna Wellick. Wellick is the fiercely assertive, drop dead beautiful, cheerless other half to season one baddie Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), one of the key figures in the 5/9 cyber attacks that cripple society.

Joanna is brought to life by Danish-born Stephanie Corneliussen, an international fashion model who exploded onto the acting scene in 2013. After small roles in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and the TV show Royal Pains, Corneliussen is quite busy with Mr. Robot as well as the forthcoming Legends of Tomorrow. Corneliussen took a few moments to catch up with us recently and chat Mr. Robot as well as some unexpected musings on future man-machine conflicts.

Sling TV: Joanna has such a conniving, strategic mind. How do you psyche yourself up to get into character?

Stephanie Corneliusson: As an actress, I try to find traits within my own personality that match the ones of the character I’m portraying and extend on that. Do our basic values match, do we have passions or hopes alike, do we think alike, and so on. With Joanna, I had to discard that technique. I had to become a type of person that I’m really not familiar with. I had to dig deep, before discovering that we do have one thing, that we both do, that could almost look alike: that of having an instant, internal decision making process based on logic, past experiences and very rarely colored by emotion. The difference between us is, Joanna executes. I ponder. I weigh right and wrong. She does not. So I had to switch my thought process into execution mode. I had to “map” differently. If you imagine having an objective, and how to obtain it, you’ll map out a route, a linear path to get there. Joanna doesn’t do that. She already has her eyes on the prize and every avenue is available to her. She can switch her strategy in an instant, but the goal remains the same. Nothing or no one can get in her way. She has an ability to completely devalue the lives of others, to improve upon her own. I’d like to say, we’re VERY different.

Were you surprised by the success of Mr. Robot? Did you have a sense you were part of telling a greater story?

I wasn’t surprised that Mr. Robot became a success. I try to stay globally in tune, and as a viewer I was craving informative, contemporary, thought provoking television. I knew that I wasn’t the only one. Mr. Robot deals with reality by fiction. The reality within our society, our evolution as humans and how technology plays such a grand part in our everyday lives and our futures. We’re telling a very plausible story. One that people all over the world are pondering upon. Sam Esmail is providing the follow up questions and the visuals. We, the audience get to form the debate; Is this where we are headed?

Much of the world of Mr. Robot seems rather bleak. Were you affected by the dark nature of the show off set?

We’re not trying to sugarcoat anyone or anything in the Robot universe. Every day does not offer a blue sky. Tomorrow doesn’t necessarily offer a solution. And today might not be the day where everything works out. Even though we’re dealing with a fictional storyline, we’re operating within some very real settings. One could argue that we’re portraying a “darker side” of society, but in fact, this is part of life.

Without giving anything away, how has Joanna changed between seasons 1 and 2?

I don’t believe Joanna has changed. We’ve just gotten to know her better. Arguably, her world has changed, but Joanna is a strong compound, an almost indestructible one. A woman of her skillset adds an element to the response of fight or flight: adapt. That’s what she’s doing, with every tool she’s got.

How has being a part of the show changed your outlook on society? Any password changes recently?

Being part of the show combined with being alive within the digital age, has made me increasingly aware of the question, are we shaping technology or is technology shaping us? The conversation often turns to social media and how it’s on one side connecting us globally, and on the other isolating us individually. But there’s an exponential evolution concerning technology that we as humans only react to by status quo, without regard for the next wave of software algorithms and how Artificial Intelligence is going to affect us. I think I’m equally unsure and excited about what the world of tomorrow is going to look like.

New episodes of Mr. Robot air Wednesdays at 10pm ET on USA; recent episodes are available on-demand.

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