Stephanie Corneliussen Talks Mr. Robot Bondage, Trilingualism, and Joanna’s Forebears

By
Stephanie Corneliussen

There were a lot of scenes that had viewers talking during the first season of USA’s breakout thriller Mr. Robot, and one of them involved a ball gag. Stephanie Corneliussen’s Lady Macbeth–like villainess, Joanna Wellick, demanded that her husband Tyrell strap her in for a BDSM session. Since then, we’ve seen the character played by the Danish actress get even more adventurous, engaging in knife play with a boy toy a few weeks ago, but we’ve also seen her get more complex. Joanna seems to be deeply in love with her hubby, yet is willing to cut him off and rat him out, and she’s doing everything she can to protect her and her child’s financial well-being. Vulture caught up with Corneliussen to talk about Joanna’s machinations, her willingness to get kinky on set, and the fact that she and Martin Wallström’s Tyrell aren’t actually speaking the same language to each other in their scenes together.

Have you guys wrapped shooting at this point?
Yeah, finally. We wrapped on the 19th, so actually four days after the season premiere.

Sam Esmail cuts it pretty close.
Oh yeah, absolutely. I don't know when that man sleeps. We've been doing this block shooting, where you can end up having four or five scenes in one day, and that can turn into 18-hour days. And I know he edits a couple of hours before and after a shoot day, so where are we at? He must have, like, an hour and a half of sleep. [Laughs.] I don’t even understand how he's still walking. 

Speaking of Sam: When he recruited you, what did he tell you about Joanna?
I had such limited information about her. I think cold-blooded was one [word used]. Manipulative was one of them. Then, Sam and I had a conversation where Lady Macbeth popped up and we both had that thought about her. A lot of the composing posture you see in Joanna I actually took from Lauren Bacall from To Have or Have Not. I absolutely adored that movie as a kid and I just remembered this woman who was so statuesque, and I was like, I want to do that. I wanted Joanna to be like that. I want her to have that complete, cool-cucumber effect on people, as Lauren Bacall did in that movie. She was originally supposed to be Swedish.

She was?
I actually auditioned in Swedish — I speak Swedish as well, some Danes do. On set the very first day, Martin [Wallström] and I were speaking to each other. We speak Danish and Swedish to each other when we talk on set, and Sam comes over and he's listening to us for a second and he looks at us and goes, "Are you guys speaking the same language? It sounds different?" First off all, I was very impressed that he could actually hear that. I was like, "Actually, no: I’m speaking Danish and Martin is speaking Swedish." And he was like, "And you guys actually understand each other?" and I was like, "Yeah." For some people, especially if you live in Copenhagen and Stockholm, where Martin lives, we understand each other pretty well. Then [Sam] was like, "Do you want to do it in Danish? Do you want to make Joanna Danish?" And I was like, "Are you fucking kidding me, that would be amazing!" Sam asked if it would make sense, and I was like, "Yeah, I'd make sense, I have multiple friends who are Swedish and Danish and who are married."

So in scenes when Joanna and Tyrell are talking to each other, Martin’s speaking Swedish and you’re speaking Danish?
He's speaking Swedish and I'm speaking Danish, and then Martin and I decided that because they have been together for a long time, they are going to sometimes implement a little Danish and a little Swedish words to each other [instead of their respective native languages]. Some of the words are very different, so we decided that, if you're having a casual conversation with your spouse and you want to make sure that you're understood, if it's easier to slip in a Swedish word, or for him, a Danish word to me, so that I would guess exactly what he's saying, that's what they'd do.

We can't talk about Joanna without talking about bondage. When did you find out you’d be doing bondage scenes, and what was your reaction?
Well, that was the scene I auditioned with, the one where [Tyrell and Joanna] are in bed and she's in bondage. As an actress, I was really intrigued by it from the get-go. I was like, Who is this chick? If she is such a dominant character, why would she take the role of the submissive? Joanna is such a both/and character. There is no either/or with her. She has this complete obsession with control and power, and I don't think it's an actual obsession in her head — that's literally just how she is wired. And to be in that much control and power, those moments in the bedroom where she can relinquish control and be completely submissive, I think that's her escape. But at the same time, she is still calling the shots. It's odd, right?

It's what's referred to as “topping from the bottom,” or so I’m told.
I'm happy to have the lingo down. [Laughs.]

Do you feel especially exposed when you’re doing those scenes?
As Stephanie?

Yeah. Obviously, Joanna is into it. But how do you feel when you have your clothes off and a ball gag in your mouth?
It's a closed set. We've a minimum amount of people on set, and they do everything to make me feel comfortable. There's a person standing with a robe if I want to be covered. But I think this plays a lot into my culture and my background as a Dane. I am very liberal and fairly exhibitionistic. I don't really have a problem with nudity or anything like that. But also, I'm so in the mind-set of Joanna that it doesn't affect me personally. I definitely think that it's easier for me because of my nationality, where we don't fret too much about nudity and all that stuff. I think we were the first country to distribute commercial porn.

When you're getting slapped, is it all TV magic or is there any actual pain that happens?
Sometimes you'll have actors such as myself and a few other actors on the show who are willing to go to that extent that says, "Just for one take, slap me right." Sam's not crazy about that, but I mean, sometimes, to get into it and to feel it, we'll do it. I like to go and to push it as far as I can without it being dangerous, obviously, but it helps you as an actress.

Was that your thigh in the season premiere, when Derek draws blood with the knife, or was that a double’s?
No, that was mine. That was my leg. I have a wonderful double, but that was me doing it. This was a very intricate prop with like a little hose filled with fake blood. Sam is not really happy with putting us in real danger. I'm all for it. I don't think I would mind being cut a little bit.

In this week’s episode, Joanna offers to rat out Tyrell. Does she actually love him? That’s a shitty thing to do to someone you love.
Oh, she loves him absolutely and she misses him. The thing is, Joanna has a numero-uno objective, and that's her child. Something hormonally and biologically switches in Joanna as soon as she has this baby. It becomes her everything. Somebody of her mind-set will always have something that is to an extent an obsession. In season one, it's Tyrell. Now she has her baby, and she will go even further and through even more to protect this child. She's exploring every avenue to try to get a little better control over this mess she's in.

Speaking of love: Does Joanna love Derek, her sweet little boy-toy?
She says she does, but the thing with Joanna is we never really know what she means when she says something. I feel like a lot of the things that Joanna says that come out so forcefully, it sounds like this is exactly what she's saying, and it is, but it could also mean 7,000 other things. Is it real love? Is it her thinking, "Maybe I can change my life now and try something new?" We don't know yet. Only time will tell.

Joanna is probably the best-dressed character on the show. How does your mind-set change when you get into one of her outfits?
Kim Wilcox, who was our costume designer on the first season, and I initially had the conversation about Joanna's wardrobe. We could very easily dress her up in black and make her look very villainous, but I told Kim, “I want Joanna to be a wolf in sheep's clothing." Kim already had this idea of these light ethereal Scandinavian colors and that was the concept that we developed. You see this completely dominant, powerful, villainous character who's walking around in these beautiful, floral, light-beige colors. She looks so nice and accessible and approachable. She doesn't seem as intimidating until she stares in your eyes and tries to kill you.

In your mind, do you think Joanna comes from money?
We get a little bit of a taste in season one when she's talking about adopting away her first child. Then, when she's talking to the sweet boy-toy, Derek, in tonight's episode, she says to him, "You don't have any money, but I had all those things before." Putting the pieces together shows that coming from a family where teen pregnancy is unacceptable and talking about this wealth that she's had, I think she comes from a very prestigious and very privileged lifestyle. Now that Tyrell's missing, this is the first time in Joanna's life where she's actually struggling for money. Not having it is really frustrating to her and making her more dangerous in the sense that it's making her desperate.

One last thing: In the season-one finale, why does Joanna speak to Elliot in Danish for a few words?
I want to lead this into a multiple-outcome situation. It could be many things. It could be that she expects him to understand her, or when you're making a death threat to someone that you've just met, saying it in another language is just pretty ballsy. She knows he's not going to understand. Or is he going to understand? At this point I think that we will get more answers to that later on.