Portia Doubleday on How She Learned to Love Self-Help Tapes and Reading Mr. Robot Reddit Theories


Spoilers ahead for tonight's episode of Mr. Robot.

Poor Angela Moss. Things have been rough for Mr. Robot’s fastest-rising junior executive: She was coerced into a wildly dangerous hack of the FBI; she poisoned her relationship with her father; she endured an extremely anxious journey through E Corp’s bureaucracy; she felt she had no choice but to turn herself into the authorities and abandon her childhood friend Elliot; and in tonight’s episode, she was kidnapped and forced to play mind games with a prepubescent girl before getting read within an inch of her life by Whiterose. What’s a gal to do? We caught up with the actor who bears Angela’s stress-molting ponytail, Portia Doubleday, to talk about hearing a child ask her if she’s ever cried during sex, how she learned to stop worrying and love self-help tapes, and reading Mr. Robot fan theories on Reddit.

Let’s talk about Angela’s big scene in tonight’s episode, the one where she’s in the weird room with the strange, ponytailed child, played by Mabel Tyler. Was she a challenge to work with?
She was amazing. Super pro. Way too sophisticated. She was way calmer than I was. That was such an interesting scene. You expect a certain dynamic from a child, but I didn’t know what this was gonna be. I didn’t know how she was gonna play it or what I was getting into. But that works for the scene, because it’s incredibly ambiguous. I loved the moment where I’m walking around the room and discovering it. That was the day that I thought, Wow, I’m just grateful to be on this show. To be in this room with a weird fish tank and this copy of Lolita and all these weird clues, it was just such a departure and so imaginative and creative.

And then to have this girl come in and start asking these questions, it wasn’t as hard as I expected it to be because the environment and the dialogue aided my uncertainty. It was incredibly fun. I didn’t know if I was gonna relate to her or think of her as a child, but when she started to have this weird, deadpan sophistication, it was really startling. Especially when she lifts her shirt and Angela has no idea what’s going on. That was one of my favorite days of shooting.

Did you and Mabel hang out when the cameras weren’t rolling?
Yeah, dude! We were singing Adele’s “Hello” because she was constantly on the phone between takes. She was super smart and super kind. I learned everything about her. She was on Broadway, playing Matilda. We were talking about animal videos the whole time. She was so the opposite of her character, which is always really fun to see, when little kids are that talented. We played around the entire time. I couldn’t believe how much she knew, just about the technicalities. Where to start and stop if we’re resetting, if we need to reset due to hair. She was just really on top of it, which is kind of intimidating. I was like, Why does she know more than I do? 

It’s gotta be surreal to listen to a child say the words “Have you ever cried during sex,” right?
I was a little bit trepidatious about that. I had no idea what to expect. Of course, initially, I was like, This is gonna be really uncomfortable and I hope that she’s comfortable with this. Poor girl doesn’t even know what she’s getting into with this show. She won’t even be able to watch it for the next ten years. I don’t know if it was due to her sophistication and intelligence, but as soon as she was in it, there was no hint of discomfort. It was like any other line. As soon as she ran with it, I was just like, I’ll run with her. Initially I was scared, but it worked out.

I love this: the child actor making the adult actor feel comfortable.
[Laughs.] I know! It’s weird, because it’s a certain responsibility for her in this scene. It’s really weird and she has all these scars on her back. But for her, it’s like, Oh, my god! Fun! Makeup! For me, I’m like, Is this hitting her? And it wasn’t! She made it easier for me.

You got to do a scene with B.D. Wong in this episode. What’s unique about working with him?
B.D. Wong … B.D. Wong is … a real actor. That sounds like such a weird thing to say. B.D. Wong, he takes his time. He gets into these moments. This is the first scene I’ve had with him, and what I enjoyed most about working with him is that he pulls you in, which is nice, because then you become less aware of what you’re doing and you can actually react to what he’s giving you. I would find myself getting lost in his body language, in the way he would phrase things, the way that he was looking at me. It’s very exciting when that happens, because suddenly, everything else disappears around you. You don’t know where you’re gonna go or where he’s gonna go. I really didn’t know. It becomes a process of creating it while you’re in the scene, really figuring out what the scene’s gonna be like and being meticulous about it. These scenes were a real departure for Angela. They’re different from anything else she’s done this season.

As wonderful as your dynamic with B.D. was in that scene, I still feel like your best work comes out in your scenes with Michael Cristofer. The Phillip Price-Angela dynamic is thrilling to watch. How did you and he develop that rapport? Was it there from the start, or did you have to work on it?
I was so excited to do my scenes with him. First of all, he is beyond talented. He’s incredible. He’s just a force. And he’s so charismatic. So it was easy. I also thought their relationship was interesting on the page. I had so many ideas percolating about what was going on between them, because one would maybe assume it’d be a sexual relationship. But what was so interesting about it is that it was a chess match between them. And at the same time, he was her mentor. So she’s trying to beat him at his own game. There are moments, of course, of her being seduced by the power that he has, but it’s not so much that she wants him as much as he wants to become or be him. So coming in with that and adding Michael in the scene, it just started to form on its own. Once it did and I knew what it was, I was so stoked for each scene. Because in each scene, there’s moves that each person makes throughout. That’s a really fun dynamic to play with, and probably my favorite this season.

What did Sam Esmail say Angela’s journey in the second season was going to be?
He called me and I wrote it all down. At first, I just had no idea how to make sense of it, because there’s a lot of back and forth with her, constantly. I think he pushed that line in the second season. I remember, in getting prepared for it, there were moments where you think she’s being seduced by the environment she’s in, because she truly is being seduced by it. And that’s what was so interesting: It isn’t that she chose one path. I remember a lot of people said, in that last scene in the first season, “Oh, she drank the Kool-Aid and now this is who she is.” But it’s actually not the case. There are moments in the first season, like when she goes to that dinner with [Phillip] Price, where she does have certain expectations and she does want to be validated and she is seduced by the power he has and the respect, and she wants that for herself. But at the same time, there are moments where she really questions herself.

The most powerful thing that Sam gave me this season were the positive affirmations [self-help tapes that Angela listens to]. That’s, essentially, where I built her from this season. When I started to understand the need to basically reform the way that you think out of fear, the necessity to be in that much control is where I started with her in the second season. And then everything shaped around that, from how she carried herself to her being more sharp and calculated. That gave me the big hint about who she was gonna be in this season. But the back and forth is really difficult! It was difficult to plan that arc because it’s a weird arc. It’s up and down throughout the season.

That’s so interesting that the positive affirmations were the key. Did you find yourself inspired by them in your civilian life? Were you telling yourself, “I am a strong, confident person; I’m going to get what I want” and all that?
Yeah, I did, actually! [Sam] may not have thought that was the key to her, I’m not sure. But as an actress, that was a really great tool. I remember, one night in New York, I was listening to them for a long time, even in the background, because I didn’t believe in it and I really wanted to, because I wanted to experience a little bit of what that’s like. And it worked! There were moments where it worked! That’s when I got really jazzed. Then I could connect to it. I remember there was this moment — I was making food and I was just in a better mood. I stood there and was like, Oh, my gosh! I’m not in a better mood other than that I keep repeating back to this woman who’s asking me that I’m beautiful and confident, and that I have a world of abundance. It worked!

At this point in the season, does Angela have a plan anymore, or is she just winging it?
She’s completely broken, which is why that scene functions the way that it does. After that moment on the train, she’s lost her mind. I remember, when Sam said, “When you say to Elliot, ‘I can’t keep pretending anymore,’ that’s everything.” The positive affirmations, the trying to change things, the being in control, he was like, “That’s all gone. You don’t have any of it anymore. You’re tapped out. It’s over.” And she really does think it’s over. She’s like, I’m gonna turn myself in to the FBI. When he leaves, that’s what her plan is, which makes it — oh, wait, I can’t say what I was gonna say! Anyway, she’s in a very vulnerable position because she has nothing to lose at this point. She’s really broken. After trying to brainwash herself throughout the season, she doesn’t have that anymore. She’s completely lost a sense of who she is and what she’s even fighting for anymore, if it was worth it.

Even in that scene [on the subway in last week’s episode], when she says to Elliot, “Can you believe that we’re here? That we’re not watching a movie? And that I have to discreetly talk to you on a train? How did this happen?” That’s how she enters this moment. She’s curious about what’s going on there. I remember shooting that scene in the van — ugh, God, it was so hot. It was so, so unbearably hot in that van. Which worked! I was sweaty and had no idea what was going on. Originally, I was like, “Am I supposed to be reacting that I need to get away from these people?” And Sam said, “There’s something about Angela that’s curious about this. It’s not that kind of danger. It’s a different danger, and she’s curious about where this is gonna lead her. That’s how it leads into the other moments, as well.”

Speaking of moments: There was a kiss between Angela and Elliot in last week's scene. Do you see it as a romantic kiss? A final farewell? What was it?
That was really tricky for me. I talked to Sam a lot about that. I was like, “Is this the first time that this is happening? I know that there’s been this spark between these two characters and I understand why they possess the connection that they do have with each other.” I think it was a culmination of a bunch of things. In that moment, of course she’s had these feelings for him. Especially in the first season, when she says to Darlene, “I can’t do this anymore, I can’t be in his life anymore, it’s too hurtful,” she can’t handle the episodes. She’s seen them before. She’s given up hope, even though she still loves him. Sam did say, “Remember, you’re different with him. You’re not Angela in the corporate setting with him, because he represents home to her; he represents the beginning, when they would run away to museums together and had hope and shared that bond of losing a parent and what that’s like.” In that moment, when they have that kiss, it is of course a departure from the life that could have been. That’s why I think there’s something very heartbreaking. It’s not so much that she’s surprised that they kissed, because that’s always been underneath their relationship. It’s more that that life is gone. She thinks that life is over and will never be. It’s a culmination of all those things.

You’re making me realize how much of a downer the show is, at this point.
[Laughs.] Yeah! The show is really sad! All these characters are extremely troubled. Look at Darlene! Darlene killed someone this season! It’s crazy! We have fun on set, though. It’s not a downer set.

At Vulture Festival, you said you sometimes had to check Wikipedia to remember all the twists and turns of the show. Do you still do that?
Of course. The show is so complicated. [Laughs.] There are things I forget. Yes, I do. Sometimes, I have to check. Sam said, “Really, Portia? You have to check Wikipedia?” And I was like, “Yeah! I don’t remember exactly what happened with this hack,” things like that. You sympathize with me! You must! There are just so many little details that really matter and come into play way later. Story lines that crisscross and one thing leads to another, to another. I also read Reddit to see what fans’ theories are. I find them to be really great, since I really don’t know what the reveal of this show is gonna be or where it’s headed. I really enjoy reading those, because a lot of them seem like they’re really onto something.