When Michael Cristofer signed on to play Phillip Price, E Corp’s CEO, last year, he was arguably the most accomplished member of the Mr. Robot cast. His 1977 play, The Shadow Box, won a Tony award for best play, and earned Cristofer a Pulitzer. On Robot, while he only had a handful of scenes during the first season, Cristofer was one of the show’s highlights, as an executive with little-to-no moral qualms and an innate ability to toy with human emotions. He became a series regular before the second season began shooting, and following Price’s scene with Whiterose during Wednesday’s episode, Vulture caught up with Cristofer to discuss his references for Price, his long monologues, and his character’s lack of fear.
By Mr. Robot’s standards, that was a fairly long scene last night.
[Laughs.] Well, Sam does like the long speeches.
Did you have any hesitations working with a first-time showrunner when you first read for Phillip Price?
After I read the first three scripts — the pilot and the next two scripts — I immediately thought they were very impressive. Any TV show where you don’t have to say, “Oh, look, the cops are coming!” is really a gift. I didn’t appear until the third episode, and I didn’t do much, but then Sam asked about coming back. I have done a few TV shows, and I wasn’t really desperate to do another television show unless it was really good.
I knew these scripts were good, but I didn’t have a clue about the part, or what it would be, so questioned Sam a little about that. Sometimes you make decisions based on your first instinct about somebody, and I was just so impressed by him. I said yes, I would love to be part of this. And then slowly over the last three to four episodes [of the first season], the part got better and better, and then, when B.D. Wong and I had that final scene, I was really hooked on what would happen for next season, so I signed on. And now I am a regular I guess.
Phillip is such a fascinating character — he projects this powerful image, and one that he uses to manipulate nearly every character on the show.
He is powerful because he is fearless. And he sees every crisis as an opportunity. As he says to Angela in the scene in the restaurant — once you remove emotion from this, it’ll all be fine. And that is who he is.
He is passionate, but I do believe he is not limited by his emotions or by fear in the way most people are. To him, I think most of humanity is a bit like an experiment. He sees human beings as specimens. As people who are burdened by their emotions, and burdened by their fears. Philip has no fear of death. I think he delights, like God, in watching human beings squirm under the burden of their emotions and fears.
I’m glad you mentioned that scene with Angela [in episode three]. I think it is one of the best so far this season.
As soon as I read it and was preparing to do the scene, I knew that moment needed to be really intimate. That was all I had in my mind. When we first staged the scene, I did get very close to her. And then Sam orchestrated it a little, so that it was a much slower approach into getting that close to her, and by doing that, the move into her, and the intimacy, suddenly felt like it had a bit of a threat in it. It seemed to have not just a fatherly thing, but also a sexual thing.
I had the impulse to be very close to her when I finished that scene. Talk about using a person as a specimen. He takes her on this extraordinary journey, and then hands her those two guys that were responsible for her mother’s death, and then puts it into her hands. Because he wants to see what she will do, what this human being is capable of. I had the impulse, and then Sam finessed it for me.
What was the thought process, then, for the scene last night with Whiterose?
First of all, what was really lucky about that scene — we went out there and were meant to shoot it in daylight and sunshine, and suddenly it started to rain. We thought at first we would have to not do it, and then Sam said, “Just get some umbrellas.” I first saw the scene when I was doing some ADR, looping, and the umbrellas created a visual thing for the scene that is remarkable.
What can I say and what cannot I say? Phillip and Whiterose certainly have an agenda. There have been some attempts on both their parts to manipulate each other into a more or less powerful position in terms of that agenda. And I think you come into this scene thinking Phillip is the underdog. Phillip needs the bailout money, and he has figured out a way to get it. Then we learn this new information that Whiterose murdered his predecessor, and so then there is this veiled threat. It was nice to have this opportunity to unleash the differences between our two characters. You have Whiterose, who is the ultimate anal character — with his ticking watch — and then you have Phillip, who is the ultimate flexible, versatile guy. Suddenly, Phillip expresses to Whiterose the difference between the two of them. He is a mercenary, and whatever he has to do, he will do, and then there is this personal thing, which still is a question and unexplained: “I would rather lose myself then see you win.” There is a lot more personal going on between them than we know right now.
It also seemed like the first time we’ve seen Phillip lose his cool, which of course felt strategic.
There have been inklings, small examples early on, on the phone with John Boehner, and I guess a couple of scenes that haven’t been shown yet, but there have been a few places where you do see that anger that he has in him. I don’t think it is emotional — anger is another tool of his.
Since Phillip views the world as this experiment, this also seems like a departure for you as an actor.
The character I played in Rubicon was similar, but more strangely idiosyncratic in a way. He was a peculiar guy. Phillip is smoother and cooler, and I think more powerful and more solitary. There is no mention of family, wife, children, nothing. He is a solitary figure in a very complex world. That is new.
Did Sam give you any direction with Price, or did you have to do some research to build the character?
It is a little bit of both, but mostly, almost all of it came out of what was written on the page. He is very specific, and by now, Sam has done enough writing of him that I have formulated, in my brain, who and what he is. And it has mostly come from Sam’s writing.
I’ve had some experience with, and knew a couple of people who were kind of in the Phillip Price world. I had dealt with a man named Lionel Pincus on a social level as well as interviewing him, or seeing him, or watching him. He was part of Warburg Pincus, which is a huge banking-investment firm. I happened to spend time with Lionel personally, and he was one of the people who manipulated the government into relieving regulation so that pension funds could suddenly invest. He was a very powerful guy, and spending time in his company, what was fascinating to me was how he was unprepossessing and seemingly without ego, and yet extraordinarily powerful. And always outer-focused. “What were you doing? What were you about?” Someone described Bill Clinton that way too, that was his power and his charm, and Lionel had that ability. You never felt intimidated in any sort of obvious way, but you know you were dealing with someone who was very powerful.
And when I got the scripts for this season, and I read these scenes, I thought, this is it. The man has no fear. He might at some point. Sam might do something that will introduce that into him, but right now, this incredible absence of fear. I don’t know that he is nicest guy in the world, but it is a pleasure to investigate what it feels like to be without fear, and have that relationship to people. It has been a real treat.
This interview has been edited and condensed.