Mr. Robot: Stephanie Corneliussen on Joanna’s Vulnerability

Who's really in control on Mr. Robot? Stephanie Corneliussen gives us a hint...

Stephanie Corneliussen complimented my eyes when I interviewed her for Mr. Robot. This flustered me. It was sort of a much kinder and sincere version of the kind of control her Mr. Robot character, Joanna, has over the people in her life. We were introduced to Joanna as Tyrell’s wife in season one, gradually learning not only of her bondage fetish, but that she actually controlled Tyrell.

The 29-year-old Danish model and actress is no stranger to cover shoots, commercials, and TV guest spots. But she’s finally breaking out with a recurring role on USA’s standout hacker drama. Joanna was promoted to a series regular for Mr. Robot’s second season. I met her at the NBC party for the Television Critics Association, as USA is one of NBC’s cable arms, and we got to speak about the first half of the season 2… 

In the first season, were you told that Joanna would be a continuing character and would be important on the show? 

I had no idea. I’ll tell you, the technicality part of it is that I was booked as a guest star. My job, as an actress, was to be a good scene partner to Martin Wallstrom, who plays Tyrell Wellick. He was one of the leads and he had this storyline and I was supporting that, being a team player on the Wellick team. Slowly that changed. I think I was booked for about five episodes. That changed to seven and then by the time of season two, I was offered a series regular role. I don’t know how much Sam Esmail had intended for that to happen or if Joanna grew on him as much as she seemed to do on the rest of the fan base of Mr. Robot. Now here we are. I can’t complain. 

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Did you discover at the same time we did that she was really pulling the strings? 

I did actually. When I auditioned for Joanna, I auditioned with that scene when she’s in bondage in episode three of season one, and only that scene. It’s an odd conversation in the sense that they could be planning their next family vacation but really they’re talking about conning and scheming this other couple so they can make everything easier for themselves. Yeah, it was interesting. When you see that first scene of Tyrell grabbing Joanna’s face and telling her the lay of the land and saying this is how it’s got to be. Then a couple minutes later, she’s in that bondage going, “You’re not done yet.” He’s like, “I’m tired.” and she’s like “Well, too bad.” 

Can you imagine how this very powerful woman likes to be submissive in private? 

Yes. I think as human beings we need some balance in our life, right? I can’t imagine how it must be for Joanna being in such control all the time. Every single moment of every day, she knows exactly what she wants and what she’s going to say and what she’s going to do. I wish I could do that. So I think those moments where she gets into bondage and she the submissive role, even though it’s not completely submissive because she is letting someone do it, I think that’s her relinquishing that control. That’s her escape. Some people go to the spa. Joanna gets tied up.

That sort of relationship is about trust. I imagine it must be hard for her to trust someone.

I think she is very confident, maybe overly confident that nothing is going to happen to her. I think that she would also never choose a partner that was actually in a power position. 

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Like when she tells her lover “you’ll never take me to Madrid,” was that a powerful scene for you? 

I thought that scene was so interesting. Isn’t that the definition of a backhanded compliment, literally what she did? Tearing someone down and then building them up. It’s that “Buttercup” song. There’s a very interesting dynamic that I can’t reveal yet about Joanna and Derek and I think that you should just keep watching to see what happens. 

It is a backhanded compliment, but is she more vulnerable in that scene than we’ve ever seen her?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. Obviously there’s the human factor, the biological and anatomical factor that plays into it. She’s hormonal. She just had a baby. Secondary, her husband’s missing. She gave Tyrell that ultimatum in episode nine of season one but she loves him and she misses him. She doesn’t know where he is and I think laying on this man’s chest, the feeling she has for this for this younger beau, going to Madrid, going to Europe, this is something she used to do with Tyrell and wants to do with Tyrell. I think a combination of that, the baby and her life being in turmoil is showing a new side of her. 

The cinematography of Mr. Robot is so interesting, framing everyone in the lower corner of the screen. Do you notice a difference doing scenes that way? 

Oh yeah, absolutely. We play very, very close to camera as well which is different. Our eyeline is very often, you know that cardinal rule of not looking into the camera? Our eyeline is so close to the camera. 

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Rami breaks that intentionally all the time. 

Oh yes, but that is to include you. He breaks the fourth wall. Even us other actors are encouraged to be as close to the edge as possible. I think the cinematography in Mr. Robot is some of the best I’ve ever seen honestly. Not even as being part of the show but as somebody who enjoys cinema and movies in film and TV. 

Was it a big adjustment the first time you did a scene like that?

No, not necessarily. Normally Sam likes to shoot in this way that he takes the wide shot, which means the one where you’re both in frame at the same time first. And then you get each your coverage. I think at that point, you’re so in the scene and being so attentive to your scene partner, to the other actor, that you don’t really notice where the camera is. Sometimes you get a little tug on the sleeve that goes, “Lean literally a millimeter to your right because otherwise you’re not going to be in frame.” That’s different. You have to be very specific on the technical part of the acting.

Have you appreciated that the women on Mr. Robot have their own individual storylines, including yours as Joanna? 

Absolutely, and I think it’s pioneering in some sense, right? I feel like in our industry, there’s been a concern or a disheartening for a lot of the female actors for a very long time that we’re not necessarily being treated equally in scenes and behind the camera. This is different. This is women that aren’t necessarily being pushed in the other extreme. We’re not being glorified as these unnatural women. We are real women. The characters are real women who are equals. I think that is a huge step for me as an actress and I think for the TV industry in general.

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This season, did you have a lot more information ahead of time?

No. No, they tell us nothing. The first table read, we did five episodes of reading and then I don’t know. It’s a very Sam thing to do. He likes us to not have all the information and we appreciate it. I think that he wants us to evolve with the information. Sometimes when you know everything, you act everything. When you don’t know it all, you have to make those adjustments. In real life, you don’t know what’s going to happen in five minutes so you react to it realistically. That’s what we do when we’re told right before we have to do something, “This is what’s going to happen.” 

Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on USA.