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Anyone who’s seen USA’s Mr. Robot knows Stephanie Corneliussen is a talented actor. When we first meet her character, Joanna Wellick, she is strictly a supporting player in another actor’s storyline. As the wife of Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), protagonist Elliot Alderson’s nemesis, her marital status defines her. Tyrell’s ambitions are her ambitions, and she is there to help actualize them. She could have easily remained this way—a Lady Macbeth-trophy wife hybrid, all hard-edges and ruthless determination—but Corneliussen quickly found the compassion in her character. Joanna isn’t just manipulative, she is a devoted partner, and her family is her weakness. When Tyrell disappears at the end of Season One following the birth of their first child, she begins to flounder. Throughout the two-hour Season Two premiere, there are flickers of anguish beneath her aloof exterior.

Born and raised in Denmark, Corneliussen has always been involved in the performance arts. As a child, she studied ballet. “The dream was to be a prima ballerina,” she says over the phone from her current base in Los Angeles. When she turned 13, however, she was deemed too tall to continue: “I was told I was going to be more than six feet tall and I was going to have be cut from the program I was in,” she recalls. “I was heartbroken.” Her father, a psychologist, took her on a consolatory shopping trip to a Copenhagen department store, where she was promptly asked to enter the Supermodel of Scandinavia modeling contest. Initially, she was reluctant—”I was young and not very confident in that aspect,” she explains—but the director convinced her. “She said, ‘How about we do this: If you enter the competition you win.’ I could get behind that.

Modeling gave Corneliussen the financial freedom to move to Los Angeles and try her hand at acting professionally. She started out in small roles, agentless and without a manager. “My first paid acting gig in the states was playing a lizard-transforming, shape-shifting witch in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, I believe,” she says. Before her breakout in Mr. Robot, there were roles she didn’t get. “I really wanted to be a part of the last Bond movie, Spectre. I auditioned and I got great feedback, but I didn’t get the part,” she says. “I asked my manager what he thought and he said, ‘I don’t really see you as a Bond girl… I see you as Bond.’
EMMA BROWN: How did you get involved in Mr. Robot and what was Joanna like when you first encountered her in a script or a side?

STEPHANIE CORNELIUSSEN: When I got the script for Mr. Robot, I was auditioning for a bunch of stuff. I had an audition going for a movie at the time that I wanted to do. My manager kept reaching out to me, “Have you read that Mr. Robot pilot yet? I really think you should.” I was a little discouraged by the name Mr. Robot in the beginning. I remember sitting on my balcony being like, “Fine, fine. Let me read this.” I pulled it up on my phone and I start reading the pilot episode. I always do that before I read the character—I want to know what’s going on or what kind of project it is. I read the first page, second page, and by the sixteenth page my cigarette had burned down and was burning my fingers. I was so into it. By the end of it, my eyes were square from reading it on my phone. I had dropped my jaw and was like, “This is the best thing I’ve read in a very long time.” Joanna doesn’t appear in the pilot episode, so I immediately flipped over from that and started reading the character side. Sam Esmail has a way with words and her description was just so intriguing. The first scene I read from the audition pages I got was the one scene from Season One, Episode Three, where Joanna and Tyrell have this very casual, conniving conversation about setting up a dinner with the Knowles couple while he is tying her up for the bondage, S&M sex stuff and she is about eight months pregnant. I read it and it just struck me: “This is Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.” I was so excited. I called my manager immediately and I was like, “We have to do this! You can say ‘I told you so’ all you want, but we have to do this right now.” We did a self-tape and then I didn’t hear anything. Every day, even on Saturday and Sunday, I called my manager: “Have you heard back from that Mr. Robot project?” Then he called me and left a voicemail, “Call me back. I heard back from Mr. Robot.” He said it in such a nonchalant way that I was like, “What does this mean?” I called him up and he said, “I don’t really understand what’s going on… you booked it. There are no more auditions. You booked it off of the self-tape.”

Full interview:

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