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“I think we already have the answer of how far she’s willing to go,” Stephanie Corneliussen tells THR about her character’s killer instincts.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday’s episode of Mr. Robot.]
Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) isn’t the only troubled individual fighting for his own existence.
In the latest episode of the Emmy-nominated Mr. Robot, several other characters beyond the computer savvy protagonist battle for self-preservation… including Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen), the Lady Macbeth to Martin Wallström’s missing-in-action Tyrell Wellick. The fourth hour of the show’s second season sees Joanna paying hush money to parking lot attendants and begging old enemies for further funds, once she learns that her financial resources are thinning out — just like virtually everybody else in the aftermath of the 5/9 Hack.
Throughout the first season of the series, Joanna’s husband Tyrell gradually lost his grasp on power, spinning so far out of control that he impulsively murdered his business rival’s wife during a rooftop rendezvous. Now, Tyrell’s face and name are connected to the fsociety movement, and his whereabouts are unknown. Four episodes into the second season, it’s Joanna’s turn to navigate the lows of power loss, a challenge she’s struggling with for perhaps the first time in her life.
Stephanie Corneliussen spoke with THR to further explore Joanna’s current state of mind, how far she’s willing to go to protect her own interests, the impact of her past life on her present and future actions, and why she’s just as in the dark about the Tyrell mystery as everyone else.
When we catch up with Joanna in this episode, we see that she’s been paying money to Kareem, the attendant at the parking lot where Elliot woke up in Tyrell’s car at the end of last season…
It’s an interesting thing, right? Kareem shows up in Joanna’s car, and they have this… I want to call it an odd conversation. He’s obviously very worried about something involving the FBI. But from Joanna’s point of view, we have no idea what her particular deal is in this scene. We don’t know who she’s protecting. Is she protecting him? Is she protecting herself? Is she protecting Elliot? Is she protecting Tyrell? To me, playing this scene was so, so odd, because all of the sudden, the link between her and Elliot and Tyrell’s disappearance is starting to mush in together. How does she even know who this guy is? It’s mystifying. And we also see [Joanna’s bodyguard] Sutherland (Jeremy Holm) telling Joanna that they’re in a great deal of money trouble. I think this is the first time in Joanna’s life that she’s been put into that predicament.
Joanna’s funds are dwindling, but late in the episode, she tells her lover that she actually likes that he’s not wealthy — that she’s had lots of wealth in her life, and it never brought her happiness, and this is why she loves him. Should we believe her?
Right now, I think in Joanna’s life, she has no idea where Tyrell is, right? She’s receiving these odd gifts and she hasn’t heard from him. In part two of the season two premiere, she’s sitting by this burner phone, and it rings, and she misses the call. Obviously, she’s in a state of turmoil. With someone like Joanna… let’s call her a fox. When a fox like Joanna is caught somewhere, she has, like foxes do, an escape route. They always dig two holes. They have one to exit and one to enter from. Right now, Joanna is sort of frantically digging up other exits as to where she’s standing right now. I think for the first time in her life, she feels caught. Her husband is missing. The world is exploding and in turmoil with the hacks. So she’s digging escape routes and planning alternate exits for whatever outcome will come from her scheming this season. Maybe this man is one of them — maybe there’s an agenda here — or maybe it’s actual love. We don’t know.
Much of the episode focuses on Elliot’s decision to battle Mr. Robot in a chess match for his soul. Elliot says he’s playing for his “existence.” In her own way, is that what Joanna is playing for this season, too?
She is, and she isn’t, because I don’t think Joanna would ever participate in a game of chess. (Laughs.) I think she would be there punching the timer, trying to control the entire board at once, resenting the fact that she even has to manually move the pieces herself. In fact, it makes it a little harder when you’re playing yourself, when you’re playing both sides of the board. She’s trying to control the game, and it’s becoming increasingly hard for her. And we do see some emotion from her this episode. We see actual frustration, which isn’t normal for her cool and calm appearance.
Joanna was a standout character in season one for that very reason: her cool and calm exterior, and her willingness to do whatever was necessary to protect her interests — for example, when she self-induces labor when the police arrive to interrogate Tyrell. But in this episode, we do see some other sides of her. Sutherland all but explicitly tells Joanna that they should kill Kareem, and she’s having none of it. Is murder a line that Joanna isn’t willing to cross?
I think it’s all in how you read into the line. With Joanna, you always have to remember that when she says one thing, it can mean a thousand things. When she says she’s done with that topic, is she done with the conversation, or is she done with the topic of Kareem? We don’t know. Joanna isn’t as loose of a cannon as, for example, Tyrell. He lost it all over the place in season one, when he strangled Sharon Knowles. I think Joanna will do anything to protect herself in the right way. Getting rid of Kareem… I think she wants to explore all options. I think she wants to see how far she can take it before having to make that ultimate decision. It’s like this: Joanna will always follow plan A and B all the way down to plan C before she takes the final way out. She’ll always try to control and manipulate the situation to her own benefit before she does anything drastic. You see her doing something very drastic in season one, when she’s standing in the kitchen and the NYPD detectives are interrogating Tyrell, and her only option out of that right there is to induce her own labor. She knows that. To some extent, I think we already have the answer of how far she’s willing to go — the question is, will she do it?
You mentioned Sharon Knowles, and in this episode, Joanna meets up with Scott Knowles (Brian Stokes Mitchell), asking him to release Tyrell’s severance package. When they meet, Scott is in bad shape, power-drinking the red wine he loves so much. Joanna and Scott seem like interesting mirrors of each other right now. For instance, both have lost their spouses, even if one of them has a shot at their loved one returning…
I so agree with you. And can I just say I absolutely love Brian Stokes Mitchell? He’s such a great actor. It’s a privilege to get to work with someone like him. He’s so f—ing fantastic, and so sweet and helpful. But the dynamic between them… I love the storyline between Scott Knowles and Joanna this season. You’re exactly right: they are in some ways very equal right now, in more than one way. Like you said, they’ve lost their spouses, their lifestyles are both impacted by the hack, and they are in some ways in equal positions of power — at least mentally and internally. They’re very strong people who are having this very civilized exchange, even if the words exchanged between them aren’t. It’s this very civilized knife match right here, which is such an interesting thing. What you’re seeing is two alpha lions getting ready to attack each other, but in their own conniving ways, they both just stab each other a little bit, enough so that they bleed — not that it’s fatal, but just enough so it bleeds. I think the balls of Joanna to show up to this man’s house, admitting that she knows that her husband killed his wife and in some ways is agreeing to testify to that if he gives her what she needs, I think it’s such a ballsy thing to do. It’s not a very nice thing to do! (Laughs.) It definitely shows her character and her moral compass, that she’s just not a normal person. There’s just no empathy there. There’s no sympathy. This man has just lost his wife, and you’re coming here begging for money? But obviously, begging and bartering for her financial lifestyle is something she’s used to, so it is dragging her into some extremes.
We learned some information about Joanna’s backstory in season one, that she had a child previously and gave the baby up for adoption. How much does Joanna’s past inform her actions in the present and future?
I think there’s a lot. I think I’ve said this before, but when she was talking about the adoption, it shows that she comes from a family where a teen pregnancy is not accepted. She leaves that behind and comes into this life, so I think we can put the pieces together and see that she comes from a very privileged lifestyle. You wonder if a lot of her personality is maybe more by nurture than it is by nature. Does she come from a place and a family and have the social inheritance that makes her into this cold and power-lusting human being? If she comes from a family where she was very privileged and her parents forced her to give up her child for adoption, well, then we have to wonder if she’s not a product of her past, and now taking things to a further level.
Tyrell remains missing in action. Without revealing the outcome, do you think fans will be satisfied when they learn the answer about his whereabouts?
You know what, I’ll tell you something funny. Joanna obviously doesn’t know, but I don’t know either. In the beginning, [the writers] tried to keep the twists hidden, and they certainly did that in season one. This time around, I actually asked not to get the scripts, and only to get my sides. I wanted to be surprised as well. So I don’t know yet. That’s all I can tell you.
So you’re waiting on that answer as much as anyone else?
I’m waiting. I’m watching every Wednesday with everybody else. I’m super excited to see what happens. Tyrell is such a f—ing great character, so as an audience member and as a fan of the show, I’m sure he must turn up again somewhere, some way.
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: interviewmagazine.com
Since she started filming the second season of USA’s hot-buzz hit Mr. Robot, Stephanie Corneliussen has been on a sporadic apology tour.
Seems that sometimes when she’s hanging out with her real-life friends, she brings along her character from the show, Joanna Wellick.
That might sound cool to fans of Mr. Robot, which returns Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET.
“Joanna is a strong female character and I love playing her,” says Corneliussen. “But one of the things about her is that she always says exactly what she’s thinking. ‘If you’ve done anything to him,’ she’ll say, ‘I’ll kill you.’
“She can do that because she’s in complete control of everything that comes out of her mouth. She knows every word will be just what she means.
“I’m not like that. With me, I’ll have a discussion or an argument and five minutes after it’s over, I’ll realize what I should have said.
“I have to think about what I say. So one night recently I was with friends and I was in this weird state of mind where I started saying all these snarky things. It was like Joanna was talking. I had to apologize.”
And then there’s the staring.
“One of the other things about Joanna,” says Corneliussen, “is that she has a tendency to maintain eye contact and not blink. It’s creepy, and sometimes when we’re not filming I keep doing it.
“I was out with a friend and she was telling me something when she suddenly said, ‘Dude, stop staring at me.’ And I realized that’s what I’d been doing. I looked at her arms and the hairs were standing up.”
When filming for a season ends, Corneliussen says, “I try to push Joanna out of my mind.” She was so successful in that effort after season one that when season two filming started, “I had a hard time getting her back. I kept looking for her and then one day it was like she exploded inside my head.”
So who is this character with such a powerful grip?
Joanna Wellick is the wife of Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), who started the first season aiming to become chief technical officer (CTO) of E Corp.
E Corp is the massive, mysteriously and seemingly evil tech conglomerate that the show’s sort-of hero, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) (above), helps to cripple by crashing its computer system. The idea is that this will render billions of dollars in debts uncollectable.
When we first met Joanna, Corneliussen notes, she seemed to be a standard-issue E Corp wife.
“Tyrell grabs her face and tells her he’s going out,” she recalls. “It’s a very dominating power move, as if she’s now supposed to do her nails or whatever corporate wives do.
“But 10 minutes later he’s tied up in bondage, and it’s clear she may be the one wearing the pants in this relationship.”
Those sorts of twists make Joanna a strong character who Corneliussen says is “absolutely fun” to play, though the fun does not extend to Joanna going for laughs.
“We just shot one scene where Joanna has a line that could be very funny,” Corneliussen says. “Depending on how she says it. So I looked over at [creator] Sam [Esmail] and I said, should I do it that way?
“He just gave me that look. Again. And I said I know, I know, she’s not funny.”
Corneliussen calls her own personality somewhat less serious, though that doesn’t means she avoids hard work.
Born in Copenhagen, she studied ballet and has a degree in graphic design. At 13 she was recruited into a modeling career that put her into magazines like GQ and Vanity Fair and into ads for products like Armani.
Modeling was never her goal, though, she says. “I just fell into modeling. I’d always wanted to be an actress, and this show has given me the opportunity to prove I can actually act.”
She impressed Esmail and co-creator Chad Hamilton. Joanna was originally scheduled for a five-episode run, but after the fourth episode was filmed, Corneliussen got a call saying she’d stay a while. For the coming season she’s been promoted to series regular.
Among other things, this puts her deeper into the show’s social media conversation.
“I love talking with fans,” she says. “One of the goals of the show is to make people think, to get them to react, and social media is a place where everyone can interact immediately. It brings people together.”
As for Joanna, Corneliussen says there are times when “I’d like to be a little more like her – to have that confidence and know exactly what I want.”
Goals she does have include ruling the world.
“I grew up with a father who taught me chess at the age of 6 or 7,” she explains. “He’d always beat me. Of course. I was a kid of 6 or 7. After he won, he’d look at me and say, ‘It’s good to be king.’ And then he’d say, ‘But you know what’s even better? To rule the world.’ “
That thought stuck, apparently, though Corneliussen modified it slightly.
“It’s better to be queen than king,” she says. “I think I really want to be empress.”
At 29, she’s got some time. “It’s the long game,” she says. “But if I were Joanna, I’d be empress today.”