A phone conversation with Mr. Robot‘s Ashlie Atkinson. Don’t worry. Megan McLachlan isn’t part of the Dark Army. Yet.
During my phone call with Ashlie Atkinson, who plays Janice on USA’s Mr. Robot, our connection cut out. Twice. (The last time with a screeching sound!)
“Someone doesn’t want us to talk,” said Atkinson. And we laughed, because it was so appropriate for her taxidermist Dark Army character.
Atkinson has a lot to laugh about lately, with parts in some of the best movies and TV from the last couple of years. Most recently, she turned up on the Emmy Award-winning Fosse/Verdon. And last year, you may remember her as Connie in Blackkklansman (she calls her character “a complete piece of garbage”).
But based on our phone conversation, I think Atkinson needs to do a comedy.
Awards Daily: You’re coming into the final season of Mr. Robot. Were you a fan of the series before taking the role of Janice?
Ashlie Atkinson: Oh, I was a massive fan. My husband and I followed all three seasons beforehand. Actually, he would not let me tell him anything that happened in Season 4. If you watch, you know there’s something major, right off the bat. We are running from the second the season opens. Major characters getting eighty-sixed, and he wouldn’t let me talk to him about any of it. I had to keep all of that information to myself. It was brutal. I ended up actually telling my mom, who’s from an older generation. She’s trying to watch the show, but tells me none of it makes sense to her. But I ended up telling her things because I couldn’t sit on them anymore, and I knew she wouldn’t have anyone to tell. None of her friends would understand it either. I can’t imagine them being at bridge, talking about hacking.
AD: (Laughs.) That’s a very Mr. Robot thing to do. For you to tell someone your secrets to someone you know won’t tell anyone, just to confess.
AA: Right! Yes! I love to be able to confess to someone. My ‘hello, friend.’
AA: Speaking of Janice, she has to be a lot of fun. She comes off as so harmless at first, when we meet her, but she’s bad news.
AA: It was so cool to read this part and for it to feel like a language I understood instinctively. Sometimes there are characters you read and you’re like, I don’t know how these words fit in my mouth. But Janice made perfect sense to me when I read her initially. I hear this. I hear the cadence of it. I feel like I understand this. But it was also super fun, as like a fat middle-aged white lady. I think those are people that are often considered harmless, and that harmlessness can cause a lot of damage, as we’ve seen politically. Blackkklansman had echoes of that, too. But it was really fun from a personal perspective to be able to play the person who gets overlooked and then really sticks it to someone. It’s great to know that that’s not something that’s developing in the moment. It’s something that Janice is using. She’s actively sitting there the entire time, knowing Dom has no time for her and thinks she’s this, that, and the other. And she knows that they’re going to go outside, and Janice is going to ruin her life. Janice really gets off on having those tools and just hiding them in her pocket, ready to use whenever she wants to.
AD: And now Dom is one of the tools in her pocket.
AA: Yes, exactly! To use the language Vera (Elliot Villar) uses, Dom is Janice’s bat, and she’s going to wield that bat to beat up Elliot and Darlene. The Dark Army doesn’t seem that interested in Darlene, which is actually problematic for Darlene, because now we just want to kill her off, which is terrifying. Both those actresses, Grace Gummer and Carly Chaikin, are such fantastic scene partners.
AD: How do you think taxidermy plays into her role with the Dark Army? Do you have a backstory for her?
AA: It’s weird because usually I’m really into making backstories for characters, but I also know that in TV, especially when you’re a character that spans over a season or several seasons, you have to be very careful about backstories because sometimes you will build yourself one and then the writers will toss those out the window, and it can be a bit of a mess. I usually get really into backstories, but Janice somehow resisted all my attempts to make a story for her. I felt like she came out fully formed. I found her in different places than in backstories. The taxidermy was one of those things. There’s something about the precision that she really likes. The element of exerting control over creatures. I think she likes dead things, in a very basic level, which is not something I’m ascribing to other taxidermists. I worked with a taxidermist learning about this stuff and I feel like I always have to explain that Janice is not representative of the art or practice of taxidermy because I gained a huge respect for their art form when I was learning about it. They’re not Janices. (Laughs.) I think they get a bad rap because they work with creatures that aren’t alive anymore. They call it a taxidermy ‘studio’ because they’re making art. It’s an art form like painting a bird in flight. They’re trying to recreate; their medium is just different.
AD: What was it like working opposite Grace Gummer? A lot of your conversations were over the phone, so did you ever feel like you were in your own little world as Janice?
AA: Yeah. I think that the isolation is super helpful in helping me find her. She’s someone, whether it’s warped or not, and it most certainly is—I’ll just say that—Janice’s relationship with Dom is her most important relationship. Janice lives in a very hermetically-sealed world of her own creation. I think she really likes Dom, which is easy because Grace Gummer is one of the most delightful humans to walk the planet. She’s just wonderful and giving as a scene partner. Coming into the fourth and final season of a show as a series regular is a weird thing. It’s like they’re getting a new roommate, and I’m like moving all my stuff in. I’m gonna play loud music until two in the morning. (Laughs.) They are sharing their project with me in a very real way, so it was really great to be with Grace throughout that process.
The very first night we worked, it was freezing cold and we were out of town working on the scenes at her mother’s house. So the first time you see me is the first thing we shot. The interior and then the exterior when we’re out near the car and I let her know exactly what’s up. It was so cold and so late, and I feel like for better or worse, those situations cause actors to either really fed up and freaked out or they bond. I get to say some really crazy things. I think I found the way we were going to operate in these scenes. She does not get to enjoy me as a character. I’m in a lot of scenes where I’m getting to have the time of my life, causing fear, negative emotions, and pain. When I would watch Grace and Carly work, I’d have to leave the room so I wouldn’t pick up the feelings they were putting down.
AD: Your character Connie in Blackkklansman is kind of similar to Janice, as both seem so sweet but have dark intentions. Are you attracted to characters like that?
AA: I am. With Blackkklansman, I thought it was a really important conversation to have about the complicity of white women and this systemic problem of letting them off the hook, whether they’re doing something incredibly violent or propping up brothers or husbands actively politicizing white supremacists. I think Connie is a very different person from Janice. There is a weakness in Connie that I don’t think exists in Janice. I think that their similarities stop at that they are outwardly perceived as normal. As a fat middle-aged white lady that examines the place of women who look like me, not only are we considered harmless but it allows us way too much ability to move in the shadows.
AD: Between Sam Esmail, Spike Lee, and Martin Scorsese, you’ve worked with some of the best directors in the business. What have you learned from them and is there one director you’re dying to work with?
AA: I learn something different from each of them every time. Sam [Esmail] is amazing because he’s so technical. There’s a scene where I’m working on a dog and I’m sewing a dog together. It’s through this interesting lens where an eighth of an inch and I’m either in or out of frame. He was so cool. You don’t really get to pay that much attention to directing unless you’re not acting. Somewhere along the way I got to come in and shadow Sam. It was astonishing. When it comes to other directors, I would work with Craig Zobel every day if I could. I worked with him on the series One Dollar. But I’m excited to meet new, young directors. The next one I’m wanting to work may be one I don’t know yet.
AD: What are you working on now?
AA: I just finished work with my Blackkklansman co-star Ryan Eggold on the show New Amsterdam. It’s been a great experience. And there’s a bunch of stuff I can’t talk about yet.
Mr. Robot airs on USA Network.