Before she could become hacker Darlene in USA Network’s Golden Globe-winning series, Mr. Robot, Carly Chaikin needed to find ten ways to turn off a light bulb. This wasn’t a life or death situation, as many things on the show these days are, but rather, a character building exercise: In order to play a hacker, you need to think like one.
Prior to filming the pilot of the critically acclaimed techno-thriller, showrunners brought in a seasoned hacker to teach the cast about a hacker’s mentality. The lightbulb exercise becomes harder when you run out of the obvious answers (unplug it, cut the electricity, remove it from the lamp, flip the switch), and it was meant to convey to the cast the ways in which hackers think when presented with a problem without conventional answers.
“He told us to get creative — close your eyes, put a sheet over it, leave the room,” Chaikin, 27, told Refinery29 when she visited the New York office last week, her hair styled in loose waves and heels in hand in between promotional media visits for the show. “That’s what it is to be a hacker. You have figure out a creative way to get from point a to point b.”
Of course, on Mr. Robot the route from point a to point b is never all that simple: Plans go awry, and nefarious forces in and outside of the hacker community are at work. Now that the show is in its third season, Chaikin is used to the many plot twists and turns. Even though she far from the first female hacker to appear in pop culture — there was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander and Hackers’ Kate Libby, among others — Chaikin’s Darlene is one of the first modern representations of a hacker who feels relatable.
Over the course of the show’s three seasons, Darlene’s role has become increasingly richer: She not only served as the temporary leader of the hacker team F Society, she also evolved into the group’s moral compass. Although the show’s protagonist is undoubtedly Elliot, Darlene’s brother who crafted the master hacking plan that has defined much of the show’s storyline, it’s Darlene who is his loyal, give-no-fucks equal. She repeatedly makes it clear that she doesn’t need a man to assist her in any area of her life.
“The douche I was dating proposed to me — can you believe that?” Darlene asks Elliot in one of their early encounters, explaining why she can’t live in her old home for the time being. “What an asshole.”
The importance of seeing strong female hackers like Darlene who break the mold onscreen, goes back to the numbers: As with the rest of the tech industry, hacking has a significant gender gap. In a 2016 hacker report from HackerOne, a security company that uses hackers to uncover site vulnerabilities, only 97% of the 617 hackers surveyed identified as male. But you need only look at a site like VanitySec, a blog that combines interests in fashion with online security (it was founded earlier this year female cybersecurity experts), to know that there are women working in the field — granted, on the right side of the law — who are defying the stereotype.
Chaikin isn’t unaware of the power her character has to shift the predominant hacker image. “I never thought about it at first until after we won the Golden Globe [in 2016] and were backstage doing the Q&A,” Chaikin told Refinery29. “A woman asked me, ‘How does it feel to represent women in the tech world?’ It’s so cool to get to be that person.”
Still, that doesn’t mean her role as a malware coder on the show isn’t controversial — she is, after all, doing so in an illegal context. Amanda Rousseau, one of the founders of VanitySec and the senior malware researcher at cybersecurity firm Endgame, thinks the portrayal is on point, but takes issue with Darlene’s actions in Mr. Robot. “I don’t recommend women going down her path of hacking outside of the law,” Rousseau told Refinery29. “I don’t condone making malware unless it’s for pentesting, not hacktivism. Hacktivism starts to get into the realm of Anonymous and Wikileaks, which some security folks frown upon."
In person, Chaikin is not so unlike her on-screen persona. She comes across as laid back, but you can see the gears turning when she speaks. And, she knows what she wants. When asked what attracted her to Mr. Robot, she still recalls how she felt after reading the pilot: “I literally closed my computer and was like, holy shit, and could not stop talking about it all night because I was so blown away by the story.”
Chaikin won’t reveal what’s next in the action-packed third season, which is scheduled to wrap up on December 13. But no matter what code is written in the finale, you can expect Darlene will play a part.