Stephanie Corneliussen’s Shakespearean Turn

By
Photography Nick Hudson

Published July 14, 2016

STEPHANIE CORNELIUSSEN IN NEW YORK, JUNE 2016. PHOTOS: NICK HUDSON. STYLING: MATT BIDGOLI. MAKEUP: SOUHI/JED ROOT. HAIR: SABRINA SZINAY/THE WALL GROUP. 

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.”

BROWN: So you didn’t have to do a chemistry test or anything like that? That’s pretty amazing.

CORNELIUSSEN: I didn’t do a chemistry test. I didn’t even meet with producers. I just booked it. The following Monday I was in New York and I was on set. The first time I actually ever met Martin [Wallström] was shooting that scene with that big prosthetic belly, being tied up, and I did the whole scene blindfolded. [laughs] I’d never done a scene blindfolded before. 

BROWN: Joanna is now a series regular. Did you know that her character was going to develop into a bigger role?

CORNELIUSSEN: Not at all. Tyrell is the main antagonist in Season One. Joanna was originally a “recurring guest star,” but what she really was, was a supporting character to his storyline. I understood my place in that. Of course I wanted to do a good job, but I felt that I was there for Martin, I was there for Tyrell, as she is in the beginning of the season. Then she develops into this very controlling, very strong character and figure. In the beginning, I believe I was only supposed to do five episodes. Martin and I hit it off immediately. He’s the fucking greatest guy I’ve ever had the chance to work with. He’s just an incredible actor and incredible scene partner. We just had a blast. It was very easy for us. We got into it straight away. After that, they enhanced the character and they gave the character two more episodes. All of a sudden I was in seven out of 10. I was super excited about that. Sam really loved the character; I really loved the character. I wasn’t expecting her to become a fan favorite. I don’t know the process when Sam writes, but I think he has more than one option—not a plan A, B, and C, but this whole open universe. Seeing the character being received so well and seeing the dynamic between me and Martin, he decided to make her into a series regular. As a breakout role, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

BROWN: We’ve seen the controlling wife before, but Joanna genuinely seems to care about her husband.

CORNELIUSSEN: Joanna loves Tyrell more than anything. He is her soul mate. I like that the kids on Twitter are calling it “ride or die.” It really is. They have this very special connection. Whatever society’s idea is of a loving and caring relationship, when you find that one person who is a part of your space, your teammate, and you can create that kind of union that they have, that’s the true meaning of soul mate.

BROWN: When did you decide you wanted to become an actress?

CORNELIUSSEN: I knew from a very, very young age. I have, god knows, an undeniable talent for lying, so it was either real estate in Florida or actress. I’m not crazy about humidity, so I chose actress. [laughs] I always put on a show. My grandma loved to read the H.C. Andersen fairy tales to me. I remembered being so drawn and sucked into the universe of fairy tales. Everything I read or was read to me would stick with me forever. I would reenact it in my head, I would build the story; I would do all these things. I knew it was going to be acting for me. I think it’s so much fun.

BROWN: Did you grow up watching a lot of movies?

CORNELIUSSEN: I did. I was completely obsessed with Lauren Bacall—[it was] between Lauren Bacall, Sharon Stone in Casino, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not with Humphrey Bogart, understanding that she may not actually be that woman, that it’s just a character she’s doing, made me so fascinated—the possibility that you could pretend to be something else. Being a little insecure teenage girl, it changed a lot for me because sometimes if I was feeling very vulnerable about a situation, I’d pretend that I wasn’t. I’m not necessarily sure that that was a healthy thing, but if you tell yourself something enough you start believing it.

BROWN: Were you in school plays?

CORNELIUSSEN: I suffered from terrible stage fright when I was young. I always played the tree or something like that. [laughs] I remember, I probably wasn’t more than 12 years old, having to go onstage as this tree with one or two lines. I was standing backstage, the whole school was there and all the parents were there, and I was crying frantically. Tears were coming down my cheeks: “I can’t do it!” My drama teacher grabbed me and was like, “You’re going to go out there and be the best frigging tree you can be! Do you hear me?!” And she shoved me out onstage and I wobbled out there in my tree costume and it was a funny line and people started laughing. As soon as they started laughing, everything changed. I was like, “Wait, what? What is that?” I actually started doing comedy. Everything I’d done before Mr. Robot had comedic relief to it. Portraying Joanna, I always say to Sam, “Would she say it like this? Oh no, she doesn’t have a funny bone in her body. Never mind. Ignore that.”

BROWN: It must have been such a change to go from being 12 and crying because you don’t want to go on stage as a tree in your school play to being 13 and a model.

CORNELIUSSEN: Tod Campbell, who’s our director of photography on Mr. Robot, jokes about how I always find the light. If an actor gets in my light I’ll always slide a little to the right or slide a little to the left. It just comes so naturally from the modeling. It’s such a technical part of acting, too. I certainly had never thought about that when I got into acting: you have to hit your marks; you have to stand a certain way and look a certain way or all of a sudden you’re out of frame. Modeling helped me. I use it a lot for Joanna because she’s so incredibly subtle in all her expressions—there’s nothing over the top with her. She’s just very in her element at all times.

BROWN: Did you act in Denmark at all professionally?

CORNELIUSSEN: I tried. [laughs] I never had a very successful modeling career by my own standards, but I guess in Denmark I was definitely known as model. When I tried getting into acting, I feel like I was shutdown because of that. They wouldn’t even let me read. They wouldn’t even give me the chance to see if I could do it. That’s sort of jaded me a little bit. Now when I’m approached in Copenhagen about a project I’m kind of like, “No!” [laughs]

BROWN: Whenever you watch or read an interview with Mr. Robot actors, they all talk about Sam Esmail. Is it normal to have a showrunner who’s that involved?

CORNELIUSSEN: I don’t think it is. Sam is one of those true new visionaries. I think he’s going to be a Coppola or a Spielberg. He’s going to be one of those people who really takes over and puts his mark on this industry. I have this funny relationship with Sam; I don’t know if there’s ever been a person in the history of the universe in relation to my life, besides my father, who I wanted to please so badly. [laughs] It’s the weirdest thing. Once in a blue moon, you get a pat on your shoulder. We did a very challenging scene a couple of days ago and I really gave it my all—I gave it my everything. Him coming over, standing a few feet away while I was still in character, and sending a little “Mwah”—a kiss in the air with his hands up—I almost started crying.

SEASON TWO OF MR. ROBOT AIRS WEDNESDAYS ON USA.