THE FEARLESS STEPHANIE CORNELIUSSEN
Photographers: Devin Dygart & Nick Hunt
Stephanie Corneliussen is conspicuous in any crowd. Standing six feet tall with dark hair and ice-blue eyes, she so thoroughly embodies the stunningly fearless Joanna Wellick from USA's hit series Mr. Robot that it's almost difficult to discern one from the other. Yet they are nothing alike—except, maybe, for the fearlessness.
Intense, engaging, and a touch irreverent, Corneliussen is as comfortable talking about animal rights as she is about Sega Genesis. She takes herself lightly, but her work seriously—a balance she attributes to her Danish upbringing. With Mr. Robot behind her, the actress is embarking on a slew of new projects (still under wraps, though not for long), and we anticipate that in the coming year, she'll become impossible to ignore. We met up with Corneliussen as she was celebrating her 31st birthday to talk about what it feels like to be a rising star, how she stays grounded in Hollywood, and what we can expect from her in the years ahead.
What was it like moving from Copenhagen to Hollywood?
I was modeling before I started acting so I had lived, traveled, and worked pretty much all over Europe. But when I came here, I came with nothing and knew no one. It was a bit overwhelming and a bit of a culture shock as well. I come from a very proactive, socialist country. There are many things I hadn't experienced growing up in Europe that I all of a sudden have to have an opinion about here. Gender roles are very different, homophobia, racism—things that I never dealt with as a Dane.
Has L.A. rubbed off on you?
I never did yoga until I moved here—so that's something. I've been vegan for a couple of years now, and I feel great. But otherwise I don't think so. I hear a lot that there's a certain superficial attitude about L.A., but I feel like it's blown out of proportion. I was lucky to find a really good group of friends here right off the bat who were super grounded. Most Angelinos I meet are chill. I mean weed is legal here—how aggressive can they be? It's also nice that they're surrounded by famous people all the time, so they don't care much about who you are.
Where do you usually hang out?
I'm pretty much always in West Hollywood. There are fantastic restaurants here; though L.A. isn't known for it, it's really a culinary city. I love Crossroads, which is a vegan fine dining restaurant. Their "oysters" made with artichoke and their "meatball" pizza are amazing. I just tried a new Peruvian place, Rosaline—they have this outstanding vegetarian paella (they can make it vegan); I've never had rice like that in my life. I'm actually going back tonight. I really like Alfred's on Melrose for coffee.
I don't really go out to bars. My cousin told me that I'm the most anti-social social person that she's ever met, [laughs] it's true. I like engaging with people but at the same time I like spending time with myself. I feel most comfortable when I'm being creative—whether it is drawing, painting, acting, writing music—I try to do as much of it as I possibly can. That or play PlayStation—I love Assassin's Creed. Video games are a great way to interact with yourself.
What do you like to paint?
I do a shit-ton of portraits—self-portraits and other people's portraits. There are a lot of weird abstract paintings of my face in my apartment right now… [laughs] that sounds so egotistical. I think mostly I'm trying to capture myself in my mental state.
Do you feel it helps you with acting?
Absolutely. You are in a relationship with the characters you play, and—like any relationship with another person—it helps to shake out the emotions artistically. I had such a creative block after Joanna. My dad paints as well, so when I went back to Copenhagen after she was killed off he was like—we are going to go get some canvases and work through this. We basically drank a bunch of wine and painted together. I love doing that.
What was the first moment you thought: I've made it?
See I wouldn't even say that I've made it yet. I've got my foot in the door… but maybe that's just me playing it down. I don't think I can see it because I'm in it. I still wake up in the morning and make my coffee and change my cats' litterbox. I still live in the same apartment. I recognize that some things are changing—people do stop me on the street, and all of a sudden people have an opinion about me. But I'm still just… me.
I think it's good to aim high and dream big but to keep your expectations low. The first time I ever booked an acting gig—I think it was Royal Pains—I was ecstatic. Just the fact that I had a small recurring guest role felt like a big win. Obviously, Mr. Robot was the big break. I loved the show from the second I read it and I loved the character [Joanna]. It was a privilege that I got the opportunity so early in my career to demonstrate that I am a good actor, not just a model who wanted to transition to acting. I tried with teeth and claws to not fall into that category. I wanted to prove myself.
What has surprised you most about acting?
There's so much more to having an acting career than acting. There are so many people involved in making a single decision. You have a manager and an agent and another agent and a publicist—there's a whole machine behind it that I guess I wasn't aware of. And I like to stay very involved when it comes to the choices of my career. I was 22 years old when I got here—not a dime in my pocket and banking it all on hope. It was a big risk and it was a big move. I don't want it to be for naught.
What did you bring to the role of Joanna in Mr. Robot that no one else could have?
We have this thing in Denmark called the Law of Jante. It's a sort of social contract you're brought up with that says you are not to think that you are special, or that you are better or smarter than anyone else—basically don't be a cocky smartass. I think that is rooted so deep within me, so when I'm in a position where I have to compliment myself or say something I exceled at—especially based on someone else's creation—it's very hard. I don't want to take more credit than the credit that applies to me if that makes sense. I think that the Law of Jante would be FABULOUS for a good portion of the American white male population.
I do think that I brought something to Joanna that I don't think anyone else could have. I feel I embodied her and made her a real person. She's become almost a cult figure. People are obsessed with her, and so was I. But it's hard for me to compliment myself in that way without feeling that I'm arrogant. I just want to show up and do a good job.
Joanna is a bit crazy though. That must have been difficult.
She's a full-blown sociopath! And I'd like to say that I am not. It was fascinating to get into that mentality. It took a lot of research. Method acting relies on finding some deeper, inner consciousness that you can play on—we all have an inner life and an external life, thoughts and dreams. When you have nothing in common with a character, you have to create all of that. It was a whole journey into a new person who was friggin' nuts—it was fun.
How did it feel to part with that role?
I miss her so much. I've been respectful and accepting of the choice that they made to discontinue her story. But honestly… I didn't feel like her time was up. I'm going to quote all the Twitter fans when I say this, but I feel like she deserved better. But at the same time I have the utmost respect for Sam Esmail. I think what he created was brilliant, really. There's no resentment, no hard feelings. But I was sad it had to end. I was worried that the fans would think that I wanted to leave the show, so I want to make it clear that I really wanted to stay. I loved being on the show, and I'd love to find a role like that again.
Do you see yourself ever creating your own roles—maybe writing or directing?
Yes—but I'm not sure that I can contractually talk about that yet. There is something in the works that I'm heavily involved with on my own accord. You will know about it very soon.
If you could go back to any one place you lived while modeling which would it be, and what would you do there?
Barcelona. I will 100 percent move back to Barcelona one day and die there. I was 16 years old when I got there, and at first I hated it—looking back, I have no idea why. But then I befriended this really sweet Swedish model, and she was like you're crazy; you're going to love it here. She called the agency and told them we were taking the day off, and she showed me around. I think it was the green line—I don't know if it still is—we took to La Rambla, and as soon as we got out it felt like home. I'd never seen anything like it. If I could go back, [I'd go there], and then make my way through the big La Boqueria market to this amazing little gem of a restaurant called Ra. Then I'd walk all the way to La Barceloneta, have a drink at one of the beach-front lounges, and walk back through the Latin Quarter, ending in Plaça de Catalunya, where I'd challenge one of the locals to a game of backgammon… and probably loose.