Stephanie Corneliussen of 'Deception' and 'Mr. Robot' fame discusses the appeal of playing the scheming villainess
The Danish actress also voted for her favorite villains from AFI's list of top 100 villains of all time.
Stephanie Corneliussen has been playing her part in taking the stereotypical supportive role for women and tossing it straight out the window. Be it her portrayal of the icy and calculative Joanna Wellick in AMC's 'Mr. Robot' or the Mysterious Woman on ABC's new edge-of-the-seat magic filled drama 'Deception', Stephanie is meticulously changing the image of the female supportive role into one that is strong, independent, highly motivated and in her own words - 'a scheming villainess.'
I had the chance to get on a telephonic interview with Stephanie recently and was absolutely thrilled to discuss her career so far, the challenges of playing a nameless character, her take on being typecast as the scheming villainess, and on the TV industry today among other things.
I spoke to Stephanie on a Wednesday morning and caught her right in the middle of her crossword puzzle, which she admits is something she indulges in every morning to "kickstart the brain". Just past the exchange of pleasantries, she suddenly caught me off-guard. "You're Indian I assume?" she quipped. As I was soon to discover, Stephanie had a pretty good ear for languages and is a polyglot herself, armed with around seven languages which she is fluent in.
After I tried to help her with her crossword clue which had an India connect to it (she figured out the answer before I could even suggest one), I pointed out a recent interview of Stephanie's by Entertainment Weekly in which she admits that she doesn't know the name of the character she plays on 'Deception'. I asked her if this was true.
Stephanie admitted that she indeed had no idea what the character's real name was. "One of the first things an actor notices off the script is the name of the character," I said. "So how does it feel to play a character whose name you don't know?" I asked.
"It was odd," Stephanie said. "I guess we identify with our names on some level, right? Like, I'm definitely a Stephanie," she said followed by a chuckle. "Suddenly there's this mystery woman," she continued. " I have the script on my iPad so I had the opportunity to look it up on the search tab and nothing!"
"Then finally in episode 8, Addison came up for her - Addison Lake," Stephanie said and I thought I was skirting a spoiler at this point. But Stephanie quickly added: "Then I just realized that it was another one of her aliases. She truly is a mystery, even to herself. So now I really hope the show gets picked up for season 2 so I can find out what her name is."
"I hope so too," I added cheerily. Unfortunately, just a few days after the interview, on May 11, it was confirmed that 'Deception' would actually not be renewed for a second season so looks like the mysterious woman will continue to remain a mystery, even to herself
In the same interview, Stephanie also spoke about how she liked playing "the scheming villainess" on screen. I asked Stephanie how she's so comfortable being typecast in such a role.
"Well, I'm still pretty 'green' so I'm sure there'll be plenty of opportunities to branch out and play diverse characters..."
"Correct," I interrupted her. "Especially when someone is 'green,' there's usually more of an effort to mix things up just to avoid being typecast. But you seem comfortable."
"Comfortable is a good word. I do feel very comfortable playing these mysterious, enigmatic, seductive characters. It's a fun opportunity for actresses in general to play those parts. Normally, there are so many written parts for women - the supportive wife, or the girlfriend or any kind of rigid role like that. But to have fun with a role like this is great because you get to do some crazy stuff. It's fun!"
Stephanie also plays the role of Joanna Wellick, wife of Tyrell Wellick - the antagonist in the critically acclaimed show, Mr. Robot. But, *spoiler alert* she dies in the third and latest season of the show. Stephanie confirmed that the show has been renewed for a fourth season but she hasn't been approached by anyone from the show yet. So that might just be the last we see of Joanna Wellick. R.I.P.
Continuing our discussion about the role of antagonists, I asked, "Have you always been fascinated by the villain's role or did you just stumble onto it?
Stephanie took a moment as she tried to gather the right words to explain things. "Every time you play a villainous role, there is an enigma or mystery if you will, that is written in these roles that can leave the actor a lot of space to creatively interpret a lot of their motivations, drives and goals. One thing you can definitely say about a villain is that they are really strongly driven. And it's interesting to tap into that psyche and motivations of what exactly makes them go for it at such an extreme level, you know what I mean?"
I let out a "hmm" in agreement. "That world is fascinating," Stephanie continued, building a strong case now. "And when you bring that inner world into a character, then that character becomes fascinating. So I think it's an opportunity for an actor to co-develop a character with the creator and the writer. And I really like that. I like having some say or at least some..." she paused again, searching for the right words.
"Freedom to interpret the character?" I suggested. "Yeah," she chimed in, agreeing. "Yeah. Some imagination to be part of the creative process," she said.
"Would you then agree that the antagonist has more depth to the character than the protagonist of a tale?" I asked, further sounding out Stephanie's inclinations towards the new-age badass she-villain.
But Stephanie seemed to disagree with that. "Not really. I think there's equal depth. Somebody once told me that you should always play the villain because the villain is as equally in the lead, as the lead character is. Good can't prevail without the bad. So I wouldn't say there's more depth, but definitely equal," she quipped.
I wanted to see if Stephanie had a favorite villain or some iconic baddie that she looked up to. "Off the top of your head, could you tell me who your favorite villain, or, even better, villainess is?" I enquired.
"Joanna Wellick," she said immediately. We shared a hearty laugh. "That one's definitely going on record," I said.
Stephanie mulled around looking for a serious answer. "You're taking too long. I said off the top of your head!" I interjected. "I'll think about that. I'll circle back to it," she said. So I suggested a quick game we could play to try and find an answer. The game was this: I would read out the top 4 names of villains from AFI's list of '100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains' in random order and Stephanie had to arrange them from most favorite to least.
I told her the names. As AFI ranks them, it's Hannibal Lecter who takes the top spot, followed by Norman Bates from Psycho, Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West from 1939's 'The Wizard of Oz'.
"That's going to be really hard! I feel like they're all equally evil!" she said. But she gave it a go anyway. Stephanie put Darth Vader on top of the list. She put Norman Bates at the bottom because "he was more misguided than evil." Fair enough. Hannibal Lecter took second place in Stephanie's list and The Wicked Witch bagged third place.
When I revealed the order that AFI had ranked them in, Stephanie seemed to agree with the list. "Maybe Hannibal deserves to be on top because he was really craaaayzee," she said. "But no, I think I'll stick to my order!"
"Quick question though," I piped in. "Anthony Hopkins or Mads Mikkelsen? Who did Hannibal better?"
"That's not fair," Stephanie protested, and I could understand why. I'd just asked her to pick between a legendary performer and a fellow Danish superstar. "Anthony Hopkins is amazing," she said. "But Mads is Danish and I absolutely adore him," she said.
"That's ok. You don't really have to answer that," I said. She laughed and offered me a sheepish "Thanks."
I went on to discuss how Stephanie also speaks some French during a few scenes in 'Deception'. Stephanie Corneliussen is Danish, and her English of course was spot on. As I mentioned earlier, she's also good a good ear for accents. "So how many languages do you speak?" I asked.
"I think I have a good linguistic ear," Stephanie admitted. "I speak Swedish and Norwegian, but they're very similar. Quite easy for a Danish person to learn. We were also taught a multitude of languages in school, the first one being English at a very young age, and then German, French and Spanish, which I also speak."
"That's impressive," I admitted. "I think I counted six or seven languages there. Even if it's a common thing in Europe, that's a lot."
"It's just a way of life," Stephanie added modestly. "It might sound strange here, but it's fairly common back home. I think my dad speaks six or seven too. It's not that uncommon."
"Well it's not that uncommon in India as well, but it's usually three or four languages and a few dialects. But seven is impressive by any standard. Seven is huge!" I said. We digressed for a while as we discussed our love of languages and I couldn't help but notice that this "scheming villainess" was just one of the nicest people to hold a conversation with!
Wrapping things up, I wanted to know Stephanie's view on the TV industry of today. "In today's streaming era, we are bombarded with so much content," I started. "There's so much to watch for the consumer and so many new opportunities for creators and actors. As a part of this industry, as an insider, how do you view this?" I asked.
Stephanie sighed a big sigh as she geared up for the heavy question. "It's beneficial for actors," Stephanie said, weighing her words carefully.
"Obviously, the more platforms there are, the more opportunities there are too. But whether or not I have an opinion about it being a negative or positive development... I'm not sure. We're moving so rapidly and exponentially within the digital and technological world, that it's kind of just becomes part of the new norm."
"I don't know if there are any repercussions of being overwhelmed. If we're choosing quantity over quality — all those things are going to reveal themselves in the near future."
"So would you agree that the viewer is not as vested anymore while watching a show or a film?" I asked.
"I think it's a part of how our society is forming right now. We're constantly stimulated. Also, if we take a look at the collective psychology of humans today, we're constantly 'on' and we're constantly happy to be fed some kind of stimulant — whether it's TV, or visual content, social media - all that stuff. So it's a new way of watching TV. It's a new era."
As we wrapped up the interview, Stephanie apologized for not picking her favorite villain. I'd completely forgotten all about it as we'd discussed so much more than I'd hoped for.
So there you have it. Stephanie Corneliussen is slowly reshaping the stereotypical female supporting role by taking on the risk of being typecast as the scheming villainess. She's definitely worth watching out for and I can't wait to see what twisted mastermind she chooses to breathe life into next.