Grace Gummer of ‘Mr. Robot’ Remembers Where She Was on 9/11

In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it’s actor Grace Gummer, who killed it in the third season of the USA drama Mr. Robot. Catch it on demand.

My family lived in LA for about five years before moving to Connecticut when I was in second grade before moving to New York. Moving out of LA and into the Connecticut countryside was the best thing my parents ever did for us, but I was mad for probably about a week. I was leaving my friends and I didn’t understand why it snowed here, but I quickly got used to it. When you live in LA as a kid, you’re rollerblading, going to the beach, and having pool parties every day—even in the dead of winter. Why were we leaving such a nice, comfortable place? But I’m so lucky to have grown up where I did.

We moved to New York after Connecticut, and at first I was like, It sucks here. My first week of high school in Brooklyn was a few days before 9/11—that day was horrible. My school bus went along the West End highway—right next to Ground Zero—about 15 minutes before it happened. If the bus had been late, or I had been late to school, it would’ve been a different story. It was apocalyptic and so bizarre.

We got to school, and no one knew what was going on. I just remember smoke billowing over the school. Even though I went to school at Bay Ridge, which was pretty far away, you could still smell it. I didn’t know where my parents were. I couldn’t get in touch with them. I still have a little email printed out from the headmaster saying everyone was safe. My sister was down at the hospital giving blood. It was a very defining moment for me.

My first role was in House of Spirits when I was seven years old. I went in thinking I totally knew what I was doing—I was very over-confident for a seven-year-old. It was so much fun. I remember Vanessa Redgrave smelling really nice, and a scene in which I had to scream out of nowhere. I told the director, “It’s fine—I know how to scream really loud because my brother makes me scream.” I was running on my instincts.

I did a lot of black-box student theater at Vassar as part of Woodshed, a community theater program that now runs in New York City—they just put on a show called K-Pop, about Korean pop culture. We did everything: hanging the lights, making costumes, directing and acting. We’d have rehearsals until one in the morning, so I didn’t have a lot of time to do my actual work for stuff I was actually getting graded on. I graduated thinking I was going to take a break from acting and theater, but when we put on The Seagull and I was Nina, I remember being on stage and thinking, This is something I just love. It made me so happy.

I graduated and I worked in costume design in Rome; I was a design intern at Zac Posen for a little while. My friend who’s a director sent me a script asking me if I would want to design a costume for this play he was doing downtown. My first instinct was that I didn’t have any design ideas for it—all I wanted to do was be in it. I auditioned, got a call-back, and got the part.

I did this little play on Broadway called The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents and got a good little review in the New York Times. I remember reading the part and realizing I didn’t stay behind for the production meeting—I could just be an actor and do that as a job. That was an epiphany for me, because I’d never experienced acting in that way. After that, I moved to LA, was on a TV show, and the rest was history.

It was so fun working with Rami Malek on both Larry Crowne and Mr. Robot. He’s really good at improv—one of the funniest people I know. Everyone thinks that he’s a lot like the character on Mr. Robot, which is so not the case—he’s just so loving and funny and giving. We became very fast friends on the set of Larry Crowne, carpooling together from work.

I didn’t see him for a while, and I heard him on the radio talking about this show and I was like, Mr. Robot, that sounds like a sci-fi show. Then I got the audition and got the part. I texted him saying, “I think we’ll be spending a lot of time together,” and he said, “Me too, I’m so excited,” or something. We have yet to work with each other, though—our storylines don’t come head-to-head, so we don’t have any scenes together. I wish that we did.

A film can be a sprint, depending on how intense or long the shoot is. A TV show is a marathon. You’re really living in a character for, potentially, years. What’s great about Mr. Robot is that it’s such a unique show. Sam directs and writes every episode, and he’s there by your side, listening and giving so much. It lends its freedom to all of us as actors to really explore our characters—to find them as they go instead of having it all figured out and just relying on different directors every episode. Sam’s always asking us, “How do you feel about this? Do you want to say it differently?” It creates a better environment for everyone.

Because of this experience, I’m sort of spoiled working on TV. Every other TV show is amazing too, but this is the only one I’ve done where it’s shot like a movie, with because it’s one person directing the whole thing from start to finish. A film is also incredibly rewarding and fun, but it’s like summer camp. You go, do one thing, and then never see anybody again. With an ongoing TV series, you really live in the show for years.