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How this Filipina won an Emmy for ‘Mr. Robot’

Roxanne Paredes

She knew she was going to write—Roxanne Paredes just didn’t know it was going to be for prime-time television. “I used to want to write books. I hope to still do that someday, but I am more than happy being able to write for television!”

That she has certainly done on a bleeding-edge, hacktivist level. Paredes just won a Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Interactive Extension of a Linear Program for her work on the darkly prescient drama “Mr. Robot”; this after being part of the technical team behind Pixar Animation Studios’ “Brave,” which took home an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.

The Pixar theme began when Paredes—youngest daughter of businessman Gabby Paredes and homemaker Marianne; she is the niece of musician and activist Jim Paredes—was studying at Paref Woodrose School. “Even when I was in high school, it was my dream job to work at Pixar,” she told Lifestyle in an email interview from Los Angeles. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted or could do for Pixar, but growing up with movies like ‘Monsters, Inc.’ and ‘Finding Nemo,’ I felt like Pixar was the place that told the best stories. I wanted to learn how they did it. “But at the time, I did not even think it would be possible to be a Hollywood writer.”

But Paredes felt her writing journey would take her somewhere else. “The school I attended and community in which I lived in Manila was very conservative,” she recalled. “I had a chemistry teacher who told us that we would all grow up to be housewives; we were not taught to dream big. My parents, however, always encouraged us to shoot for the stars. My brother and sister had both already left Manila to go to the States and I felt like they were experiencing a much bigger, more vibrant world than me. I wanted to be a part of that world. I knew I had to live a full life in order to write interesting things.”

Ivy League graduate

So, Paredes decamped for Providence, Rhode Island, where she earned her BA in English and Comparative Literature at prestigious Brown University. A school career counselor asked her what she really wanted to do if she could work anywhere for her summer internship. “I said I wanted to work at Pixar,” she recalled. “They recruited on campus but only hired computer science majors, which I was not, so I wrote the recruiter asking if they had any other internships available. They happened to be starting a new program that year, targeted at non-Computer Science majors, to teach them everything about the technical departments from the feet up. I applied and was accepted. That summer was a dream come true. I was hired to come back full-time after I graduated college.”

A scene from Pixar’s “Brave”

Behind Pixar’s bright characters is the time-consuming work of technical artists like Paredes, who worked at Pixar for five years and on films “Cars 2” in 2011 and “Brave” in 2012. “A technical artist works on all the film assets, besides animation, so there are many kinds of technical artists,” she explained. “I painted textures for characters and sets as well as worked on rendering the 3D version of the movies. While there are people at Pixar who are pure artists or pure software engineers, being a technical artist requires a blend of technical skills and art skills.” Sometimes, all that ends with an Oscar. “It felt wonderful—but I was just a very small cog of the entire team that made ‘Brave’ happen, and I was not part of the creative team, so it didn’t feel like I’d earned anything. I remember I took a picture with the director and I held the Oscar and I remember thinking, I hope the next time I hold an award it will be mine.”

Paredes on her last day at Pixar

Perfect fit

After mastering those technical elements, she earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the University of Southern California. “While I loved Pixar, my job was mostly technical. I wanted to be the person who wrote the stories. Of course, it felt intimidating to completely switch professions: I didn’t know anyone in Hollywood and I had a lot to learn, so I felt like furthering my studies was the right way to go.”

She would be perfect for her next assignment. In four seasons on the USA Network, the complex “Mr. Robot” revolved around a cybersecurity engineer with a circuit board of mental issues named Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) who is recruited by the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) to join hacktivists known as the fsociety in eliminating most of the world’s debt by hacking financial giant E Corp; the show won awards and predicted the global information crisis.

The show needed a creative, tech-savvy writer. Paredes said: “My agent put me in for the job: They were looking for a writer who also had technical skills since the show is very technology-centric. They read my sample and I met with the technology producer on Seasons 1-3, then I met with Sam Esmail, the creator and showrunner. I was so thrilled— when I was in grad school, I watched the ‘Mr. Robot’ pilot and I said, that’s the show I want to write for. I actually rewatched the pilot again right after; I thought it was so good.”

Unseen work

Behind “Mr. Robot’s” dark drama, there is a megabyte of unseen work by staff writers and technology producers like Paredes: “I worked on all episodes in Season 4. It was my job to work with Sam and the other writers and make everything that Sam wanted to happen story-wise possible through technology. I worked with consultants and white hat hackers to build all the hacks in the show so that they were as completely accurate as we were allowed to show on television. I made sure all the dialogue about the hacks made sense and wasn’t gibberish.” Paredes had tasks on the set. “I worked with props and set dressing to make sure all the technology was correct,” she noted. “I showed the actors and actresses—primarily Malek and Carly Chaikin—how to work with the computers and the gadgets so they used them correctly and looked like pros.” She had postproduction puzzles, too. “I sat with Sam and the editors in the edit bay to make sure the computer and phone screens we cut to were the correct ones and that all the important information was visible,” she said. “Basically, every IP address, every email address, every link and website we show on screen in the TV show links to a site that we controlled, and we hid puzzles in those clues that continued and expanded into a game for the online community. I worked with an amazing team at USA and NBC to make that happen. That’s what we won the Emmy for.”

Rami Malek in “Mr. Robot”

She had no clue it was happening. “A friend of mine on the show texted me when they made the live announcement, and then the team I worked with at NBC reached out to me shortly after,” she said. “There was a ceremony but it was all online and livestreamed. NBC submitted an acceptance speech on behalf of the entire team that was prerecorded. If you watch the show, it was someone in an fsociety mask, which was very apropos and such a fun idea.”

Surreal

Paredes actually still can’t believe it all happened. “It feels surreal! I did not even know that NBC was going to submit my name as a producer. Of course, I am thankful to the entire team that I worked with, and Sam for hiring me and trusting me to do this job even if I had never worked on a TV show before!” She doesn’t have the actual trophy yet. “The Emmy is currently in the mail,” she said. “The Academy just emailed asking for my address and they said I should receive it in mid-October.”

What to do next? How about joining the Marvel Universe? “I can’t tell you which one yet. Marvel is so super secretive! But I will be part of the writing staff.”

It was a bit of serendipity that led to that. “One of the executive producers on ‘Mr. Robot’ became a dear friend of mine,” she explained. “He got hired to create the Marvel show and he called me up one day and just said, ‘How’d you like to work on a Marvel show?’ “I am super excited about it; if you’d told me back in 2014 when I was leaving Pixar that I’d one day write on a Marvel show I wouldn’t have believed you because I would’ve thought it was too amazing!”

Remember that serendipity part? She met boyfriend Drew Ritson while working on “Mr. Robot,” where Ritson was an assistant director. “My boyfriend and I love to cook and bake. My recent kick has been trying to perfect croissants! I consider myself fully Filipino since I grew up in Manila, although my Tagalog could use some work. I love so many Filipino dishes but if I had to choose favorites they would be paksiw and ginataan.”

Ever-evolving

“I’m working on the Marvel show and developing a TV show that hopefully will be produced one day,” she said. “I am also trying to write that book that I’ve always wanted to write.” This time, the show will have a taste of home. “My dream is to write and create TV shows that tell Filipino stories and have Filipino characters in them,” she explained. “When I was a little girl growing up in Manila, I never thought a larger audience would be interested in the Philippines. I didn’t think it was possible to write for movies or TV because I didn’t think anyone would care about what I had to say. “But now I know that’s not true but the work has to be built from the ground up: In order to have Filipino characters, you need to have Filipino writers who are brave and want to write about their families, write about home, and do such a good job that everyone—no matter what ethnicity or background—will find it interesting. I want a younger generation of Filipinos to experience my work and say hey—I can grow up and do that one day.”

The ever-evolving Paredes knows there is more to do: “I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I work very hard and try to write every day, but I have had such wonderful mentors and friends who have helped me and guided me along the way. I have been trusted to do jobs I shouldn’t have been trusted to do, and I have been allowed to speak up and share my opinions. All of these opportunities are luxuries for young writers still starting out.”

Roxanne Paredes, who now has “Oscar,” “Emmy” and “Marvel” on her filmography, is unstoppable: “I hope this is just the beginning.”