Work-life, home-life, social-life—in the real world, they all sort of blend together, or there’s some sort of balance trying to be achieved. In Apple Tv+’s latest dark-comedy/thriller, however, there isn’t. In fact, it’s the lack of blending that fuels the story.
‘Severance,’ the new nine-part series starring Adam Scott takes the idea of home-life and work-life and separates them surgically—and that last part happens quite literally. Scott’s character Mark, is one of many who have chosen to get “severed,” meaning when he’s at work he has no idea who he is, what he does, or who he associates with when in the outside world. By going down the elevator to his workplace at Lumon, his memories only span his time there. Then, when he comes back up the elevator, his memory of work and what he does while sitting at his desk and who his co-workers are is completely wiped.
Who would choose to do this? In Mark’s case, it’s because he’s suffered a loss.
“Mark is someone who’s kind of stuck in this weird stasis in his life—a tragic stasis,” Scott explains. “His wife died a couple of years ago and he has not moved on at all. He’s stuck and grieving and has chosen to get severed to be able to go to a place every day where he could just switch off for 8 hours and not feel a thing. So, his life in the outside world is basically waking up in the morning, going to work, and then boom—he’s done with work, he drives home and he’s going to sleep. The objective to that is to just not feel anything because his life has become far too painful.”
We as audience members watch Mark in the opening episode sob in his car, but when he then enters his workplace, “Work Mark” is happy—chipper even. Like any thriller, however, everything is not as it seems. That’s exactly what Scott as an audience member wants to see on screen, and it’s everything Scott as an actor also wants to play when thinking of a role.
“First of all, just the big idea of the show: This being a world where you can get a procedure done where you go to work and you have no idea who you are in the outside world, and then when you leave work and you go home, you have no idea what your job is and what you do. That just seemed like this incredible idea that I couldn’t believe hadn’t been done before. It had so many possibilities and when Ben [Stiller] told me about it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a long time,” Scott explains. “Then when I finally got to read a script, it was the role I’ve been waiting for my entire career. It was all kind of here in front of me, and I just wanted to do it so badly—and luckily I got to.”
Luck didn’t have much to do with it. ‘Severance’ writer Dan Erickson had always imagined the ‘Parks and Recreation’ actor in the main role. Even more serendipitous is the fact that he didn’t disclose this to Ben Stiller—who signed on with the project to EP and direct—and Scott was the first choice for him as well.
“I don’t know [why], but I’m glad that they thought that,” says Scott when asked why he thought he was both Erickson and Stiller’s first pick. “I watch tons of television and movies, and this is the kind of stuff that I like—even though it’s wholly unique, it’s not like anything else. There are components of it that feel familiar, but just as soon as they do, there’s an undercurrent of something else that puts it off-balance and there’s another element that comes in. I love that. It has elements of this fun workplace comedy, but then there’s something nefarious lurking underneath, and then there’s science-fiction and then the suspense… All of these things working together in this completely new world.”
Erickson, who briefly worked in the corporate world, began writing ‘Severance’ eight years ago as a spec script. Stiller then signed on for a very particular reason: The script to him represented the next step in storytelling by expanding genres.
The cast spans past Scott’s Mark to also include Patricia Arquette as Mark’s boss with mysterious intentions, Peggy, and his co-workers Irving B (John Turturro), Dylan (Zach Cherry) and new addition Helly (Britt Lower.) Helly is taking the place of Petey (Yul Vasquez) at Lumon, and it’s when more is uncovered surrounding that particular situation that the story really picks up.
Also seen on the show is Tramell Tillman as the scarily upbeat right-hand man of Peggy aka Milcheck, Christopher Walken as the eccentric Lumon employee from another office aka Burt, and then in the outside world there’s Mark’s sister Devon (Jen Tullock) and her husband played by Michael Chernus.
Every role is important, sort of like how every bit of dialogue is, and every piece of equipment that sets the scene is also intentional. And it has to be. For a show that is a darkly funny and mysterious character study, the intention had to be in every scene. Especially for the actors who are severed. As Scott described before, Mark on the outside is grieving and stuck. However, Mark on the inside doesn’t have that baggage—but, his life at Lumon isn’t exactly luminous.
“He’s working at this place, he doesn’t know why he is, he doesn’t what the work is that he’s doing and he doesn’t know the end result…But he’s not really questioning it, and he doesn’t want to question any of it,” he explains. “So, both of these sides of Mark sort of get upset and their apple carts get turned over when the show starts and people enter into their lives and start questioning this stasis that he seems so comfortable with.”
Playing two different parts of a character was a task for Scott, who has to use both subtle comedic and dramatic characteristics for the show.
“It was challenging. It was almost like a math problem that Ben and I were working on every day. It became an issue of addition and subtraction of where we were in the story because we were shooting all 9 episodes at once and always jumping around,” Scott explains. “It was just a matter of figuring out what the differences are…[I] almost had to be two halves of the same person, and those differences would manifest themselves whether it be physically or through voice or whatever it may be. It was a constant puzzle to work out and really, really fun.”
‘Severance’ gets put together from start to finish like a puzzle, and there’s a whole lot to sort through. The show is a mystery waiting to be unraveled and it builds to become a highly fast-paced thriller inside of a seemingly boring workplace situation. As said before, nothing is as it seems.
“At it’s face, it’s a workplace drama/thriller. But, there are also elements of a workplace comedy, there are a lot of fun, funny things going on throughout the entire season,” finishes Scott. “But, there is something kind of sinister lurking underneath, and there’s also a whole mythology and backstory to this place and to these people that’s fun to discover and uncover as the season goes on.”
The 9-episode first season of ‘Severance’ will debut globally on Apple TV+ on Feb. 18 with the first two episodes, followed by one new episode weekly, every Friday.