Adam Scott On ‘Severance,’ R.E.M., And Why Ben And Leslie Worked On ‘Parks And Rec’

Severance star and prospective Emmy nominee Adam Scott didn’t really feel like he was established until a triangle of notable comedic roles came his way nearly 15 years into his career with Step Brothers, Party Down, and Parks And Rec. As he told us earlier this week, he was able to endure the ups and downs of a struggling actor’s life prior to those roles due to one very powerful thing: self-delusion and the idea that everything was going fine even when it wasn’t.

So, what do you do when the Hollywood fantasy starts to become undeniably real? For Scott, the last decade and change has been about building on his successes while chasing new challenges. After Parks ended, he sought more dramatic roles while still making space to play a douchebag on The Good Place or talk REM, U2, and Red Hot Chilli Peppers with his friend Scott Aukerman and guests (including the bands themselves) for Earwolf. He started a production company with his wife, Naomi Scott, producing, among other things, three Adult Swim specials that meticulously re-created ’80s TV openings. Up-next, a collaboration with Don Cheadle’s production company on a voter impression drama.

With Severance, though, Scott has taken his biggest on-screen swing. Teaming with series creator Dan Erickson, producer/director Ben Stiller, and an amazing cast and crew, the show isn’t afraid to challenge its audience as it takes them through a twisty and complex story about grief, memory, big tech overreach, and our fraying sense of a true work/life balance. It’s the perfect weekly addiction for this post-quarantine era of ever-shifting work-from-home dynamics. A show near-universally beloved by critics and discerning viewers, with Scott’s heartbreaking dual performance atop the list of remarked upon elements.

In the following conversation, Scott tells us about whether he knew from the start if Severance (or the infamous dance scene) would hit, the importance of delivering a season finale that offered a few answers, the charm of Ben and Leslie on Parks And Rec, getting through those early years, and, naturally, his favorite R.E.M. song.

When did you start to feel like, “Okay, this is going to work. I don’t have to go home and sell insurance. This is real?”

The answer is a little complicated because there’s a certain amount of self-delusion that you have to maintain in order to stay in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago, wherever you’ve kind of started your acting or entertainment career. I think there’s a certain amount of self-delusion that needs to be cultivated and maintained, in order to not just throw your hands up in the air and go home.

And that delusion is, “Everything’s going great. I’m doing great.” I remember in like 1996, looking around at my studio apartment and being like, “Okay. I’m supporting myself. I’ve got enough money to buy a round of beers with my friends. I can put gas in my car. This is actually pretty great.” Whereas if you really examined it, I was hanging on by a piece of floss, right?

And so it wasn’t until around 2010, when sort of the trifecta of Party Down, Step Brothers, and then getting the Parks And Rec job sort of all culminated and it started to come together for real for the first time, that I was able to look back and be like, “Oh man, I have been, to various degrees, deluding myself since 1993.” There were several times before then, where things had been kind of coalescing a bit and coming together, and then it would sort of dissipate or break apart and then come back together again. That was when I was finally like, “Okay, okay. I now have some solid footing to actually stand on, and let’s see where we can take it from here.” But up until then, as I discovered, I was standing on jello.

Were there ever pops of panic in that period where you really questioned it?

Sure. I remember in 1999 or 2000 I hadn’t worked in a while, six months or something. And then I auditioned for Six Feet Under, tested for it, and it was me and Michael C. Hall. And [I] went through the wringer, so many auditions, and obviously didn’t get it. And that was a real heartbreaker, where I was sort of like, “Maybe I just can’t do this. Maybe I can’t. I don’t know if I can take this brick wall I keep running into.” And that was a real tough time, where I remember my girlfriend, now wife, came to me and kind of asked me about, “have you ever thought of anything else?” And just someone asking you that sort of puts it into stark contrast. I’m so glad that Michael Hall got that job because he’s so much better than I would’ve been. I was not ready to have that big and complex a role on my back. I wouldn’t have been able to do what he did. He’s extraordinary.

Were there plan B options in your mind, things that you could have fallen back on?

No, I don’t know how to do anything else, truly.

Adam Scott desk
Apple TV

You’ve done drama, you’ve done comedy. You’ve really established kind of a parallel path, which is so impressive. Is being able to do something with Severance that helps to reinforce that, is that extra satisfying?

Yeah, totally. I mean, after Parks And Rec ended in 2014, 2015, I really wanted to try and find something a little more dramatic, for lack of a better word, just because it had been a while. I’d been focusing on comedy. And so, I really sought out Big Little Lies and auditioned for it and was lucky enough to get the role in that. And that was a really fun, satisfying experience, working with Jean-Marc Vallée and all those incredible actors. And so, that really sort of reinvigorated me to try and stretch out a little bit because it had been a while. I’d kind of forgotten. Before Step Brothers, I primarily thought of myself as more of a dramatic actor, whatever that means. Because it’s all sort of the same. It more has to do with the circumstances and the writing and stuff. But anyway, having veered into comedy for a while, it was something I was looking to do a bit more of.

I don’t really like the idea of entertainment that’s dumbed down, and this certainly is the exact opposite of that. It’s a twisty, cerebral show with a lot of nuances. Is there ever a concern, though, about that and if it’s going to hit?

I mean, you never know if something’s going to work or not. No matter how good the material is, it may not come together and really work. So we were making the show, having no idea if it was going to end up working, and would kind of stop every couple of days and look at each other and just be like, “This is really just so weird. How are people going to find a way into this?” And didn’t know and worked hard at figuring it out. We started with just sort of a blank slate and had to world build. And Ben [Stiller, who produces the show and directed six episodes] and Dan Erickson who created the show, were always chipping away, trying to figure out the tone and the world and all of that stuff.

And it was hard. It was really challenging for everybody, but it was really, really fun. We weren’t ever not tired at the end of the day, because you’re spending everything you have, mentally, emotionally, physically, trying to figure this puzzle out.

Are there ever specific moments like the dance sequence — which obviously has a little bit of a second life having been meme-ified or gif-ified — when you think, “Okay, this might be quirky enough. This might hit?”

I mean when were shooting that, it was like, “Okay, well, if the entire thing works, this’ll be so fun and this’ll be a blast for people to watch, because it’ll be a respite from the tension, perhaps.” I mean, what it ended up being is even more tension, as a result of what happens there. But yeah, it’s all about everything around it, if the whole thing is working. Like when we were shooting the finale, and we were shooting it kind of in the middle of the entire shoot, because we shot the whole show at once. But when we were shooting those scenes, it was the moment when I call Patricia’s [Arquette] character Ms. Cobel, and because of that slip-up, she figures out what’s going on. When we were shooting that specific moment, we were all kind of looking at each other like, “If this works, if we have the audience with us, this moment’s going to be incredible. This is going to be so much fun.”

But you have to meticulously build to that moment in order for that moment to pay off and be fun for the audience. So, we were hoping that we would have them at that point, but you ultimately don’t know.

Why was it important to answer so many questions in the finale? Obviously, you create more questions when you do that, but I’m curious why it was important to go that way.

Well, I think we didn’t want it to be a show that just asks the questions and puts them out there for the sake of asking them and mystery for mystery’s sake. We wanted it to all fit together and make sense and give some answers for the audience, for some satisfaction. But of course, like you said, [we wanted to] ask some new ones and leave some things out there yet to be answered.

What was it about the Ben and Leslie relationship on Parks that you think still resonates with people? Because that part of the show specifically I think still connects so well.

Well, that’s 99.9 or a 100% due to Mike Schur. He wrote that relationship, he and the writers really came up with that stuff, and Amy [Poehler] and I played it. And Amy was a writer as well and had a huge hand creatively in the show. So, anything with Parks And Rec I think is due to Mike and Amy, and then we actors got to go in and play around and absorb credit for a lot of the great stuff on that show.

But yeah, I love that relationship, too, and I love Ben and Leslie. I think that these two, once they were together, they just had each other’s back and were dedicated to one another. And I think Ben was comfortable being in the shadow of his wife and would do anything for her and wanted her to rule the world. He just wanted to kind of bask in the happiness of being married to the greatest lady in the world, you know? And I think that was something that was really fun to watch. They were just two crazy kids who loved each other so much and weren’t afraid to show it. And I think that’s nice to see on a show.

Before we close, I’m curious, what’s the most important R.E.M. song to you?

That’s a good question. I think my favorite is “I Believe,” that was on Life’s Rich Pageant because it sounds the most R.E.M.-y and it sounds like a band playing outside at a 4th of July music festival or something, like playing in the sun. It sounds like American music being played in the sunshine, which sounds stupid and maybe a little antithetical to who R.E.M. are. But that’s part of what I loved about them, is they were a huge mainstream band who played interesting music that meant a lot to people and that challenged their audience. And I think that “I Believe” is a great example of all the different components that made them special. It’s not what I think is their best song or even on their best or my favorite album of theirs. But that song for me is impossible to tire of.

What’s the best song?

The best song might be “Try Not To Breathe,” maybe. It’s just kind of perfect. And Hrishikesh Hirway did that podcast where he got the guys and kind of asked them about how they made it and all the different components that went into it, and you get to kind of walk through the making of the song and get to listen to all the different isolated pieces of the song and what kind of built it. And that makes you appreciate that song even more. Song Exploder is that podcast.

But it’s always been a favorite of mine. It’s a perfect piece of music, when they were at their most confident and their kind of creative peak. Even though they made lots of great albums after that, it was sort of their apex, kind of culturally.

The first season of ‘Severance’ is available to stream on Apple TV+