Adam Scott is no stranger to workplace comedy. In fact, he’s been the lynchpin of some of the best shows in that genre for the last few decades — see Parks and Rec, Party Down, etc. But with Severance, the new thriller from Apple TV+ directed by Ben Stiller and created by Dan Erickson, Scott’s pushing out of his comfort zone – even if he does still find himself in a cubicle.
As Mark, a grieving widower who chooses to undergo the process of Severance – a procedure that splits a person’s consciousness – Scott essentially plays two versions of the same character. In the outside world, Mark is depressed, lonely, and a pretty awkward dinner party guest. Within the walls of Lumon — the mysterious company he works for that encourages its employees to undergo Severance so that they can fully separate their work life from their personal life — he’s naïve, upbeat, and perfectly content with the idea that his body lives an entirely different life outside the workplace but his mind will be forever trapped in a dimly-lit office space. Until that is, a new hire arrives that shakes up the monotony, sending Mark and his coworkers on a wild goose chase that reveals some sinister truths about the people they work for.
UPROXX chatted with Scott about the show’s central mystery, if he would ever undergo something like Severance, and how the show helped him process his own grief over the recent death of his mom.
I’m struggling to define what this show is. Is it a workplace comedy? A Hitchcockian thriller in an office setting? Help me out here.
Yeah, it has this fun workplace comedy surface to it when it starts. It really is genuinely funny, but there is something weird and sinister lurking underneath that sort of finds its way out. And that’s what really interested me — that it worked as something fun to watch, but also that the world it’s in and the big conceit of the show is so kind of sticky and mind bendy. It’s exactly the kind of thing that I like watching as an audience member. But beyond all of that, the role itself is sort of the dream role that I felt like I’d been waiting my whole career for in a way. I finally had an opportunity to dig into something like this. I was really excited to do it. I’m still excited that I got to do it.
You’re essentially playing two versions of the same character. How did you separate Outie Mark and Innie Mark?
Yeah, it was really challenging. We didn’t want it to feel like two different people because it’s not. It needs to be the same guy, right? It needs to feel like the same person, but it just needs to feel like different halves of the same person. So it’s a matter of figuring out who Mark is in the outside world and just maybe subtracting from that and starting over in a sense with the basic elements. In the outside world, he has 40 odd years of life experience and all the joy and sorrow and everything that goes along with that. He’s grieving his wife who died two and a half years ago and he has not moved on from it. And rather than figuring out how to move on from it, he’s decided to stay put and just disappear for eight to 10 hours a day.
Innie Mark is unencumbered with all of that. There are feelings and emotions that sort of carryover, but Innie Mark doesn’t know what those are, how to locate or name them. He just knows there are feelings in there and sometimes he gets to work, and he has tears in his eyes and just has no idea. So it was a constant game of addition and subtraction because we were shooting the whole season at once and jumping around all the time. It was almost like this math problem we were constantly doing throughout — trying to figure out how those different life experiences manifest themselves. One’s experiences may be affecting the other because things do carry over — not consciously of course — but they’re sharing a body. Of course, there are going to be things that go back and forth.
Is there a job – acting or otherwise – that you would have liked to have undergone Severance for?
[laughs] I feel like when I was like in my twenties, maybe I would’ve gotten severed just because it sounds cool and it would’ve been an experience. Maybe now I would do it for like sitting in traffic or something. Apparently, Elon Musk has been talking about a similar technology recently. I just don’t think I would do it, but I guess it kind of depends on who’s doing it and why, which is the big question here. It’s interesting because I think for the past several years, big companies have really become intertwined in our lives. We’ve kind of been co-opted and are a part of these companies in a way.
That can’t be a good thing though, right? There are definitely cult-like undertones at Lumen that make me think of places like WeWork and companies that trade on this idea of the workplace as a “family” in order to take advantage of their workers.
That’s right. And this company, Lumon, has the added advantage of having been around since, what, the 19th century or something? They have these deep roots in America and a whole culture that they’ve been cultivating and creating for over a hundred years, to the point where they’re just sort of ubiquitous. They’re one of those companies that make your breakfast cereal and your air conditioner and you don’t even realize it unless you really look. I think that could be dangerous — when companies sort of start to put themselves out there as a lifestyle and a theory of living.
There’s a central mystery to the show that pulls you along each episode. Why was that an important element to add to the story?
Those are the kinds of things I really love as a viewer, these kinds of core mysteries. I love Lost so much and re-watched it with my family last year and it’s just perfect. The show is just unbelievably good. But I think the big sort of central mystery to this world is, ‘Why is Lumon so interested in doing this? What’s in it for them? Why is it better for them to have workers who don’t know who they are in the outside world and people in the outside world don’t know what they’re doing when they’re there? Why is that?’ I think the mysteries sort of emerge and go from there. And there are many that kind of bubble up over the season that are really fun to think about.
I’m going to continue my trend of recommending Yellowjackets to everyone I meet, especially if you’re a Lost fan.
Oh yeah! Yellowjackets is just really fun. I’m in the middle of it right now.
I’m trying to pay attention to shows’ opening credits more and Severance has a really weird opening sequence. It feels like a nod to Ben Wyatt’s Claymation bit on Parks and Rec, just much darker. Did you plan that?
[laughs] Totally. It’s just a Ben Wyatt claymation nightmare. [laughs] That’s great. That’s so, so funny. Yeah. Ben Stiller was working on it for the better part of a year with this guy that he found on Instagram and I just went one day for like 20 minutes and stood in one of those volumes, which is just surrounded by thousands of cameras. I just stood there and struck a couple of different positions with a hairnet on. And that was all I had to do, but I love the end result. It being me, notwithstanding, I think it’s just a really cool piece of animation and, and a little piece of filmmaking in and of itself. It’s very weird.
Do you have more of those deja-vu moments with a character like Ben Wyatt who’s so culturally recognized at this point? Do you get sick of talking about him?
I do find myself, if I’m getting ready to do something and we’re figuring out wardrobe, I try and avoid a plaid shirt with a tie because it’ll remind me of Ben Wyatt and I think it might be distracting if there’s a Parks fan watching. Maybe that’s overthinking it, but yeah, there are things here and there. Working on Severance with the workplace sort of banter did remind me of that world. And there’s nothing wrong with it because I love Parks so much and I miss all of those people so much and anything to sort of drum up those feelings again is all good with me.
What’s even more compelling to me than the work-life balance question is the lengths Mark is willing to go to sidestep his grief. He’s a very sad human being when we meet him on the outside. Was that emotional arc hard to play within the stranger environment of the show?
Yeah, I mean, I was going through my own grief when we ended up making the show and was away from my family. I landed in New York and my mom had passed away six months before. And I had been surrounded by my kids and family and stuff for those six months and then I was just … in New York, by myself. I was either in an apartment alone or shooting the show. And it was when I was alone with the work that I realized I still had a hell of a lot of grieving to do that I hadn’t really come to terms with it because I was kind of buoyed by all of this love and support … [Pauses] There was a lot that I could sort of stave off because of that. So I found myself really coming to terms with it and really facing the grief through the show. You know?
I read something about how grief is like this hole that never gets smaller. Your life just gets bigger around it, and over time, that makes it seem a little bit smaller. But if you’re doing something like Mark is doing, your life never grows.
That’s right. That’s the choice he’s made — that this is all he has left of his wife. So he doesn’t want to let go of it.
There’s no good way to pivot here so I’ll just ask: Where are we with the Party Down reunion and why did you guys want to come back?
[laughs] Well we only made 20 episodes total so I feel like there still was a lot of possibilities sort of left on the table. And now that it’s been 12 years since we finished shooting, there are even more possibilities because the intervening years … it just gives you all of these story possibilities that John Enbom is taking full advantage of. And, and the big kind of idea and thrust of this season is so much fun. It is going to be great and I just can’t wait for everybody to see it.