‘Severance’ Star Adam Scott Breaks Down His Total ‘Mindfuck’ of a New Show
The “Parks and Rec” alum tells The Last Laugh podcast why he feels like he’s spent the past 20 years “earning” his role on Ben Stiller’s new Apple TV+ show “Severance.”
Adam Scott is best known for his roles in workplace comedies like Parks and Recreation and Party Down, which makes him the perfect actor to subvert that genre in Ben Stiller’s new deeply disturbing workplace thriller Severance.
In this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Scott talks about the “mindfuck” of playing two versions of one character in the excellent new Apple TV+ series and looks back on highlights from his comedy career, from his game-changing role in Step Brothers to his long-running stint on Parks and Rec and a lot more.
Scott remembers exactly where he was when Stiller called him up and delivered the “three-sentence elevator pitch” for Severance. It was all the way back in January 2017 and he was standing knee-deep in the snow at Sundance where his film Fun Mom Dinner was premiering. The director, who had yet to put out his first foray into dramatic television, Escape at Dannemora, described the premise, which involves a mysterious mega-corporation called Lumon that is inserting a chip into employees’ brains that essentially “severs” their work life from their personal life.
“I just couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Scott tells me. And he kept thinking about it for years as the show went through the development process, ultimately landing at Apple. “Luckily Ben kept thinking of me,” he adds.
When he finally read the pilot script, Scott remembers feeling, “It was exactly the kind of show that I, as an audience member, look for and want to watch. Then also, it sounds corny, but it felt like this was a role I’d been waiting my whole career for.”
“I’d been spending the past 20-some-odd years earning this role,” he continues. “So I was just hoping something wouldn’t happen—that someone better or more famous would come along and they would come to their senses.”
Now, finally, the first two episodes of Severance are streaming on Apple TV+ with Scott in the lead role as Mark S., who we come to realize has made this permanent decision to bifurcate his life so that he can escape profound grief while he’s at work. In the seven episodes that follow, the mystery of what’s really happening at Lumon starts to unravel in gripping fashion, giving Scott the chance to turn in what might be the best performance of his career.
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation (with light spoilers for the first two episodes of Severance). You can listen to the whole thing—including how Scott auditioned for The Office before landing Parks and Rec and what it was like acting opposite Joe Biden—right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.
I found Severance to be such a thought-provoking show. Was it as much of a mindfuck for you to read it and then act it as it is for us to watch it?
Yes, because we shot the whole show at once, like a big nine-hour movie. We were jumping all over the place, so it was a mindfuck in that we just had to constantly be keeping track of the math problem of the “outie” Mark, the “innie” Mark, where each of them are in the story, but then just sort of on a base level, what’s the difference between the two and why is there that difference?
It’s this incredibly interesting acting challenge for you and for some of the other actors on the show—playing one person but two versions of the same person, in a way. How did you think about their differences?
Yeah. It was really fun. And it was hard, it was challenging, it was all of those things. It was important to Ben [Stiller] and I and Dan Erickson, the creator, that it be one guy. The kind of knee-jerk reaction for an actor is like, “Oh, cool, one of them will have a mustache and a limp” or something. But this is definitely one guy and it’s just different parts of the same guy, almost like different halves, you know? The “outie” Mark has 40-some-odd years of life experience of sorrow and joy and all of the things that go into a full life. And he’s in this place where he is grieving his wife and he’s sort of stuck. He hasn’t moved on. He doesn’t want to move on. That’s why he’s doing this.
And then the “innie” Mark is, for all intents and purposes, like two years old. But he also, physiologically, carries all of these feelings. They’re still in there when he wakes up in the “innie” world. He just doesn’t know how to locate or name what those feelings are. So that stuff is present, but it’s not really his in a way. And he’s in a similar stasis in that he’s in this place, he’s been there a couple years and he’s not interested in questioning what’s going on and what he's doing. And so both for the “outie” and the “innie” it takes these other people coming in and upsetting each apple cart.
As far as practically playing the two different sides of the character, how to make it personal for me, I just started thinking about the “outie” being the things I hate about myself and the “innie” as my attributes. The “outie” is not always comfortable socially—I have bad posture, all of that stuff. Because he’s in this place in his life where he just wants to check out for 10 hours a day. And the “innie” is more enthusiastic about what may be going on and what he may be able to accomplish in this world, even though he’s stopping himself, curiosity-wise, from thinking through what he’s actually doing. He just wants to please this authority figure who’s in front of him.
It also, for me, raised so many questions about nature versus nurture and who we would be with no culture, with no memories, with nothing. Would you be the same person? I think the answer is no—that so much of our conscious life experience impacts who we are.
That’s right. And I think, also, when it’s a situation like it is in the show, you could even start wondering, if you’re on the inside world, why would you do this to me, why would you create me, just keep me down here?
I imagine, beyond the idea and the premise, that working with Ben Stiller as a director was part of the appeal. And you previously worked with him on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. What is he like as a director?
You know, it’s hard to go back to other directors after you get to work with someone you connect with and feel safe with and trust as much as I feel all of those things about Ben. Especially with a role like this, I really had to just let go and put all of my trust in him, because I didn’t have the bandwidth to keep an eye on what I was doing. Usually I can have a third eye on what I’m doing, so I can sort of direct myself a little bit and know if something’s working or not. You just kind of have that instinct. And I certainly still had that, but I also was placing all of my trust in him because I trust his taste more than anyone’s. I think he's one of our great filmmakers. I mean, if you look at what he’s made, everything from Reality Bites to The Cable Guy to Tropic Thunder to Escape at Dannemora, it’s unbelievable. I think Dannemora is one of the great American works of the past few decades.
That show was his first real foray into drama too, and this show is very dramatic in a lot of ways, very dark in a lot of ways, but also has a lot of humor sprinkled throughout. I did wonder if there’s any concern that people will think this is a comedy because it’s you and Ben Stiller and the two of you are both so well known for comedy at this point.
I think that’s something that Ben’s interested in—the idea of this surface of a workplace comedy. Especially when the show starts, when we first go into Lumon, it feels like that. It’s like a quick, fun, fizzy office comedy. And then there’s just something lurking underneath, something a little more sinister. You can’t quite pinpoint it, but there’s something going on here. And I think maintaining both of those things is something that he was really interested in exploring and maybe subverting a little bit.
I wonder if that’s part of why he thought of you for the role, because you are someone who has roots in drama but then are very well-known for office comedies.
Yeah, maybe, that could be.
Listen to the episode now and subscribe to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.