A recent, otherwise lovely profile of Adam Scott in the New York Times stated rather bluntly that the Severance star “isn’t cool.” As supporting evidence, the article mentioned that Scott co-hosted a podcast about U2 and that “his enthusiasm for R.E.M. is legendary.” (He co-hosted a podcast about them, too.) When Scott joins me on a Zoom call to discuss his new show, Severance, I tell him I was offended on his behalf. He’s unfazed. “When was the last time it was cool to be an R.E.M. fan?” he asks, adding that not being cool is “fitting for the ethos of that band.” You know what kind of person wouldn’t be offended by being called uncool in the national newspaper of record? A cool person.
Either way, there’s no denying Scott has been in some cool TV shows — Party Down, Parks and Recreation, Big Little Lies, and now, Severance. He plays Mark S., an employee of Lumon Industries who has been “severed,” meaning his memories of work and his personal life are surgically bifurcated. The Apple TV+ series, created by Dan Erickson and co-directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, is riddled with mysteries about this unusual corporation and what it does, making it the ideal project for Scott, a self-professed lover of sci-fi-adjacent storytelling.
Scott and I talked about differentiating between the two versions of Mark S., how much he knows about the Lumon operation, and what it was like to work with baby goats in the most recent episode. He also provided an update on the new episodes of Party Down and, inevitably, brought the conversation back to R.E.M. and U2, thanks to a special work of art that sits on his living-room mantle.
How did you build this character, knowing that Mark’s “innie” and “outie” versions have very little information about the other?
For outie Mark, it was important to have certain facts straight as far as his relationship with his wife and his relationship with his sister and Ricken. Did the death of my wife change that dynamic? There’s a certain fragility between those three people. On the page, I felt like there was unfinished business there. As far as innie Mark goes, what you see is what you get. Other than the Petey of it all, the backstory’s pretty limited. He’s been doing this exact thing for a couple years.
You’ve said in other interviews that you wanted to make it clear this was the same person. How did you manifest that? Are there certain physical aspects you tried to keep consistent?
I think there’s something that happens with everyone — I know it happens with me — where I find myself behaving slightly differently with different people. When I was a kid going back and forth from my mom’s to my dad’s house, I remember my mom sometimes commenting after I got off the phone, “Your voice is different when you’re talking to your dad.” She wasn’t throwing any judgment on it. She was just observing. You find yourself adjusting behavior depending on who you’re with. I approach it that way. There’s also the fact that innie Mark doesn’t have any of the intellectual baggage outie Mark does. He is, for all intents and purposes, just a couple years old.
He doesn’t have the grief and all the stuff that goes into 40-some odd years of living. He is a blank slate. Although as Petey says, that sadness comes with you. You just don’t know what it is when you’re in there. So there are traces, physiologically and emotionally, from one place to the other, but it’s limited. On the inside, there’s more of a lightness to Mark. It manifests itself physically, sometimes in his voice.
You’ve mentioned that you’ve been into these kinds of stories as a kid. What did you grow up watching or reading that had a similar sensibility to Severance?
Twilight Zone really sparked my imagination early on. In middle school or late elementary school, I had my own five-inch black-and-white TV, and that was the only TV at my mom’s house. I had it next to my bed, so at 7:30 there were reruns of sitcoms and then at eight o’clock I was watching whatever was on the three networks. We didn’t have cable, it was just broadcast, and whatever was on, I was there from 8 to 1:30. I would watch Carson, then eventually discovered Letterman, and that became what I was all about waiting for: 12:30. Twilight Zone was syndicated at 11, so once the 10 o’clock show was done, I could jump to Twilight Zone and watch that while news was on the other stations. God, even calling them stations sounds so ancient, but I would watch TV till the sign-off every night.
With The Twilight Zone, it felt like there was an endless amount of episodes and every single one had this great big twist. In 25 minutes, they took you on this whole ride. They would always take the hero’s journey and fuck with it and redesign it into something else and cut it off at a certain point. It is the most economic show, storytelling wise, ever.
In episode five, when Mark returns to the office after witnessing Helly’s suicide attempt, we see more of an emotional response from his innie than we’ve seen before. He’s kept a sense of composure until this point, but now the facade is slipping.
Helly’s suicide attempt shakes Mark to his core. He’s never seen something like this before. They say you never experience death down there, but of course you do. Mark just experienced Petey, his best friend, disappearing. This horrible trauma that he doesn’t fully understand was thrown at him, then he’s immediately promoted to take Petey’s place. He’s trying to keep it all contained, but seeing this right in front of him, he’s not able to process it very well.
Not only does it shake and alter Mark’s foundation, but up to that point, he’d been trying to contain Helly. This incident causes him to reach out and want to make amends with her.
Mark also starts reading his brother-in-law’s book. The writing is so funny, especially because Mark and his co-workers take it very seriously. But it’s ridiculous. Did you have material you were actually reading during those scenes?
Dan wrote 40 pages of this book. I think his favorite activity on set was writing those pages. It was tough to keep a straight face when we were shooting those scenes because it’s so ridiculous. I hope someday we release a full Ricken self-help book because there’s pages and pages that won’t be used in the show that are fantastic.
Everything they read in the office is Egan prose. That’s as much knowledge about the world as they’ve been exposed to, so Ricken’s book is mind-blowing stuff. Saying you don’t need your job? That’s insane.
There’s a scene in the episode where Mark and Helly open a door and find a room full of baby goats. What was that shooting experience like?
Baby goats are really cute, but baby goats do their own thing. They don’t care what a director says. They’re not Parks and Rec fans. They had a mind and agenda of their own. At one point one of them was eating the boom operator’s shoelaces.
Is a baby goat cuter than Lil’ Sebastian?
Well, I’ve never quite understood the appeal of Lil’ Sebastian, so I would have to say a baby goat.
Did you ask Dan what was going on with the goats, or were you like, “I don’t need to know this, so I’m not going to ask.”
I would ask that stuff all the time. Dan’s a brilliant guy and always had a great answer for every single thing. There’s a lot of details here and there and he’s got it all up in his head. It’s a fully realized world.
Do you know what Lumon actually does?
Lumon is one of those companies that’s been around forever — those omnipresent corporations that make your light bulbs, but you’re also like, “Wait a second, they make this cereal I’m eating?” They started out in the 19th century with healthy tonics, in the vein of Dr. Kellogg and all that business, but they’re in technology and they have their fingers in a lot of pies.
Do the Severance opening titles remind you at all of Ben Wyatt’s claymation work on Requiem for a Tuesday?
I have the Requiem for a Tuesday set and figure in my closet.
Why don’t you have it on display?
I should have it out here in the living room. I have a picture of me and Ben Stiller on Walter Mitty. I have a picture that Bono drew for me.
Wait, can I see the picture Bono drew for you?
I have it framed. And he signed it Bonobos. [Scott holds up a framed drawing of what appears to be male genitals and a heart, signed by “Bonobos.”]
Yeah, he did.
To be precise, he drew it for Scott Aukerman and me when he came on our podcast. I don’t know how I ended up with it, but maybe I’ll hand it over to Scott after a few years. I guess the sheer volume of dick jokes on our podcast caused him to draw this picture.
I’m very jealous you got to meet him.
The last time Scott and I interviewed Bono was backstage at Madison Square Garden. We interviewed him and the Edge and then Adam Clayton took us on a tour of the stage. We went to the party afterward. This is before we had interviewed Michael Stipe, and Michael Stipe was at that party. Bono knew we were doing an R.E.M. thing and he’s like, “Have you met Michael yet?” We’re like, “Oh no. It’s okay.” He’s like, “No, I’m going to bring you over and meet him.” He went over and they started chatting.
After a while we were like, “Let’s not bother him.” We didn’t want to impose. The next day we’re on the flight home and we get a text from Bono saying, “Sorry, I got sidetracked last night but I’m heading to Michael’s show in Brooklyn later today. You want to meet up with me there and I’ll make the introduction? He’ll be so excited that you’re coming to his show.” And we’re like, “Well, we’re headed home, but don’t worry about it.” He really is that guy — this generous, lovely, fun, brilliant guy.
One last thing: Where are you guys with Party Down?
We just finished on Saturday night, or Sunday morning at 3 a.m. It’s going to be great. It was a really magical month and a half or so while we were shooting. [Pauses] Magical is gross. I don’t want to say that. It’s that particular combination of people where you have the greatest time. When you’re laughing and you can’t really breathe — we all needed it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.