Patricia Arquette’s Work-Life Balance Is Out of Control Too

Photo: Apple TV+

There are many mysteries embedded in Severance, the Apple TV+ series about Lumon Industries — a company that performs a “severance” procedure on some of its employees to split their memories of work and their personal lives. Even though season one has wrapped, it’s still unclear what Lumon does — particularly the work of Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette). The supervisor is constantly putting out fires in the Macrodata Refinement division, where she oversees the work of Mark S. (Adam Scott) and his colleagues. In the real world, Cobel stalks Mark by posing as his nosy next-door neighbor, Mrs. Selvig.

At the end of season one, we still know very little about Cobel, though it’s clear she’s extremely loyal to Lumon — as evidenced by the shrine to the company in her basement. In an effort to understand more, we turned to Arquette with some questions about the process of portraying this work-obsessed woman, how much she was able to learn about Lumon from Severance creator Dan Erickson and director Ben Stiller, and what’s at stake for Cobel following the tense season finale.

Cobel is such an enigmatic character, and there’s a lot the audience doesn’t know about her. How did you figure out how to portray her?
When I first got the script, I was like, “Who is this person? Are you sure you want me to play this part?” I had so many questions about why she was doing what she was doing and what she was going to be doing. Dan and Ben would try to answer these questions, which would just lead to more questions. Every layer became stranger and more confusing. It was like there was no answer. So I started digging into what the company meant for her.

This company is more than a company. This is her family. This is her religion. Her whole self-esteem is tied to it. But she’s always on the outside — in a way. She thinks she knows what’s going on. She’s also going under the radar — doing things she’s not supposed to be doing; she thinks it’s for the greater good of the company and will end up bringing glory to the company and protect it.

Part of what I didn’t understand, and you couldn’t tell in the writing, was the tone. I had a lot of conversations about it: How funny is it, or how much are we going for the laughs? I’d say this project and David Lynch’s Lost Highway — those two have their own meter that isn’t the normal meter you usually encounter.

With your character, it doesn’t seem like you’re going for laughs. Sometimes, laughs happen because the situation is funny, but it didn’t feel like you were playing it for comedy.
We fooled around with that. Everyone was like, “How far do we go or not?” You do multiple takes. Then, in editing, they decide which direction they want to go. What I was doing became clearer and clearer throughout. Dan created a really rich backstory, so there was a lot to anchor you. It wasn’t like, “Let’s just wing it right now.” But there’s always, hopefully, a little bit of freedom to improvise within the character.

I like that it’s so contained. It is very different from a lot of the characters I’ve played. She plays things much closer to the vest. That’s why a lot of these other characters, whether it’s Helly or Mark, don’t know exactly how she feels or what she’s going to do.

Cobel’s relationship with the board is similar. Even though she has a lot of authority, the board is above her head, and it’s difficult to get a sense of the mood.
Absolutely. There were takes where I was much more emotional with the board.

The board was the one place that always pulled the rug out from under her. I experimented with showing how out of her depth she would be, and I trusted that Ben would use what he felt was right for the story.

You have another challenge in playing Mrs. Selvig, who is not a different person but does have a different personality. As you were figuring out those scenes, were you concerned about conveying that Cobel is playing Mrs. Selvig — as opposed to approaching Mrs. Selvig as a separate person?
She is so indoctrinated by that corporation that it’s almost like there’s no one inside. When she decides to be Selvig, to do this top-secret work and observe Mark, she’s taking into account his past emotional history and all the dynamics within him that she knows through Lumon. How does he feel about middle-age women? Does he have mommy issues? Also, because she has never established these kinds of relationships outside of this corporation, she’s trying on and playing: What is it to be a person? How does it feel to make friends? She can’t joke around at Lumon, but, even if her jokes are dumb with Mark, she’s testing the waters of being human.

It seems like Mrs. Selvig has lived next door to Mark since before Petey left the company. Why is she keeping her eye on Mark as opposed to any of the other severed employees?
I know the answer to this, but I’m not telling yet. It could ruin some things.

But there is an answer to that question?
Yeah, there is an answer to that question. It’s also rooted in Harmony’s deep inner self. Mark is a special project she’s working on. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

What does Lumon actually do?
Early in the story, I asked that question too. Then I had all these other ideas of what Lumon was doing, and I shared them with Dan and Ben, and we were going back and forth. Not that Dan didn’t already have a strong idea; he did. But part of the fun process of communicating is throwing out all these ideas and figuring out what could go in what direction.

Lumon is doing a lot of things and has a whole long history of doing a lot of things, like Harmony’s backstory, that I don’t know that anyone will ever learn. Maybe they will — if we continue on.

At the very end of the finale, Helly is getting ready to speak at this event and Cobel tries to stop her — threatening her and saying her friends will suffer and be kept alive in pain. I don’t know how much you can say, but what exactly does that threat mean? 
Oh, well, I don’t think I can tell you anything. Let me just ask Cobel over here … Yep. No, too bad. No information for you.

You’ve talked about how important Lumon is to Cobel. What is she afraid is going to happen? That it will cease to exist?
It’s going in this new direction with this new kind of leadership — with Natalie and that whole side of things. I don’t think it’s necessarily adhering to all of Kier’s ideas. Harmony came up being indoctrinated by that school of thought — not this new one.

There were moments when she was more on the inside. Now, she’s definitely on the outside trying to get back in. She also wants to save the corporation from itself. She thinks she has better ideas and knows more. Even talking about reintegration: They don’t believe her, but she’s right. People on the street are questioning the severance procedure and if it should be illegal. She understands what a negative impact this could have on the corporation if they don’t take her seriously.

Even though Cobel is not severed, she has no life outside of work. It feels like the show is making the argument that work-life balance is impossible to achieve. What is your take on that?
This has been an ongoing conversation, and technology has made that even harder. I don’t really ever stop working. Nobody does. You’re getting emails in the middle of the night and texts and questions from all over the world about what project you’re working on with expectations of immediate response.

This has been something I’ve been struggling with, in one way or another, my whole life. I think we all struggle with this. A lot of people say when they ask people on their deathbed, “What do you regret?” they never say, “I wish I worked more.” They always say, “I wish I had spent more time traveling, more time with people I loved.” We’re coming to a point of critical mass where we’re working and it’s never-ending. I’m as guilty as anybody of that — maybe more. I’m out of control.

This conversation has been going on for a long time, but I think it came to the forefront because of the pandemic. For people who worked standard office jobs, suddenly, it was like, actually, you don’t need to commute every day.
Yeah, that was a big shift nobody saw coming. With this conversation, I go back to Mad Men. We’ve always been dealing with this pressure of what it means to be successful. What is a good worker? It resonates, because people struggle with this. Do you hear me cleaning?

I’m cleaning and talking. I never do one thing at a time.

How much have you talked about what might happen in season two? Do you have a sense of where things could go?
Not really. I tried, but I have no information. I’m like, “If we do go to season two, do I die right away?” Nobody’s telling me anything.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Patricia Arquette’s Work-Life Balance Is Out of Control Too