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Severance’s Britt Lower on Helly’s ‘Worst Nightmare’

Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Spoilers follow for the series Severance and season- finale episode “The We We Are.”

No one in the Severance Macrodata Refinement (MDR) team knows what to expect when the Innie versions of themselves wake up outside Lumon Industries. For Mark (Adam Scott), Irving (John Turturro), and Helly (Britt Lower), the lives of their Outie versions are unknown voids. But in season finale “The We We Are,” no one has it quite as bad as Helly, who finally learns the reason for the coldness and dismissiveness emanated by her Outie in videotaped messages. When Helly is off the Lumon campus, she’s actually Helena Eagan — granddaughter to company founder Kier and gung-ho supporter of the severance procedure that Innie Helly has spent her entire (short) life raging against.

“Helly on the outside is very aware that people are looking at her. Helly on the inside does not care at all what people think, which is so refreshing,” says Lower, whose background as a multidisciplinary artist helped shape her approach to the character. (Lower’s directorial debut, Circus Person, a short film that nods at her years as a professional face painter, is streaming for free.) Certain elements of Helly’s backstory click into focus with the Helena reveal, such as her tendency to only wear Lumon-approved shades of blue and green (“Cool and crisp pharmaceutical chipperness,” Lower says) and why Lumon manager Milchick (Tramell Tillman) has been taking pictures of her all season. But far more about Helena and her motivations — questions Lower is eager to explore in the recently announced second season of Severance — are left a mystery.

In a conversation with Vulture about the first season of Severance, Lower discusses the connections between her performance of Helly and American icon Patti Smith; the prop she took home and named; the nausea inspired by that photo exhibition; and whether Helly’s speech against severance will change any minds.

In the original version of the pilot, Helly is not who wakes up on the Lumon table; it’s Mark. But even in that version, Helly is described as “quietly fierce.” There is such a through-line of Helly knowing what she wants to do and going after it, and there is a duality there when we learn about her Outie version and her choice to undergo severance. When did you become aware of the loyalties of Helly’s Outie, Helena Eagan? 
That came pretty early on after I was cast. I have to tread lightly there, because there are aspects of Helly’s world on the outside that we as an audience have not been privy to yet, for a very good reason. Even by the end of the season, I think it’s just the beginning of a much longer answer to who she is. I purposefully kept myself a bit in the dark this season as an actor because it was important for me to really only know what Innie Helly knew, and of course I was building two characters who were the same person. Like you said, they have overlapping qualities of strength. They’re both extremely clever and willful. Coming from the idea that they are the same person, and just representing different parts of the same person, was how I approached that.

How do you practically do that? What are the mechanics of making them separate but similar? 
For Innie Helly, I was watching a lot of early Patti Smith concerts to tap into that raw, unapologetic punk. For me, Innie Helly represented that id part of us that’s almost teenager-like in her angst. And I think Adam has said this in his interviews too: It’s like the Outie version of us has lived a whole lifetime of memories, and is in a way burdened by the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are, which may or may not be true. And the Innie is this kind of raw material, and may be, at core, who the person is. I think that’s a question that the show really highlights: Who are we? Am I my memories, or is it nature versus nurture?

Since we had eight months during the pandemic before we started filming, series creator Dan Erickson was able to finish all the scripts ahead of time, which is so rare in TV. And I came into this season knowing all my lines for nine episodes. I had them memorized. So I didn’t have a lot of work to do while we were filming, but I wanted to keep things fresh for myself. Every morning I would do an intuitive drawing to get into the feeling of the scene. I would get into the feeling of Helly through these kind of intense scribbles, and I’m like, This is her! This is punk! I’d just go nuts. Something about scribbling like that helped me.

Can you talk a bit about your relationship to the props on this show — the computers used for finding “scary” numbers, the maracas in the Music Dance Experience? The props are really loaded with meaning. 
Absolutely, they are. And each one is so specifically chosen. I will say, the scene I was most scared to film was actually the scene with the paper cutter. Just thinking about the idea of fingers being chopped off was horrifying to me. I knew the props department was going to take care of me, in terms of the prop that I was using on the actual day didn’t have a blade, and there are a lot of safety measures in place. But at the same time, I wanted to make sure I as an actor wasn’t getting in the way of Helly, because Helly was not at all afraid of that paper cutter. So I actually asked the prop department to let me take home a non-blade version of the paper cutter, and it was kind of small, the size of a laptop. And someone had suggested to me that I just name it and carry it around my apartment so that it became just this normal thing. [Laughs.] I named it.

What did you name it? 
I named it Harold. It just felt like the right name, and then I wasn’t intimidated by it.

How does one dance to defiant jazz? How did you approach your moves? 
I love that scene because it’s when Helly and Mark are discovering their hips for the first time, and for all intents and purposes, it’s like a junior high school dance. Whatever physical ability they have to dance on the outside is, I guess, what they bring with them on the inside as well, so I think we all just gave into whatever the music was doing to us. It was fun to let Helly, albeit briefly, let loose for a minute. Imagine never hearing music, and then all of a sudden you hear it. They don’t see art down there; they don’t hear music. They’re deprived of any kind of stimulus.

Up until that point, Helly is so skeptical of any Lumon-affiliated task. But the ability to have five minutes to dance — she really enjoys that. That really sparks something in her. 
I know. I love that. It’s something she and Dylan share, which is they’re both trying to game the system in different ways. He’s a bit more about the perks and the incentives, but they’re both poking holes in the logic of everything. I do like that there’s a side of Helly that is not only rebellious but mischievous and kind of taking the piss out of everything — even if she’s seeming to enjoy it. I love the turn in the Music Dance Experience when she starts to see that it’s going south with Dylan, and then there’s the kind of horror at having participated in something that is not going well for her friend.

Helly becomes this character who guides us through the oddness of Lumon, from the cruelty of the break room to the mystery of the goats to the endless hallways. There’s a lot asked of your character in terms of being our entry point into the series. Is building trust with the audience something you thought about when building Helly?
That’s a great question that I’m not sure I was cognizant of while we were filming, except that I knew that we were getting a very intimate view of what it feels like to have this severance procedure through Helly’s eyes. It was important to me to always be tracking what Helly’s logic was, and what information she knew and didn’t know, so that she’s constantly questioning. I would say 80 percent of my dialogue in the first three-quarters of the season are questions. To be in a state of inquiry helped me stay present with what was actually happening in the world, and that’s where the audience is too. We’re all asking, “What the hell is going on here?” It is a very harrowing experience that she’s going through, and I really appreciate the humor Dan has infused in the script, because Helly is able to move through a dark circumstance with a biting sarcasm, like a coping mechanism.

The tonality of her questions is a mixture of bemused and demanding. How did you land on your specific level of sarcastic?
[Laughs.] It’s like a cocktail of things going on that I was always mixing. There’s always the ingredient of What the hell?, and also this bewilderment, and she’s also checking in with everyone else all the time: “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” It’s kind of the job of the clown, right, to reveal and to share. The clown is always sharing, trying to strip away the layers and reveal the experience that they’re having. The sacred and the profane at the same time. I don’t think you earn the levity without having the depth of experience that these characters are going through, and so when we do get to the Music Dance Experience, when we do get to the goats, when we get to these moments that are outrageous in a way — I feel like they’re really earned. We could feel that as a cast moving through the story as well.

Let’s talk about the Helena reveal. When Innie Helly wakes up outside, she’s at a gala for Lumon, wandering through a photo exhibition of herself. Can you talk about that scene?
When I first saw the images, honestly, for the first time as an actor, it was shocking. I think there was something like 54 images in this huge space, on these giant cubes. They were humongous. Ben Stiller was joking that this is either an actor’s greatest fantasy or worst nightmare, and I was somewhere on the nightmare side. It made me a little nauseous to see so much of myself everywhere. I guess my approach was letting that nausea inform the inner life of Helly too, because she’s being faced with her worst nightmare. I have seen the enemy, and it is me. It is myself. We filmed that primarily with a Steadicam, so you’re following Helly’s journey within this very fluid movement. It feels like she is inside of a dream space.

Tramell Tillman told me he was using an actual camera throughout the season that he had to learn how to use when Milchick is taking photos of Helly. Do you know if those photos were what was used for the exhibition? 
There was a photographer on set, Atsushi Nishijima. He’s an amazing photographer. When I say that the images made me nauseous, it’s not because they weren’t beautiful photographs. It was just that there were so many of them. The totality, the recursiveness of that experience, was a bit head turning, but the photographs themselves — Jima would come in and kind of mirror some of the photos that Tramell had taken. We did some extra ones in between, but throughout the season, Jima was on set and taking these beautiful photographs that were then blown up to a huge size.

When Innie Helly takes the gala stage, she tries to expose what has been happening in the severed floors of Lumon and how miserable the severed are, and she tells Patricia Arquette’s Harmony Cobel, “I’m going to kill your company.” Do you think Helly thought that would be an effective message for that audience? 
I think, What other choice does she have? I don’t think she would do it if she didn’t think it would work. She’s a gut-instinct character. I love the moment right before she goes up to give that speech, and the compunction statement comes up. For me, it was a moment of her reckoning with herself and taking responsibility. I think that’s the moment when she realizes she’s connected, whether she likes it or not, to the behaviors of herself on the outside. She takes matters into her own hands. If it’s effective, I don’t know, we’ll have to see. Helly is not one to not move forward when she’s made a decision.

How did this utterance of the compunction statement compare with Helly being forced to say it in the break room with Milchick? 
I think she’s just really laid bare in front of herself. It’s a much quieter moment than we’ve seen with her. It’s the closest version of a prayer that she has. It’s obviously memorized after having said it 1,000 times. It’s almost like giving herself a pep talk in this very strange way.

Did the coldness and sterility of the MDR space have any impact on your performance? 
It was super-effective in inspiring me to want to get the hell out of there, and dually, it really makes you focus on the people in the space. I think that’s why the connection between the characters is so strong. There was something really beautiful about it. It was almost like being in a play. We’re just focused on the connection with each other because the set is so sparse.

Initially, we thought about them as kindergarten students. Irv is the teacher’s pet, and Dylan is the class clown, and Mark is the rule follower initially, and Helly comes in as this rebel who disrupts the office status quo. In a way, they’re these archetypes that we’ve all been in different parts of our lives.

Dylan asks for a paperweight with a picture of the MDR team engraved in it as part of his reward in “What’s for Dinner?,” the penultimate episode. What do you think Helly would have asked for?
Honestly, I think the same thing. There’s something in that moment when Helly says to Dylan, “I should be the one to stay behind.” I think for me, Helly seeing the baby goats was a real turning point for her to go from having this single-minded focus of wanting to get herself out at all cost, to then it being a group alliance — her shifting out of single-mindedness to really thinking about the other workers in MDR as her family. Which is so ironic, because she has, this whole season, been trying to get out to find out who her family is.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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Severance’s Britt Lower on Helly’s ‘Worst Nightmare’