Ben Stiller, Adam Scott and the claustrophobic ‘Severance’ set

Two men pose for a portrait against a white fabric background

Ben Stiller, left, and Adam Scott of Severance.

(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For the Time)

For Ben Stiller and Adam Scott, the positive response to their seriocomic, dystopian Apple TV+ series Severance has brought different kinds of relief. For executive producer-director Stiller, it’s the assurance that he and the audience will still agree, especially on something tricky and genre-bending.

“I’ve experienced everything, so it’s a great feeling to see how invested people are in the show,” he said on a recent video call with his lead, Scott, who plays Mark, a man whose work is existence and home is life are neurologically shielded from each other in his surgically altered brain.

For Scott, fan love calmed the nerves he felt about doing justice to a project he loved. “It’s the kind of role I’ve always wanted,” says Scott. “I’ve been working toward this for about 20 years, so the reaction was the best-case scenario.” Here, the two discuss the splitting of a character, the harsh shooting conditions, and the mutual trust.

The show depends on actors splitting a single character into two parts. So how did you two work out the differences in Adam’s portrayals of Innie Mark, a stalwart of the mysterious company Lumon, and Outtie Mark, a hard-drinking, snarky widower in his spare time?

Scott: I think it was important that it felt like the same person, so the shifts between the two were more internal. It would manifest in subtle physical ways. It’s the same guy; only one of them has over 40 years of sorrow and happiness and sorrow and all the things that go into a fulfilling life and the other is 2½ years old.

silent: the reality is [Innie Mark] doesn’t have much experience, but those memories and experiences are in him. They’re just not accessible. The question is how much leaks out? and that subtlety is what I’m thinking about as Adam did.

Adam Scott and Britt Lower in Episode 8 of "Severance pay."

Adam Scott and Britt Lower on episode 8 of “Severance”.


Scott: I would check in with Ben here and there and say, “Is it enough?” He was always reassuring. Because I lost perspective. You know, when we started filming I wasn’t sure if I could do it. Amy Poehler likes to say that when you start something new, you’re at the base of Show Mountain. There is only this steep incline in front of you. I just put all that trust in Ben and I’m so glad I did because there’s nobody I’ve trusted more in terms of taste and feel and tone and everything.

silent: I felt like it was subtle and it was very specific. When a good actor does it, it reads and you trust that you don’t have to do much on the outside. It was a real lesson for me watching Adam.

The pandemic has prompted all of us to review our work and personal lives. Was ‘Severance’ accidentally enriched by being made and released during the pandemic?

silent: While it was a really rich, creative experience, it wasn’t all that fun because of the harsh conditions, and that was true of every show. But our show happens to address this work-life issue. We are all still struggling psychologically to find a way to move forward. I think there are a lot of unanswered questions on our show that maybe reflect how people are feeling in life right now.

Scott: For me, the isolation on the show reflected directly in everyone’s daily lives. I was away from my family. We couldn’t see each other. I was alone in an apartment, at 6 a.m. I got into a van, locked in the back seat, went to the stage, worked on the show, which is this isolated, alien world, got back into the van, drove back, eat, sleep and wait for the van the next morning. It took on that lonely pattern similar to the show.

Two men can be seen twice, looking at the camera through a mirror.

“I think there are a lot of unanswered questions on our show that maybe reflect what people are feeling in life right now,” says Ben Stiller, center of the double image, with Adam Scott.

(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For the Time)

And this brightly lit, soulless, windowless tangle of hallways and offices is something else. It had to get you both in the right mood.

Scott: You can’t help but feel claustrophobic and… by Lumon Once you’re in this room with this carpet and low ceiling and this group of desks in the middle of this huge room. It was additive for all actors. These corridors that we have walked are all built. You have to go through these to get to the set. I would say 70% of the time I got lost, hit a dead end and had to yell for someone.

silent: We used every inch of the soundstage we had. That opening shot of the pilot when Mark goes down for the first time was just when we said, “Let’s see what we could do if we took a shot that took Adam all the way down the aisles.” That was really an experiment because we had the ability to do it.

Did making Severance teach you anything new about what you do for a living?

silent: I learned a tremendous amount on this project. I went out of my comfort zone in terms of situations and genres. But the biggest thing was persistence because of the obstacles, the years leading up to the show and the bubble that came with it. The triumph was that we made it.

Scott: Putting my trust in other people, letting go a bit to focus on the task at hand. Stamina is also important. Because the whole thing was a big swing. That was a different one [lesson] — Big swings only. Making a TV show is hard, so why not make a big swing of it every time, you know? Ben Stiller, Adam Scott and the claustrophobic ‘Severance’ set

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