Patricia Arquette on her villainous ‘Severance’ character

As Patricia Arquette prepared to film Severance, she had countless questions about the show’s internal logic and the mysteries that would be slow (if ever) to be unraveled in the first season. But none of that was her biggest concern. “Maybe for everyone [the actors] In our own way,” she says, “it was more like, ‘Yeah, this thing is going to work, but am I going to be the person screwing it up? Is this sound too much? Not enough? Does what I’m doing work or is this crazy?’”

The 54-year-old Oscar and Emmy-winning actress needn’t worry: like the rest of the cast, she managed to strike a precise balance between dark comedy and silent horror, visceral tension and withering pathos. Nominated for Supporting Actress in a Drama, Arquette is taking a brief hiatus from directing her first feature film — an adaptation of Cheryl Della Pietra’s novel Gonzo Girl — to reflect on exactly what she got herself into when she settled on this seductive film announced , unsettling Apple TV+ brain-bender.

In it, she plays Harmony Cobel, a serious middle executive at Lumon Industries, a sinister corporation that has invited its workforce to a “severance pay,” a medical procedure that separates employees’ office memories from their personal lives. At work, Cobel intimidates the shy new head of Macrodata Refinement, Mark (Adam Scott), and then, out in the real world, she continues to monitor him closely, going undercover as his seemingly harmless, overly friendly neighbor Mrs. Selvig.

When executive producer Ben Stiller, who directed most of the first season’s episodes, reached out to Arquette, he only gave her the pilot from creator Dan Erickson, “and Cobel is hardly a part of it.” But she trusted Stiller, with whom she co-starred in the 1996 indie comedy Flirting With Disaster, and reunited again in 2018 for the Showtime limited series Escape at Dannemora, which he directed.

“He spends so much time thinking about everything and thinking about how I want it to feel and look,” she says of working with her friend on Severance. “He’s very clear, so that was really helpful.” She adds, laughing, “I know he knew what he was doing I didn’t know what he was doing.”

While many of her castmates struggled playing roles that were essentially split personalities — a life in the Lumon offices, a life at home — Arquette had to deal with a villain who himself underhandedly plays another character. “As Selvig, Cobel knows what she knows about people and their behavior and their subconscious triggers,” notes Arquette. “Your decision is to be made [Selvig] a clumsy, dopey aunty-type – someone who [Mark is] not really concerned.”

In a way, Arquette also drew on her own observations of human nature to capture Cobel’s cool, autocratic demeanor. In particular, she thought of the swanky tech offices she’d visited. “I’ve given talks and toured through these: ‘Oh, here’s our pinball room…’ They feel very artificial — I don’t know, it’s weird.” But she also did research on “cults and armies and different structures where give them to you a little and then take away a bunch”.

The show’s stifling paranoia was felt acutely during filming, which took place in the early, anxious months of COVID-19. This was before vaccinations, which required the plasters to be separated from each other, and although producers followed careful protocols, there was still a risk. “We had this scene where I have to scream [co-star Sydney Cole Alexander’s] face and I said, ‘I’m so scared of screaming in the face of this beautiful young woman. What if I make her sick?’ It added a whole other dimension. Never in acting [I thought] I could really hurt myself [my co-star] because of what is happening in the world. There were just so many levels of, ‘I want to be close to someone, and I’m afraid to be close to someone.'”

Arquette’s tense memories bring to mind one of the show’s troubling themes, which is whether it would ever be worth literally locking down your home and work. For actors, this question is particularly exciting because of the emotional demands that their roles place on them.

“Pretty much, I’ll leave it at that,” Arquette says of her job. “On ‘The Act,’ I said before every scene, ‘I’m so sorry that lady did those horrible things to her daughter – sorry, Joey [King].’ I would just leave it there and go bike riding and we would go to dinner and have a laugh.” But there are exceptions. “On ‘Escape at Dannemora’ I had a bit of a depression that I felt [that character] had – it was hard to get rid of,” she says. “In my film ‘The Wannabe’, which I really wasn’t crazy about the ultimate cut at all, I played this woman who I subconsciously decided was suicidal. That was the hardest thing to ever escape from – not [that I was] Thoughts of suicide but it was really intense and scary.”

As Arquette awaits the scripts for Season 2, she is focused on Gonzo Girl, but is concerned as she sees Severance as a metaphor for powerful institutions creeping into our lives – often without much resistance. A longtime activist for gender equality, she landed her first job at Planned Parenthood; Just weeks after Roe vs. Wade’s upset, Arquette is left wondering about the upcoming fight.

“You can get conditioned — you can lose the will to fight,” she warns. “A friend of mine was in Ukraine just now and was talking about Russia and how now, after so many decades of this type of governance, there is a kind of acceptance, especially outside of Moscow or St Petersburg.

“I’m just so frustrated with people [in our country],” she continues. “That was my big fear in 2016: what was going to happen to the Supreme Court. I was trying to get people’s attention: ‘All the things you want will be crushed by the same Supreme Court, whom you will let in.’

“But the amount of people who are on board with this abolition of civil rights – women are treated like their bodies [are] State property, even crime victims – that’s incredible to me. It feels like we’re living in a little nightmare now. And I’m terrified of what that says about our country and our humanity.” Patricia Arquette on her villainous ‘Severance’ character

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