Ben Stiller Directs Apple TV’s Engrossing New Series Severance

The subversive new drama centres on a shady company looking to create the perfect office by any means necessary

The subversive new drama centres on a shady company looking to create the perfect office by any means necessary

Mark Scout (Parks and Rec‘s Adam Scott) has two lives that never intersect. In the private one, Mark is a widower, unable to get over the tragic death of his wife. But during the day, Mark works in a windowless office at Lumon Industries, blissfully unaware of any kind of existence outside the premises. Severance, a procedure where Mark’s “perceptual chronologies” are “split and spatially dictated,” is voluntary and, while controversial, not even something Lumon or its employees attempt to hide. Outside the organization, the practice is heavily debated and protested, but every person inside Lumon has been severed for a reason.

To Mark and his fellow workers, the system offers a sense of peace and safety—until their new colleague Helly (Britt Lower) arrives and starts to question the methods of the secretive company. “The goal of the character is very clear, she wants to escape at all cost,” says Lower. “But as the season goes on, she starts to form these kindred bonds with her office mates. What’s so exciting about these characters is that they’re each moving through something dark and sinister but all of them have a childlike wonderment to them that adds to the singular tone of our show.”

Directed by Ben Stiller, the actor-turned-filmmaker loved the feel of the series created by Dan Erickson. “It was original,” raves Stiller. “I felt that it was a world that felt familiar, yet different. And it was exploring a really simple concept, but Dan had such a specific voice that made me laugh and also felt unsettling. I loved how much possibility there was within the show to have a mix of different feelings.”

Scott was equally drawn to the vibe of this quietly disturbing tale of voluntary separation from the rest of the world and whatever holds us back in life. “It was exactly my taste, the kind of science fiction that I love, which is introducing you to a new idea yet reflecting things about the world we’re living in now,” he explains. “The world that Dan created really felt like it had a history to it. It’s three-dimensional and many feet deep as well. You feel like this company has been around for a long time and is ingrained in the everyday culture of America.”

In some sense, the dilemma presented in Severance has never been more relatable. After a few years of working from home, during a deeply traumatic worldwide event, the ability to balance our private lives and work lives is something many would likely welcome. “It used to be you’d go into work and spend 10 hours there, but all of that has changed,” says Stiller. “To be one way with somebody and then to turn and talk with your family and be in a different dynamic, it makes you feel like you’re living in two different realities, right on top of each other. We do compartmentalize in a way that I think we haven’t done before, because we’re going in and out of it a lot during the day. It’s a strange thing.”

But at its heart, the show is about allowing yourself to be vulnerable. O Brother Where Art Thou actor John Turturro co-stars as the very stoic Irving, whose chance encounter with colleague Burt (Christopher Walken) opens both of their minds to a reality that is equal parts exciting and terrifying. “The solitary aspect of the character—the aloneness—was something that appealed to me. Especially when you, all of a sudden, connect to another human being,” says Turturro. “All of a sudden, you’re young again. Feelings don’t change.”

Because of their years-long friendship and five times working together, Turturro recommended Walken for the role that would require an instant connection between the two characters. “I said, I have to do it with someone I really care about, and I have chemistry with, so we can enjoy each other’s company,” Turturro explains. “There are people that make you laugh, who are also sensitive. They’re not ‘on’ all the time. Chris is one of those people. I really love Chris and I’ve loved him as a performer and as a person. It’s hard to act that.”

The cast is rounded out by Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette as Lumon executive Harmony Cobel, whose non-work persona is that of Mark’s next-door neighbour Mrs. Selvig.

All told, Lower says the show offered an incredible playground for these actors to create something that felt unique from start to finish. “At every turn you met someone who is excellent at their job, and that applied to all of the departments—cast and crew—and it really set a tone of everyone bringing their A-game. It was such a treat to work with people who are so creatively generous.”

Severance streams Fridays on Apple TV+ starting on February 18th