Adam Scott Wants to Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The first-time Emmy nominee has his own theories about Severance, but it was Cheers that once offered him a portal to another world.

Photographs by Julien Sage

Adam Scott as Sam Malone in ‘Cheers.’  Scott wears Polo Ralph Lauren shirt.
Adam Scott as Sam Malone in ‘Cheers.’ Scott wears Polo Ralph Lauren shirt.

For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

Somewhere between Cheers, a place where everybody knows your name, and Severance, which takes place in an office where everybody might know your name, but they certainly don’t know what your real identity is outside of work, lies Adam Scott—a huge fan of the former since his childhood, and the Emmy-nominated star of the latter, a dark workplace thriller streaming on Apple TV+.

On Severance, Scott plays Mark, a depressed employee of a mysterious company called Lumon Industries and a participant in a controversial procedure in which employees “sever” themselves into two parts: their “innie,” or the version of themselves that is alive at work, and their “outie,” which is who they are outside of their job. The procedure is meant to ensure that severed individuals will never know anything about what goes on inside of Lumon while they’re not in the office. The object, ostensibly, is to keep the company’s privacy intact and also, it would seem, to prevent employees from revolting against their leaders on the inside.

Scott is aware of the potential theories one might impose upon his character and the drama that unfolds over the show’s nine episodes, but he’s reluctant to reveal his own thoughts on the outcome of the first season’s cliffhanger finale. “The tranquilizer dart will hit me in the side of the neck,” he deadpans on a Zoom call. Here, the actor who’s long been a sitcom favorite on the likes of Party Down and Parks and Recreation discusses how how the “severed” premise plays out in real life and his appreciation for one of TV’s most famous leading men.

What did you think when you read the script for Severance?

One of the reasons I loved is that it reminded me of nothing else. It was exactly the kind of thing I seek out as an audience member. I love to watch The Twilight Zone, and Lost, and Black Mirror, but I’ve never been a part of anything like that. Ben [Stiller] told me the big idea of the show in January 2017, and it wasn't until a couple years later that I actually got to read a couple scripts. I was like, there’s no way I’m actually gonna get this. I’ve been in show business long enough to know when something’s too good to be true! If I’d had this opportunity 5, 10, 15 years ago, I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it.

Your character Mark has an “outie” who is depressed after the loss of his wife, and an “innie” who’s a true company man for a mysterious, possibly evil, corporation. If your outie is here talking to me right now, where do you think your innie is?

We're all different. Depending on who it is we're with, our behavior changes. The person you are when you're hanging out with your parents is a different person from who you are with your friends. Even the way you talk or the way you move changes. In a way, everybody has an “outie,” and I think it depends on the person, but I think the “innie” ends up being the person they are in the outside world, just free of socialization and the baggage they’ve gathered.

Did the production team ask you to read any philosophy or media theory when preparing for the role? Say, Erving Goffman or Marshall McLuhan?

No, there was no mention of that. [Laughs] But I love Marshall McLuhan, and I always think of that scene in the film Annie Hall when he ends up in line at the movies with Annie and tells Alvy he has no idea what he’s talking about.

Adam Scott as Sam Malone in ‘Cheers.’ Scott wears Polo Ralph Lauren shirt.

Why did you choose to pay homage to Sam Malone, Ted Danson’s character from Cheers?

Cheers was such a big deal when I was growing up in the ’80s. It was on Thursday nights at 9 p.m. It was very much an adult world. And everybody looked great, with the New England culture they were replicating on the show. The rugby shirts, and the suit and tie after work going to the bar...that’s not really a West Coast thing, at least not in small-town Northern California. None of it was a part of my upbringing or my parents’ culture. My stepmother grew up on the East Coast, so we took a couple trips there when I was a kid and went to Boston. I got a Cheers sweatshirt and really had this fascination with that “East Coast, Cape Cod, prep school, people stopping by the watering hole after work” world. For me, Cheers was more than just this sitcom. It was a tunnel into this other world that I aspired to. It was a really cool feathered-hair and rugby shirt era.

The cast of ‘Cheers.’ Aaron Rapoport/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Have you watched the show recently?

I went back in the summer of 2019 and watched Cheers in its entirety, Ted's performance is untouchable, and he carried that show dramatically as well, laying the base of a relationship with Shelley Long’s character that was the beating heart of the entire show. She was unbelievable. I put Ted up there with all the best actors.

Who would you cast in a reboot of Cheers?

I don't think that it's possible. Those characters are too iconic to recast!

You’ve been a part of the television industry for a couple decades as an actor and a producer. Do you feel like there’s too much programming now?

There's a lot, but I don't know about too much. The volume is affording more opportunities for people, and the overall result of that is really positive. We’re seeing more shows like Reservation Dogs, which, culturally, we would not have seen 5 or 10 years ago—and talk about an important perspective that people are getting to see on mainstream TV!

What do you hope will happen to Mark and Lumon Industries in season 2?

I don’t even want to posit what might be fun to see, because I don’t want to screw anything up or hint at anything. If I even start theorizing, the tranquilizer dart will hit me in the side of the neck, and I'll collapse.

Severance takes place in an office, Cheers in a bar. Both of them are workplace comedies, although one is much darker than the other. Have you ever had an office job or worked at a bar?

No, neither. The closest I’ve gotten is as a bartender for a fake catering company [in Party Down].

If you were to retire from acting and you had a lot of free time on your hands, would you ever open a bar?

No, not at all. [Laughs] It seems like a really difficult business to maintain. Sticky. A lot of drunk people. No, thanks.

Hair by Darbie Wieczorek and makeup by Elle Favorule. Special thanks to The 1 Hotel in West Hollywood.