Q&A

On Severance, Adam Scott Gives the Workplace Comedy a Sinister Edge

The Severance star opens up about sinister take on the workplace comedy, how TV has changed since the ’90s, and what to expect from the Party Down revival.

by Carrie Wittmer

adam scott wearing blue denim shirt
Courtesy of Getty Images. Image Treatment by Ashley Peña for W.

You probably know Adam Scott as Ben Wyatt, the bookish nerd, wife guy, and government employee from NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Or, if you’re one of the dozens (Scott’s estimated number, not ours) who watched Party Down, you know him as aspiring actor and pink bow-tied caterer Henry Pollard from the short-lived Starz comedy. Or maybe you recognize him as Josh Macon from the ’90s melodrama Party of Five. Long before Parks and Rec made him a household name and before he appeared on the Emmy-winning drama Big Little Lies, Scott had been a mainstay of the industry for years, starting in the mid-90s with guest roles on television shows including ER, Boy Meets World, and NYPD Blue. By now, Scott feels like he has more than earned his role on his latest project, a new Apple TV+ series called Severance.

On the sci-fi drama from director Ben Stiller and creator Dan Erickson, Scott plays protagonist Mark, a corporate office employee whose work life is forcibly separated from his personal life. When he is at work, he forgets his personal woes. Once he steps outside of the office, he is freed from all work responsibilities—to the point where he can’t even describe his job to a woman he meets on a date, because outside of work, he literally does not know what his job is in the first place.

Scott first heard about Severance five years ago, when he got a phone call from Stiller while he was “knee-deep” in the snow at the Sundance Film Festival. After hearing the pitch—employees at the Lumon Industries corporation opt for “severance,” a procedure that allows your mind to completely separate your work life from your personal life—the actor was hooked. “I couldn't stop thinking about it for the next couple of years and I was doing other stuff, but always in the back of my mind, hoping that this thing would show up again in my life and come to fruition,” Scott told W.

Eventually, Severance came to life when the series was picked up by Apple in 2019, and thrown into production from late 2020 through 2021. The series, which also stars John Turturro, Patricia Arquette, Britt Lower, Christopher Walken, and Zach Cherry, now streams on Apple TV+ starting February 18. Over the phone, Scott spoke to W about Severance, the Party Down revival (which started filming in January), and how television has changed since he started working as an actor in the ’90s.

This role is very different from what we’re used to seeing from you. What drew you to the show?

I just couldn't believe my luck just because it's exactly the kind of thing that I like watching. It's a dream role! It's like the role that I feel like I've been earning my whole career. I felt really lucky and fired up that Ben thought of me, but also just didn't want to blow it. I just had to be a part of it.

You’ve said that you feel like your whole career has been building up to this. Could you elaborate on that?

I think it was more just the opportunity of playing two different sides of a character, or . . . I don't want to say two different characters because it's not, it's definitely one guy with different halves. But being able to straddle these two different worlds and getting to do it all: be funny, be serious, with some adventure and some suspense. It has everything that you would ever want. I'm mostly known for comedy, but as a viewer, I love it all. I love action and adventure and suspense, all that. So it had everything that I like watching, but it also had everything I enjoy doing and went beyond my known skillset. I could try new things, so it was just sort of a dream come true all around for me. Maybe that's what I mean by earning it, I felt like I earned it for myself as much as anything else.

I was surprised when you said you heard about this concept five years ago because it seems like a lot of mainstream discussions about work culture and poor work-life balance emerged from the pandemic. From your perspective, what is the show saying about that?

The line between work-life balance has been getting more and more blurry as time has gone on, especially since the advent of the smartphone. We're all reachable at all times, and we don't stop working when we get home. My wife and I literally have to lock our phones away in order to just be home and focus on our life at home. But then the pandemic just erased whatever blurry line was left, and now it's all one thing. I guess the show is really reinstating that line and taking it further than we've ever really thought about taking it by asking if this is a good idea, and if this is something we would even really want.

Before you ever started working as an actor, did you have a more conventional office job?

You know, not really. I worked in a couple restaurants. I made candy at the Santa Cruz boardwalk when I was a teenager. For several years, that was my summer job—making taffy at the boardwalk. And I worked in the shipping department of a telescope store. I had all kinds of jobs around Santa Cruz where I grew up, but never that sterile office environment that I've ended up falling into on television more than once. And I probably know more about that environment from watching television and pretending to do it on television than actually ever really having been in that environment. For real.

Parks and Rec comes to mind because that was a fictional traditional work atmosphere within a real traditional work atmosphere, at least for the television industry. Did thinking about that help you understand Mark's perspective a little more?

Well, I think that Ben [Stiller] really likes the idea of having this fun workplace comedy tone that he's playing with when you enter the story, but soon there's something more sinister lurking underneath, and it's hard to put a finger on exactly what it is. But I think certainly the entry to the story is this comfortable workplace comedy environment that we've all grown accustomed to and are very comfortable watching.

What’s Ben Stiller like as a director?

It's hard to go back to other directors after having worked with Ben as a director. I think a lot of it is [because] he is an actor. It's always comforting to work with a director who’s an actor because there's more of an ease or shorthand. But also with Ben, he has an eagle eye on every single detail of the show. I don't trust anyone's taste more than Ben's. I needed someone that I could trust 100 percent because the acting job itself was so all-encompassing that I needed to let go of it and not keep that third eye on myself to try and monitor whether what I was doing was good or bad. I needed to trust him. And there's no one I trust more.

You get a very strong sense of his confidence as a director. The sets are beautiful, even the sterile offices. What were those like in real life? It looks like the scale is just epic in the show.

That main office set where we're in the middle of the room with the green carpet and everything, it was crazy. We were in there working for months and months. And for all intents and purposes, we did have an office job when we were in there because we were in there 13 hours a day, just toiling away at those desks. To get to that set, you have to walk through tons of hallways. Those hallways that we use in the show are built and it's a maze of them to get to the actual set and no joke, 85 percent of the time I got lost because they're constantly moving those hallway sets around, depending on what we're shooting. There are dead ends and it was always shifting, so I never knew where the hell I was. It really felt like we were working at Lumon [the company within the show] after a while.

I love the scenes between Mark and his co-workers, especially John Turturro. The whole group dynamic does make the show feel like an office comedy. Was that pretty instant chemistry?

Yeah. And John Turturro is one of my favorite actors. I still can't believe I got to work with him. Immediately we all just clicked into this rhythm together. It was just so fun from the very start. And it's really fun to have this light fun through workplace comedy banter, except you're doing it with John Turturro.

You've been working in the industry for a long time and you've worked in television well before streaming and peak TV. As an actor, do you feel like streaming has given you more opportunities to do more interesting work than you might not have had before?

I think it's created a lot of opportunity for everyone. There's just so much television being made now that it's funny, just thinking about a contrast to when I started out in the mid-90s, there were three networks and maybe a few cable networks, but they weren't really making television series. It was just the dawn of them; it was basically just three networks making TV shows. Getting on a TV show was a really incredible feat. Not that it isn't anymore, but now there are literally hundreds of TV shows. I think it's a great thing because there are so many different kinds of stories being told and we're all the better for it.

Is there anything that you miss about the era before there were so many shows?

That's a good question. It's really interesting just because there's such a difference in how people get their start in show business. I remember a time when talking to Aubrey Plaza about how she got started when we were doing Parks. She made her own videos and movies with her friend and they were good, so she got noticed and parlayed that into another web series and then found her way out here and got Parks and Funny People. That was 10 years ago. Now it's even more advanced than that. It makes so much more sense than when I was starting out, when you just come here and you try to find an agent. Then, if you're able to find an agent, you go on casting calls and try to get one of the maybe dozen parts available that year on TV. It just didn't make any sense. It was like a needle in a haystack chance of getting any traction whatsoever. Now, anyone starting out can just make their own stuff. We all have a really great camera in our pocket at all times. I think creativity is far more prevalent and encouraged now than ever before. Of course, there are drawbacks to everything being available all the time, including a movie camera in your pocket. But I think there's more good than bad.

Something else you’re involved in that is a direct result of the streaming era is the Party Down revival. How does it feel to be back after so long?

It's just pure joy. I know that everyone says that when they reboot their show and it's been a while and everyone sees each other and it's great, but it really is. It's been 12 years. We see each other now and again, but to be back playing those characters is so fun. And seeing the pink bow ties walk around the room! John Enbom [the creator] hasn't missed a beat. The scripts are amazing and all the characters are firing on all cylinders. Just Saturday night, I was in a scene watching Megan Mullally, Jane Lynch, Martin Star, Ken Marino, Ryan Hansen, watching them all play these ridiculous characters again. I'm in the scene filming, thinking to myself, I just missed these characters so much. They're so funny. I can't wait for people to see it.