It’s almost too easy to put Adam Scott in the funny-man box. And deservedly so. From Party Down to Step Brothers to Parks And Recreation, the actor has crafted an impressive resume of comedic roles over the years. But with Apple TV+’s hit Severance, he breaks type with a gut-wrenching performance that has earned him his first Emmy nomination.
Created by Dan Erickson and co-produced by Ben Stiller, the psychological thriller Severance follows employees of a conglomerate called Lumon who have voluntarily severed their personal memories while in the office, taking the idea of work-life balance to an extreme level. Scott plays Mark Scout, whose outside version is grieving the death of his wife while “Innie” Mark S. is slowly coming to terms with Lumon’s villainy.
It was that very duality that was one of the most striking aspects of the role, Scott recently told The A.V. Club. Our chat with the actor also touched on landing the part, consciously exploring projects outside the comedy umbrella, and channeling personal experience into each character he plays.
The A.V. Club: You’ve done a wide range of genres, but you’re still best known for comedies. Were you looking to change things up with another drama role post-Big Little Lies when Severance came along?
Adam Scott: Yes, somewhat. After Parks And Recreation ended, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I had never been in a position of being on a TV show for such a long time. I was leaving it with more opportunities than I had going in. Parks was a life-changer for me. I didn’t know what to do next but thought I might try something less in the comedy sphere, so I went after the Big Little Lies role. I really pursued that and was thrilled to be a part of it. After Parks, it was also hard to be considered for anything other than comedy. I had to really fight for Big Little Lies, and I auditioned and read a couple of times to prove myself. Doing that was really fun and creatively satisfying. I wanted to keep going in that direction. It’s not like I wanted to abandon comedy, but I wanted to try everything and go after material that appealed to me.
AVC: What was immediately appealing about Severance?
AS: Ben Stiller had called me really early, I mean, like in the summer of 2017, and sort of told me the quick main idea of the show. It was an elevator pitch of Severance. He made it clear they didn’t have all the material, but it was an idea by [series creator] Dan Erickson, whom he had just met. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I ended up getting to read anything. I couldn’t shake the idea of it or stop thinking about it. The big themes of the show are so interesting and thought-provoking. When it came back around, I was pretty excited.
AVC: How creatively satisfying was it to play two similar but still very different versions of Mark Scout?
AS: The whole thing was exciting and a bit overwhelming with the mountain of work in front of us as we were gearing up to shoot it. Knowing how much I had to do, I knew I would need to completely lean on the directors, Ben and Aiofe McArdle, to do what I needed to. I’m so glad I did rather than only keeping an eye on my performance. I had to jump in head first. I trust Ben so much as a person and a director that I was really lucky to have him and Aiofe.
Splitting up the character was an interesting journey. We thought of approaching it in different ways but ultimately settled on figuring out how to make it clear that this is the same guy, but we’re seeing two components or halves of him. One of them has 40 or so odd years of experience, the other has two and a half years of being alive inside Lumon. It became a matter of how it manifests emotionally, physically, and if there’s a slightly different tenor in the voice. Finding out all these things about Mark Scout was really fun.
AVC: Was playing one version of Mark tougher than the other? Outie Mark, for example, has a lot of grief to deal with but is running away from it by getting severed. What was that aspect like?
AS: Six months before we started shooting Severance, my mom had passed away. We started shooting a day after the 2020 presidential election, and we had been isolated for all that time. I was locked in the house with my family and with my experiences of this loss. My family had taken care of me and helped cushion the blow. When I got to New York to shoot, it became immediately clear to me that I still had a lot of grieving to do and a lot to contend with. It would have to happen one way or another while I was here.
And then, opening the script up, the show was right there in front of me. I processed it through Severance and went through it and tried to confront it through the show. It ended up really helping me. I’m grateful. It’s almost like the show was there for me as a friend. Not to say that the care my family took of me wasn’t enough. That’s what love is for, right? To help you and make you feel better. It’s just when you lose someone that significant, there are different stages to it. This particular stage hit me when I was by myself, so I turned to the show, and I’m really glad that I did. It ended up being a healthy way to go through it.
AVC: It can be tough to channel your personal life into a role sometimes, but it sounds like it was relieving here. In general, are you the actor where a part of you blends into a character?
AS: Yeah, that’s sort of how I’ve always worked. What you have, first and foremost, is yourself. And that’s where I always start. How would I react in this situation? Even if it doesn’t always apply, there’s still a way to use your personal experiences; you have to alter it here and there to figure out how this particular character would react to something, but it’s all coming from yourself. We’re trying to replicate life, right? You want it to feel real and authentic.
AVC: Since you’ve been longing for a drama role like this one, was there something new or surprising you learned about your craft while filming Severance, even though you’ve been doing this for two decades now?
AS: That is such a good question. I think if you’ve been doing it a while, and I have, you get very protective of yourself just for selfish reasons. Anyone who’s doing it for a while has been in something where you feel like once you see the finished product, you feel, “They maybe didn’t get what I was trying to do.” It doesn’t always work, so you start to protect yourself on the set because you’re trying to anticipate what scene they’ll use or won’t use.
In your head, you’re trying to cobble together the best performance if you’re not getting what they’re after. I mean, it’s a bad habit to get into. Something that occurred to me during Severance is that it’s not a healthy way to approach it. Surrendering completely to Dan, Ben, and Aoife and forgetting all the self-editing is exactly what I needed to do. I learned how to dive head-first into the material and put trust in the people I’m working with. I think if I had been solely keeping an eye on what I was doing, the performance would’ve suffered.
AVC: The performance has actually landed you your first Emmy nomination now. What does it signify at this stage in your career?
AS: It made me so happy, and it means so much. I wasn’t anticipating it because I hadn’t let myself go there or think about it beforehand, partly because of the Midwestern-toned upbringing of thinking I deserve something like that. It feels presumptuous. I also didn’t want to spend my time worrying about it because I know it can get unhealthy. I hadn’t considered it emotionally or logically, so when it happened, I processed it blindly, and it was pure joy. It felt flattering.
AVC: How does it feel going back to work with Severance’s
14 Emmy nominations overall? And when do you think we’ll get to see season two?
AS: I think it’s just really nice. It was a hard show to make, not just for us, but the crew worked their asses off. It’s incredible what they were able to pull off. I think for all of us, it’s a nod of encouragement because we’re about to go back and start shooting the second season. It’s a lovely way to go back to work. As far as when season two comes out, it’s above my pay grade. But I’m finishing up a movie I’m doing now [Madame Web], and I do know we start filming season two pretty soon.