“Severance,” an unnerving workplace drama, was originally scheduled to begin filming in March 2020, but pandemic shutdowns pushed the shoot to the fall. So in October 2020, Adam Scott, the show’s star, left his family in Los Angeles and flew to New York.
For more than eight months, on the days when he could work — production paused a few times for positive tests, and Scott himself caught Covid-19 in February 2021 — he was driven to a busy studio in the South Bronx and surrounded by (shielded , masked) colleagues. Then he was driven back to a silent Tribeca apartment where he spent his nights alone, which made for an odd parallel with the show itself.
“Severance,” which premieres its first two episodes on Apple TV+ on Feb. 18, takes a speculative approach to work-life balance. Scott plays Mark Scout, a department chief at Lumon Industries, a shadowy corporation. (When was the last time a TV show had a corporation that wasn’t?) Mark and his co-workers have each voluntarily undergone a surgical procedure known as severance, which creates a mental cordon so that your work self has no knowledge or memories of your home self and vice versa. Think of it as an NDA For the soul.
Scott, 48, hasn’t always had great balance. “My boundaries are all over the place,” he said. “I’ve often put far too much of my self-worth into whether I’m working or not and the perception of my work once I’ve done it. That’s unhealthy.” Living by himself, away from his wife and two children, grieving his mother who had died just before the pandemic, that balance didn’t get better.
Still, the job gave him a place to put those feelings. The role demands that he alternate between the guileless “innie” Mark, a vacant middle manager, and the dented “outtie” Mark, mourning his dead wife. Some scenes have the feel of a workplace comedy, a genre Scott knows intimately. (Imagine “Parks and Recreation,” where Scott spent six seasons, remade by Jean-Paul Sartre.)
Others have the feel of a thriller, a drama, a sci-fi conjecture – all styles he is less familiar with. Ultimately, this dual role allows Scott to do what he does best: play a blandly handsome everydude while also showing the pain and shame and passion underlying that pose.
“He has this understanding of how strange it is to be normal,” said Ben Stiller, an executive producer and director of the series. “There’s a normalcy to him, a regular guyness. He also has an awareness that there’s no real regular guy.”
Scott has only ever wanted to be an actor. As a child in Santa Cruz, Calif., he watched as a film crew transformed his street into a set for a mini-series version of “East of Eden.” The road became dirt. The houses reverted to their Victorian origins. Horses and carriages drove past his lawn. This was magic, he thought, and he wanted to do whatever he could to enter what he called “that crazy magical make-believe world.”
Whenever he had a moment alone (and as the youngest child of divorced parents, this was pretty often) he would imagine himself as the hero of his own movie—usually a Steven Spielberg movie. He acted throughout school, except for a year or two in high school when he was worried what theater kid status would do to his popularity. But he was also a water polo player, so somehow it all worked out.
He enrolled in a two-year program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles. A classmate and fast friend, Paul Rudd, admired his work even then. “I’m like this guy’s really funny,” Rudd remembered. “And dry and really bright, obviously.”
Scott graduated at 20, made the rounds and spent a decade and a half booking just enough work to keep himself solvent — a few episodes here, a supporting part in a movie there — without ever feeling like he’d arrived.
“I was hanging on by a piece of floss, for 15 years,” he said.
In the early ’00s, his wife-to-be, Naomi Scott (then Naomi Sablan), asked him if he had a backup plan. “And it was so, so painful, his reaction to that,” she recalled. “He was like, ‘There is none.’”
Then it happened. He landed a role in the 2008 Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly comedy “Step Brothers” after another actor dropped out. Then he starred as Henry in the cult Starz comedy “Party Down,” replacing Rudd, who had other commitments. He missed out on a role on the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” but the show’s creators brought him in at the end of the second season as Ben Wyatt, a love interest for Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope. Suddenly, he had become a left-of-center leading man.
In “Step Brothers,” he played a yuppie chucklehead, but the roles in “Party Down” and “Parks and Recreation” felt more personal. He brought those years of not making it to Henry, a would-be actor whose career has been deformed by a series of beer commercials, and to Ben, a strait-laced accountant with a disreputable past.
“I was like, oh, of course, I feel deeply all of these things,” Scott said, “Having been here for 15 years and not having a whole lot to show for it, and being a bit wounded by the circumstances of this town.”
He loved the work. “His defining characteristic is that he just really wants to do a good job,” Michael Schur, a creator of “Parks and Recreation,” told me.
But he didn’t love everything that came with it. “I started getting recognized, and it just felt completely different than I had imagined that feeling for those 15 or so years.” Scott said. “It felt more like I had a disease on my face than it did being recognized.”
“It didn’t feel like this warm acceptance and hug,” he continued. “I always thought it would feel like love or something, but it’s a weird, isolating feeling.”
Scott was speaking on a video call from his Los Angeles home. The call had started a little late because he had spilled an espresso all over the table where his computer sat. The espresso had come from a top-line Italian contraption that takes a half-hour to warm up and that he cleanses lovingly every night. If these sound like the habits of a man to whom the small stuff matters, maybe!
In conversation, he was candid, self-critical, determinedly nice, without quite sacrificing the wryness that often defines him onscreen. He had shown up in the video window – in glasses, ghost pale, neckbearded – wearing a T-shirt and a sweatshirt underneath a flannel. A half-hour in, he took the flannel off.
“Sorry, I just started sweating under your question,” he said. (The question: “What made ‘Party Down’ so great?”) He doesn’t love doing press, but he made it seem as if we had all the time in the world. He kept telling me how great I was doing.
“He has a powerful store of humility,” Nick Offerman, his “Parks and Recreation” co-star, had told me. Offerman also said that what Scott does so well – onscreen, but maybe offscreen, too – is to embrace what he called, “a sort of geeky normalcy, the flavor of behavior that most people try to avoid if they can help it, because it’s too human.” (Offerman also told me to ask what Scott does to his hair to make it so voluminous, but Scott wasn’t talking.)
Scott isn’t cool. Unapologetic in his fandom, he has even made a podcast about how much he loves U2. His enthusiasm for REM is legendary. Often his characters go a little too hard, want things a little too much. (Evidence? “The Comeback Kid,” a Season 4 episode of “Parks and Recreation,” in which an out-of-work Ben takes a deep dive into Claymation. And calzones.)
But several of his colleagues also identified a kind of reserve in him — a sense that he holds something back while performing, which makes the performance richer.
“There is something about the set of his eyes,” Schur said. “You just sense that there’s depth there, something that you can’t immediately access.”
Poehler, Scott’s “Parks and Recreation” co-star, echoed this. “There’s a very internal, secret, secretive part of him as an actor,” she said.
That tension makes him right for the linked roles of “Severance.” The try-hard part works for the “innie” Mark, a man who just wants to do a great job, no matter how bizarre the job is. And that reserve helps with “outtie” Mark, who spackles his pain with booze, jokes and distance.
“It’s the same guy,” Scott explained. “It’s just one is more or less clean, and the other has lived many years and has gone through a lot of things.” Playing the “outtie” made him realize how much he had pushed away his own grief over his mother’s death. So that’s in there, too.
It was a long shoot and, given the pandemic protocols, often a lonesome one. Some days were spent almost entirely within a windowless Lumon Industries room – all fluorescent light and plastic partitions and soul-crushing wall-to-wall carpet. “It’s definitely kind of drove me mad,” John Turturro, Scott’s co-star, told me.
Scott put it more mildly. “It was a strange eight months,” he said.
But he had a job, the only job he had ever wanted. So Scott, who has never held a real office job, showed up to the imitation office every day that a negative PCR test permitted. He had work to do.