“Whoa! NO!” Patricia Arquette screamed halfway through our interview, scrambling to her feet. We were on a sunlit terrace at a Manhattan hotel, and a room-service waiter delivering a shrimp salad had just let the door close behind him. Arquette, in a flowy blue dress and chunky glasses, was panicked that we were locked out. We weren’t. “Last time I was in New York, I got locked out on a balcony,” she said, gathering herself. “The fireman had to break the window.”
The feeling of being trapped is one of the many unsettling forces behind “Severance,” the Apple TV+ series about a mysterious corporation called Lumon Industries, which has developed a chip that can split its employees’ minds in two: the people they are at work (“innies”) share no memories with the people they are at home (“outties”). With its sci-fi spin on work-life balance and an uncanny, retro-futurist set of mazelike office hallways, “Severance” has attracted an obsessive following since it premièred, in February. (If you are avoiding spoilers, you might want to skip down a bit.) Like many of the characters, Arquette’s, though unsevered, is two people in one. At work, she’s the icy corporate manager Harmony Cobel. Outside Lumon, she’s posing as Mrs. Selvig, an earthy lactation consultant who bakes chamomile cookies and lives next door to the protagonist, Mark (Adam Scott).
Arquette, fifty-four, has neither Cobel’s severity nor Selvig’s flightiness, but she’s lived enough life for two people. The product of a show-biz family, including her actor siblings David and Rosanna, she spent years of her childhood on a hippie commune in Virginia, before breaking out with “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors,” in 1987. Her blowsy sexuality belied an undercurrent of strangeness, and her nineties films were as idiosyncratic as she was: Tony Scott’s “True Romance” (in which she had an onscreen battle with James Gandolfini), Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” In more recent decades, she turned to network TV (“Medium,” “CSI: Cyber”) and won an Oscar for her role as a single mother, in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” which was filmed over a span of twelve years. We spoke about her borderline-campy turn on “Severance,” her bohemian upbringing, her sometimes controversial outspokenness on gender equality, and the cannabis lounge that she’s opening with her son. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
It must be exciting that everyone became so obsessed with “Severance.”
It’s so nice, because there was a part of me that was, like, “This show is very claustrophobic, and we’re coming out of this claustrophobic experience—how is that going to be for everybody?” The story was so complicated and interesting. When they gave me the first episodes, I was, like, “What is this? What is this company? Who is this lady?”
Do you know all the answers?
There are certain things I don’t want to know, because I’m scared I’m going to give a spoiler to somebody. But there are definitely a lot of things I know, so I have to be very careful.
It must have been fun but kind of tricky to construct this woman with these polar opposite sides, Harmony Cobel and Mrs. Selvig.
Weirdly, I’ve played two people in movies before, like in “Lost Highway.” It opened up a lot of questions. Even though Harmony’s not “severed,” everybody is multiple people in this. She’s severed from her own feelings, her own experiences of bonding with people outside of this corporate world. So, even though she’s insinuating herself into Mark’s life as this sort of bumbling auntie type, I think what she gets surprised by is trying on this experience of, like, “What is it to be a neighbor? Oh, we’re both laughing at this joke!” She’s playing this person but then also flirting with these feelings of bonding with somebody outside the echelon of upper management and the weird grind within the corporation.
Everybody talks about the theme of work-life balance on the show, but I wondered whether the idea of severance resonated for you as an actor. On one level, what actors do is go into work, become a different person, and then go home at the end of the day and resume their lives. Is that at all how you think of acting?
Sometimes, definitely. The weird thing about “Severance” was, we would go onto the set—they built all these crazy hallways, and then they would move doorways and entrances and exits according to the scene, so we would get lost. It was like being in a rat’s maze: “I’m lost! I’m here to rehearse, but I can’t find anyone!” And then I kept getting put into lockdown, because I was contact-traced. It was this weird claustrophobia, and then I was going back to this apartment alone and isolating. It was like “Severance” was bleeding into my whole life.
I was curious about the tactile details of your character. She has this severe white hair and corporate armor. How did you and the creators of the show develop her look?
The wardrobe department really drilled down. You had to wear pantyhose. You had to wear these girdle things. It was kind of retro, these uniforms that had been created. And, because my character was from the world of Kier [the company’s founder], the earlier guard, she also often is covering her neck. I was wearing all these dickies. I had this idea that, even when you saw her in her sleep clothes at home, she’s wearing what she’s comfortable with, which is almost monastic. And I wanted to have her hair braided, because Kier comes from a more pioneer-ish time. Then I had this idea for this white wig, because it’s wizened and demands some kind of respect. You know she’s gone through a certain amount of life.
Harmony’s voice has this sort of affected quality. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but there’s an element of cartoon villain to her that’s very delicious.
I think she grew up with this corporation, looking to other people who were high-level, and created her own voice. I think there were limited films she could see growing up, with that mid-Atlantic sound. Some of the [sitcom] icons that I grew up with, like Maude and Rhoda, were more of a touchstone for Selvig. I think she grew up knowing there was a sound to authority, so she created her own sound for authority.
My pet theory is that there’s an element of Scientology in the show. Kier is this mid-century leader, like L. Ron Hubbard. There are the E-Meter-type machines. Even just the idea that you can split your mind in two.
And somebody said that Elon Musk is working on some kind of weird brain chip. I think there are a lot of layers. I’m not in Scientology, so I don’t really understand that whole system. I’ve done some reading about it, because I think it’s really fascinating. Oftentimes, it’s this getting-in-trouble situation. It’s also this pecking order. You keep going to some person to validate you who never really will. You’re always kind of doing something that puts you out of grace, and then you’re trying desperately to get back in their graces.