“Wow! NO!” Patricia Arquette screamed in the middle of our interview and got to her feet. We were on the sunlit patio of a Manhattan hotel, and a room service waiter delivering a crab salad had just closed the door behind her. Arquette, in one wearing a flowing blue dress and chunky glasses, was panicking that we were locked out. We weren’t. “The last time I was in New York, I got locked out on a balcony,” she said, collecting herself. “The fireman had to break the window.”
The sense of being trapped is one of the many unsettling forces behind Severance, the Apple TV+ series about a mysterious company called Lumon Industries that has developed a chip that can split the minds of its employees into two parts: the people who they are at work (“Innies”) do not share memories with the people who they are at home with (“Outties”). With its sci-fi spin on work-life balance and an eerie, retro-futuristic set of labyrinthine office corridors, “Severance” has attracted an obsessive following since it premiered in February. (If you want to avoid spoilers, you might want to jump down a bit.) Like many of the characters, Arquettes, while not separated, is two people rolled into one. At work, she’s cold-blooded corporate executive Harmony Cobel. Outside of Lumon, she poses as Mrs. Selvig, a down-to-earth lactation consultant who bakes chamomile cookies and lives next door to protagonist Mark (Adam Scott).
Arquette, fifty-four, has neither Cobel’s severity nor Selvig’s flightiness, but she’s lived enough lives for two people. She came from a showbiz family that included her acting siblings, David and Rosanna. She spent childhood years in a hippie commune in Virginia before breaking through in 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Bloated sexuality betrayed an undercurrent of strangeness, and her ’90s films were as idiosyncratic as herself: Tony Scott’s True Romance (in which she had an on-screen fight with James Gandolfini), Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, David Lynch’s Lost Highway. .” In recent decades, she turned to network television (“Medium,” “CSI: Cyber”), winning an Academy Award for her role as a single mother in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which was filmed over a period of twelve years. We talked about her borderline penchant for severance, her unconventional upbringing, her sometimes controversial outspokenness about gender equality, and the cannabis lounge she’s opening with her son. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
It must be exciting that everyone got so obsessed with Severance.
It’s so beautiful because part of me was like, ‘This show is very claustrophobic, and we’re coming out of this claustrophobic experience – how is that going to be for everyone?’ The story was so complicated and interesting. When they gave me the first few 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 for fear of giving someone a spoiler. 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 opposite sides, Harmony Cobel and Mrs. Selvig.
Oddly enough, I’ve played two characters in films before, like Lost Highway. It raised many questions. While Harmony isn’t “disconnected,” everyone here is multiple people. She is disconnected from her own feelings, from her own bonding experiences with people outside of this corporate world. So even though she’s creeping into Mark’s life as this kind of awkward aunt, I think what surprises her is that she’s trying to have that experience, like, ‘What’s it like to be a neighbor? Oh, we’re both laughing at that joke!” She plays that character, but also flirts with those feelings of connectedness with someone outside of upper management and the weird grind inside the company.
Everyone talks about work-life balance on the show, but I was wondering if the idea of severance pay resonated with you as an actor. On one level, actors go to work, become a different person, and then at the end of the day go home and resume their lives. Is that even your idea of acting?
Sometimes definitely. The weird thing about Severance was that we would go to the set – they would build all these crazy hallways, and then they would move doors, entrances and exits according to the scene so we would get lost. It was like a rat maze: “I got lost! I’m here to rehearse but I can’t find anyone!’ And then I kept being put in lockdown for being contact-traced. It was this weird claustrophobia and then I went back to that apartment alone and isolated. It was like “Severance” bled into my whole life.
I was curious about the tactile details of your character. She’s got that severe white hair and company armor. How did you and the creators of the series develop your look?
The wardrobe department has really drilled down. They had to wear tights. You had to wear those belt things. It was kind of retro, those uniforms that had been created. And because my character was from the world of Kier [the company’s founder], the former guard, often covers her neck as well. I wore all these tails. I had this notion that even if you see her at home in her sleepwear, she’s wearing what she’s comfortable in, which is almost monastic. And I wanted her hair braided because Kier came from a pioneering age. Then I had this idea for this white wig because it’s wrinkled and demands a certain respect. You know she’s been through a certain amount of life.
Harmony’s voice has that kind of affected quality. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but she has an element of cartoon villain that is very delicious.
I think she grew up with this company, looking at other high-level people and creating her own voice. I think there were few movies she got to watch growing up with that mid-Atlantic sound. Some of the [sitcom] Icons I grew up with, like Maude and Rhoda, were more of a touchstone for Selvig. I think she grew up knowing that authority has a sound, so she created her own sound for authority.
my pet theory is that there is an element of Scientology in the show. Kier is that mid-century leader, like L. Ron Hubbard. There are E-meter type machines. Even just the idea that you can split your mind in two.
And someone said that Elon Musk is working on a strange brain chip. I think there are many layers. I’m not in Scientology so I don’t really understand the whole system. I read something about it because I find it really fascinating. It is often in this situation that one gets into trouble. It’s also that pecking order. You keep going to someone to validate you who never really will. You’re always doing something that throws you out of grace, and then you’re desperately trying to get back into her good graces.