Adam Scott has serious acting chops and that is nothing to laugh at.
Although Scott became became a fan-favorite comedy performer with roles on Party Down and Parks and Recreation, to Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later and The Good Place, but he started his professional career with more dramatic fare, including guest appearances on ER, Party of Five, and Six Feet Under. He has embraced both genres for as long as he can remember, and now, the industry is fully returning the sentiment.
"Before Step Brothers, which was sort of my entree into comedy, and it was a complete fluke that I got that role in the first place, I wasn't really known at all for comedy and certainly hadn't done much improvisation or anything like that — I had a tough time being seen for anything comedic," Scott tells Metacritic. "That movie changed that perception, but also changed how I thought about work and thought about acting."
Working on Step Brothers showed Scott the value in trying a lot of things to see what worked (after doing a solid take or two of the as-scripted version, of course), which not only increased the fun to be had on set, but also leant itself to keeping actors in the moment, rather than focused on an end result they cannot control anyway.
Being in the moment is an essential way for Scott to work on Apple TV+'s intense workplace drama Severance, on which he plays two versions of the same character: "Outie" Mark and "Innie" Mark. Mark underwent a procedure to have himself severed so that when he is at work, he is the Innie version of himself and knows nothing about Outie Mark's life and therefore can just focus on the tasks at hand and makes relationships with the Innie versions of his severed co-workers. Outie Mark, in contrast, is grieving the loss of his wife Gemma (Dichen Lachman) and pretty quickly sucked into a mystery around Lumon Industries, the company he works for, and the procedure. Quickly in the first season, both men are trying to uncover company secrets in their own ways.
For Scott, Severance follows on the heels of two major comedy projects (The Good Place and Ghosted) and two seasons of HBO's adaptation of Big Little Lies, and since the first season dropped he has also been seen in Apple TV+'s Maya Rudolph comedy Loot, returned to Party Down for a revival, and begun production on Marvel Studios' Madame Web.
In addition to celebrating such an expansion of storytelling opportunities, Scott also picked up his first two career Emmy nominations for Severance, one in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series category and one in the Outstanding Drama Series race (because he also serves as a producer) on the show.
Here, Scott talks to Metacritic about processing his own real grief while his Severance character avoids his and the insidiousness of Lumon Industries, and also reflects on earlier dramatic roles from Party of Five to Big Little Lies.
It seems like the severing effectively cut Mark's grieving time in half, which inherently would slow the process to healing. And then when Outie Mark gets pulled into the mystery of Lumon, that could also be a distraction that keeps him from making progress. How did you view that emotional arc in Season 1 and how much growth could he exhibit given all of those elements?
I think that the main reason he chose it was to specifically help them through the grieving process, and how he thought it would help him is that for eight to 10 hours a day, he's just not there: He doesn't have to experience that pain or feel that pain. And so, it's just less time where he has to feel this pain because he doesn't want to move on because the pain is basically all he has left of her. That's the way I thought about it and talked to Dan [Erickson, creator] about it.
It doesn't help him at all. It's not like he gets to take a vacation from the pain and enjoy himself for eight to 10 hours a day; he's just not there for it, so it may as well not exist. But that is how he justified it.
But for me, we started shooting the day after the presidential election, so it was ultra locked down, quiet streets of New York. I had been locked down with my family in Los Angeles from March until October when we started, and in March, my mother passed away unfortunately, so that period of time, my family really cushioned the blow; they really took care of me. I wouldn't say it numbed me, but it helped me through it, and that's what love is for: to help you through tough times like that. So, when I got to New York, as soon as I closed the apartment door, I was looking down the barrel of many months by myself in the apartment and at work. I then realized I had a lot more grieving to come to terms with — I had a lot more to do — and there wasn't anyone there to cushion the blow or take care of me. So, it took some time, but I also saw the show [as an opportunity] to come to terms with this: "I'm going to use the show to help me do that, and let the show use me." I put it into the show, and now, looking back, I'm so glad I did; it was a stage of the grieving process for me and a really important step.
And did you see the mystery he was pulled into as a helpful distraction for him? Because even if Outie Mark was in pain the entire time, that's certainly not all you had to play.
Yes, it opened up this door to something he had no interest in knowing because as far as he was concerned at the beginning of the season, he had the perfect setup. He was going to live the rest of his life being a blank, just going into the nether world for eight to 10 hours a day and then just going home and emptying his fridge of all the beer and falling asleep in front of the TV. He had no plans further than that, no matter what his sister said. Petey comes in and opens up this Pandora's box that he does not have any interest in looking into, but after a while he can't shake the feeling; he has to at least go to the address that's on the back of the card. And that leads to something else, and Petey dies in front of him. So, it is a full distraction from the grief, but he's not even aware that is happening.
But also, he goes out on this disastrous date and then goes out on a couple more dates that actually go quite well. And so, by the penultimate episode, he goes over to his to Devon and Ricken's house dressed up a little sleeker, more cleaned up, a little more ready for the world even though the relationship didn't work out. He's a mess, but I think it boiled over and he realized there was no other way to go; he needs to get out of his current situation.
In the finale, it is Innie Mark that learns the truth that Gemma is not really dead and that he has been interacting with her as Ms. Casey at work, which is a bombshell, but not as emotional a revelation for the Innie as it would have been for the Outie. What did you imagine was going through his mind when he saw the photo?
At the beginning of the season, this was somebody who has made a decision about who and what he is and where he is, and he's fine with it. And then Helly comes in and disrupts, and it's sort of like, "What the f--- is your problem? Look at what is going on here." Little by little, he opens his eyes a bit and starts sniffing around and realizing that something's going on here. So, I think by the end of the season, even though he and his friends have broken out and they want to tell people about some of the abuses and treatment that's going on down there, I don't think Mark had any idea that they would ever do anything as nefarious as this. He did believe in this place. I think that the moment he sees that photo, the bottom completely drops out. I don't think, even in the farthest reaches of his imagination, would he think anyone would ever be capable, morally, or just that anyone would ever conceive of doing something like that. It's confusing and it's nauseating and horrifying. So, I think all that was happening in that moment for Innie Mark.
How important was it for you to know what comes in the immediate moments after the finale cuts to black in order for you to land the emotional beat when Innie Mark is ready to reveal everything to his sister?
The very last sound effect of the season is a ding, so I'm not sure if Innie Mark still there. That's an open question. I didn't need more. It was all about that moment.
As you already touched on, the system Lumon has in place is proven to not be a good one for a variety of reasons, but one that the characters don't seem to think about is health or physical safety from the severing procedure. Yet, that feels very much like something looming in the background that could be revealed later. What discussions have you had around whether that is on the table?
With the reintegration process that Petey went through, obviously there's some grave physical risks there because that did not end well for him. What they put in there is not meant to be taken out, and certainly the scene early in the scene where you see the procedure being done to Helly, it's a medical, highly-controlled atmosphere, and it looks professional and all of that. I would imagine liability is a big issue for any large company, so I shudder to think about how they got to the place of having safe procedure — what they tested this on in order to make sure it's safe for people. But I think it's pretty sound at the moment, and I also don't think that the Innies have any concern about that because it's all they know.
Did you find it an extra challenge that while each version of your character had drastically different experiences, they still had to look pretty much identical? So many times putting on a wig or a specific costume can help get into the right headspace for a character; what did you rely on here?
It was certainly the main puzzle to figure out because the first instinct for an actor is to make them as different as possible. What ended up being important to Ben [Stiller, executive producer and director] and Dan and I is that they feel like the same guy, just different parts of the same guy — different halves. One of them is 40-odd years of life experience, sorrow and joy and all of the stuff that goes with that, and the other one is 2 and a half years old, essentially. So, it ended up being this internal shift that did
have some different physical manifestations with the voice a bit, the posture was different.
We shot the whole season at once, so in the morning we might do an Innie scene from Episode 2 and in the afternoon, an Outie scene from Episode 7. And what ended up being super helpful was those elevator shots. Ben set up a little elevator rig off to the side of set wherever we were shooting, where we could just, when we had time, pop in and do a few. It was just a fake elevator background with this pretty complicated camera rig Jessica [Lee Gagné, cinematographer] set up for this dolly move with a reverse zoom. And it was doing that over and over and over again, switching between the two, and having to do that math problem really fast that really helped. Because it ended up being a math problem: addition and subtraction of life experience and a worldview. And that has a weight to it. Having to distill it down and do it really fast really helped solidify what it was. We did those elevator switches hundreds of times, just trying to find it.
This is not going to be the smoothest segue, but the physical appearance of your character in Big Little Lies — having a beard — seemed like it helped you shed Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation in order to slip into a new role.
I grew up across the bay in Santa Cruz from Monterey Bay, and so, the beard and wardrobe and stuff was all part of that culture up there. And it's also a certain type of guy, who's in tech but also is in one of these kind of smaller towns and is just observing everything and is low-key.
And in a bigger way, coming off that show, you were not only switching genres when stepping into Big Little Lies, but you were also coming from being one half of a TV couple audiences put on a pedestal and then becoming part of one that was not worthy of that.
A bit more dysfunctional.
Ed is a smart, capable character in his own ways, but he was out of the loop of some important things in his marriage. What the challenges and rewards in playing a character who can't know so much about the bigger things that are happening around him?
The affair was certainly something he wasn't aware of, but I don't actually think there was much else. Ed really loved Madeline, his wife, completely and was aware of who she is and how she operates and that he's not a center of her universe. She was the center of his, he was not the center of hers, and he's fine with that. He's a bit of a wallflower but is aware of almost everything. He thought he had it all wired and the affair is something that's going on right under his nose, which made the betrayal even worse because if they were disconnected in any way, as far as he knew, and if they were kind of letting each other live their own lives even a little, it would be easy to miss something, but he thought he had it all wired.
Because there was a murder mystery at the center of the story, how much did you want to play with secrets Ed may have been hiding or moments where he could be a red herring for who did it?
From what I remember there was there was none of that. [Director] Jean-Marc Vallée was a brilliant guy, and that's all him and how he cut it together. I know at some points it does seem like Ed is a little suspicious, and I remember early on in the first season people being convinced Ed was the murderer for one reason or another, but that was all because of how Jean-Marc cut it together.
At point point there was even a vibe that I was veering on being a little creepy with my stepdaughter, which was not an intention at all of mine, but it was a great little twist to throw in there to just get people's wheels turning. It was surprising to me and it was a gross twist on the character, and I was so relieved that everybody got back on his side and quickly realized that that wasn't who the character was.
Ed and Madeline end up renewing their vows by the end of the second season, which can be considered a nice ending for them or not, depending on if you believe a vow renewal ends up cursing a relationship. How did you feel about the ending, especially after doing the first season thinking that was the ending, but then having the show renewed without a book to guide the arc?
I think it was a really nice ending, and shooting that stuff was really fun, but I think they're both complicated characters, particularly Madeline, so who knows how settled they are.
Speaking of endings, I want to take you much further back in your career to reflect on Party of Five because your character there, Josh, was around for a bunch of episodes, then he disappeared for a little while, then he returned, then disappeared again. They dangled him as a possibility for a bigger relationship with Julia, but there was so much about him that we just didn't get to see or know. Did you have backstory for him or did you personally fill in the gaps of his off-screen time just to flesh his life out in your mind?
No, not at all. I was just hoping that they would keep asking me to come back. Honestly, probably part of it is how green I was. I remember shooting a scene up in San Francisco with Neve Campbell where we were walking across the intersection that they had blocked off. It was at night and we were walking, having a conversation, and a cable car would go behind us after; it was a giant crane shot, and I had never been on a set with that much production value at that point. It's was 1998, and I'd been at it for four or five years, and so, on something like this, it felt huge and it really freaked me out. I kept screwing up a line and every time I did, they had to back up the cable car, get the crane, and it's TV, so you're supposed to move fast.
I don't remember a lot about the storylines, but I do remember Neve was super cool and the whole production team was really nice. Dan Attias is one of the great TV directors, and I remember talking to Dan on the set and being like, "Hey, I just watched that show you directed, The Sopranos" because the first season had just started airing, and he was like, "Oh you saw that?" We ended up talking about it, and he was like, "Keep watching because it's really interesting and I don't know if it's ever going to take off or go anywhere." Because it was HBO, and you still had to seek stuff out a little bit then.
What lessons do you feel like you took away from stepping into a world of a show that had already been so well-established?
There was a long period of time before I ever was a series regular on a show — the first time that happened was Party Down and then Parks — and something I still make a real effort towards is making the guest stars feel welcome and supported because that's a tough job, coming into this well-oiled machine with a cast of people that are usually pretty bonded with inside jokes and stuff. There were times when I felt completely invisible as a guest star, and Party of Five was definitely not one of those times; that's something I definitely learned because they were really kind and cool.