TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Adam Scott, is best known for his work in TV comedies like "Parks And Recreation" and "Party Down" and the drama series "Big Little Lies." Now he stars in the new drama series "Severance" that gives a sci-fi take on work-life balance. Adam Scott spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado. Here's Ann Marie.
ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: Chances are you've seen actor Adam Scott in a TV workplace. On "Parks And Recreation," he plays Ben Wyatt, government worker and love interest for Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler. On the cult favorite "Party Down," he plays Henry, an actor who never quite made it, so has to work as a bartender for a catering company. Now, Adam Scott is the star of a sci-fi drama called "Severance," which takes place in a more sinister workplace. He plays Mark S., a guy still grieving for his wife who died in a car accident years ago. Unable to return to work as a professor because of his grief, he decides to work for the company Lumen, a mysterious conglomerate that performs a controversial surgery on some of its employees. Workers can choose to get a chip implanted in their brain that makes them forget about their personal lives when they're at work and their work lives when they're at home.
Ben Stiller co-created "Severance" and directs a lot of the episodes. It also stars Patricia Arquette, John Turturro and Christopher Walken. Here's a scene from the show. Mark, played by Adam Scott, is in his outside life. He's at a bar on a blind date. They're getting to know each other when his date, played by Nikki James, asks about his job.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEVERANCE")
NIKKI JAMES: (As Alexa) So Lumen...
ADAM SCOTT: (As Mark) Yeah.
JAMES: (As Alexa) ...Like half this town.
SCOTT: (As Mark) And half of me. That was a joke.
JAMES: (As Alexa) It was funny.
SCOTT: (As Mark) Yeah. I'm in the archives division, sort of a corporate historian, apparently. So a lot of sensitive material, hence the...
JAMES: (As Alexa) So you don't know who you work with or what you do or anything.
SCOTT: (As Mark) Yeah, that's the idea.
JAMES: (As Alexa) What if you snuck in a note?
SCOTT: (As Mark) You can't sneak notes.
JAMES: (As Alexa) So, like, you could have a girlfriend at Lumen and not know it. And if you met someone out here, you wouldn't know it in there. Like, you could get married and have kids and just forget they exist for 8 hours every day for your whole life. That doesn't mess with your head?
SCOTT: (As Mark) I think for some people, it's the point.
BALDONADO: Adam Scott, welcome to FRESH AIR.
SCOTT: Thank you, Ann Marie.
BALDONADO: It's obvious that, you know, office work culture has changed. Like, pre-pandemic, there was this fear that, you know, because of technology, people would be working all the time, you know, leaving little time for outside life. And with the pandemic, those lines between the two have gone kind of beyond blurred. And people are really reconsidering what work means, how much time one should work, how much of their lives should be devoted to it. You know, this show goes dramatic in the other way, like, separating the two. And because it's so much about office culture, is that something that appealed to you and, you know, everyone who works on the show, like, thinking through those issues?
SCOTT: Yeah. You know, while we were making "Severance," we shot it in New York. My family is in Los Angeles. So, you know, it was right in the heart of pre-vaccine pandemic. So it was tough. I didn't, you know, get to see them very much. But it was sort of the Wild West as far as just trying to make this show and keep everyone from getting sick. And so everybody was really sealed off and isolated. I would shoot the show, get in a van, drive for 40 minutes to this apartment I was staying in, sit there by myself and eat, sleep, get up, get back in a van, go there, shoot this crazy show where there's all this isolation and it's sort of about this separation from work and life. And so it all started forming into this one thing in my head and in my memories of it.
BALDONADO: The production design of the show, the look of the show really leads to this feeling of, like, strangeness, creepiness, also isolation. You know, for example, your character Mark lives in this sterile corporate apartment in this snowy landscape, and that's his outside life. And the offices are very stark. They're empty but symmetrical. It's all fluorescent lights. And there are so many hallways. There's this one scene when you first get to the office where you're walking through hallways and I timed it. It's like 90 seconds. It's like the longest walking-in-a-hallway sequence ever.
BALDONADO: And, you know, it sort of lends to this, like, kind of weird, eerie feeling. So the look of the show certainly helps build this dread. What's it like filming in that environment?
SCOTT: It's really interesting. Just as far as that first walk down the hallway in the first episode, we shot that near the end of the very end of the shoot. Nine, 10 months in, we ended up shooting that. And I remember after a couple of takes, Ben pulled me aside and he said, hey, after about a minute, why don't you check your watch? And so I do. And he used that. He put that in the show. And I think it's a little bit of a nod to, yes, this is taking a while. We are going on this full journey down the hallway.
And they built all of those hallways on the stage. And you did have to walk through them in order to get to the office. But they were also constantly moving them around. And depending on what we're shooting, they're sliding the hallways in one direction or the other and creating new patterns. So more often than not, I would get lost trying to get to the office set. And many times we'd have to just stop and call out and wait for someone to come find me because it all looks exactly the same, just like it does on the show. And you can just sort of lose your bearings quickly in there.
BALDONADO: I have read about some of their, you know, actors who inspired you when you were younger, and you mentioned Christopher Walken. And he just plays like such an interesting, fun character in "Severance." Can you talk about working with him?
SCOTT: Oh, man. You know, I couldn't believe it when Ben told me he was going to be in the show. And he and John Turturro are very close friends. And so John really called them up and encouraged him to do it. And, I mean, he's such a profound presence on screen for my whole life, as far - as long as I've been into movies and TV shows, which is essentially all I thought about and was interested in as a kid and teenager and adult. We had a scene where we're all down in his part of the - of Lumen.
Anyway, it was my first real scene with Christopher Walken. And I was pretty freaked out because I have to give this speech in front of he, John Turturro and the rest of the cast that's in that scene, Zach Cherry and Britt Lower. But it was, you know, Christopher Walken and John Turturro that I was a little freaked out about giving a speech in front of. And it was, you know, one of the first scenes I had with the two of them. And all day I've been feeling like I haven't figured it out. It's a relatively simple, not super-long speech, but I didn't - it wasn't coming out right. It wasn't - it just wasn't feeling like it was falling into place.
There just was something off about it. It just was not working. And I was embarrassed because these guys are watching me all day do like a C-plus, right? And I could not get over the hump. I couldn't figure it out, and I forget what it was, but something about it just made sense. And maybe it was the fact that I was doing it all day, but it finally kind of fell into place. And at least - it's not like I'd go back and watch it and think it's incredible or anything, but something about it just made sense. And it came out, and it - the ball at least fell into the pocket. But I was still unsure about it. And after we finished shooting, we were back in this other room, just sort of chit-chatting. And I remember Christopher Walken walked up behind me and just grabbed my elbow as he was walking by and sort of just gave it a bit of a squeeze and a shake and, like, a hand on the shoulder. And I just took it as this - I guess, a moment of approval or of a good job maybe. That's how I took it. And I can't tell you what that meant to me, just that little moment from him was kind of everything. I'll never forget it.
BALDONADO: Our guest is Adam Scott. His work includes "Parks And Recreation," "Party Down" and "Big Little Lies." He now stars in the sci-fi workplace series "Severance" on Apple TV+. The Season 1 finale will be released this Friday. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GABY MORENO'S "PARKS AND RECREATION THEME SONG")
BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Ann Marie Baldonado, back with our guest, Adam Scott. He stars in the new Apple TV+ series "Severance" as a guy who chooses to surgically separate his work life from his home life. The Season 1 finale will be released this Friday. Adam Scott's other shows include "Parks And Recreation," "Big Little Lies" and "Party Down."
In the first episode of the series, your character is crying. He's weeping in his car before going into the office. And at first, we don't know what's causing him that grief, but we do find out as the episodes go on that his wife was killed in a car accident. The show's also about how a person deals with grief. You know, and at one point, it comes out that when your character's wife died, Mark first tries to go back to work as a professor after three weeks, and he couldn't do it. And that's part of the reason why he chose to work at this company and, you know, get this severance procedure done. I recently lost my father, and I had to make that calculation.
SCOTT: I'm sorry.
BALDONADO: Thanks. But, you know, it's a calculation that so many people have to make. And it was the three weeks thing - because I think that maybe that's maybe what people think is the right amount of weeks - but how much time it takes and when it's time to focus back on work or on something else. And I - and if this is too personal, just let me know. I read that you lost your mother shortly before the pandemic, you know, before filming "Severance." And I don't know, it's - you know, this show kind of deals with the idea of the proper amount of time or the proper way to deal with grief.
SCOTT: That's right. Yeah. My mom died on March 5, 2020. And so it was...
BALDONADO: Right before everything changed.
SCOTT: Right before, yeah. And, you know, she passed away, and then we quickly went into lockdown. So, I mean, we didn't have a memorial for her till the - just this past December. And I think, you know, a lot of people have gone through that as far as sort of putting stuff like this on hold. For me, you know, her death was world-changing in the sense that - the thing I didn't - you know, she was sick. She had ALS. And so we knew what was coming there for a couple of years. It was pretty quick. But, you know, we knew it was coming. But then the moment it happens, what I didn't expect - and I think people who have lost a parent, you may understand what I mean. The moment it happens, everything shifts. There's sort of a tectonic shift internally that just - a - it's like a switch going off where - and what I realized was, you know, with a parent, it's like half of your view out the window. It's half of what you do things for is - you're always thinking, oh, what's my mom going to think about this? Or, you know, whether you're a little kid or you're a grown-up, you know, I - she's an incredible mother and - so anyway, I don't know if I'm articulating that right. But - and I don't know if that was your experience with your father, but losing a parent is sort of - is a huge event. There's no other feeling like it.
But she passed away, and then we went into lockdown. And I had my kids and my wife here. We were in the house. And they really cushioned the blow in a lot of ways. You know, we were together and supporting each other and going through this together, and they really, really helped me through it. And then that October, when I went to New York to do the show, the second I walked into the apartment and put my bags down and I was by myself, I realized I hadn't fully grieved and come to terms with my mom's death. And I had that in front of me and nothing but this time by myself to do it. And that's, you know, what I slowly but surely did over all that time by myself, either in this apartment or at work. And I feel like the show was certainly part of that process.
BALDONADO: You've said that your mom was a big influence on you and exposed you to movies and comedy as a kid. What were the movies and TV shows that were important to you growing up?
SCOTT: Yeah. You know, she brought me to a revival theater in Santa Cruz to see "Monty Python And The Holy Grail" when I was probably, like, 8 years old or something.
SCOTT: And I couldn't believe that someone actually made something like this. And I remember we were in the front row 'cause it was packed. And in the scene where - is it John Cleese who gets all of his limbs chopped off? I'm, you know, committing a comedy felony here by not remembering.
BALDONADO: Oh, yes. It is him.
SCOTT: In that scene, I remember laughing so hard I stumbled out of my seat out into the - since we were in the front row, there's all that space on the floor. And I just remember, like, stumbling out there because I just couldn't contain my - I couldn't believe this was happening, and my mom grabbing me and pulling me back into my seat. And it was just so outrageous and so funny.
And I remember my dad sitting me down and showing me "Jaws," and, like, this is a good movie. Look at this. And also, for me, you know, seeing "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" was a big moment. And that's really the moment, I think, I thought, this is something I would want to do at some point is - and I wasn't even thinking in terms of like acting. It was more just like, that; I want to do that. That looks really, really fun.
So it just sort of was something I - after school, instead of - I would go to the video store. I would ride my bike to the video store, not to rent a movie, but just to read the boxes. I would just spend an hour in there reading the boxes and the dates they came out and who did the cinematography and who was the director, you know, all of that. I just loved it.
BALDONADO: A lot of people know you and love you from your role as Ben Wyatt on the show "Parks And Recreation" that ran for seven seasons. And you were in six of them or, you know, a little bit of that second season. And, you know, love for that show has just grown over time. Let's play a scene from "Parks And Recreation." This is from the fourth season. And speaking of themes of work, in this scene, Ben, your character, is out of work. He just resigned because he started dating Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler. And your character is a guy who likes to work. And so you're a little bit spiraling, not knowing what to do with your time.
BALDONADO: You're wearing your Letters to Cleo T-shirt. You're a little bit disheveled.
SCOTT: Never a good sign for Ben.
BALDONADO: (Laughter) Yeah. And your friend Chris Traeger, played by Rob Lowe, comes to see you because he's a little bit worried.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")
SCOTT: (As Ben Wyatt) What's up, Chris? Come on in, man.
ROB LOWE: (As Chris Traeger) I already did.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)
LOWE: (As Chris Traeger) So how you been? How you doing? How are you?
SCOTT: (As Ben Wyatt) Great, actually. I'm just learning how to make (imitating Italian accent) calzones, or as you Americans like to say, calzones. Do you want one?
LOWE: (As Chris Traeger) No. I find calzone fatty and unnecessary. So you've had a bit of a rough patch. And I care about you. So I just want to make sure that you're doing OK.
SCOTT: (As Ben Wyatt) Chris, honestly, I'm great. I'm just exploring whatever fun activity pops into my brain. But check this out. I'm teaching myself how to do Claymation videos. Isn't this just so cool?
LOWE: (As Chris Traeger, laughing) It is so cool.
Ben is massively depressed. And he needs my help.
BALDONADO: That's a scene from "Parks And Recreation." Now, people who watch the show know that there are some funny character traits thrown in there. I think this is maybe the first calzone reference - maybe the first.
BALDONADO: And, you know, your character - you're usually the straight man in scenes. But in this one, you're a little bit wacky. And I've read that the writers of "Parks And Rec" really use the actors and lean into their strengths when they're building the character. What is it about you that gets written into Ben?..
BALDONADO: ...You know, a character you played for many years. And there are these - you know, this long, like, theme that Ben is really nerdy. Like, Leslie buys him a replica of the throne from "Game Of Thrones." Like, that's just one of the ways.
SCOTT: That's right.
BALDONADO: But so - what's the bleed there between you and the character?
SCOTT: Yeah, I don't know. I - you know, Mike and the writers were just so great. It was so fun every week, getting to crack open "Parks And Rec" script and see what was in store for all of us 'cause it was always something fun.
And, you know, Ben was the straight man for, you know, a lot of the show. And his quirks ended up being really strange and really fun. One of them was he's deathly afraid of cameras. And whenever he gets on camera, he starts losing his equilibrium. And that was sort of - I guess, that was the first one. He just gets really freaked out if there are cameras around and thinks there's, like, a bird in the room.
And then another one is his love for calzones and his massive depression that comes on if he has nothing to keep him busy. And his, you know, "Star Wars" and "Game Of Thrones" obsessions were other ones. I don't know where those first couple came from, but I was just delighted to play them. They were - it was always just so much fun.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Adam Scott. He stars in the Apple TV+ series "Severance." The final episode of the first season begins streaming Friday. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. Also, John Powers will review the new crime series "Tokyo Vice," and Kevin Whitehead will review reissues of Ornette Coleman's first two albums.
I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Adam Scott. He's best known for his roles in TV series like "Parks And Recreation," "Big Little Lies," "Party Down" and "The Good Place." His films include "Step Brothers," "Knocked Up" and "The Overnight." Now he's starring in the critically acclaimed sci-fi drama "Severance" about a man who chooses to have a chip implanted in his brain designed to separate his work brain from his home brain in order to separate his work life from his home life and help him keep functioning while he deals with the death of his wife. The season one finale of "Severance" will be released on Apple TV+ Friday. Adam Scott spoke to FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado.
BALDONADO: Your turn to comedy came with a role in the movie "Step Brothers," which came out in 2008. How did you get that part? It kind of changed the course of your career.
SCOTT: Oh, my God. It completely did. I have Adam McKay and Will Ferrell to thank for that - and Allison Jones.
BALDONADO: The casting director.
SCOTT: I - the casting director, Allison Jones. She had - she's great. She cast me in this pilot in, like, '96 that really kind of kept me afloat for a while. And she - anyway, she's great. She's, like, the best. And if you look her up, you'll see she's responsible for...
BALDONADO: She's cast a lot of some of your favorite things.
SCOTT: Oh, man. She's great.
BALDONADO: Let's play a scene from that movie. So you play Derek. He's a successful businessman with a family, an unhappy family (laughter) with two kids.
BALDONADO: And your brother is Will Ferrell, and your mother is played by Mary Steenburgen. And she just got married to Richard Jenkins, whose son is John C. Reilly. The...
SCOTT: What a cast. My goodness.
BALDONADO: I know. It's great. The Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly characters are, like, these man-children. They kind of, like - they're not successful. But you are this yuppie, douchey guy. And in this scene, you're talking to Richard Jenkins for the first time, who's very impressed by you, and you're talking...
BALDONADO: ...About selling his house.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STEP BROTHERS")
SCOTT: (As Derek) Let me ask you this, Bob. Why wait two years?
RICHARD JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) Well, I've got to make more money. I...
SCOTT: (As Derek) OK, well, look, I hear you. Believe me. But what if I were to tell you that I could sell this house for 30% above market right now?
JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) That'd be - that'd be great. You - could you do it?
SCOTT: (As Derek) In a heartbeat, Robby (ph). You know what? I'd even do it for four-fifths commish (ph).
JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) Oh, that'd be fantastic.
SCOTT: (As Derek) Yeah.
JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) That'd be...
SCOTT: (As Derek) Yeah.
JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) Oh, my God.
SCOTT: (As Derek) No, it would be kick-a**, bro.
JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) Oh, man.
SCOTT: (As Derek) Right there. (Imitating explosion).
JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) Oh. (Imitating explosion).
BALDONADO: That's a scene from the movie...
SCOTT: Oh, God.
BALDONADO: ..."Step Brothers" (laughter).
SCOTT: Oh, my goodness.
BALDONADO: Now, you know, you - now a few times, like also on "The Good Place," you play this, like, bro type, this douchey, bro type. Why are you so good at it (laughter)?
SCOTT: I don't know. I've always thought that those guys are so funny. I love watching an overconfident idiot, but an overconfident idiot who's also deeply unpleasant. It just gets me excited. I think it's so funny. Also, I feel like too often, those are the guys running the world, and making fun of them in a movie or a TV show is kind of a fun, little poke (laughter).
BALDONADO: You talked about the difference between doing the kind of stuff you were doing before "Step Brothers." For example, you were on an HBO show called "Tell Me You Love Me." And then you did this movie, you know, surrounded by all these comedy people. And it was such a - at the time, you say it was such a big difference. Can you talk about the difference of, you know, filming more dramatic shows and then entering this world of comedy?
SCOTT: Entering into the world of comedy, that was a new thing. Like, ooh, this is going to be really fun and silly and stupid today. I can't wait. But the thing that - the real value I got out of working with those guys at that point that I hadn't experienced before was the sort of anarchy of how they
work. And I hadn't seen anyone do it before, which was, let's turn the camera on, and let's do a couple takes where we do scripted versions, where we play out the scene as scripted. But after one or two of those, we're just going to let it go. And who cares? Let's just try a bunch of stuff. And if it doesn't work, fine. We won't use it. And that was just so freeing and fun. And I was terrible at it for, you know, four-fifths of the filming of "Step Brothers." And it wasn't until the very end that I was finally starting to get the hang of it and how those guys work.
But that was a game changer just in my brain. And I tried to bring that energy to other stuff I did from there on out whether it's dramatic or comedic as far as just trying stuff and trusting that the best option wins. It just loosened me up, and I needed to be loosened up.
BALDONADO: I want to ask about "Party Down," which is a show that also kind of put you on the comedy map. And you got that show after "Step Brothers" and a couple other comedy roles. It's about a group of caterers in LA who, you know, begrudgingly work at parties, but most of them want to make it - maybe all of them want to make it - in the entertainment industry. It ran for two seasons, but there is a revival. And I believe you just finished shooting the third season last month. And it was a huge - you know, it was a cult hit, and everyone's so excited that there is this third season.
I want to play a clip from the show. It's from the first episode. And you are talking to another one of the people who works for the catering company - played by Lizzy Caplan - who ends up being your love interest in the show. But you're talking for the first time.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARTY DOWN")
LIZZY CAPLAN: (As Casey Klein) So do you act?
SCOTT: (As Henry Pollard) Do I look familiar?
CAPLAN: (As Casey Klein) You do. And you smoke Parliaments.
SCOTT: (As Henry Pollard) I dabbled. Are you...
CAPLAN: (As Casey Klein) A professional waiter? I'm not.
SCOTT: (As Henry Pollard) Oh.
CAPLAN: (As Casey Klein) No, no. I'm a comedian.
SCOTT: (As Henry Pollard) Oh.
CAPLAN: (As Casey Klein) Yeah, I figured that my natural hilariousness would have tipped you off by now.
SCOTT: (As Henry Pollard) Right, yeah. Right.
CAPLAN: (As Casey Klein) Wait a - were you the - were you that guy?
SCOTT: (As Henry Pollard) Yes, I was.
CAPLAN: (As Casey Klein) You were. You were totally that - that is bananas. I remember that.
SCOTT: (As Henry Pollard) Yeah.
CAPLAN: (As Casey Klein) I remember you.
SCOTT: (As Henry Pollard) Yeah.
CAPLAN: (As Casey Klein) What are you doing working here?
SCOTT: (As Henry Pollard) Well, you remember me from anything else?
BALDONADO: That's a scene from the first episode of "Party Down." Your character, Henry, was a guy who's trying to make it as an actor, and he has one commercial with a catchphrase. At the time, did the show feel autobiographical? Did it feel close to your experience?
SCOTT: Yeah. I think that we all on the show, the entire cast had similar feelings as our characters. We all kind of felt a little beaten down by show business in a way. We were all, you know, making a living doing this, but had kind of had, you know, a series of near misses and just kind of made our way through and all kind of really felt the show pretty deeply, I think, and immediately connected with the material and with each other and just had the greatest time. And I think, you know, at the time when we were making those first two seasons, no one was watching it or really even knew what it was. We couldn't really even get reviewed. It was so sort of invisible. And so - but we didn't care. We just thought what we're doing is special and just did it for ourselves and for each other. And it was so fun. And part of it was we kind of thought no one would ever see this. That's the overall feeling that we had. And so we just went for it. And yeah, it was a really special time making that show.
BALDONADO: What was it like going back and shooting the series that wrapped, like you said, 12 years ago?
SCOTT: It was so strange at first because it's a significant amount of time - 12 years, good Lord, you know. And we're all there in our wardrobe and looking at each other. And I remember in the - shooting a scene in that first episode back and looking at Megan Mullally and Jane Lynch and Ken Marino and Martin Starr and Ryan Hansen and just kind of marveling at how much I miss these people, but also how much I miss these characters. They're so crazy and funny. It was just such a happy - we'd made six episodes and did it, you know, six weeks. It was just the happiest time. It was so much fun. And we just finished like two weeks ago. It was just a blast. And I think the episodes are really special and fun, and people are going to enjoy them.
BALDONADO: Well, Adam Scott, thank you so much for joining us.
SCOTT: Thank you, Ann Marie. It was a real pleasure.
GROSS: Adam Scott spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado. The season finale of his show, "Severance," will be released on Apple TV+ on Friday. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a reissue of two albums Ornette Coleman recorded before making records with his own band. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.