This story contains plot details from Severance’s first season.
To play Helly R., Lumon Industries’ newest recruit in the sci-fi-esque thriller Severance, Britt Lower wanted to be as clueless as her character—introduced as she wakes up splayed out on a conference-room table. Helly is shocked to learn that she’s signed on to work as an office drone at the opaque company, which bifurcates workers’ brains between personal and professional consciousness—even after she’s shown a video in which she consents to the controversial chip procedure. “Every time you find yourself here, it’s because you chose to come back,” her macrodata refinement (MDR) boss, Mark S. (Adam Scott), assures her.
“For the most part, I wanted to be kept a little bit in the dark as to what is going on at Lumon so that I could remain in a state of discovery and investigation,” Lower tells V.F.—mirroring the trajectory of the defiant employee she plays, who’s “constantly doing reconnaissance and strategizing to get out at all costs, and to find out who she is on the outside.” Knowing less about what was going on kept the mystery alive for Lower, a plus while making the intricately plotted Apple TV+ series, created by Dan Erickson, and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle.
Adam Scott as Mark S. (left) and Lower as Helly R. in Severance.
Lower’s audition immediately stood out to Stiller: “She had that rebelliousness and at the same time was really funny,” he says via email. Playfulness was important, since Erickson’s pilot leads with humor. “He was taking a genre—the office comedy—and sort of ripping it apart while staying true to the tropes that are both really funny and almost cliches now,” says Stiller. As is his custom, the director created a playlist for the show that included electro-pop (Exotica), jazz (Juan García Esquivel, Grant Green), ’90s trip-hop (Morcheeba), and “songs about separation,” which helped him evoke an otherworldly mood. Stiller also played Theodore Shapiro’s eerie series score on set during filming.
For her part, Lower researched amnesia to learn about “the emotional experience of forgetting the parts of your life that make you who you are. Initially, Helly thinks the company is who’s keeping her there—that her bosses are the orchestrators of her feeling trapped. And when she discovers that it’s actually herself, you see the lengths to which she goes, the depths of emotion that she feels betrayed, literally by herself.”
Helly’s anger and despair escalate each time she finds herself back in the heavily surveilled office with endless labyrinthine fluorescent-lit white hallways, as well as the ironically named “wellness center”—where counselor Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman) doles out snippets of information about workers’ “outie” selves—and the “break room” where employees are psychologically and physically brutalized.
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