Patricia Arquette is always fed up with women who come last
“Wow! NO!” Patricia Arquette screamed halfway through our interview, scrambling to her feet. We were on the sunny patio of a Manhattan hotel, and a room service boy delivering shrimp salad had just let the door close behind him. Arquette, wearing a flowing blue dress and chunky glasses, was freaked out that we were locked out. We weren’t. “Last time I was in New York, I found myself locked on a balcony,” she said as she gathered herself together. “The firefighter must have broken the window.
The feeling of being trapped is one of the many disturbing forces behind “Severance”, the Apple TV+ series about a mysterious company called Lumon Industries, which has developed a chip capable of splitting the minds of its employees in two: the people who are at work (“innies”) do not share any memory with the people who are at home (“outties”). With its sci-fi twist on work-life balance and a bizarre, retro-futuristic set of maze-like office hallways, “Severance” has drawn an obsessed audience since its premiere in February. (If you’re avoiding spoilers, you might want to skip a bit.) Like many characters, Arquette’s, while not separate, is two people in one. At work, it’s the icy corporate director Harmony Cobel. Outside of Lumon, she poses 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 the severity of Cobel nor the levity of Selvig, but she has lived enough for two. Hailing from a showbiz family, including her actor siblings David and Rosanna, she spent years of her childhood in a Virginia hippie commune, before breaking out with “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. “, in 1987. her explosive sexuality belied an undercurrent of weirdness, and her films of the 90s were as idiosyncratic as she was: Tony Scott’s “True Romance” (in which she had a battle at the screen with James Gandolfini), “Ed Wood” by Tim Burton, “Lost Highway” by David Lynch.” Over the past few decades, she’s turned to network television (“Medium,” “CSI: Cyber”) and won an Oscar for her role as a single mother in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” filmed over a period of twelve years old. We talked about her borderline-campy turn on “Severance,” her bohemian upbringing, her sometimes-controversial outspokenness about gender equality, and the cannabis parlor she opens with her son. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
It must be exciting that everyone has become 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 everyone?” 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 some things I don’t want to know, because I’m afraid of spoiling someone. But there’s definitely a lot I know, so I have to be very careful.
It must have been fun but a bit tricky to build this woman with these polar opposite sides, Harmony Cobel and Ms. Selvig.
Strangely, I have already played two people in films, like in “Lost Highway”. This opened up a lot of questions. Even though Harmony isn’t “separate”, everyone is made up of multiple people. She is cut off from her own feelings, from her own experiences of connecting with people outside of this corporate world. So even though she insinuates herself into Mark’s life like this kind of clumsy aunt, I think what surprises her is trying this experiment of like, “What is that to be a neighbor? Oh, we both laugh at that joke! She plays that person but also flirts with those feelings of connection to someone outside of the upper management echelon and the weird grind within the company.
Everyone talks about the theme of work-life balance on the show, but I was wondering if the idea of the breakup resonated with you as an actor. On some level, what actors do is go to work, become a different person, and then go home at the end of the day and get on with their lives. Is that really how you think you act?
Sometimes, certainly. The weird thing about “Severance” was that we would go on set – they would build all these crazy hallways and then they would move the doors and entrances and exits depending on the scene, so we would get lost. It was like being in a maze of rats: “I’m lost!” I’m here to rehearse, but I can’t find anyone! And then I continued to be locked up, because I was contacted. It was this weird claustrophobia, and then I would go back to this apartment alone and isolate myself. It felt like “Severance” was bleeding into my whole life.
I was curious about the tactile details of your character. She has that severe white hair and that corporate armor. How did you and the creators of the series develop her look?
The wardrobe department has really been deepened. You had to wear pantyhose. You had to wear those belts. It was a bit retro, these uniforms that had been created. And, because my character came from the world of Kier [the company’s founder], the previous guard, she also often covers her neck. I wore all these dickies. I had this idea that even when you see her in her nightwear at home, she’s wearing what she’s comfortable with, which is almost monastic. And I wanted to braid his hair, because Kier comes from a more pioneering time. Then I had this idea for this white wig, because it’s shrunken and demands some respect. You know she went through a certain period of life.
Harmony’s voice has that kind of affected quality. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but there’s a cartoon villain element to her that’s very delicious.
I think she grew up with this company, looked to other high-level people and created her own voice. I think there were few films that she could see growing up, with that mid-Atlantic sound. Some [sitcom] the icons 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 is an element of Scientology in the series. 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 Elon Musk was working on some kind of weird brain chip. I think there are a lot of layers. I’m not into Scientology, so I don’t really understand this whole system. I’ve done some reading about it, because I think it’s really fascinating. Often it is this situation to get into trouble. It is also this pecking order. You keep going to someone to validate you who never really will. You’re always doing something that puts you out of grace, then you desperately try to get back into their grace.