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Ben Stiller Interview on ‘Severance’ Season 1, Teases Season 2

Severance is exactly the type of brilliant show critics were designed to love, and both audiences and awards voters were bound to miss. It’s a trend that happens year after year, with star-studded, cerebral series lining “best of the year” lists before disappearing into the overcrowded ether of Too Much TV. Yet that didn’t happen. As Severance approaches the competitive final stretch to the Emmys, the freshman sci-fi thriller is entering as one of the most-discussed shows for the year.

Out of Apple TV+’s 52 Emmy nominations — a record for the streaming service — Severance is responsible for 14 of those nods. Those nominations included major awards heavy-hitters like Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Adam Scott, Outstanding Supporting Actor for John Turturro and Christopher Walken, Outstanding Supporting Actress for Patricia Arquette, Outstanding Writing, and Outstanding Directing. Even the nominations on their owns are history-making. The Outstanding Drama nod marks the first time Apple TV+ has ever been nominated for the prestigious award, and Scott’s Lead Actor nomination is a first time for the actor.

As deserved as this praise may be, it’s also surprising for one of the biggest names at its center. Ahead of the Emmys, executive producer and director Ben Stiller spoke to Decider about what it’s been like observing his show’s success, what that word even means in the age of streaming, and what weird thrills await us in Season 2.

Decider: Severance has been a huge hit critically, and it seems like it’s really well watched too. Were you surprised by how well it was received?

Ben Stiller: Always. [Laughs] I mean, yeah, just in that when you make something, you never know how it’s gonna go. I knew that we were all in on the tone of the show and what it was. When you’re making something, you just have to commit to it fully. And I didn’t know how people would respond. You just hope that people are going to get it.

I think everybody worked really hard on it for a long time. But you know, that doesn’t even make a difference, because I think people work on stuff all the time. They put their whole heart and soul into it, and it doesn’t get the recognition, sometimes, so you know it’s good. So anyways, I feel very fortunate that it’s caught on. There’s so much stuff out there too, that people were able to find it, because is a big mystery of who’s watching what on streaming. They don’t really tell you. So it’s been really nice.

Zach Cherry, Britt Lower, and John Turturro in Severance
Photo: Apple TV+

Literally my job is trying to figure out who watches what on streaming and I don’t know.

Yeah, but because they don’t tell, it’s really weird. They sort of give you kind of an idea. But it’s not like ratings or box office numbers or anything like that. It’s like graphs and charts that are relative… The fun thing was going to [San Diego] Comic-Con and having a full house for a panel and seeing all those people there. That was the first time I was like, “Oh, wow, this is really like… There are people who are really watching this, like human beings to connect with on it.”

To that point, I know that Apple doesn’t release viewership statistics publicly. Did they give you any idea of how the show was performing?

No, it’s hard. They don’t tell you the numbers. It’s really weird. So, you get these graphs and charts, like I said, that have like peaks and valleys. But you don’t know what the baseline is. I guess could be like, based on 100 people or could be like, 200 million people. We don’t know. They basically say, “Yeah, this is doing well.” You’re trying to interpret what they’re saying. But they’re straightforward. It’s just that’s how, I guess, all the streamers do it. How do you find out? I’m curious how you find out.

Oh, press releases. And then it’s a lot of wild guesswork on our end. Like what are people talking about on Twitter? What’s high on Google Trends?

Right, yeah, right, where the discussion is, what people are talking about, which is as much an indication, I guess, as anything. And that’s what I felt was really fortunate about the show. Maybe also the timing of when we came out in terms of how people are approaching our work and those questions. The fact that it’s in the conversation, just culturally, it’s really been fun to be a part of.

Adam Scott in Severance
Photo: Apple TV+

You brought up your Comic-Con appearance. During the panel, showrunner Dan Erickson mentioned that an earlier version of the series was more “acid trippy.” Can you talk about that and what that version looked like, compared to the final cut?

Maybe Dan needs to tell you what that looks like. [Laughs] I think what he’s saying is there was some like weird things that were happening in there just for weird’s sake. It’s been a long time since the first draft. I haven’t read the very first draft that he sent us, it’s literally over five years ago. I just remember, for me, there’s probably some weird stuff that was hard to reconcile with reality. But I knew that he had a very unique tone in the dialogue and an idea of people working in this place that was rooted in a reality. I think it was important to have some rules for this place and rules to the world that you could somehow relate to it as a person and think, “Oh, this. I could picture myself in this situation.” We might have brought it back a little bit, but I don’t remember. I know he talks about the pants running around, the topless pants. I guess my instinct was always to bring it back down to Earth a little bit, just [to] feel like it wasn’t too out there in a way that you feel like “What’s going on?” and, hopefully, still preserving the weirdness of it.

I’m sure with your extensive comedy background, that’s an instinct you’ve developed really well over the years: how to push the limits without breaking things.

Sometimes you just take a chance and you go as far as you think you can go. I honestly think it’s kind of common sense. You go, “OK, well, what are we saying is the reality of this place?” If you go to work, what happens when they lock the place up? Are we saying it’s magical? Are we saying it’s not? The fun thing that the show is that there’s space to really wonder about that, because [Erickson] had the idea of Irving’s [John Turturro] dream, the idea of the Kier cult and what really that was about, in terms of how deep they go with that. It was fun to keep those questions open.

Then, when you have actors that are really invested and believable, that’s one of the most important things, too. You cast really great actors who are going to, as part of their own process, be questioning the reality of the show and having to understand for themselves how to make it real. So throughout the process of making the show, from rewrites to preproduction to rehearsals to shooting, those questions are constantly being posed by everybody. And, to Dan’s credit, he has answers for all those things. But it was a process of adjusting sometimes.

Patricia Arquette in Severance
Photo: Apple TV+

Do you think in Season 2 you will go in more of an abstract “acid trippy” direction, for lack of a better word?

I think it’s going to be a balance, honestly. Part of the fun of the show is the stuff that you don’t quite understand, and you’re wondering what that is, what does that mean, and what the hell is that? And to me, that’s great to do, as long as the logic is behind it. Then [we] figure out a way to tell that to the audience in a way that’s not giving away too much too soon, and it’s satisfying. That’s the balancing act of it. There are definitely some really fun, weird things in Season 2. But always, it’s through the lens of the basic story of these characters, these real people in this situation, because I do think that’s what people hold onto. That’s what I learned making the first season. I saw it when it came out for audiences… This is a show about this work family, these characters, these people. So, no matter how weird the environment they’re in, you want to be able to relate to them as human beings. It’s hopefully a combination of that, but definitely some weird stuff.

As you’re working on Season 2, are you keeping current conversations about the workplace, and work-life balance in mind? How much do you think this upcoming season will be a reflection of our current conversations about this stuff?

We’re all existing in our current reality, so I think Dan’s very sensitive to that and also aware of the chord that it struck, in terms of how we relate to the workplace. That’s one of the interesting things in the show. It has a few different things going on in it, and one of them is workplace culture — thematically the idea of working for a corporation and what incentives are given to workers that are sometimes relevant or not relevant to the actual importance of what they’re doing or made to feel, what could have been a commitment of your life that you put into a company. That dynamic played out in the first season, and then these Innies who were, in a way, children who were starting to realize what the real world was and as it relates to their relationship with their bosses and who they are. All those questions have to be part of the show. How we look at the workplace now? So, it’s just a question of, for us, keeping the reality of the show in its own world. But for the show to work, it has to somehow mirror our own reality in some way. I think Dan’s really aware of that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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