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Severance's Tramell Tillman On Working With An All-Star Cast And What It's Really Like On The Set - Exclusive Interview

As the mechanical Mr. Milchick on "Severance," Tramell Tillman has proven to be the esoteric show's breakout star. That's saying a lot, considering the series features Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette, John Turturro, and Christopher Walken. Tillman could easily be eclipsed, but instead, he runs right along with the big dogs.

A science fiction-based psychological thriller series, "Severance" follows a Lumon Industries employee named Mark (Scott) who agrees to a "severance" program in which his work memories are permanently separated from his non-work memories. Arquette portrays Harmony Cobel, Mark's cold-hearted boss, while Turturro and Walken play employees who share a secret attraction. Directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, the critically acclaimed series streams on Apple TV+.

As Milchick, Tillman can turn a simple smile or an office dance party into something foreboding. He can switch his emotions on and off like a light bulb, and he's fiercely loyal to the company, working in tandem with stony Cobel to keep the Lumon employees in check. It's a role Tillman nails, leaving viewers scratching their heads while sitting on the edges of their seats.

During an exclusive interview with Looper, Tillman talked about working with his A-list co-stars, the physical preparation it takes to step into Milchick's shoes, and what he thinks really motivates his character.

Ben Stiller is an 'incredibly focused' director

First, I want to talk about Episode 7 and that five-minute office dance party, which was epic, to say the least. What was going through your mind as you filmed that scene?

I was looking forward to filming the Music Dance Experience [MDE] once I found out that was going to be part of the season. I thought it was so incredibly unique and bizarre, which fits perfectly within the world of this show, and it also gives a chance for Milchick to let loose, to have a little bit more fun in a different way with the severed floor. I was excited, and there were many dance parties that I would have at my house by myself, trying to figure out his motivation and how he moves throughout the space.

What it turned into was not only an encouraging way to get people to join in on this dance, but it seemed like it was almost a dance-off because it was so intense. Me being able to vibe off of [the characters] Mark and Helly and Irving and Dylan, who wasn't giving me much of anything, right? It really became this wonderful improv, and this exploration of music and dance, with all of the wonderful, colorful lights. It was fun. I enjoyed it.

It was a great piece of television, with Ben Stiller directing that episode. He's such a good comedic actor, you don't necessarily think something so David Lynch-ian or Charlie Kaufman-esque would come out of him. What's he like as a director and as a person?

He's very specific. With a show like this, you need a director that is incredibly focused, and very sharp in his direction. He's also a person who's approachable, very supportive, always willing to give an autograph and a photo at the appropriate time for guests that we've had on set, that I've seen. He was very collaborative with this process.

I didn't have a lot of information about Milchick. What's written on the page wasn't much to go off as an actor, and this was definitely a piece where Milchick knew more than Tramell. I leaned heavily on Ben and [series creator] Dan [Erickson] to guide and help me shape this character without compromising the integrity of the show. I really appreciate how attentive and how present Ben was throughout this process.

Tillman did 'calisthenics' so his character moves like a 'duck on water'

Milchick is so creepy. I don't know how you can make a smile so creepy, but you do, almost like he's a robot. What does it take to get into his headspace?

It's almost robotic, but it's not quite. There is a slightly removed energy that Milchick has. I use a lot of physicality. I do a lot of breathing exercises. I did a lot of pushups and squats, and a lot of calisthenics to keep the energy moving because I wanted to create a character who moved like a duck on water — very still, very quiet, very simple, but then there's this engine happening underneath the water. That was really interesting for me to explore, and, also, it spoke to the world and the tone of the show because you never knew what was going to happen. 

I felt that Milchick embodies this unexpected energy, this creepy energy — an energy where you want to trust him, and you should trust him, but you definitely don't want to cross him, creating an atmosphere where he's a little off kilter, like you said, that creepy smile. He has this really great smile, but it's a little bit off.

When you smile, I think, "Oh boy, something's coming..."

Mm-hmm. It's ominous or anticipatory. There's something underneath it.

Sometimes I feel like he is teetering on feeling empathy for these workers, and then he snaps right back into cracking the whip, and it's like, "Nope, he has no empathy." Should we see him as sympathetic at all?

I like to see him as, and I portrayed him as, a character who is empathetic to these people on the floor. He's the type of guy that is a by-any-means-necessary fellow. He has a job to do, and he believes in the capabilities and the talent — the potential, if you will — of the innies that are a part of this severed floor. His job is to maintain order, to keep focus in the workplace, because he has people that he has to answer to as well.

Unfortunately, what we see in Season 1 is the manipulation, the control. For me, it takes the humanity out of Milchick if we label him as completely unempathetic, and I get so much joy in playing complex characters, so I always add that there is hope that he has for these innies. It might not be displayed in the best possible way.

The Severance set really involves a 'labyrinth' of hallways

What's the set like? Are there really all those long, winding hallways, or is it the same hallway over and over reconfigured?

It is a labyrinth and every time we would go on set, they would change the walls, and all the walls looked alike. It would take us, as actors, several minutes to find out where we were because we'd get lost. They use a little TV camera magic to elongate some of the spaces to create longer walls, but it's pretty spot on, what you see. Very easy to get lost.

The first time I watched the show, the first episode, me and my fiancé were arguing. I was convinced there were no doors on the walls. I was like, "There's nothing. It's just a hallway." And he's like, "No, I saw a door." We were rewinding and he was like, "There. There's a door."

It adds to the creepiness of the set, and it's brilliant because all of these walls and these turns, you never know who's going to pop out around the corner. It builds that anticipation when you're watching because it's so unnerving, and you realize that there is this long path to get from the elevators onto the MDR [Macrodata Refinement] floor. How Milchick moves and how he goes about the space, he knows all the shortcuts, so if he needs to get there quicker, or needs to cut someone off at the pass, he knows how to do that — and Cobel as well. It's really fun to be able to watch that because you never know what's coming around the corner, literally.

Baby goats. [Laughs.]

Yes, goats.

Christopher Walken was 'very quiet' on set

I'm a huge fan of Patricia Arquette, and I got to speak with her a couple of weeks ago. What's it like to work so closely with her?

I didn't have enough time with her. That's how much I enjoyed working with her. She is such a lovely spirit. Very generous, warm, and supportive in every way. I encountered her this season as Cobel primarily, and Cobel is very sharp and strident, acerbic at times, but Patricia is so warm and funny. After a take, she'll crack a joke, and she'll start laughing — and she has this infectious laugh — so I'm laughing right along with her. We've bonded a lot during Season 1. I'm grateful to have shared space with Patricia Arquette.

Talking to her, she seemed like a very cool, almost hippie chick to me, the way she talks.

[Laughs.] She definitely has that vibe, right? Go with the flow, everything's going to be fine. Maternal in a way.

What's it been like working with Christopher Walken? He seems like he'd be a real character...

You know, he was very quiet on set. I was told as a little piece of advice: You don't talk to Christopher Walken; he talks to you. So, I knew that was the game. I understood. There were no issues with that.

When I came on set to do Episode 7, I have a lot of interaction with Christopher, and he was very generous, very present when we did our scenes, a consummate professional. I wanted to speak with him, but I didn't want to cross a line. I wanted to respect the boundary that may have been there. At the end, when we finished the day, and he was leaving, I had enough courage to go up to him, and I thanked him for his work and that I really appreciated him being there, and he turned to me and said, "You are just absolutely terrific. Thank you so much." And it was such a wonderful gift, and I beamed for the whole day that this titan not only shared space with me but appreciated who I was as an actor. It was a joy.

Adam Scott's 'adorable' dance moves almost broke him

Have any of them — Patricia, Christopher, Ben, John ... who all have these long, long careers in Hollywood — taught you anything about acting, about the business that has really changed the way you approach things, whether directly or indirectly?

I've gotten a lot of lessons regarding faith, trusting the process, and staying present. This show is so specific. It's terribly specific, and what makes it unique is its specificity. There were many times stepping through this show that I had no idea what was going on, and, as an actor, I wanted to be as prepared as possible, and build backstories for my character, but then I would read the next episode, and it would be totally false.

I always had an idea of where the character was going, but then it would shift. With the specific direction from Ben, and the generous spirits of Christopher and John and Patricia and Adam, it was a lesson in trusting the process, listening to Ben and Dan, trusting that they know what they're doing. We didn't know what was happening while we were filming, so we had to be ready and lean on our fellow castmates to get us to the finish line.

Is there a funny or memorable moment that really stands out from the Season 1 set that you can share?

Oh, my goodness. There are so many. There were moments where we'd get lost on set, and Patricia would have to yell out to get help. That's one. That's a moment. The MDE was pretty hilarious. Filming that, I want to give note to Tara Harte-Rodriguez, who was the choreographer for that sequence. She was very generous and helpful in trying to find Milchick's moves along with me, very collaborative.

I remember the joy that surfaced while filming that, and I can certainly recall there being laughter behind the scenes as you watched and experienced the fellow actors dancing together on set.

Who had the best dance moves? Outside of you, of course.

The dance move that almost broke me was when I was dancing with Adam Scott because he has this little childlike march that he does. It is so, so funny, and so adorable. Every time we would go up together and we'd do this battle, I almost broke character because he has this face of childlike exuberance that comes over him, and he's marching. So full of joy. It was absolutely delightful.

The Season 1 finale had him 'screaming' in disbelief

What do you hope we get to see from Milchick next season?

I hope we see Milchick's outside life. I'm really interested in exploring what that looks like. Maybe, we'll see what happens.

Have they given you any background on him, or have you had to make it up in your head?

I did my own research on that part, and built my own backstory, but Dan and Ben, we all sat down and they too had developed a backstory. We compared notes and, fortunate enough, our notes lined up pretty much. They had a lot more specific details, so I took those details and added them into my story.

Do you have any idea when you're going to film Season 2?

For me, it's still up in the air. I haven't heard the definitive word as of yet, but maybe there's information out there that you're privy to that I don't have at present...

There's no way they can do it without Milchick. His creepy smile has to come back...

Yes. I love it.

Well, you do a terrific job. I can't wait for the second season. I binge-watched the series and now I'm like, "Now what?" Now I have to wait like two years to find out what happened...

When I read Episode 9 [the season finale], I was screaming because it's like, "You cannot end it this way!" So, I know what you mean, like, "What next?" And now we have to wait and see what's going to happen.

Season 1 of "Severance" is now streaming on Apple TV+. New episodes are available every Friday through April 8.