For a series billed as a “workplace thriller,” Ben Stiller’s acclaimed new series Severance seems oddly meditative. In its only season – so far – we watch with wide eyes and captivated as a group of employees roam the labyrinthine hallways of Lumon, their sinister Kafkaesque employer.
Each character underwent a medical procedure that shares its name with the series itself, separating their work (“innies”) and their outer lives (“outies”) into two separate, fractured halves, each unaware of the actions of the other.
Entire episodes are devoted to workers at their desks, poring over unimportant data matrices, or walking from department to department, wall after indefinable wall until everything becomes a brutalist blur. I’ve seen it described as slow television.
The Guardian rewarded the series a five star reviewand called her “our new favorite mystery box show”. And though she doesn’t seem like it at first, Severance’s trump card is Lumon’s “wellness advisor,” Ms. Casey. The role is small but delicate, with little context to cling to. Unlike her colleagues, Ms. Casey has no record of an outside life. When she speaks, it’s often in riddles, reassuring troubled staff with cryptic assertions. “Your outie loves the sound of radar,” she tells a character played by veteran actor John Turturro. “Your outie distinguishes a beautiful rock from a simple one,” she intones at the head of Adam Scott.
And then there’s his voice: an unwavering, deadpan whisper that’s both soothing and chilling, like a yoga teacher who hates you.
“I would love to do an ASMR video,” says Dichen Lachman, who plays it on the Apple TV+ series. “Maybe if you write about it, Apple will read it and say, ‘That’s a great idea!'”
Hours of preparation — watching everything from meditation guides to online sleep stories — went into the voice. It’s almost shocking to hear her natural Aussie beat as Lachman zooms in from her home in London, where she’s been living since last November with her husband. Gone, of course, was Mrs. Casey’s elastic tension; It’s morning there and she’s completely relaxed as she talks about playing an enigma.
“She is very special and unique [in her] stillness, but also this kind of childish state,” Lachman says. “Under, [you see] this naivety, this curiosity, because his life was so short.
Mrs. Casey, it is revealed at one point, has only been “alive” for 107 hours in her current form. As the season progresses, she evolves from something of a fembot doing the bidding of her lords to a surprisingly central character whose very existence breaks Lumon’s protected secrets. What does this company even do…? Who is Mrs. Casey outside of work? And how did she get here?
There’s a twist that’s too good to spoil for the uninitiated, but suffice it to say, it involves a much larger arc for Lachman’s character in the recently announced series’ second season. Of course, she hasn’t been completely immune to the deluge of fan theories replete with speculation about Ms. Casey’s past and future, but she’s reluctant to guess too much.
“If I get attached to an idea of what might happen to Ms. Casey, and it goes in a different direction, I would be disappointed,” Lachman says. “And I really want to trust that they know what’s going on.”
“They” refers to show creator Dan Erickson, as well as Stiller, who produced and directed most of the show’s episodes. Working with Stiller was daunting at first, especially with the Covid mask restrictions in place, which meant “all I could see of Ben were his beautiful bright blue eyes – but only his eyes,” she said.
Stiller’s directorial touch became the undercurrent beneath much of Severance’s eerie stillness. “He was playing this beautiful music on a Bluetooth speaker – [and it] sometimes disconnected accidentally, which was annoying,” laughs Lachman. “He had… softly started the scene [saying]”Breathe simply, inhale and exhale for a long time”.
The space offered by the series felt like a luxury. “They even had all the scripts done before I started filming, which is so rare in TV,” she says. It’s also a far cry from the role Lachman is perhaps best known for in Australia: Neighbor’s hapless teenage rebel Katya Kinski, who, over a two-year stint in the mid-2000s, had a particularly rough run – even for soap opera standards.
I read the incredibly chaotic list of everything Katya was subjected to: blackmail, kidnapping, execution for attacking someone with a defibrillator – “Stabbed! I think I was stabbed,” Lachman interjects.
“It was just like, go go go go go. [We had] to evoke emotions really quickly, especially when you’re talking about a character… who’s always going through these really extreme scenarios.
Like so many Australian exports, Neighbors became his first breakthrough into what was still an incredibly hermetic industry.
“It was important for representation in terms of Australian TV,” says Lachman, who was born in Nepal and has Tibetan and German heritage. “I’m so grateful they even gave it to me to start with.
“What had happened before was very homogeneous [and] it was good to be part of this wave that reflects the community a little more.
When her contract ended in 2007, she immediately packed her bags. “At that time in Australia we were only shooting Home and Away and maybe a few other ABCs [period dramas]and” – she gestures to his face – “I couldn’t see myself in that space. “
She lived out of a suitcase for three months in Los Angeles, eventually landing a role in a made-for-TV movie as an Aztec princess on the run from a dinosaur. The film was called – descriptively – Aztec Rex; she didn’t realize what kind of movie it would be until she glimpsed a first visual during filming.
“I was like, ‘Is this the dinosaur? Is this what it’s going to look like?
“But it worked because I think if you’re trying to make a fun B-movie, the actors have to take it seriously. It makes it funnier.”
It wasn’t the star role she was hoping for. That came later, with Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, a sci-fi series that was watched by the right people — “so many writers” — despite its reasonably short runtime. This propelled her into a career where she returned to science fiction time and time again, in shows like The 100, Agents of SHIELD and Altered Carbon.
Severance is therefore a continuation of its long-standing fascination with the genre. “I keep finding myself in these stories where … there’s some kind of technology that makes you think about our humanity and our relationship to it,” Lachman says. “Technology is so wonderful in so many ways: it saves lives, it has lifted people out of poverty forever, [but] we have to moderate our relationship… We have to be careful.
She couldn’t play these characters struggling with the precariousness of big tech — “often the villain or the victim,” she says — without the training rollercoaster that was Neighbors.
“[Neighbours stalwart] Ian Smith always said, “Wherever you are in the world, wherever you end up, have no fear.” Act like you’re there. And I never forgot that.
“Although, well, I kinda forgot about it on Severance.”