Waffle parties, music dance experiences and trips to the break room will all have taken on new meaning for so many caught up in the debut season of ‘Severance’ - a masterful exercise in mysterious intrigue and satire culminating in one of the most shocking and satisfying hours of television in recent memory. As the workers from the severed floor wake momentarily, Milchick - their floor manager at Lumon Industries - finds himself in a world of trouble. We recently sat down with Tramell Tillman to talk about what’s next for his character, his process as an actor, and his theories on what’s really happening at Lumon Industries.
Screen Times: What was your experience like on set , and how that differ compared to your previous experiences as an actor?
Tramell Tillman: We're still - and very much then - going through a pandemic. So everything that I was comfortable with filming on set had changed. Our level of camaraderie had shifted. We had to make sure that we exercise good practices at home. Having the masks and staying separated in our own zones as much as possible to keep people safe.
As artists , naturally we are very social beings and we like to commiserate and talk and get to know one another, but that proved a bit challenging with the state of the world at that time. Interestingly enough, all of that served greatly for the show because as you see, everything was about separation, it was about monitoring habits and a little bit of control.
The reasons why we were all controlled in Severance versus filming were very different of course, but it was a very unique circumstance and we used those circumstances to elevate the story.
How did that affect camaraderie and also how much, as Millchick, were you able to have that camaraderie with certain actors?
Everyone on set was really lovely. So it made it easy for us to get along, but we as professionals - especially through my process - I made a point to keep that separation. So I didn't like them too much. There were moments where I would watch John [Turturro], Britt [Lower], Zach [Cherry] and Adam [Scott] socialise while we were taking a break on the severed floor and a part of me would get jealous because their laughing and chopping it up and connecting and things. It was really good fodder for Milchick to witness a group of people congeal and develop a sense of community. This is something that while Milchick appreciates, it was great to be able to find that moment and be able to use that to fuel his further intentions and his action.
I also wondered if on Milchick’s side if there was a little bit of jealousy. Unlike his severed colleagues, he doesn't have that escape, or maybe this is his escape and that's where he gets his power from.
What was really great and exciting about playing Milchick is that he has so many layers, or at least I wanted to create a character that had so many layers. I believe there is that element of wanting to socialise and wanting to connect and we see that throughout the season, especially in episode seven which is one of my favourite episodes.
We see him come in with the music dance experience (MDE), and this is Milchick’s way of not only establishing a little bit of fun, but a way of reconnecting with what's happening with the workers on the severed floor because we see utter chaos. I jokingly say everything was going fine until Helly came in, after her introduction everything just collapsed.
I think with MDE and with these incentives Milchick is working diligently to earn the trust of his workers and earn that camaraderie, but then it is shot to hell and it goes south very quickly. With that he has a job to do, he has people to answer to, he’s management but we all have someone to answer to. With his ambition, I believe he has that mindset where it's either them or it's me, and he's the type of guy that will do whatever it takes to get the job done.
That particular scene that you've just alluded to. I can only imagine how much fun that was to shoot especially considering the people that you got to work with and how good they are at improv. Is there a story behind that scene?
Absolutely. We had a choreographer, Tara Hart Rodriguez, who was very lovely in structuring how we could tell this story. Myself, her, and Ben [Director, Ben Stiller] worked together to figure out who Milchick is. When I found out about the music dance experience early in the script, as I read it I was asking what is this going to be?
I was so excited. So I had a lot of dance parties in my home trying to get into his body, listening to Earth, Wind and Fire, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder for that inspiration. When I had the opportunity to meet with Tara, I had all these ideas of how Milchick moves, and she was so great in just allowing me the freedom to explore which I really appreciated. When it comes to dancing with, Adam and Britt and Zach and John, it was all improv. They did what they did and I just responded to their dance moves. It felt free. It was so much fun because I got to let loose after being so tight, but now he's like, “Hey, let's have some fun.”
Can you tell us a little about how much was revealed to you during the process and how close that reveal was to what we saw on the screen each week.
I would say the process is very similar to what you all experienced. I would get episode by episode and I would have an idea of where it was going, and then the next episode I would be totally wrong. I would just be left with questions like, what does this mean? Where is this going? and it continued to pull me in and it was so much fun being able to step into a project where you really don't know what's going on. This is a rare instance where the character knows more than the actor. Knowing about the goats? Tramell has no idea about the goats, but Milchick knows about the goats. Having all that information, or lack thereof, it's really an exercise in trust. Trust in the process, trust with Ben and trust with [EP] Dan Erickson, who have been there every step of the way to guide us through this and help craft this story without giving too much away.
Knowing that we're somewhat on an equal footing in terms of what we know - the numbers, the goats, the mouse maze of cubicles - what do you think is going on at Lumon Industries?
Tramell thinks that we are ending world hunger. The numbers are chronologically finding a way to ship and give food to people in need. That's what's helping me sleep at night. I know in real life it's probably something far beyond what I can imagine, but that’s the nature of the show. I have learned the hard way that you can have many, many theories - and it's great to have them - but they're all subject to be denied.
Talking of sleepless nights, your performance gave me many sleepless nights. Every line delivered in a way that could be construed to have double or triple meaning. What do you think is next for your character? The Overtime Contingency Plan really led to the plot unfolding quite quickly. What do you think are the repercussions for Milchick or will he be seen as the saviour?
The result of using the overtime contingency certainly reflects poorly on his judgment because now he's made a mess and he's got to find a way to clean it up, which is why the attack and the standoff after the MDE is so juicy because Dylan’s got him. Milchick could totally report the assault but he’s not going to because Dylan is going to out me about the OTC.
Dylan knows that he has a son, which is a huge no-no in the severed floor. So Milchick has made an egregious error. From that point on, all the way up to the end of the season, he has to figure out how to write the wrong and cover his tracks. As we notice, more chaos ensues, because the workers find a way to break into the system and we have this big gala with a series of reveals in the seasons last episode. Last episode. Milchick is in hot water, and he has nobody to blame it on because Cobel [Patricia Arquette] is gone. I'm really interested in seeing where it goes from there. What is going to happen to Milchick?
As an actor, do you see many similarities between the severance procedure and what you do as a profession?
In a way. I’ve been asked the question whether or not I would go through the severance procedure and my answer is always no [Laughs] because it would be very difficult to do that. As an actor we do separate ourselves in a way. I say “in a way” because I like to think acting is about a marriage between self and the character. It's how we find the similarities and differences within the characters that we play. Those similarities and differences may be great or they may be very, very small. With that we find our way into telling the story. I don't ever think with my characters that I'm completely severed, I just think that I am stepping into another role or another dimension and another atmosphere. It's hard for us to be able to be completely severed. As an actor I borrow from my personal experiences, I borrow from the experience of others, the outside worlds of feed, the story that I'm telling.
Congratulations on a stunning performance.
Thank you. I do apologise for those sleepless nights.
The complete first season of 'Severance' is now available to stream in its entirety on Apple TV+. This interview transcript has been edited for clarity.