Jen Tullock, who stars in Apple TV+’s stirring sci-fi series Severance, is having a landmark year in her career. Following the success of the Ben Stiller directed series, Tullock will also star in season two of HBO’s period reboot of Perry Mason, in addition to being seen alongside Ryan Reynolds and Will Farrell in Apple TV+’s Christmas-themed musical Spirited.
Tullock enters the world of Severance as Devon, a soon-to-be mother and sister to Adam Scott’s widowed Lumen Industries employee, Mark. Turlock’s Devon is in the weird position of being the sister to one of the first “severed” people, meaning that her brother opted to have his consciousness divided into two individuals.
Mark has his ‘Outie’ personal life from his ‘Innie’ work life. The choice of employment for Mark was directly linked to the tragic death of his wife, Gemma. As Devon prepares to have a baby with her author husband Ricken, she tries to help Mark through his grief and soon finds herself sucked into the secretive world of Lumon Industries.
“I do think that one of the stark differences Devon experiences with Mark from pre-severed Mark to post-severed Mark is that his career as a history professor was very much a part of his identity,” explains Tullock. “Not only does Devon not know what is happening with Mark during the day, but she knows that this source of joy has been taken from his life in addition to the great loss of his wife.”
Created by Dan Erickson, the series has been a critical hit for Apple TV+. Director Ben Stiller warps the world inside Lumon with sharp lighting and disorienting corridors, while unfolding unsettling conversations in the warmth of the above-ground, outside world.
Tullock, who also stars alongside Patricia Arquette and Michael Chernus, provides the men in her life a compassionate shoulder as she is unwittingly pulled into the world of Lumon. Speaking with Tullock, it was easy to get a sense of how much this series meant to her, both as an artist and as a human being.
Tullock spoke with Awards Focus about doing chemistry reads opposite Adam Scott, tapping into Devon’s postpartum storyline, theories about Mark’s late wife Gemma, and becoming inspired after reading fictional husband Ricken’s self-help book.
Awards Focus: You’ve been a writer on a number of projects, including the 2019 Sundance film Before You Know It. Do you find that writing and performing go hand in hand, or do you prefer one over the other?
Jen Tullock: I love them both in equal measure, but I’ve found that I like doing them separate from the other. I feel like when I’m acting, it’s easier to be present and live in the world of the story when I don’t have the macro view of thinking about what I could have done better in the script. Also, sometimes when I’ve written things for myself that I know I’m going to be in, it’s impossible for my own voice not to inform the story, which isn’t always appropriate. So, I love them both, but separately.
AF: Were you surprised by the enthusiastic response from audiences to the first season of Severance?
Tullock: I didn’t know what to expect. I knew how I felt, which was that I’d never seen a television show like this. It had been a very long time since I’d seen something that was soulfully cerebral. I’m still quite shocked at how they pulled it off. I’ve made plenty of things that not everyone in my family would necessarily enjoy. They weren’t necessarily an audience for it, but everyone loves this show across the board.
AF: What was the casting process like for Severance? Did you have a window into your character’s life during the initial stages?
Tullock: I did get to read with Adam [Scott] once while Ben [Stiller] was there, which was really lovely. It’s funny when you think about a chemistry read between siblings because I’ve done countless versions of those with potential love interest characters. It was nice to feel the immediate ease and mutual, unspoken understanding between us. I think that was palpable from our first meeting and I think we both cracked a couple of bad haircut jokes.
AF: At the beginning of the series, Devon is heavily pregnant, grieving the loss of Mark’s wife and contending with her husband Ricken’s book launch. How did you go about tapping into Devon’s life and the progression from being everyone’s anchor to encountering her own post-pregnancy struggles?
Tullock: Great question. I knew she was going to be a slow burn because she primarily garners intel about the people around her by listening. She gets quiet and that is how she clocks people’s behavior, particularly the behavior of the men in her life because she knows she has to look after them. I knew early on that was going to be how she existed against the landscape of the show at large.
I was very grateful to Ben and Dan for letting me explore a version of a postpartum storyline because Devon had always represented the emotional sobriety of someone who’s not severed. She’s grieving the loss of her sister-in-law with whom she was quite close and the fact that motherhood, nursing, and early motherhood are not looking the rosy way she has been told by countless people it’s supposed to look but she’s having trouble breastfeeding. She’s lost a bit of her shine.
I asked [Ben and Dan] if they would be open to me just cracking that open a little bit because to me it’s such a beautiful companion story to what was happening in the larger narrative of Lumon and of Mark. I thought it was so cool because it gave me an apex to work towards in that last episode, which is what does it look like when you carry the pain and trauma and anxiety of everyone around you?
AF: What do you know about Devon’s relationship with Mark’s wife Gemma, and what those months were like following her passing?
Tullock: We talked quite a bit about that. Devon and Gemma were very close I think because Mark and Devon are so close, the second he brought someone into the fold that could match him, it was inevitable that they would become friends.
The little we know of Gemma is that she was incredibly warm and intelligent and bright. Her presence probably provided a balance with Ricken, Mark, and Devon because, as we see in the first season, Mark and Devon can have a couple of asides about Ricken. They love him but he can be intense. Gemma was the person who had so much compassion and warmth for Ricken that she made Mark and Devon love Ricken, and even more because we ended up seeing him the way she did.
I think when you pull the thread from the quilt of a friend group, when you pull just one, the whole thing frays, and Gemma was that thread. Watching the frayed relationship between Mark and Ricken is the clearest indication we have of that. I think Gemma and Devon were best buds. She was my girl.
AF: I was curious whether Gemma’s passing was an impetus for Ricken to write his self-help book. Did you get a chance to read it at all?
Tullock: You know, there were copies on set and it was so fun. We would sit around between takes and read passages to each other, and the voices of the different celebrities. I will tell you that Dame Judi Dench had a particularly riveting read [laughs]. I have read most of it and it’s brilliant. The way Dan Erickson crafted the inner life of Ricken is incredible and funny, but also very telling and clearly informs what’s happening.
On a darker note, I do think that Gemma’s death informed Devon’s decision to get pregnant and that they had talked about doing it at the same time. Then, when Gemma went, Devon wanted to do it in her memory, bringing new life into this grieving family.
AF: The postpartum storyline gave way to Patricia Arquette’s character invading Mark’s outie life by way of Devon. How was it starring alongside Patricia, particularly in those scenes that are loaded with intensity with the underlying threat of Mrs. Selvig’s motivations?
Tullock: I trusted Patricia immediately. It’s interesting because I think Adam and I are two of the only characters that were interacting with the Mrs. Selvig version of her character. When I was living within the world of those scenes, I knew her as this incredibly warm and compassionate, and I was trying very hard not to let my consciousness be privy to what I knew about the story and about the sort of nefarious nature of what she was doing because Devon doesn’t know that.
As far as the subtext of the postpartum storyline, I had a handful of my dearest friends become parents in the last few years. I’m right at the age where everyone’s having babies. They didn’t all have the same experience but I was able to create a patchwork for some of the ones who did, who didn’t have a rosy time.
Some of them had an incredibly challenging time. I get emotional even thinking about it because it was people, like Devon, whose strength and resolve I had relied upon for years. All of a sudden, I saw them in this broken vulnerability where they felt a disconnect between themselves and themselves as a parent. I was like wow, that is compelling and we don’t see that on TV very often.
AF: Lumon has essentially severed the public access to its employees, and for Devon, it means not knowing this part of her brother’s life, his professional life. Do you think Devon feels severed from Mark because of this?
Tullock: It’s interesting you bring up his professional life specifically because I do think that one of the stark differences Devon experiences with Mark from pre-severed Mark to post-severed Mark is that his career as a professor was very much a part of his identity.
I think creatives and academics meld their identity and merit with what we do at times. Mark was probably one of those people, and Gemma was also in academia. So in that friend group of the four of them, the two couples, their work was an ever-present part of the conversation and also a source of joy for them. When that went away, not only does Devon not know what is happening with Mark during the day, but she knows that this source of joy has been taken from his life in addition to the great loss of his wife. That was an important layer to me.
You know, there’s a moment in the last episode where Mark says, “What did I do before?” Devon says, “You were a professor of history.” I remember we shot that moment a couple of times and I don’t know why, for me, that was the saddest thing for Devon to say. It was having to call up a vestige of a life that doesn’t exist anymore, and it was so painful. Having to look into the eyes of someone you love and say, “You used to be this and you’re not anymore,” was really beautiful.