Not your average workplace drama, Apple TV+ series ‘Severance’ is among the most talked-about shows of the year so far. The off-kilter psychological thriller, directed and executive produced by Ben Stiller, offers a timely new take on the conversation around work/life balance. It’s based around the office of the mysterious firm Lumun Industries, where some of the staff have had a device implanted in their brain to ‘sever’ their memories, so they can’t remember anything about their work life while at home, and visa versa.
The show’s breakout star is Tramell Tillman, who plays Milchik, an HR manager with a sinister twist. Milchick is not severed, so is not leading the same double life of some of his colleagues. But that doesn’t seem to affect his commitment to Lumun, with his main role in the series’ early episodes being as an enforcer of the draconian rules of his employers. His ability to deliver the most evil punishments with a cold efficiency and hollow smile makes him the creepiest character in a show where competition for that title is fierce.
Tramell’s personal story is an admirable lesson in perseverance, and not giving up on following our purpose even if we take a few detours on the way. And those decades of hard work and dedication are now paying off with the most high-profile role of his career (even though he admits to needing to find a healthier work/life balance himself!).
Tramell Tillman as Milchick in Severance // 📸 : Apple TV+
Tell us a bit about where you grew up, and why you became an actor.
I grew up in Largo, Maryland, which is a suburb outside of Washington DC. I’m the youngest of six kids and I was very shy growing up, and still a little shy today. But my mom, dad, grandparents, aunts and uncles, would always have us kids do little talent shows to have the kids entertain them, so we explored our talent through that. My mom saw something in me, she knew I had this gift, and that all her children were gifted. I grew up in the church, so when it came time for the church to do a Christmas production, my mom and dad were in the show and needed someone to play their son, and what better person to play their son than me! I protested as much as I could, at 10 years old, not to participate in this play. But my parents got their way and I relented and did the play, and I fell in love with it. I had one line, and one direction, to sit on a couch, but I looked out into that audience and felt the energy of the people watching, and said, ‘I want more of this.’
That began what turned into a love affair. I signed with a talent agent and did some bit parts on television. I was an extra in ‘The Wire’ but was too young to watch the episode because it was so gritty. But I was told I would never make it as an actor, so was told I needed a solid foundation in business, medicine, law or technology. I picked medicine. I decided I was going to be an orthopedic surgeon and went to Xavier University, which was number one for sending African Americans to medical school, in 2003. But I hated it. I hated chemistry. I knew there was something else that I should be doing. I wanted to do something that made me happy, that gave me joy, so I transferred to Jackson State University in Mississippi and got a degree in mass communications, then got a job working for the Children’s Defense Fund‘s Freedom Schools project, a nonprofit organization, and serviced young people who were affected by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.
I wasn’t expecting that! I thought you were going to say you transferred to drama school. So you must be in your mid-20s by now, and still not doing drama full-time?
Yes, I was performing on the side, it was like my mistress. I was doing productions with Jackson State, but my main focus was on communications. But while the program was wonderful and I was helping these beautiful children, I was miserable. Luckily I had a mentor on campus at Jackson State, the head of the theater department Dr Mark G Henderson, who noticed my melancholy. He sat me down and said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I told him I wasn’t happy, and he said, ‘Well, what’s gonna make you happy?’ I said ‘performing’, but came up with every excuse in the book as to why I should not do it. And Dr Henderson said that day, ‘If you’re finished with making excuses, you now need to go and follow your destiny and learn how to build your craft.’
I love how you can still recall that important turning point in your life. So what did you do next to turn acting into a full-time craft?
Well, I had to get into grad school. I got accepted to the University of Iowa, but at the last minute I had a financial crisis and I could not go. So I stayed another year and a half in Jackson, worked and saved money. Then I got a phone call from the University of Tennessee head of acting, who remembered me from my audition 18 months ago, and they offered me a slot. I graduated top of my class in 2014, aged 29, and became the first African American man to graduate from that program.
It sounds like there were some false starts and detours, but you ended up where you were destined to be. That’s a great inspiration for others trying to find their way. So tell me about how the ‘Severance’ role came about?
It was 2019, and we were approaching the closing of ‘The Great Society’ at The Lincoln Center in New York, alongside Brian Cox, who is fantastic. It’s so alarming to watch him as Logan Roy in ‘Succession’ because he’s this big teddy bear in person! So this project ‘Severance’ came across my desk, and I knew very little about it but it intrigued me, and it was an opportunity to work with Ben Stiller, so I gave it a try. I booked the gig in January 2020, and I remember going for a costume fitting in March when they told us there was going to be two-week hold because of the pandemic, that was when everything was just starting to shut down. It was longer than two weeks of course, but we jumped back in October of 2020, we were in the first wave of productions to go back, and then filmed until September 2021.
How was returning to work?
It was frightening but exhilarating. No-one had been in this situation before. But all the producers, the network, the artistic and creative teams were all hands on deck trying to create a safe space for people to work and tell this story. What was compelling was the way our production was structured, the cast had to keep separate from each other, and enter and leave at different times. So that separation fed the storytelling of ‘Severance’, and the mystery, because we didn’t know what was happening.
How was Ben Stiller to work with as a director?
Ben is very meticulous. He’s also very serious, which was news to me, but he also knows how to collaborate and have fun. And he knows how to get the best out of us as actors, which I appreciate. It was challenging trying to step through this show and build it, because it’s incredibly specific, nuanced and draped in mystery. And I believe it’s something we haven’t seen before.
Tell us a little about your advocacy work, and the role the arts can play in helping people and communities.
I am really interested in supporting LGBTQ+ causes, mental health, education, and arts advocacy as well. And I’ve specifically worked with causes in New York that cater to the Black and brown communities, because they’re often overlooked. This is the reason I gave my life over to the arts, because the arts have the power to change and to challenge communities. By telling stories, providing platforms, we shine a light on these issues. And while as artists we may not have the cure, we can spark conversation that might lead to understanding that can bring about positive solutions.
So, with ‘Severance’ in mind, tell us about your own work/life balance. Is there healthy separation between your work and home life?
There is no separation for me! I’m totally encapsulated, invested and involved in my work. Even between projects, because I’m always looking for the next project, or thinking about projects that I want to create. I probably should be part of a support group, because it’s like an addiction.
I would like to be able to switch off, and I am working on that. I’ve got back into meditating, I’ve been trying to watch more reality shows, because when I’m watching scripted series I am constantly analyzing the art of it. I try to take time to explore the city that I’m in. I’m in Chicago doing a show, and yesterday I treated myself to a trip to the aquarium. Sometimes I just take a walk to remind myself there is life outside of my bubble. I’ve also committed to traveling somewhere new each year. And it’s great that I have a support system of great people around me who are not artists, because they help keep me grounded.
But I do believe the arts to be transformative, it gathers community, it supports community, so that’s become my mission. So it’s hard for me to separate that because it’s how I appear in life, and it’s part of who I am.
Severance is on Apple TV+ now