‘Severance’ Star John Turturro Discusses Acting Opposite Christopher Walken: ‘You Never Know What’s Going To Happen’

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This story first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Irving Bailiff is a rule-follower. An employee of Lumon Industries, a mysterious corporation that offers a “severance” procedure allowing an individual’s work memories to be wholly disconnected from their non-work memories, Irving is a cog in a massive machine he has no interest in knowing more about. Until, that is, he sees a man who catches his eye, and eventually, his heart.

This is part of the tale that reveals itself throughout the first season of Apple TV+’s psychological thriller “Severance,” a series that boasts a host of stellar performances, including from Adam Scott, Zach Cherry and Britt Lower. But it’s John Turturro’s soulful turn as Irving that haunts the mind long after viewing. Some of that wistfulness may come from seeing Turturro, whose career has spanned more than 40 years and included repeat collaborations with the Coen brothers and Spike Lee, in a role unlike any he’s tackled before: as a main character in a recurring TV series.

“Whenever I’ve done a job before, I usually read the whole thing,” Turturro said. “This wasn’t completed. They had a few episodes and I went out to dinner with [producers] Ben (Stiller) and Dan (Erickson), and Dan had a whole backstory for the character that I found fascinating and potential reasons why Irving might have decided to undergo the procedure.”

Central to Irving’s journey is his chance encounter that leads to romantic feelings for Burt Goodman, a fellow severed employee at Lumon played by the inimitable Christopher Walken. The two men’s attraction that plays out in a subtle way in the hands of expert performers who have known each other for years. “I said I would only do it if I could do it with the right person,’ Turturro said. “Ben said, ‘Who would that be?’ And I said, ‘Well, I know a few people, but the person who I’ve worked with many times, I’ve directed three times, and I’ve acted with is Christopher.’

“We share a lot of the same sense of humor. And I think there’s a real spontaneity about him, but also fragility, and he’s played dangerous characters, too. There already is something there between us, and you never know what’s going to happen.”

When he and Walken work together, Turturro added, “There’s kind of a dance-like quality that you really can’t control. I know from directing Chris to let him explore and then make little adjustments from that. It’s more like two jazz players playing off each other. That’s how it feels.”

All of the actor’s descriptions of the process run parallel to the experience Irving has in pursuing his ephemeral feelings of connection and love throughout the show’s first season. The character is compelled by emotions that defy the logic of the mind and speak to bonds that transcend understanding. “When you have an inclination towards another person, it’s not from your brain,” he said. “It’s like a dog—it’s this smell, this sense of sharing a sense of humor, and that basically was the big attraction for me. I thought, I am honestly interested in stories about the idea that people can connect, no matter who they are.

“Benjamin Cardozo said something to the effect of, the three great mysteries of life are birth, death and love. If you ask me, what would you want to do for the rest of your life and what would you want to explore? That’s the thing that interests me more than anything.”

With “Severance” returning for a second season, it’s fair to assume that there will be more of Irving’s story to unravel. But even so, Turturro doesn’t know that he’s completely sold on the open-ended nature of recurring television. “It’s perplexing to me a little bit,” he said. “It’s not something that I’m used to not knowing. I’m not, like, a control freak but I like to know like what you’re offering. What color is the couch? What fabric is the couch? What are the pillows made of? I want to know.”

Read more from The Race Begins issue here.