Britt Lower’s life has turned into a circus (literally).
The Illinois-born actress most recently known for her portrayal of Helly in AppleTV+’s buzziest show of the season, Severance, is using her month “off” in June to be in Circus Flora in St. Louis, an experience she refers to as a “lifelong dream.” In Severance, Lower plays two versions of the same character, Helly: one that works at Lumen Industries that doesn’t know about her life on the outside (the Innie) and the one with a life outside of work that show knows nothing about (the Outtie). Helly is a strong-willed character that “suffers no fools”, according to Lower, which is why she jumped at the chance to play her.
Lower has previously been involved with other series with roles in CBS’ Unforgettable, HBO’s High Maintenance, and Hulu’s Casual, but now she’s in a lead role that allows her a multifaceted performance that is every bit as intriguing as it is anxiety-inducing. She’s also written and directed a short titled Circus Person, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021 and is now in development of a longer format version of the short.
I recently sat down to speak to Lower, where we chatted about her role in the circus, how she realized Helly’s vulnerability and how she got prepared for the darker moments of the series.
Tyler Doster: I wanted to actually start by talking to you about what I’ve seen on your Instagram lately. I wanted to talk to you about the circus, if you’re game for that.
Britt Lower: Yeah. I love talking about the circus.
TD: What do you do there?
BL: I’m playing a character named Steven, in the circus, who uses her ukulele to face her fears. I’m part of a paranormal detective company called the St. Louis Spirit Sleuths. And we are going down into the caves of St. Louis and the tent itself is like a cave. So we encounter all of these spirits from performers past, and we stitched together the narrative arc of the circus show with interstitial bits and funny things (laughs).
TD: How long have you been involved in that?
BL: This is my circus debut as a performer, but I’ve been a long time circus fan. Couple of years ago, I wrote and directed a movie called Circus Person that premiered at Tribeca [Film Festival], about a woman who goes through a breakup and develops a spontaneous desire to run away with the circus. While I was doing field research for the longer format version of that project, that I’m now in development in right now, I met with a lot of different circuses around the country. I met Jack Marsh, the Artistic Director of this circus called Circus Flora, and when he was visiting in Los Angeles, he was like, I have a kind of crazy idea that people might scratch their heads about, but would you like to join the circus for the month of June? And I said, “that would be fulfilling a lifelong dream. Absolutely. Sign me up.”
TD: So to switch over to Severance, let me start by asking: what was your first impression of Helly’s Innie?
BL: Brave, rebellious, curious, raw, visceral, funny. I really saw her as the catalyst for waking everyone in the office out of their status quo. I was also struck by how clever she is and how she has no filter.
TD: Throughout the season, while you were either reading the scripts or filming, did your opinion of Helly’s Innie change, as you got to know her more?
BL: Oh, what an interesting question. I don’t know if it was an opinion of her that changed, but more of an understanding of where she has vulnerability. She’s such a strong character externally and doesn’t suffer fools, but there is a soft spot in her that I think has to do with family. So much of what she’s striving for this season is to get out of the office and find out who she is at [her] core. Part of that, finding out who she is, has to do with understanding her family of origin, where she came from, how she got here and what kind of person on the outside would put her in this circumstance. The thing that surprised me the most as we were filming was that her desire to get out and find out who her family is becomes more complicated when she becomes familial with the office workers on the inside. It’s really when they’re forming that alliance you see, right after the music dance experience, the four of us come together and we’re touching physically for the very first time in the series. And you see that family bond really start to come into fruition. So that was the most touching and surprising part for me.
TD: What were your early conversations like with the other actors regarding you guys’ characters? Was there a lot of theorizing going on? Were you guys just trying to collaborate to get the process correct?
BL: (laughs) I remember really early on, we watched this video of these kindergartners who were in a Zoom classroom and their teacher falls off of the Zoom. And it’s just a recording of them trying to figure out what to do in the absence of their supervisor. We thought it was so perfect for what’s going on in the office. There was the rule follower, there was the one who was starting to goof off. There was the one who was like, “guys, she could come back at any minute,” you know? And, the other one who was just talking about food and we kind of saw ourselves. I think what resonates about that with Macro Data Refinement is that each of us are fulfilling a kind of archetype inside of an institution, or for all intents and purposes, kind of like little kids. We don’t have the experience of lifelong memories and nurturing, we’re all nature. And so watching that video of that classroom, that was a very good symbol of where we were.
TD: I actually know exactly what video you’re talking about.
BL: (laughs) Do you?
TD: Yeah (laughs).
BL: It’s so cute.
TD: It is. They just don’t know what to do while the teacher’s gone, and that one kid keeps saying she could come back.
BL: Totally, totally. And then one of them says like, “we’re toast.” And then another one is like, “I love toast.” (laughs) It’s so perfect.
TD: I’ve never thought of it that way. That’s very interesting. So what was your process like getting into Innie Helly’s head space? There’s some tougher moments that she goes through. The elevator scene where she tries to commit suicide, or at least tries to get her Outtie’s attention through that. Was there a specific process you went through to get into that darker head space?
BL: Well, it was important to me to really understand at core what Helly’s values are. Freedom and autonomy at the core are at the top of her list. So when those two things are taken away, you really come to understand the depth to which she feels trapped and betrayed by herself. And you can understand why she makes the decisions that she does. It was a very physical process for me getting into this role. Especially in the first three episodes, there were a lot of escape tactics that Helly is engaging in and she’s all impulse. So when she makes a decision, she goes for it, almost like an athlete. She knows her target and she goes for it. So that was how I approached [it], particularly the first part of the season. And then you begin to watch a person, literally waging a war against herself, as she discovers. She initially thinks it’s her bosses in the system that are keeping her trapped. But when she comes to find out it’s actually herself, she thinks of Outtie Helly as a person who is not herself. The act of the attempted suicide is in a way, an act of revenge, which is slightly different than someone who is wanting to take their own life. This was an act of war against someone who she felt like was outside of her. Yeah. Does that answer?
TD: Yes it does! How early on did you find out who Helly’s outtie was? Had you guys started filming yet? Was it when you were brought on?
BL: Yeah. I found out very soon after I was cast and we had the privilege of having all of the scripts ahead of time because we had a period of lockdown before we began filming. [Creator] Dan Ericson and the writing team were able to finish all nine episodes and we were able to see the whole arc from the beginning.
TD: Do you think that helped you understand Helly’s character as a whole better?
BL: Yeah, for sure. We were also filming out of order. So to track where in the story, it was still helpful to have the whole story in advance and to understand where Helly’s inner rebellion comes from. Spoiler alert, she comes from the Lumen family, and so having grown up within that very cult-like environment, it made sense to me that her subconscious, Innie version of her, would have an even more pressurized rebel, ready to burst out.
TD: I wanted to ask you about the progression of Helly’s relationship with Mark. How did you and Adam [Scott] work together to make that feel more organic? Because it feels like this very natural progression of a relationship.
BL: There is something to be said for them breaking rules together, that becomes a shorthand between the two of them. You even watched in the second episode that Mark breaks protocol with the pictures on the desk. And he’s a little proud of himself having broken the rules. And it almost feels like he’s offering it to Helly as a peace offering when he does certain things he’s not supposed to. I mean, on the page, Helly and Mark have a natural, funny banter that was built into the script. But I think the reason why they’re bonding is really because they’re both waking up together.
Waking up to who they are and waking up to the nature of the work that they’re doing together. Adam and I had worked together once before, and he’s such a generous actor. He’s so present and surprising and multidimensional, so it’s a real treat to get to work with someone like him.
TD: When you guys were filming, was it more of like a stick-to-the-script kind of set? Or did you guys have any improv moments?
BL: The script is so delicious. There was really no need to go off of what was written. There were certainly moments that we would open up, but it’s already so good on the page. How could we improve upon it? (laughs)
TD: So now that Severance has been renewed for season two, have you heard anything about where your character’s going?
BL: Not that I can say to you (laughs). I do know that we’re going to find out more of what’s going on with Outtie Helly and I’m excited personally for the two parts of Helly, essentially her embodied duality. I’m excited for them to understand each other a little more, to learn from each other, whatever it is that they have to learn.
TD: Going into this next season, and hopefully seasons after that, what do you personally hope for Helly’s character? Either the Innie or the Outtie?
BL: I hope she gets to see sunshine.
Britt Lower is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Severance.
This interview has been edited for clarity.