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About a week after the season finale of Severance dropped, Jen Tullock appeared on Zoom (her computer balanced on a stainless steel colander) to discuss her work on the breakout drama of the spring and her growing list of TV credits.
Dressed “like Spike Lee cosplaying as Mother Superior from The Sound of Music,” the actor had the morning off from filming the second season of HBO’s Perry Mason — one that finds the queer performer getting an all-too-rare period love story with Juliet Rylance’s character. “We’re going to get to see these characters experience love and romance and sex,” says Tullock. “They also have to deal with the dangers of the time. I feel an enormous responsibility, and it’s a huge honor to do it.”
Apple TV+’s twisty dystopian workplace drama, in which she plays the sister of Adam Scott’s character, whose consciousness has literally been split in two, and HBO’s noir-y update of one of pop culture’s most famous lawyers are two seemingly unexpected moves for an artist who describes her early work as a cross between Cindy Sherman and Sasha Baron Cohen. But Tullock, who maintains quite an amusing Instagram account, is not interested in staying in any one lane. Here, she speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about the delicate dance of telling queer stories in period pieces, growing up in Kentucky on Lunchables and old movies, and why the characters on the fringes of Severance’s central plot are just as creepy as ones who’ve walked into a corporate cult.
How many people have told you that they want your character’s house from Severance?
Many! I want her house. That is a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Hudson Valley. Almost everything in the house was practical and real except the baby room where we filmed the scenes between Mark and Devon in the last episode. They rebuilt that on our stages in the Bronx, which was surreal after shooting in the house for so many months. Most of that snow was real also. We went through two consecutive blizzards. I felt like I was in a Danish horror film.
It’s an unlikely set piece, too. The office building should be the scariest place on the show, based on the premise alone, but the gatherings at the house are unsettling.
It’s just as suspenseful and creepy. What the show does so brilliantly is let you see how day-to-day human nature is terrifying. These people who haven’t been severed, they’re just as scary. Their hubris is just as scary, their predilection for selfishness and lying is just as scary as the stuff in the cult of Lumon.
How’d you come on board the show anyway?
I had actually heard of the pilot years previous. Turner had a streaming platform for a minute called Super Deluxe. My friend Hannah and I were making a series there. And Dan Erickson, the creator of Severance, was there working on his own stuff. I remember, in passing, hearing about the pilot and thinking “oh man, that sounds brilliant.” Years later, when it came to me from my agents. I didn’t initially piece it together that it was that Dan from the water cooler those many moons ago. So I read with Ben and Adam a couple of times. Then, called Dan and was like, “Hey.” He was like, “let’s go get a beer.” And we did.
Are you L.A.- or New York-based at the moment?
I’m ping-ponging. I know I have a car. I have a big, gay Subaru, and I have a tiny P.O. Box where all my bills go that I’m ignoring. That’s the extent of it right now.
How does growing up in Kentucky influence your artistic aspirations?
Now that I’m in my thirties, there’s so much about working class Midwest/Southern — Kentucky doesn’t really know which one it is — culture that I have a fondness for now. My brother and I always talk about this. When you’re latchkey kids, and you’re desperate for art but don’t have access to any art of any kind, you’re forced to create a world for yourselves. We were desperate to get our hands on any VHS of old recordings of PBS Masterpiece Theater or a Björk Concert or Cirque du Soleil. Literally, anything. At the time we bemoaned it, because we wanted to get out so desperately. But, now that we have, I’m so grateful for it. My friends that grew up on the coasts, or at least in communities where they has easier access to the art that they loved, they’ll always say things to me like, “Why did you and your brother learn to play these instruments?” Because we had to! That’s all we had.
When you have access to every aspect of a culture, it’s almost easier to find your lane early in life. When you don’t have that access, you’re grabbing at anything in the buffet you can. It feels less defined.
You sharpen more tools of necessity. It’s like, “well, if music doesn’t work, I better become a decent writer. Maybe I’ll try to paint a little.” I’m really quite shit at all those things, but I love doing them. Had I not grown up in a carpeted basement, eating generic Lunchables, I don’t think that I would’ve had quite the playground to have to develop all of those things. Kentucky’s such a beautiful place for so many reasons. Louisville, which is where I’m from, is a really cool town. Now. It’s strange to go back as a gay person to a hometown that’s now super queer-affirming and progressive and has a thriving theater scene and music scene. There’s trans flags in the yards when I go home. It was not like that when I was a kid.
You’re really leaning into prestige TV dramas right now, which is not the dominant theme of your resumé. Do you have a kind of career that you’re targeting?
Right? I’m shooting Perry Mason until we go back to Severance. I come from the comedy world and from the improv world. I was doing weird, Cindy Sherman-y, Sasha Baron Cohen-y character stuff in New York, where I would show up for site specific work. I had a doc team follow me for a while, just making on my own for no money that very few people saw. I knew that I wanted to be doing films and TV that was cerebral and funny and consequential to me. Looking ahead, there are people whose careers I have such respect for and whose trajectories I would like to try to emulate — somebody like Olivia Coleman, who started in the comedy world also and was a character actor. Lesley Manville is my favorite actress. Character actors that can shift seamlessly between theater, movies, and TV, I just want to do that.
I don’t think I’ve heard anyone reference Cindy Sherman and Sacha Baron Cohen in the same breath.
I’ve been making these character films for about ten years, just for my own shits and giggles. I made a project during lockdown called “Eggshell.” It was about the fragility of white suburban women on social media. It was sort of a satire of how different white, suburban women in different parts of the country show up on social media and share and overshare. That’s kind of the nexus, because they were mockumentary. Cindy Sherman was a great hero of mine as kid and still is. I was always trying to straddle the line between the art world and the comedy world. I don’t think there’s a lot of people pivoting between those two. Those are my two great loves.
For Perry Mason, you’re getting a queer storyline. What are your thoughts on the ret-conning of gay narratives in period pieces? Because they were largely excluded for so long, and the unfortunate truth is that it wasn’t an easy life for a lesbian in the 1930s.
Completely. I have many opinions about this. I will say, without saying too much about the plot of Perry Mason, I’m very proud of how this team has addressed a queer storyline in the era. I think we’ve worked really hard to orient it authentically in that time and without shying away from the slings and arrows of being queer in 1933. It’s also a love story. That feels good. I think my writer brain says that aspirational queer stories are as important as historically accurate ones. Living somewhere between the two is maybe what we want to see right now. There are so many thoughtful conversations around how not to get it wrong. And my cheekier answer is… it’s also just really sexy.
To have a queer love story in that time period?
I grew up on films that are from the thirties. My conservative parents were like, “If we only raise them on classic 1930s films, they’ll stay close to Jesus!” Which… LOL. Chain-smoking, over-sexed, martini-guzzling misogynists! But those costumes! Going to the Warner Brothers lot and putting on these silk pantsuits and getting my hair put up like Greta Garbo… I got teared up by my first fitting. I’m stepping into a character who’s openly gay, which I am, who’s in this era, which I was raised on and made me want to be an actor. There’s scenes where some difficult things happen, given the context of being queer in 1933. I have had moments of stepping away from set and being like, “Oh, OK, that’s called PTSD.” I was never gay in the thirties, but I was gay in the evangelical South. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Because, you know what I can’t stand? When people straight-wash, specifically queer women in period pieces. SNL did that great sketch with Carey Mulligan called “Lesbian Period Drama.”
Touching hands and washing carrots! You either get one of two things — the tender approach, which, my friend Marla calls it “tearful rose sex.” You know, two lesbians crying at each other while sharing a quill and writing a haiku. Or you get something that’s for the male gaze and feels exploitative. What we’re doing is neither.
You and your friend Hannah Pearl Utt wrote and co-starred in Before You Know It, which got a warm reception at Sundance back in 2019. Are you writing anything right now?
I am. I wrote a film with my friend Frank Winters that is loosely inspired by something that happened to me — which was falling in love with my translator while on a Christian missionary trip [to Ethiopia] as a teenager. Then, subsequently coming out, leaving the church and then, as an adult, returning to that community and having to confront some revisionist history. I was interested in telling a story about how people assume one sense of otherness — in my case, queerness — absolves them from any other type of bad behavior or prejudice. I wanted to see a story that didn’t canonize a gay person that left the church. So, it’s a dark comedy that I want to try and shoot next year. I’ll direct. And I’ve been working, off and on, on an essay collection. I say it’s an essay collection, but it’s a collection of word documents on my computer.
Oh, I have one of those!
Yes! It’s an essay collection about stuff from my childhood — and mostly just being a queer person, dating in L.A. I’m trying to write as much as I can. I think I’m writing a play. It’s not any good. The film, I think, is good. But that’s because I wrote it with a really good writer. One of my only merits is choosing to work with people who are smarter than myself.
What is your outlook on independent film right now? Three years seems like an eternity ago when you think of what’s happening to movies that premiere out of Sundance.
I feel like the chasm between independent film and Sundance culture — at the height of Sundance in the nineties and into the early aughts — has shortened so much. You have bigger money, bigger names, bigger purchases happening at festivals now. It’s changed the landscape. Now they’re on this giant platform. Films like Moonlight win the Oscar. I’m really excited about that zeitgeist changing and I’m lucky to be a part of it. I’m trying to stay in that world. I certainly am not laboring under the delusion that anyone’s giving me money to make these movies. I’ll be shooting cheap as chips, which is what I’m used to. I hope that I always get to make movies that way.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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