"How did I feel?" repeats Patricia Arquette, clearly irritated. I have just asked the actor how it felt to land a role in Medium, the supernatural drama series that won her an Emmy – only to be asked to lose weight for the role. Although it happened in 2005, it is still clearly a sore point. "I felt annoyed and crappy. But I feel like it's been a conversation my whole life. When True Romance came out, some critics said I was too fat or too heavy. I changed channels recently, happened upon True Romance, and thought, 'Oh my God, look how young I was! I had a beautiful body. What are you talking about?'"
After True Romance, the Tony Scott-directed film in which she played a sex worker who falls in love with Christian Slater's comic-book nerd, Arquette went on to star in plenty of acclaimed films, from David Lynch's Lost Highway to Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead. The latter starred Nicolas Cage, who she married in 1995. Their marriage lasted nine months.
Given Arquette's A-list status, making the jump to the small screen for Medium was frowned upon 16 years ago. "There was a golden age of television long before this – Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone," she says. "Television had been inventive, creative and expansive. But I liked this idea of being able to do network TV and entertain people. So when that weight conversation came up, to an actor coming out of movies, I was in position of power and could say, 'On True Romance, Tony Scott never made me feel like that. What are you saying? That every married woman has to look a certain way? [My character] has three kids. It's about a marriage, not a modelling competition.'"
Arquette, now 53, is back on the small screen in the thriller Severance, a workplace fantasy directed by Ben Stiller that the Guardian called “an idiosyncratic, intelligent comedy drama” and lavished with five stars. The show presents us with the idea of employees’ brains being separated into two halves, one for work and one for home. “It’s confusing,” Arquette laughs. “But that’s intentional. Everyone’s confused really. I certainly had a lot of questions about my character. Who is this lady? What is this company? What’s going on? And every question was met with 500 complicated, multifaceted and multidimensional answers that threw me off balance.”
Severance focuses on a mysterious New York company called Lumon Industries, which runs a scheme whereby the non-work memories of employees are separated from their work memories. So you go to work and have no memory of your home life. Return home and you have no memory of what you do for a living. Each actor plays two different versions of themselves.
"It's fun being one person but two people," says Arquette of her duel roles: she plays co-star Adam Scott's boss Harmony Cobel as well as his next-door neighbour Mrs Selvig. "I've actually done it several times. In Lost Highway, I play two different people. Because I work in the arts, I bounce around different things all the time. In the old days, you'd film one episode at a time. Now, we're bouncing between eight at the same time. So it's like there are already hundreds of different versions of me out there already."
'I like a low-drama lifestyle. I like drama in my work, on screen, but I don't care for it in real life'
Severance was shot during the pandemic, which made things even eerier. “You couldn’t really joke around with the crew because everyone was wearing masks and shields. We shot in New York, but I don’t live in New York, so I’d go back alone to a little room and not see anyone. Then when I’d get back to work, they were constantly moving walls for shots, so you’d get lost in this maze trying to find the set. It was relentless in its claustrophobia – just like Lumon Industries.”
Severance raises some topical issues, such as the increasing incursion into our minds by tech and big business. "I know people are working on very strange things with hybrids of human beings and technology," Arquette says. "Elon Musk is doing some experimentation. People are cloning things, trying to bring mammoths back from the dead, micro robot surgery. Right now anything's possible, so buckle your seatbelts, we're all on this crazy ride."
Does this excite or scare her? “I think it scares me. I’m not very trusting with how quickly we’re moving through all of this. Our information is everywhere. I know there’s going be this Metaverse, but I don’t know what it’s going to be like for young people. They’re already so much in their own homes, playing games. I’m hearing from a lot of people that kids are having a hard time. They have anxiety learning how to bond with each other and be resilient, because they just feel safer at home on a device and not having real face-to-face experiences.
“So that’s the scariest thing. I don’t want kids to miss out on becoming resilient. Yeah, you get your heart broken, but it’s okay. Sometimes your friend says something really crappy and you don’t want to be friends with them, and that’s okay. And sometimes you don’t feel beautiful or handsome – that’s okay, too. I don’t know how kids will be able to hone those people skills. Key things that are beautiful and surprising in the world need to happen in front of you.”
Arquette appeared in the 2018 series Escape at Dannemora – also directed by Stiller – and a year later in The Act, both based on true crime stories. Does she ever feel uncomfortable with how ubiquitous true crime series have become? “I think what’s worrying is that our species has been capable of these sort of crimes for centuries,” she says. “It’s not so much the TV shows that worry me as why the hell are we, as a species, still killing each other? That’s the fascinating thing. We’ve been killing each other since we’ve been created. Why is that our go-to? Why does it keep happening over and over again?”
Arquette wears her politics on her sleeve. She attended the 2017 Women's March against Donald Trump in Washington. Does she think that maybe they didn't march far enough? She laughs. "I don't think there was any amount of marching you could do to stop what was going to happen. A lot of people showed up. It was very spontaneous and authentic. We knew that women's rights were going to be on the line and we were right. We weren't being alarmists.
"In Texas, if a girl gets pregnant by incest, she has six weeks to discover she's pregnant. Kids that age may not even have regular periods, let alone be able to figure out how to get a pregnancy test. Six weeks to figure out if you want to have an abortion. It may be something you don't even feel comfortable telling your family, because it might be happening in your family.
“And rape victims don’t have the right to have an abortion in Texas after six weeks. Yet the authorities don’t work to the same timetable. They don’t limit themselves to six weeks to collect evidence. They don’t have to make arrests within six weeks, but they expect women to adhere when most women don’t even know they’re pregnant yet. That is very disturbing to me.”
Does she think that one day we’ll look back at Trump and laugh? “No, I’ll never laugh at him. It’s shocking how much destruction to the democracy he was capable of doing in such a little time. I just feel like we’re in the middle of a neverending emergency triage in America.”
But with the Trump presidency a thing of the past, does this mean Arquette can be happy? “If I check my heart, I’m happy. I like a low-drama lifestyle. I like drama in my work, on screen, but I don’t care for it in real life. I feel like my life is very drama-free. I’ve gone through a lot of pain and loss. I’ve buried a lot of people I love, but nothing like that has happened in a while. So I do feel really grateful.”
Severance is now showing on Apple TV+