What does it mean to be swept away and submerged underneath the tides of your craft? For some, it appears to be an agreement between your spirit and mind, mystically guiding you through the necessary pathways of life as you navigate what is and isn’t for you, yearning to drown within the depths of your passion. For Tramell Tillman, that journey led him directly to acting, as he couldn’t quash the callings of his purpose any longer.
Starring in projects like Dietland, The Godfather of Harlem, Hunters, and even gracing the theatre stages, Tillman made good on his promise and dedicated himself to his craft. In his most recent role, we find the actor in a -soon to be iconic – role in Apple TV’s critically acclaimed TV show Severance as the unsettling, unnerving Seth Milchick. In watching Tillman throughout the show, you realize there is something special in his performance, and we’re only scratching the surface of a promising career.
On April 3rd, 2022, Tramell Tillman sat down with 1883 Magazine to discuss his come-up story, his work in theatre, what we could expect from Severance, and what we could expect to see him next.
So, seeing you kill it in Severance, many people think you came out of nowhere when that isn’t the case. Walkthrough your origin story — where you are from and how you got into acting?
I was born and raised in the DC, Metropolitan area, specifically DC, and raised in Largo, Maryland. As a kid, it was essential to build a future and give back to the community, and the arts were not a viable option. I grew up in one of the richest Black counties at that time; I lived next to administrators, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, and superintendents. So, to have those levels of success, I had to go forth into those avenues of medicine, law, and education. I believed that to be the only channel to achieve that success level. But then, when I was bit by the acting bug at the age of ten while doing a church play with my mom and dad, I was afraid to go forward with acting. So, instead, I studied to become a doctor. I went to Xavier University to get a degree in Biology Pre-Med. From there, I realized that that path wasn’t for me, and what was so funny was that a lot of my colleagues and friends of mine that I was in biology class with I was doing better than them. And these people are now doctors, pharmacists, and whatnot.
But anyway, I had to go and pursue what I wanted to do. It took me a long to get there. I went from Non-Profit management; I went from publicity and public relations. But, performing, acting, and singing was always a part of my life at the end of the day. I was always doing it on the side, writing plays for churches, commercials, or crafting pieces in some fashion. And once I got to Mississippi, where I was studying at Jackson State University as a Mass Communications major. I got my degree and got involved with New Stage theatre–a regional theatre in Jackson, Mississippi. I really started to get my legs and began learning the craft under the guidance of Dr. Mark G. Henderson from Jackson State University, who was a mentor for me and pushed me to go to graduate school. So, I went to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and graduated top of my class.
I was the only African-American in the program and became one of the first Black people to graduate from the University of Tennessee at that time. Then, I went to NY, hustling and grinding; I did shows at Red Bull Theater, classical pieces, Pulitzer price winning show Sweat, where I originated the role of Chris at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage. Then, I did Hamlet, where I played Laertes at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. So, I bounced around a lot in my journey and was fortunate enough to garner roles on television like Dietland, Hunters with Al Pacino, and Godfather of Harlem with the Forrest Whitaker. So many doors have opened, but it came with a lot of grit and patience. And never giving up.
I love that. So, what you say went into getting you ready for the on-stage to television transition?
Once I gave over to what I was passionate about and accepted my lot in life of being a performer and storyteller, I became passionate about it. I became committed to it. I always wanted to do television and film, the theatre was my gateway into it, and I will always love theatre, but I was reenacting shows that I saw on tv. I would reenact the scenes from Bad Boys – that was me! The acting world so inspired me, but I just never knew how. I am so grateful that I had some representation, but I also knew that I had to study the craft of acting in television and film because it’s so different from theatre.
On TV, your audience is of one, you and the camera. In theatre, your audience could be 5,000, so you have to adjust your message and communication channel when you’re on stage versus when you’re on camera. Marc, I watched so much programming, studying so many actors’ faces. I was studying the writing, the acting, the pacing, and the breathing because I knew I wanted to give it a shot. So many programs on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and HBO have become great teachers for me. Everything from the programs I enjoyed and those that weren’t my cup of tea, I learned from everything. And that helped me when I went into these audition rooms. I used other actors as tools to learn from, passion and all.
That passion is on full display in your most recent performance. You star as Milchick on Apple TV’s Severance. An intensely charismatic and equally unsettling floor manager who is hiding something. I remember seeing you in Godfather of Harlem. In addition, you had performances in shows like Hunters and Elementary. So I have to ask if you were any skills you acquired on those shows or theatre that you used to portray Milchick? Or was there another source of inspiration? Because your performance on that show is just–it’s insane!
First of all, thank you! That means the world. I feel that I am constantly learning. I’m a student of this craft, and I enjoy that – it excites me. Going from Dietland, Hunters, and then Godfather of Harlem was all training for me. Of course, all these characters are all different, but for me, it’s the challenge of “how can I tell these stories the best way through the lens in which we are telling them?” And manage to keep all of these characters fresh and engaging.
So, a part of that was learning the text, engaging with the text, and conversations with the director and the writers definitely helped. But because of the world we were building, especially with Severance, and all of its details were so specific, I felt that Milchick had to be specific. As you know, Milchick is on a mission to get a job done, and he is also a person who works in middle management. And anyone who works in middle management– I worked in corporate America, so I know what that’s like. We all have somebody to answer to. So, with that, we have a responsibility, and at the end of the day, we have to make sure the check goes through. So, unfortunately, in a way, it becomes “it’s either them or me,” and I wanted to create a character that embodied that. I wanted to illustrate that Milchick was incredibly ambitious and skilled at the art of manipulation and management. So, it was vital for me to find out how he works with these people on the MDR floor, tends to the people on OND, and handles Harmony Cobel [Patricia Arquette].
With that, it was the constant negotiation of asking myself, “What does Milchick want? What is he willing to do to get it? What happens if he doesn’t get it? Does he win or lose?” in every scene. I love playing multi-layered characters, so it was a joy for me to craft Milchick in a multileveled way. It was essential to present a character that made you feel like you didn’t know where you stood with them. But as someone who you should trust at the same time, you need not cross.
So freaking good. In Severance’s latest episode, What’s for dinner, we finally see the mysterious waffle party that Dylan has been so anxious to get his hands on. But, to his and our surprise, it’s not what we think it is. So what was the reaction on-set when Ben Stiller and Dan Erickson revealed that this is what Dylan’s “Waffle party” would be? Or did all of you learn about this interesting party from reading the script?
I certainly learned from reading the script, but there is nothing like seeing it on screen. And when I saw it on screen, I said, “what…in the world…?” Like, what show is this? What is Lumon? These are questions that I need answers to now. It was so bizarre, and with that, though, it was so thrilling. You watch it and begin to understand that this is precisely in line with the strange world we’re building. And from there, I was like, go ahead, y’all!
This is hilarious. As we approach the season one finale, many connections and loose ends are on the verge of being tied up or maybe further unravelled. What can we expect from the season finale of Severance? How crazy does Milchick get in this final episode in his search of getting the job done?
Okay, so do you remember the snippets of Milchick running in the trailer?
Yeah, yeah, I remember that!
Okay. And you haven’t seen that yet, right?
Tramell, look man, we haven’t seen that yet.
Alright, so I’m going to leave that right there. I’m gonna leave that right there! But, overall, I believe that the finale will do what it’s continued to do: it will open up doors, address a few ideas, and leave you with a few questions. But, it won’t stray away from the journey that already put you on. For more, you will have to watch the season finale.
Oh, you’re good. What can we expect from you in the coming months?
I’m excited to jump into more projects and storytelling opportunities. I’m currently in Chicago doing Good Night, Oscar with the incredible Sean Hayes at the Goodman Theatre. Grateful to be a part of this brand new play by Doug Wright and Lisa Peterson. We’re here in Chicago until April 24th, with my last show on the 24th. Then from there, I have been doing some Shakespeare. There is a podcast called Next Chapter Podcast, and they have its own channel. They have a series of translated Shakespeare pieces that they have put on their podcast, and I have voiced the role of Edmund, the Bastard in King Lear. I’m looking forward to stepping into another project once that has completely solidified, so that will be coming very soon.
I’m also looking forward to taking a vacation, taking some time off, and doing a little travelling. I promised myself that I would do some international travelling at least once a year, so I plan to keep that promise. In addition, I should be going to Italy this year; I’m very much looking forward to that. And with that, I’ll be back reenergized and ready to get back to work.
Interview by Marc Griffin
Severance is streaming on Apple TV now.