Ask Tramell Tillman (’14) what it’s like to be a celebrity and he’ll humbly say that he doesn’t know—he certainly doesn’t feel like one. But after his work on the critically acclaimed Apple TV show Severance and walking the red carpet at the Emmy Awards, it’s hard to deny that Tillman’s time in the spotlight has come—and it’s just getting started.
While Tillman was excited to see celebrities like Oprah Winfrey at the Emmy Awards, he says he was surprised by other celebrities saying they were nervous to approach him in case he was like his Severance character Seth Milchick, whom Tillman describes as “an enthusiastic company man.”
Milchick supervises employees at Lumon Industries, where workers have a brain implant that separates their work memories from their personal memories. The show focuses on what happens when workers in one department start to seek the truth about their jobs and the company.
Severance is replete with critically acclaimed talent including Christopher Walken, Adam Scott, John Turturro, Patricia Arquette, and executive producer and director Ben Stiller. It was nominated for 14 Emmy Awards, and season two has begun filming. Tillman was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award along with the show’s ensemble cast in January.
To prepare for the role, Tillman says, he called on skills he learned in UT’s highly ranked Master of Fine Arts in acting program.“UT provided me with the opportunity to not only learn the craft but to build and expand my tools,” Tillman says. “Creating Milchick involved me using those tools.”
He used lessons from professors about movement, vocal placement, and character motivation alongside extensive research about cults, religious institutions, and corporate America to build the character of Milchick.
“With this work, there’s no true way to know if it will be successful,” Tillman says. “We as artists hope for the best.”
By all accounts, his interpretation of Milchick has been exactly right. A 2022 Esquire article called Tillman the “Severance scene-stealer” and goes on to say how even his castmates said he was genuinely scary when in “full Milchick Mode.”
However, Tillman’s bright, easy smile lets you know he’s nothing like the menacing Milchick, and it’s easy to see why his professors were convinced he would go on to be successful.
Associate Professor Jed Diamond first saw Tillman audition in Chicago two years before inviting him to join UT’s MFA program. Diamond could see the talent but thought Tillman was too inexperienced at the time.
“His personal presence as much as his work is what struck me,” Diamond says of the second time Tillman auditioned for him. “He had a calm, strong, yet highly sensitive presence and a deeply attentive way of listening and thoughtful way of responding. He exuded honesty and notable gravitas for someone his age.”
And in 2012, when Diamond saw Tillman singing and dancing on stage in the Clarence Brown Theatre’s production of Kiss Me Kate, he knew his intuition had been right.
“I had not at that point seen him do a whole musical number, and he didn’t at that time characterize himself as an actor/singer/dancer—the triple threat of our profession—but wow! In ‘Too Darn Hot,’ he brought the house down,” Diamond recalls.
Even with an abundance of raw talent and world-class instructors, Tillman faced some obstacles at UT. Diamond had told him when he started classes in 2011 that he would be the only person of color in his class. Tillman says he wasn’t concerned about it; he just wanted to act.
But he faced instances of racism, and in his second year, one incident changed him. Tillman was walking on the Hill when a car pulled up and someone yelled “‘White power, white power.’” Though Tillman was in a crowd, he knew the comment was directed at him because he was the only person of color around.
“As the ‘only one’ in the space [MFA program], I suffered in silence,” Tillman says. “I believed it was necessary. It was my protection, but it led to a troubling hindrance. My work suffered.”
He opened up to his classmates and professors about the incident. Diamond recalls students and faculty sitting in a circle with Tillman and listening to his story.
“Many offered deep empathy, support, and love. It was a powerful exchange,” Diamond says.
The department also offered resources and procedures to help report the event.
“If it weren’t for those generous souls who supported and truly saw me, I am not sure I would be the artist I am today. Over time I learned to open and eventually trust. Trust is vital in the tender work we do. If there’s no trust we suffer, the work suffers.”
“If it weren’t for those generous souls who supported and truly saw me, I am not sure I would be the artist I am today,” Tillman says. “Over time I learned to open and eventually trust. Trust is vital in the tender work we do. If there’s no trust we suffer, the work suffers.”
Professor of Theatre Casey Sams says she’s grateful for how Tillman has helped her and the department grow and learn.
“Tramell’s kindness and generosity make it easy for the folks who work with him to feel connected and supported. And that leads to better, more authentic work,” Sams says.
Since graduating in 2014, Tillman has acted in the Broadway show The Great Society and television shows like Dietland and Godfather of Harlem. He has contributed his time as a guest teacher in UT’s Diverse Plays and Playwrights class, which focuses on the stories of marginalized and underrepresented people, and he was on campus in September for a Q&A with theatre students before accepting an award from UT’s Alumni Association. In spring 2020 he took part in UT’s virtual commencement celebrations, lending his voice to a version of the alma mater performed by various alumni, students, faculty, and staff.
And while he says he has too many career goals to name, he wants to continue to have choices and to grow.
“I truly believe in the transformational power of the arts. Storytelling teaches. Through great art we are brought together to think, feel, process, discuss. And in doing so change is possible.”
MFA in the Spotlight
For five consecutive years, the Hollywood Reporter has ranked UT’s MFA acting program among the top graduate programs in the world.
In 2020, the program landed at number eight in the annual list, which takes into account multiple factors, including affordability and creative support. The rankings are made after consultation with academics, influencers, and alumni.
Seven or eight actors are accepted into the three-year MFA Acting program every other year. Students receive a full tuition waiver plus an assistantship stipend. They have the opportunity to perform in six to 10 productions during the Clarence Brown Theatre season.
On campus, a new 17,000-square-foot building will replace the current Carousel Theatre and provide experimental and flexible theatre space with multiple levels of seating, a lobby, greenroom, and back-of-house support spaces.
Notable alumni of UT’s program include Tramell Tillman (’14) of Severance; Conrad Ricamora (’12) of Broadway and How to Get Away with Murder; Matthew Bassett (’10), artistic director of the Hub Theatre in Washington, DC; Cycerli Ash (’10), actor and director known for her role on Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists; and Zack Fine (’08), actor, director, and playwright in New York City.