Pamela Adlon on ‘Better Things’ and the Power of Staying Personal
From Louie to Californication to King of the Hill to her critically acclaimed FX series Better Things, Pamela Adlon has been expertly casting a wide net as an actor, writer, director, and producer. “People have a Where’s Waldo thing with me because of all the weird shit I’ve done. There’s something for everybody.” All the weird shit she’s done has led to her earning an Emmy nomination for her lead role in her passion project, the Peabody Award-winning Better Things. Watching Adlon play out semi-autobiographical scenes from her life as a single working mother of three daughters feels less like a scripted series and more like an incredibly intimate, honest, and powerful reality show. Season 2 of Better Things premieres tonight at 10:00pm on FX, so I caught up with Adlon to discuss her duties as creator/director/producer/lead actor on the show, what her real-life daughters think of the series, and why it’s important for her to share some of the deepest moments of her personal life with the world.
You’re super busy right now, but you did get to take a vacation recently, right?
Yes I did. I got to have six days off.
What did you do with your six days? Was it a staycation or did you go somewhere no one can find you?
I did the second thing. I disappeared. I went to guard The Wall.
Just doing your civic duty, I guess. I’m sure there are some Americans who would really appreciate that.
No, I mean The Wall of the North, like in Game of Thrones. Not that wall!
Hey, I’m not here to judge. Season 2 of Better Things premieres on the 14th. I noticed that there are some changes behind the scenes, most notably that you directed every episode this season. How did it feel to completely take the reins as director?
It was unbelievable. It was easier for me because my show is a very handmade show. One of the things I learned last year was that it’s really important to be able make decisions and stick by them. It makes everybody’s workflow better. I know what my vision is, I know what I want to see in the frames, I know what I can give to my actors, I know what I want to hear, and I know what I want to see. It came together really well. I wasn’t ever thinking, “Can I do this? Is this too much?” because like I’ve said a million times, being a single mom to three girls, anything else is a breeze. On my show people have to listen to me and also they want to. My daughters, however — an entirely different story.
You’re a writer/director/producer on the show. Do you have trouble letting go of control on such a personal project?
Oh yeah. I think that would be impossible. But it’s not about control. It’s about keeping the brand of what I’m creating intact, keeping the moments raw and subtle, keeping the art beautiful, keeping the music incredible, making sure the clothes are right, all of that kind of thing. The climate of the show lends itself to me being the mama of all of it.
The show is described as semi-autobiographical. If you could throw out a percentage, how much of the show would you say is your real life?
There are a lot of elements of my real life. I have three daughters, I have an English mom who lives next door, I’m an actor, I do voiceover, and I have friends. But that’s about it. The rest of it is…I’m telling stories that are similar to things that happened to me when I was a kid or happened to my friends when they were kids. I’m telling stories of things that happened to me and my family over the past few years. But percentage-wise, I don’t even know. What, 40%? I’m not good with math. I’m a right-brained person.
In season 1 there was a thing about you not wanting to shoot a certain scene for fear that your kids or some of their friends from school would see it. That was something that was based on your time on Californication, right?
That’s right. That was in the pilot. That was directly from me and Tom Kapinos, who was the creator of Californication. I got the first script for a new season and it was this scene and I was like, “Oh, God.” It was like my worst nightmare. I wrote him an email where I was like, “Hey buddy, I’m so excited to start the new season. You know I’m a total team player, right? I just have one little thing…” He was like, “Oh, you mean the funny part?” I was like, “Oh, shit.” Then of course I had to do it. So yeah, that’s direct. That’s just reporting like I’m a news reporter.
You used the expression “handmade” earlier. I listened to that NPR piece about you and you were talking about bringing in personal effects from your own life like dishware, art, and things you’ve collected for set decoration. I have a rough idea of what goes into making a show and it’s a lot. You have people on staff that can go find that kind of stuff for you. Why is it important to you to bring so many personal things in yourself?
I know, I know, you’re right. I just really wanted to share that part of my life. Even finding the right house was like finding a character. It was like casting a house. I want to share the beauty of my life, the art that’s on my walls, the music that has influenced me my whole life and that my daughters now live or die by. My daughters will be like, “Mom, don’t let them hear that song. That’s our song!” I’m like, “Okay, I won’t. *wink wink*.” It was hard for me at the end of the first season seeing people stack my grandmother’s art and my David Choe paintings on top of each other. I was like, “Oh my God! Don’t do that!” So I had all the art that I brought in recreated for season 2 because it was going to give me a heart attack.
Is it surreal watching the show? What are you going through mentally when you watch it?
I don’t know whether to shit or go blind when I’m in the editing room. If you saw me in there I’m a mess. I’m screaming, jumping up, shouting, cheering, crying hysterically, I’m in a ball, I’m shaking. It’s unbelievable. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. It’s so exhilarating to have all of the pieces and know that I have them all. To put them all together as the greatest feeling. It’s almost better than shooting the thing. Pre-production and post-production is my jam.
Then how does it feel when you’re on set?
It feels amazing. Sometimes I wish less people would want to talk to me all the time, but it’s kind of incredible. The hardest thing is to conserve my energy and save myself for all the tasks that I have to do.
What do your girls think of the show?
My daughters are incredibly proud of the show and proud of their mom. I can’t even talk about it. I’m getting my makeup done and I’m going to cry. My makeup woman is pregnant and she’s going to cry now too.
This is a project that is so very personal to you, which is reason enough to do it, but it’s also been a critical success. You got the Emmy nomination and the show got a Peabody Award. It’s also the first comedy series on FX with a female lead. When you hit those marks and get those awards…do you care about that kind of stuff, or are you just doing the show because you want to?
Oh, I don’t even want to be told about it.
No, it just gives me so much anxiety. I can’t even begin to tell you. But for us to be a finalist for a Peabody…I was on set when we found out. We were shitting our pants. The fact that we won a Peabody Award…oh my God, I’m going to cry again. It’s insane. And the fact that I got nominated for an Emmy? It’s ridiculous. The thing that’s great is it makes people go, “Who is that? What is that show?” Then maybe they’ll watch my show.
Photo by Beth Dubber/FX.