Pamela Adlon on How Actresses and Agents React Differently to 'Better Things'

The star of the FX comedy is in an Emmy category against a pair of her idols.
Colleen Hayes/FX
Pamela Adlon of 'Better Things'

Pamela Adlon already has an Emmy of her own (for voicing on King of the Hill), but her current outstanding lead actress in a comedy nomination puts her in a category against a couple of her idols in Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

The writer, producer, star and occasional director of FX's Better Things sounds starstruck at the field she finds herself in, which is a little ironic, given that her turn as actress and mother of three Sam Fox has made her one of Hollywood's most relatable stars. Sam's mixture of wise and occasionally misguided (but always in a well-meaning way) parenting has earned her praise from critics and moms alike. 

Adlon is also giving one of the more truthful looks into the ups and downs of the acting profession, especially in the standout episode "Woman Is the Something of the Something," which has earned her commiseration from fellow actors, but hasn't prompted confessions from agents.

Talking to The Hollywood Reporter, Adlon discusses the highs and lows of having to watch herself act, fan reactions and more.

It's just a great category that you're in. What does it say about the varied assortment of roles that are out there in the comedy field these days?

It's kind of incredible because Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are literally, like, my life's heroes. And then you've got these other wonderful women who I love and respect so much. So I just feel like I'm thrilled that I'm invited to the party. And I'm floored that the categories are so all over the place in different genres. It just feels really good.

Since Better Things came out have people kind of made any assumptions that Sam is basically you? As an actress and as a mother?

Yeah, and rightfully so. I mean, it's like it's all the bones of my life. So everybody is thinking everything is, like, a sacred bond that I did or happened to me. So I'm able to live out situations. You know, "How do you play out situations in your life?" and you're, like, "Oh, I should have done that, or what if I said that then?" And so I'm able to do this extension of reality and infuse it into my show. It's a very satisfying, creative release.

In that light, have you been surprised by anything in terms of how people have been responding to either Sam in general, or to her parenting style and methods?

No. I love it all. I love all the reactions. I like people to have their own reaction and their own take on things. And I don't like to shove my, what I want them to feel or think, down their throats. I like people to say "What was that about?" or "Why did that happen?" And so, any reactions are welcome.

How often has it felt like you've been giving Sam a wish-fulfillment affect of how you wish you had responded to something? "In a perfect world, I would have done this instead of whatever I actually did"?

Also, in an imperfect world. Let's go to the really uncomfortable place, and I'm able to do it in that way. And it's just been a great fodder for material for my show. I've always written things down and kept journals, and articles and things like that, so now I have a platform to put all of my little things that I like to highlight into this one cinematic, dark, funny, dirty, intimate experience.

With all of your different hats currently — as producer, as writer, as director — have those required you to watch a ton more of your acting from this show than you've ever had to watch before?

Oh, yeah. And I have to separate myself from it. For example, if I'm on the set and I'm watching playback, I've just got to say, "Oh God, my neck looks 100 years old, but this is the best take." So, whatever; "That's that lady." You know what I mean? But I have to separate myself from "me" and look at my show as a whole.

Has it been your instinct in the past to watch things that you've done, or are you one of those people who just steps away and never looks back at stuff?

I don't usually watch, or when I do the animation, get a chance to watch those and listen to those. It's just life is so busy and fluid. It's nice to revisit it later. But while you're in the thick of it, I don't know; I don't have to watch the things that I do. But being the director, I do have to watch it and piece it all together.

Putting on your director's hat and stepping out, what did you learn about Pamela Adlon as an actress' strengths? And what were you kind of impressed by about Pamela Adlon, the actress?

I try to direct myself the way I direct the other actors who come on my show. I just like to keep things small and subtle and authentic, and ground everything in reality. So that is something that I feel is my strength as a director and I try to achieve as an actor.

When someone wears so many hats on a show, it feels to me like the default on almost everything would be, "Oh, this is my show. I'll just do it myself." What have the important lessons that you've learned been in terms of delegating, both in terms of producing, but also in terms of giving arcs to other actors and characters within the show so that you can breathe?

I think the No. 1 thing that I've learned is make decisions; it makes everybody feel comfortable. And praise people for the work that they're doing, and let people try things. And then guide everybody to what the ultimate vision is. And let people offer things and be collaborative and open.

And has that come naturally, since this is your first time wearing all these hats?

Yeah. Unbelievably enough, it feels like a second skin to me, and it's something that was not a difficult adjustment. Because being a single mom and raising three girls by myself, it's almost easier because my daughters don't listen to me, but all these other people have to.

Are they more or less responsive than your daughters?

Because all these others are people that I'm working with, they want to talk to me and they want my opinion and advice.

Has there been an outpouring of people now relating to you, and being like, "My God, it's like you have a camera in my house"? That kind of reaction?

Yes. Yeah, yeah, and that's the most satisfying thing in the world. You know, people saying, "Thank you, thank you. You don't understand." I've always felt like I love to work, and work has always been No. 1 for me. But doing work that people are passionate about and have such a strong visceral reaction is the most incredibly satisfying thing in the world.

And in terms of people relating professionally, was the episode "Woman Is the Something of the Something" based on one specific audition process you had, or was it kind of on every audition process you've had to some degree?

That episode happened because Louis [C.K.] and I were writing scenes separately. And then we had come up with the idea, "Let's do an entire episode with people's perspective of Sam." So I wanted to have it to be all the girls and their perception of me. And then Louis took that and he made it be a professional situation, had people referencing Sam and talking about her and she never knew any of it.

And have you had conversations with actresses who have said, "I know that happened to me. I'm sure exactly that happened to me"?

Oh, all the time. They love it.

And have you had an agent admit, "I did exactly that," yet?

They'll never admit. 

When you have an episode like that, where you're like, "Okay, let's try something, let's see if it works" and it works as well as it did — did that inspire you to take more risks and to try more different, perspective-type episodes in the upcoming second season?

The way season two was getting fleshed out was more character-driven and going with some of the people who were in season one. And wanting to kind of explore different people and different things. So definitely storytelling-wise, taking risks and left turns is what I thrive on. And I'm so excited about the new season, it's ridiculous.

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