Pamela Adlon on FX's 'Better Things' and How 'Fear Makes You Boring'

CUL PS Pamela Adlon
Actress and filmmaker Pamela Adlon poses for a portrait at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival Portrait Studio on March 9, 2019 in Austin, Texas. Robby Klein/Contour/Getty

"People are afraid, and fear makes you boring."

Pamela Adlon, the Emmy-winning star, creator, executive producer, director and writer of FX's Better Things (February 28th) never in her "wildest dreams" saw herself working behind the camera, but "where I am now came from me making decisions, creatively and practically, to keep moving this train forward." For more than 30 years Adlon was a regular character actor and voice artist, appearing on shows like King of the Hill, Californication and Louie. In Better Things, ending after five seasons, Adlon plays Sam Fox, a Hollywood actress raising three daughters, a reality loosely based on Adlon's own life. "If something hits close to home, and it makes me feel uncomfortable, it's going to be used. Because if it makes you feel uncomfortable, it's making you feel something, it's gonna work." And so much of what dictates the story is Adlon's long career (she made her debut at 16 in Grease 2). "That's why Sam Fox exists. Because she grew up in that world. All that stuff informed the Better Things vibe." So yes, "there's a line" to what she's willing to share about her life, but at the end of the day, she says, "this is my canvas."

How does it feel to be wrapping up the saga of the Fox family for the final season of Better Things?

I wasn't really thinking about it. Everybody wants me to be sad, but I don't feel sad, I feel really grateful that I was able to tell these stories and make my show. It makes me feel very happy that it can live on in people's hearts and minds and they can go back to it.

One of the things I love about the show is that it tells the stories of different generations of women in one family. Was that important to you?

I grew up with family sitcoms: Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time and Maude. But I didn't think about [the multi-generations]. I was telling this story that was based on my story. This show really was about this woman raising her three daughters. And it was a great way for me to work out my mother driving me crazy, in the best kind of ways. [laughs] And then finally realizing she's funny and I'm gonna put it in my show in a loving way.

Even though it's not necessarily about you, many parts of the show are largely autobiographical. How do you find that balance between your private life and the life you're willing to share in your work?

Yeah, there's a line. I say this to everybody ad nauseum, I'm not making a reality show; it's a very carefully constructed story. That being said, yes, I did start this show when I was a young single mom of three girls. So, I mean, where is the line? What's fiction and what's not fiction? This is my canvas. I do know that if something hits close to home, and it makes me feel uncomfortable, it's going to be used. Because if it makes you feel uncomfortable, it's making you feel something, it's gonna work.

You've called Better Things your film school, largely because you write, direct, executive produce and, of course, star in the show. Did you ever see yourself going in this direction?

Not even in my wildest dreams, because I didn't really think I could do that. I was so myopic. I was like, I'm an actor, I'm waiting for the phone to ring as an actor. And then it hit me a few years ago when I was doing a Q&A talking about the show. When I told them that the only school that I didn't get into was Tisch School of the Arts, I was so bummed. And I was just like, it's not the end of the world because I look back and I'm like, I was always writing, I was always documenting. I was writing poetry. I was writing songs. I kept a journal since I was 9 years old. I was taking photographs. I was shooting super eight, I was doing all of that stuff. I just never thought I was going to be doing it professionally, all in one direction. I never fit in. I never looked the right way. There was something that people didn't like about me. I remember being an actor and being outside an audition, holding sides and going over it. Back in the day, we used to go on auditions and sit in a room together and look at each other. I remember sitting outside a waiting room and you could hear the actor in front of you. You could hear them auditioning. I remember this happened so many times. I would be like, "What am I even practicing for? They're bad." And then they would come out, they would be like...

"I got this. Let's go to Starbucks." [laughs]

Exactly. And it would not matter. Once you stop worrying about things like that, and stop looking at other people for approval, you grow. I feel like where I am now came from me making decisions, creatively and practically to keep moving this train forward. And it all fell into place.

You started the show, when you were in your 40s, you were a single mom of three kids. That's not something we see on television a lot. And we don't see people succeeding at that point in their lives with that life situation. It's refreshing.

Yeah, yeah, I think there's more of that now. I think it's less judgmental now.

How does cancel culture impact how you write and create? Do you worry about that in the writer's room?

Oh yeah, it was a big part of this season, because I had a whole new writers room. Everybody was on Zoom and people didn't know each other. People are afraid, and fear makes you boring. Put that on a shirt! There would be certain things that we were talking about or doing that people were dialing back on in every way in the past couple of years. And I'm like, "Well, you have to remember what this show is." This show walks the hairy edge, that's what it is, we say and do all these uncomfortable things. Because it's a way for people to sit there and go, "Oh, she's being an asshole. I don't like that." Or I don't want to be perceived that way. Or, "Oh, that's so great." Like, I wish I thought of that. You have to kind of lead the charge in terms of that and be willing to screw things up.

You're actually a prolific voice actor, which I don't think a lot of people outside the industry know. You've won an Emmy for it. How different is that kind of work?

There's no comparison to being in the studio and doing voices and working with people who know what you can do. That was the biggest gift that ever came to my life. I was working in radio first and I really wanted to get into animation, but it's hard. Like at that point it was you do one or the other. So I finally broke through. It's an incredible thing. I went through three pregnancies while I was on nine different series, and it didn't matter. I was bent over doing King of the Hill table reads because I was having an internal problem. I would do them from home. And I'd be like, on my bed. But that's just the greatest thing. That being said, you have to be willing to fail at something. You just have to go for it. You can't just try to be cool and skate by because that doesn't work in voiceover. You gotta play with the music in your voice and add colors and take out texture and all that stuff.

You were a child actor, making your debut in Grease 2. How do you think having this long Hollywood background influences the work you do today?

Oh, I mean, that's Sam. That's why Sam Fox exists. Because she grew up in that world. And then not being able to pay rent and getting fired or replaced, all that stuff informed the Better Things vibe.