Pamela Adlon Can't Believe She Has Her Own Show

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Pamela Adlon in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, Aug 29th 2016 Photo: Yuri Hasegawa
Pamela Adlon Can’t Believe She Has Her Own Show
Louis C.K.’s longtime collaborator on creating FX’s Better Things,
the guilt of being a mother, and the struggles of dating in your 40s.
Photographs by Yuri Hasegawa

Pamela Adlon’s phone has been buzzing a lot lately, with texts and calls from friends pointing out, “There it is again!” They’re referring to her butt, which is prominently displayed on billboards and bus ads for her new FX comedy, Better Things, in New York and Los Angeles. In the photograph, Adlon is laying facedown on a bed in black booty shorts and ankle boots. “That is my butt,” Adlon says, with her signature, quick raspy laugh. “It was FX’s marketing idea and I loved it immediately. I don’t think I can deal with my face being out everywhere in the world.” 

Like the character she plays, Sam Fox, Adlon is a hard-working actress and single mother of three. But Adlon, who’s been in show business since she was 12 (The Facts of Life, Growing Pains), and has been a writer and producer for years as well as a voice actor (King of the Hill), is now also a show creator and director. Better Things, which premieres on September 8, is the result of Adlon’s longtime creative collaboration with Louis C.K., who cast her in his short-lived HBO comedy Lucky Louie, which aired in 2006. He later asked her to play his sometime girlfriend, and write and produce on his FX comedy Louie. (C.K. has an overall development deal at FX, which includes Baskets and now Better Things, which he co-created and serves as a writer and director on some episodes.)

Vulture caught up with Adlon, who turned 50 this summer, ten days before the premiere of Better Things at her office in Sherman Oaks. She talked about single motherhood guilt, how binge-watching Breaking Bad kept her from her dreams, and the trials of dating in your 40s.

In the show, Sam has three daughters. You do, too. How old are they now?
Nineteen, 16, and 13. My girls are all teenagers now. Not for the squeamish. Last night, I'm gathering my weapons and ammo, getting ready for Monday, and I just started to think, It's easier now. Weekends are easier. I'm going to get emotional because it was so fucking hard for so many years. When somebody would say have a nice weekend, that would be like a death sentence for me because it was just so many things. My oldest just moved out, but she’s home all the time. It never stops.

It's surprising to hear that raising three girls in their teenage years is less difficult.
It's kind of gnarly. I think it was feeling a little easier because my kids, even though they're L.A. kids, they learned how to ride public transportation right away. When they were 12, they went to this very progressive school, like a holistic private school. The first day they get them on the Metro from Woodland Hills to downtown L.A. and then they give them a map of their surroundings and tell them to walk around and find the school. My daughter takes the public bus every single day. She's now seeing me on the buses, which is very disturbing. My butt.

What did she say?
We were talking about that this morning because some kids in her school were saying something and I said, "How does that make you feel? Does it feel weird?" She goes, "No, it's fine." It just is what it is. They know what my world is and what my life is. They're very accepting and they're very proud. I'm modeling a time in a woman's life for them right now that is singular and special, to show them what a lifetime of hard work can accomplish.

Pamela Adlon in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, Aug 29th 2016 Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

Are they interested in the business?
My oldest daughter is a working actress now. My middle daughter wants to do it, but she's very focused on school. She's a junior. My youngest is not so into it, but they're all writers and they're all creators, they're all musicians. I don't know. Whatever they want to do.

How long have you been a single mom?
Eight years. My second or third year on Californication, we separated.

Was that a very difficult time for you?
It went in stages because it depended on the girls and when things would hit them. I'm somebody who, if I went to the grocery store and one of them wasn't with me, I would feel guilty. I would be like, I shouldn't be doing anything without them anytime ever. A very codependent way of thinking. Also motherhood is hugely about guilt. You're like, I'm not doing this right. Whenever there is a conversation where you lift your skirt up and show everybody how you're doing things, it's massively important. I’m not going to say my show is the first that’s creating that conversation, but I know that I'm being looked at as "diversity" and the "face of women" and things like that. I did not set out to make a feminist show. I did want to make a portrait of a family, and being a single mom is a huge part of that. I don't usually say "working mom" because I think all moms are working moms. I feel like that diminishes moms. People should say "working dad" as opposed to working moms.

For my women friends who are in their 20s through their 60s, it's always the same thing. Something's gonna happen for him. It's gonna be okay. I'm gonna give him a few more years or whatever. I'm always like, Alright, shame! That drives me crazy but I never said that before until I said that to you, and it's really fucking true. Tell me he's a "working dad," and I will be impressed and I will respect him. It's very, very difficult because a lot of men are trying to find their way. It started really in my generation of women. It's really fucking crazy. Do you see this?

As we were taught to go for it all, they retreated. Is that what you mean?
It's like Marlo Thomas spoke to me and Mary Tyler Moore and then men were like, You got this? I'm fine. The men just don't have the drive. Why is that? Why couldn't they stay the same with us? Why couldn't they let us catch up and just be in tandem? They just laid back. That's the way it feels.

You said you didn't set out to present a feminist point of view. What story did you want to tell?
I wanted to talk about women who are aging and aging parents. I wanted to talk about girls growing up. I wanted to show these three stages developmentally. That's very interesting to me. I have a million stories to tell there. That's my wheelhouse. It was extremely important for me to do it in a way that felt authentic. I wasn't going for laughs. I want the real moments to just lay there and be super-uncomfortable — lay there like a fart. I learned so much from my life as an actor, as a kid actor through being an adult actor, and then becoming a writer and producer and doing animation. I learned so much from the writing on King of the Hill, which I thought was just magnificent. They would let real moments happen in this animated, one-dimensional world. I feel like I've been in school this whole time.

I want the real moments to just lay there and be super-uncomfortable — lay there like a fart.

Being a single mom and woman in Los Angeles in your 40s, you're invisible. You're invisible as fuck. I can't meet anybody. The guys who like me are like 22. They're like, I could totally hit that. The guys my age are going out with 25-year-olds. It just doesn't exist. I can't go on Tinder. It's like, Cokey Smurf, anyone? Wanna go get drinks? Bobby Hill much? Swipe to the right. How am I supposed to do it?

Because it’s so rare for a woman to have this kind of voice and opportunity, do you feel pressure for the show to be feminist?
I mean that's fine. I like that. Saying you're a feminist, it's such a throwback anachronism anyway. Who the fuck is not a feminist? It just doesn't make any sense. It's about being a person. Absolutely. I'm down with all of that. I'm down with the vagina squad, whatever. 

Better Things is about show business, but in a different way we’ve seen. You don't show the glamour, but more the hard work and disappointments.
I wanted it to be. I thought about that. I'm trying to be so authentic and truthful. I thought, Do people really want to see a story about an actor in L.A.? My actor story is that I'm a punch-the-time-card guy. I do my jobs when they come. I go into the recording studio and I do my animation. I'm not a star. I'm a periphery person. I always have been.

And, yet, working for decades.
That's right, and supporting my family. Been working since I was kid, and I was financially helping my parents when I was a teenager. That's something that's in me, and when the acting work dried up, I would just take jobs. It's important to me to work. I need that. I feel like everybody needs to work. Everybody needs to feel like they're providing for themselves. It's huge. It's the number one thing that I drive home to my daughters. You're never going to depend on anybody and nobody's going to depend on you. If you get married with a lady or a man or a thing or a whatever, you keep your bank accounts separate.

There are a lot of little moments in Better Things that show your unique acting experience — like in the premiere, when you and Constance Zimmer are auditioning for the same pilot. Julie Bowen walks out and it’s like game over.
That’s just the way I've lived my life, very observationally. I never met Constance Zimmer at an audition. I didn't know Julie Bowen before the show. I wrote the scene originally with Janeane Garofalo and Constance Zimmer because, for years, Constance Zimmer would get the jobs that I wouldn't get and I would get jobs over Janeane and Constance. People would say to Constance, You're so great in Californication, and they'd praise me for Entourage. I was like, this will be fun. It's a little wink. I didn't think it was too inside.

People are comparing the show to Louie. How do you feel about that?
I can't avoid that because he's my partner. It's different in the way that I'm telling these stories, but also the same because when I think about the finale of Louie when he takes his daughters to breakfast at 4 o'clock in the morning, I just like to have a heart. I can't watch a movie that is super-dark and a bummer without any silver lining. It's like, Come on, give me something. Make me have a feeling other than "ugh." If it's cinematic and it's cool that's one thing. But I like feeling stuff.

You’ve written and produced before. What was the hardest part of creating a show for you?
It was hard for me to hone in on realizing that I was going to tell my story, for the most part. The rungs of my show are: me, three girls, my mom, animation, on-camera work, single. When we were doing Louie, I would just be like, You remember that story you told me about your friend's wife who they thought that she was going to lose her baby but she really just only had to fart? He would be like, Shut up, shut up [and he'd type away]. I was able to pitch things and do things for him. It was very easy, but when it came to picturing myself doing it, I was more intimidated. I didn't really believe anybody would want to see that story or would want me to carry a show. Even up to the point where we get there and we've got scripts ready to go and they're like, Ugh, we just found out Amanda Peet's available. I'm really sorry. Or Jennifer Aniston or Rachel McAdams. I'm not saying anything about myself. I just know what my reality has been for my whole life.

About a month ago, we were still deep into editing and it was fucking gnarly. I said to my youngest, I'm gonna go listen to music in Venice because a friend of mine was playing music. She was like, "Mom don't go," because we're very addicted to each other. I took an Uber because I knew I wanted to drink and listen to music. I got there to this cool bar, the Townhouse, in Venice. I'm like, Okay, alright, I'm in bar. I'm a lady in a bar. I'm a single lady in a bar. Well, the bartender didn't want to serve me. Guys didn't want to talk to me, whatever. I'm like, Oh, I'm an old lady in a bar. Then I realized, this is always the way it's been for me. Unless you get to know me, people aren't going to go, What can I get you? I always wanted to be the person who bellied up to the bar and the bartender would notice and say, Hey, how are you? What can I get you? It's never been that way for me.

Why do you think that is?
I don't know. I'm short. I'm weird-looking.

You are not!
I am. I don't know how to be a person with the right kind of face.

Was your process working with Louis C.K. different this time around since it’s your show?
We started writing and collaborating on Lucky Louie. He was the one who was like, What do you think about this? I started contributing stories. I'm sure the writers didn't appreciate it. I was a mom and I had something to say there. After Lucky Louie, we developed a show for CBS, a pilot. It was rejected. Then he started developing different things and I've always helped him. We've been each other's muses. Then he did Louie and he was like, You're gonna be a producer on the show. You're gonna be in it. And I was like, What am I gonna play? He said, Pamela.  I said, No, ew. Don't give me my name. Writing always was just this huge what if this happens and remembering things. I remember I was about to get into the tub and I had left it running. It was starting to overflow and I ran to turn it off. And I said, Oh my fucking god, I know what we have to do on Louie. And that's when I thought of him getting in the tub and all the water coming out. When we were shooting Better Things, he was doing Horace and Pete. Before that, he was helping me with Better Things.

Why do you think it clicks so well between you?
We think the same and we have a way of speaking tonally that meshes with the way we dialogue, the way we speak.

Being a single mom and woman in Los Angeles in your 40s, you’re invisible as fuck. The guys who like me are like 22. They’re like, I could totally hit that.

What you said about having ideas for Louie but having writer’s block for your own story, that’s a very female thing, don’t you think? We’re great supporters — sometimes not so much of ourselves.
That's exactly right! What sign are you?

Cancer.
Me too. That's very us. That's very moon child. We are very nurturing and enabling. I have discovered something in me over the past couple of years, which is I am codependent. I see that in myself. I see that in the relationships that I've had. You can't be supplicant in your life. You can still be a nurturer, but you have to be able to take command of your own life and not feel like you're taking too much. That was always my thing. For me, nurturer has meant doormat, pussy, and codependent. Really bad.

Do you think your character on Better Things, Sam, is that way?
I don't think so.

It’s interesting to hear you say you are codependent because you’re also the epitome of independence. You’ve been working since you were a child.
Yeah. I was out of the house at 18. That's something that is relational when you start to mature and you have relationships in your life with lovers, with your children, that you examine later and you find out you form those qualities when you're a child. You look to your childhood. For pretty much everything, that's where the damage is done.

You chose to cast a British actress (Celia Imrie) as your mother, which is true to your own life.  Is the character like your real mother?
She's exactly like my mom. That's the only character who is word for word. My mother used to drive me crazy, and then I would go through phases going, This is hilarious, don't get upset. Now I have a show and she just walks into my kitchen and I'm like, Tell me about your day. Okay, alright. Really? Black ice. Okay. The guy and your hand doctor. Okay and you went to the gym and they want to kick you out because you're working out in moccasins. Okay. I write it all down. It's the greatest.

I was like, Well the only person on earth who can do this is Maggie Smith. But she's 90 and she lives in England. Then my casting director, who is also one of my best friends, said, "Dude this woman, Celia Imrie, is really good." She's younger than I wanted but I Skyped with her and I was like, Shit this is really good.  But she's very modern and youthful and sexy. The first day she had a fitting, she walked in and she's wearing this suit with this shirt and her tits are fucking enormous in an open tie and these trouser pants and everything. I'm like, Okay, you're supposed to be playing my mother and I want to fuck you. You look better than me and younger than me. Go out and get some purple, go to Jewish Council thrift and go get some belts and make her into my mother. Then, of course, you want to honor the actress. Celia totally got into it. She gave me more than I could have ever hoped for. The nuance in these moments, and feeling hurt and being a little bit crazy, and why is Sam so mean to her mom?

Are you mean to your mom?
Sometimes I used to be a little bit mean to her. She lives next door to me.

She's always lived next door?
No, I bought the house next door around 12 years ago. This is why I'm mean to her sometimes.  [Stands up] I'm in my kitchen or I'm in my bathroom and I turn around and go [screams] and there [she is], like Gandalf in a robe! She says, [in a British accent] I was calling out, hello. I was calling out. She scares everybody. I took her key away.

The girls in the show are younger than your three daughters. Are they like them?
There are scenarios that are true to life, and then I'm just able to go in different directions, depending on the abilities of the actors. I explore from there.

How are you finding working with children?
I like it. When the material gets heightened and heated, you have a responsibility to think, How old is she? What is she able to do or say? When we did Lucky Louie, the little girl who played our daughter, Kelly Gould, was supposed to say "asshole" to Louie. She was wrecked. She couldn't do it. I remember looking at Kelly and saying, You know what? I'm very proud of this show. We use salty language on this show and that's it. We're making a show about a family and this is a good show and you shouldn't be afraid or ashamed of it. So this one word, here's the context of why you're saying this word. She didn't want to do it, so I said, why don't you hold your tongue with your thumb and your forefinger and say the word ‘apple,’ and she went asshole, asshole. So she did that, but it didn't work so we just cut the whole bit. I got her to say apple.

I don't even know how you thought of that.
Because some drunk guy a long time ago said that in front of my kids. That's where you go, I'm keeping that in my head.

When did you start thinking about this show?
I was still working at Californication when Louis had pitched me to [FX Networks CEO] John Landgraf, because John said, "We'd like to cultivate a show for a woman with a woman's voice." Then Louis told me and I was like, I can't. I'm doing Californication and Louie, animation, my girls. It was daunting then. It took me several years.

For me, nurturer has meant doormat, pussy, and codependent.

When did you actually decide, okay, I'm going to try to make it happen?
It was probably three summers ago.

And all that time Louis kept encouraging you?
He was like, Dude you gotta do the show. I would be like, I can't do anything. He’d say, So and so is doing a show. So and so other lady is doing a show. And I would be like, Oh my god.

Do you think you were just coming up with excuses for yourself, or was your schedule that jammed?
Both. Exactly both of those things you say are the true thing. Of course, I would be like, Oh, god. I got to get through all of the seasons of Breaking Bad. I swear to fucking god that kept me back. I was trying to catch up before the finale aired. I was going so good. I was like, After I get through this then I'm gonna start writing my show. Then they posted a picture of something — I don't want to ruin it for anyone else — on the internet and it ruined it for me. I was so sad.

Oh no! The show was so good.
It was so good. Anna Gunn and I used to be roommates. We lived in a house in Laurel Canyon.

Are you for real that Breaking Bad kept you from your dreams?
Basically! Then I started watching some shows, and I thought it just wasn't for me. I thought, I don't know if people are going to want to see my take on things because things felt very big and broad and meta and jokey. That's just not something I ever was into or could do or could even just execute as an actor. Then I just started to go fuck all that, I don't care if it's a show about an actor. I don't care if it's a show that doesn't have big laughs or it's broad or any of this stuff. Let's just start to go for it. So I just started writing. I would write a scene a day and then I would write two scenes a day and then I would write more scenes. And just kind of piece them together. Then they liked the pilot and they picked up the pilot and they picked up the series. It's unbelievable. I can't even fucking believe it.

How did you come up with the title?
I love the title. I love the Kinks song "Better Things," and I told Louis that's what I wanted to call Lucky Louie, and he was like, "We're totally gonna call the show Better Things and Better Things is going to be our theme," and then it was Lucky Louie. The second thing we did, the CBS thing, I wanted to call it Better Things. And that didn’t happen. I just love it. It's very positive and it's a good toast. You know, to better things!

This interview has been edited and condensed.