Bringing ‘Better Things’ to TV with Pamela Adlon

After five years of collaborating with Louis C.K. on Louie, Pamela Adlon finally has her own semi-autobiographical FX show premiering tonight. Better Things centers on Adlon as Sam Fox, a woman juggling full-time roles as an actor, daughter, and single mother of three young daughters. Ahead of the Better Things series premiere, I asked Adlon about how she developed the show, what it’s like casting actors to play her mother and daughters, why she and C.K. work so well together, what she’s learned from the project, and more.

Congrats on the show! I watched the first four episodes, and it’s fantastic.

That’s great! Thank you so much.

I know you’ve been developing this show for a while. Now that the premiere is finally coming up, how are you feeling?

I can’t really describe it. It’s kind of an unbelievable thing to know that it’s next week. I’m kind of shitting in my pants. It’s like you’re giving birth to a baby that’s been gestating for years, and then it’s out in the world, and everybody’s touching and holding your baby, and it’s like I wanna say “Do you have a cold? Are you gonna take care of it? Don’t rub the lanolin off the skin too soon!” It’s an amazing feeling and experience right now. It’s a very singular time for me. I mean, I’m still basically trying to deliver the rest of my show – I’m gonna be in post until two days after the premiere.

How’s it been taking on more behind-the-scenes roles as not just the star of the show, but the creator?

It’s phenomenal. It’s unlike anything else that I’ve ever done in my life. And because of the support of my incredible network, I was able to really make everything, make it a handmade show, and instill my whole being into it. And making all the creative decisions and building all these muscles that I never even knew I had – building my confidence, and knowing that when I’m completely confident and able to make decisions, that it makes everybody else to do their jobs the best that they could ever do – it’s just a win-win for everybody. I became able to really craft the show in the way that was completely my vision and play with cameras and go to places that felt really natural and exciting filmically – it feels like a documentary and like an independent film to me, which is what I wanted.

When you were developing the show, how did you decide how much would be true to your own life?

I used my life as kind of the bone for my show. I’m a single mom of three girls and I have an English mother who lives across the street and I’m an actor and I do animation and all of those things, but then the rest of the details come in when I get my actors and they flesh out their roles, like Celia Imrie bringing in stuff to instill into this wonderful character of my mother. I borrowed from my own childhood, I borrowed from my friends’ childhoods, stories that I’ve read and heard and books and ideas and journals and compilations, it’s all part of it.

What’s it like casting actors to play characters based on your daughters and mom? That’s got to be a weird challenge.

Yeah. Felicia Fasano, my casting director, got over 2,000 submissions for the girls, and she went through them and nailed it. There had to be something a little bit special and extra about each of the girls, and of course I needed naturalistic actors who could, you know, not be like “regular kid” actors. As for my mom, I was like “Well, the only person who can play my mom is Maggie Smith,” and she’s like 90 and she lives in England. And then Felicia had met Imrie and said “You gotta meet this woman.” She’s quite a bit younger than what I had written this character and quite a bit too sexy to play my mom, and I had to “old lady” her down a little bit. The first day that she had a costume fitting I was like “What the hell is this? This is like my sexy girlfriend who’s got big tits and looks like Annie Hall!” So I was like “No, we’ve gotta make her an old lady.” But I got very very lucky. I’m very happy.

What do your daughters think of the show? Were they involved in the process in any way?

Well, my youngest was in the editing room with me most of the summer and got to see quite a bit of the whole season. And my two oldest were out of the country for the summer, and they really want to watch the shows as they roll out in real time. They’ve seen some scenes, and all of my girls helped me cast the girls and put their two cents in and give me ideas for stories and things like that. It became a family project in a way, and it’s been an amazing experience for all of that.

Are any of them interested in writing or performing like you?

Yeah, my oldest daughter is acting now, and my middle daughter really wants to act as well. My youngest daughter couldn’t care less. They’re all musicians and they’re all writers and they’re all very independent, free-thinking, strong people.

You developed the show with Louis C.K., and you two have been collaborators for a long time now. What did he bring to this project that was most helpful to you?

Well, he and I have a very synchronistic way of thinking and viewing the world, and that just shines when it comes to our writing. Tonally we are exactly in step with each other, and so it just always works. And because we’ve known each other for so long and been friends for so long, we know each other’s stories, and we’re able to prompt each other and say “Remember this thing that happened?” or “Remember that time with your mom?” or “Remember that time with your daughter?” and we’re able to translate that to these wonderful scripts, thank God.

I love how there’s a running theme in the show about women – whether it be relatives, friends, or colleagues – and how it’s important for us to look out for each other.

Yeah, it’s true! I mean, it’s massively important to have each other’s backs and to look out for each other and to have a shorthand and to not be afraid to say things to each other, and also to not say too much when you know somebody’s gonna get hurt or something like that. And in terms of being a parent and a mom, the idea of seeing a woman mothering her children and her mothering her own mother is something that’s very close to me and my friends, because we’re part of this thing that people are calling the “sandwich generation” and it’s a big deal. We want to keep them going and keep them healthy and keep them from driving us fucking crazy.

It’s refreshing to see a mom on TV like your character, who actually feels like a “real” mom who is the focus of the show and not just there to laugh at her husband’s jokes. I think Roseanne was the first show I watched that gave me that feeling.

Yeah! It’s great to see a woman making fun of her husband or something like that, and yet they still have this incredible, romantic love. Because on Roseanne, they definitely had that – they took the piss out of each other and they were just wildly in love with each other. And they were fun, and they were dark, and they had struggles. That was an amazing, amazing show.

Did anything surprise you during production of the show – anything you couldn’t have anticipated until you actually started shooting it?

Well, we would be shooting scenes and, after a scene, what would usually happen is a member of my crew would come up to me and say “Dude, that is my childhood. That is my life.” Or, when I was shooting the scene in the gynecologist’s office, my focus puller Elena, who’s a woman, she said “Dude, you have no idea how uncomfortable all the guys are right now.” And I was the one on the table with my boots in stirrups! But the men were going crazy, it was hilarious. People really responded, and I like to let people work to the best of their abilities and contribute where they could. It was very collaborative, and things just came together in an amazing way. And I would always turn to everybody and say “Well, this isn’t a comedy! I hope people aren’t expecting a comedy!” Because we’d all be in tears laughing – just wrecked.

Better Things premieres on FX tonight at 9:00pm.

Bringing ‘Better Things’ to TV with Pamela Adlon