Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward play sisters on Better Things but live in three different states across the country, so they don’t get to see each other much when they’re not working. In February, the three actors were ecstatic to reunite for the FX comedy’s third season premiere and met with Vulture for a roundtable about their work on the show.
After three seasons of playing siblings, it’s clear the three actors have bonded. Over the course of an hour-long conversation at FX headquarters in Los Angeles, they teased, complimented, and boosted one another, and reminisced about working together like the best of besties. They laughed and teared up discussing what their first big roles have meant to them, and revealed that they are nothing like their TV characters. Mikey, 19, who lives in L.A.’s Valley has none of Max’s self-centeredness; Hannah, 15, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, is softer and more sensitive than Frankie; and 12-year-old Olivia is a total ham who lives in Long Island and is savvier than Duke.
Co-created by Pamela Adlon, who directed the entire third season and stars as the girls’ mother, Sam Fox, Better Things depicts life in a single working mother household like no other TV show does. Mikey, Hannah, and Olivia view Adlon as their role model and inspiration, and say they’re grateful for the opportunities the show has afforded them — namely, working with a monkey, learning choreography, and traveling to Canada together. The following is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
I would love to hear how the three of you got into acting.
Olivia: When I was 2, I was in my parents’ room and I was watching this Gap Kids commercial. My dad came in and I said, “Why am I not there?” And he said, “Playing with the kids?” And I go, “No, I wanna be there. Like, why am I not there?” And he said, “Good question.” [Laughs.]
Mikey: That’s amazing that at 2 years old you knew you wanted to.
Olivia: I would always hog the spotlight. If my brother was recording something on his phone, I’d be like, “No!” I’d want to be on the camera. [Laughs.]
Hannah: That’s absolutely not a surprise.
What about the rest of you?
Hannah: I just got involved doing local theater and all of that. I did acting classes and movie camps. I drove down to Atlanta and auditioned for an agent. I got signed, and now I’m here.
And you, Mikey?
Mikey: I was a competitive horseback rider for most of my life. I turned 15, and all of a sudden, I became really interested in this. I’m not really sure what sparked that in my head, but it did. My dad’s a big film buff, so I think I acquired some of those traits.
Did you know people in school that were in acting, or did you know anybody in the business?
Mikey: No one in my family is in the business. I just met the right people along the way and got really lucky.
So tell me how you landed Better Things. How did it come about?
Olivia: It started with putting a little tiny scene on tape. I got a callback, there was one more little audition, and then I actually met Pamela in New York. We read one scene and we did a little bit of improv. It was automatic, like, Oh my God, she’s so cool! [Laughs.] And then about one or two weeks later, she asked me, “Do you wanna play Duke on Better Things?”
Mikey: Before I met you, Pamela was talking about how excited she was that you were coming. She was like, “You’re gonna love Olivia and her audition tape! She did the scene, and then after the scene was over, she turned around and was just standing there, like, ‘We’re done, right?’” Pamela said that was like Duke in so many ways, that quirkiness.
What was it like for you, Mikey?
Mikey: It was one of my first big auditions, so I was really excited and nervous. A week later, I got a call saying that Pamela wanted to have a chemistry read with me. I was in the room with them for like two hours and my mom was waiting outside. I remember thinking, Oh my gosh, my mom’s waiting, should I go check on her and see if she’s okay? A couple of days later, Pamela called and said, “Do you wanna be on my show?”
What about your audition, Hannah?
Hannah: Well, I was cast last. I was at home in Alabama, I sent a tape in, and then we got a message that Pamela wanted to read with me on Skype. So we read and she was like, “This is great,” and she offered me the role. At some point, we FaceTimed you guys while you were having Easter at your house.
Hannah: It was so great to meet you guys over the phone like that.
Mikey: I remember Pamela being so excited about finding you. She was like, “Did you see Paper Towns?” And I was like, “Yeah, I saw Paper Towns!” And she was like, “It was the young Cara [Delevingne].”
Mikey: Hannah had like this long, curly hair, and I think she was a little apprehensive to cut it. I would be nervous, too.
Hannah: I was a little nervous just because it’s so much hair. And I was like, I don’t know if I have the right head shape for this. But I loved it. I realized that once I cut it, I don’t miss it at all.
Your characters have grown a lot these past three seasons. How do you feel about them now?
Mikey: I feel like I’ve grown with the character. I started the show when I was 16, and I’ll be 20 very soon. And I’ve seen you guys grow from girls into young adults. For season three, it was so easy for me to slip back into character. I don’t know if you guys felt that as well?
Olivia: Onscreen and offscreen, we started to feel more like a family.
Hannah: Frankie’s very intelligent, but as the middle child, I feel like she strives very hard for attention. The only way she can get that is in her cruel exchanges and battles with her siblings and her mom. That’s the only way she can get them to listen to her, I feel like.
How do you handle those scenes where you’re fighting and being mean to each other? Because you seem to like each other a lot.
Hannah: For the fighting and the yelling, most of the time, the biggest struggle is not to laugh. Especially this one! [Points to Olivia.]
Hannah: For example, the one [in the recent episode “No Limit”] where she’s just screaming profanities at us. It was so funny for her, for all of us, and we were allowed to laugh, but initially we could see the struggle in her eyes.
Olivia: I don’t know if this was season one or season two, but I had to curse at Hannah. And there were, like, five takes of just laughing.
Hannah: It’s the episode where Sam is getting Duke ready for Halloween. Frankie comes in and she’s like, “I changed my costume again.” And Duke turns to Frankie and she’s like, “You’re a shit.”
Olivia: I cursed! [Laughs.]
Do you curse like that in life?
Olivia: Noooo. I don’t curse, but it’s funny because Duke curses a lot. So it’s like two different lives.
Mikey: Olivia, in real life, has good substitutions. She’s like, “Oh, blueberry bushels!” That’s very cute. I wish I did that instead of cussing.
Olivia: I have substitute words that are very funny. But if you ever get really angry, you can’t actually say them. Because who is gonna be like, “Blueberry bushel!”
Mikey: I feel like that diffuses it really well. If you’re in a fight, you just, “Blueberry bushel!”
What do you think has been Frankie’s meanest moment?
Mikey: I was gonna say the go-kart scene [in “No Limit”], but then we all start laughing afterward.
Hannah: Do you guys remember the bar mitzvah?
Frankie was awful, but Sam got back at her and threw dessert on her pretty white dress. That was great!
Hannah: And a pitcher of water. Ice water, by the way! There were like six dresses that I had to keep changing out. They had a blow-dryer.
Mikey: Frankie is so mean to Sam. But in the eulogy episode when you’re eulogizing her, your character says something like — I’m gonna butcher it, but it was like: “I feel like I have to put this on you because I can’t take it. You take some of the load from me.” And I think that’s why Frankie is so mean. Do you agree with that?
Hannah: Yeah, I do. It’s easier to shove off your frustrations and your anger and your weight onto someone else because then you don’t have to deal with it. And that’s sort of what their relationship is.
Mikey: But she’s not just being mean. She’s tormented in some ways. So her mother is like this punching bag where she can let it out.
What do you think the source of her torment is? In season one, they touched on the idea that maybe she identified as a boy. But it hasn’t been discussed in the series again. Do you think she’s struggling with that?
Hannah: The fact that we haven’t addressed it is very in keeping with the theme of the show. It’s very on-brand for us because we keep things real. And life doesn’t give you all these answers. You don’t know everything all the time.
Do you feel like Frankie is struggling with gender identity though?
Hannah: I think part of it is just adolescence because that’s hard in and of itself. But all these people say Frankie’s a boy. Whether or not she is, we don’t know. And does she know? We don’t know.
Do you remember scenes that you found challenging or took you to a new place in your acting?
Olivia: There have definitely been a few scenes, at least for me, that were really intense. “White Rock,” when she talks to the sad lady, that was pretty intense. But that ended up being one of my favorite scenes, ‘cause there was so much emotion.
Mikey: “White Rock” was so beautiful.
Olivia: That was actually filmed in Canada.
Hannah: Oh, I loved being there. I wanna go back. It was just such a beautiful area, and I loved where we filmed. Just being surrounded by great nature and going down to the water was really nice.
Mikey: It was also special to have a little vacation with the three of us. We would go off and get Indian food. We’d walk around to the stores and get jewelry. That was really fun, just to have that time with you guys.
It was such a sweet episode, too, how the girls bond with Sam’s aunt and uncle. How do you get to where you need to be in those scenes?
Olivia: Pamela’s helped me with this…with really getting in the zone of how Duke feels. You realize, Oh my God, this is really scary ‘cause this has happened to other people. It helps to just focus and get inside the character’s head.
Hannah, tell me about scenes that challenged you.
Hannah: Not in terms of acting, but just as in terms of my skill, the choir scene [in season three] was difficult because I am not a singer. I don’t consider myself to be musically artistic.
Mikey: Hannah has a beautiful singing voice.
Olivia: Her voice is awesome.
Hannah: Thank you. It took a lot of work because I continually felt anxious and disappointed in my voice. But I can say that I’m proud of it now.
Mikey: You worked so hard on that, Hannah. Our trailers are right next to each other, and I didn’t want to make you feel insecure, but I could hear you practicing. And I was there when you sang it and it literally brought me to tears. Like, it really did. There was literally no preparation needed for me to get there in that scene. It was just Hannah. And her voice. She worked really, really hard on that.
Olivia: Yeah, you worked really hard on that.
Hannah: Thank you. [Wipes tears from her eyes.]
Mikey: Aww, Hannah.
That’s so sweet, you guys. Any other scenes come to mind?
Olivia: What’s really great about this show is that it’s very real. Like, sometimes, [Pamela] won’t even tell us what’s going to happen in a scene. She just wants our raw reaction.
Mikey: Like the dance!
Olivia: [Mikey] had no idea that was going to happen.
Hannah: It was so hard to keep that secret.
Olivia: It was so hard to keep that secret. I said we should come up with a code name. The dance is called “Tilted,” so we said “sit up straight” might be the code name. We had to use it a few times. Once at the sleepover! [Laughs.]
Hannah: I was talking about that I was excited about the dance, or something like that, and Olivia was like …
Olivia: “Hannah, sit up straight, that’s not good for your back.”
Hannah: And I was like, “Oh, yeah, thanks. What is that? It must’ve been a dream. That’s so bizarre. Wow.”
And you didn’t catch on?
Mikey: I like to think of myself as a very intuitive person, but I had no idea. Not even a hint. I just thought they were being sketchy. Apparently, everyone for months knew about this except for me. I remember being like, “Hey, do you guys wanna hang out on the weekend?” And they always said no.
Hannah: We felt so bad.
Mikey: Well, I didn’t think you guys didn’t want to hang out with me. I just thought that you had something to do, but I was disappointed. I didn’t know that they were actually rehearsing this dance scene every single weekend for hours.
How long was this process?
Hannah: This was about two-and-a-half-months. Every Saturday.
And it was the four of you in rehearsals?
Hannah: Yes, us and Pamela and Celia [Imrie].
Olivia: And Kat Burns, who also does some choreography for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She was awesome. If someone had a problem with one move, she’d go over it just to make sure no one had a problem with that move.
Mikey: I’m not gonna lie, I was jealous that you guys all spent that time together without me. With Celia, too!
Hannah: If it makes you feel any better, we all felt so bad to be lying to you for months.
So what was it like when you actually filmed? What happened?
Mikey: I got to set and they gave me a different version of the script. My character was to open this box — it had a piece of jewelry or something in it, and a light shone out from it — and it was supposed to cut to black. On that day, we filmed that. Then the next day, I asked if I could go up and get lunch and they said they’d bring it to me in my trailer. I was disappointed because I had been in my trailer for a little bit and I was antsy. When it came time, they said, “We’re going to do this improv thing. We’re going to blindfold you. Don’t worry, we did it with the other girls, too. Just react in character.”
What did they say this was for?
Mikey: I had no idea. So they blindfolded me and walked me down this really long hill. For some reason, I remember thinking someone was going to tickle me. Which is such a weird, creepy thing to think.
Olivia: Someone was going to come up behind you and be like, “Tickle, tickle, tickle”?
Mikey: Yeah, because you know that I hate being tickled. I hate it. I will hurt you. So I was like, Please don’t tickle me. And then Pamela swooped in, sat me on the bench, and then untied my blindfold. All of a sudden, I see these guys standing on the stage. I was like, What is going on here? And you started doing the dance. A part of me was wondering, Am I going to have to learn this dance? And then I was like, Oh, no, this is a surprise. And they did this incredible dance. It was like the best present I could have received. And it wasn’t even for me. It was for Max.
It was so unexpected and awesome. Now this season, you got to work with a monkey in the third episode “Holding.” Tell me everything about that.
Olivia: The money was so cute! Oh my God, the monkey!
Hannah: It was so strange because we all had a safety meeting about the monkey. They took me individually and were like, “You’re going to spend a lot of time with the monkey, so something you need to know is don’t rush at it. And don’t show your teeth to it.”
Mikey: No one wants to get their face ripped off!
Olivia: That would not have been great.
Mikey: “Better Things actress Hannah Alligood gets attacked by monkey on set.”
Olivia: If that safety meeting hadn’t happened, that could have happened to somebody.
Hannah: We would have all smiled!
Olivia: I’m just glad I was on the other side of the room, that’s all I’m saying.
I want to talk more about the “Eulogy” episode from the second season. I’m sure it was one of the more difficult ones for you.
Hannah: We were all just bawling.
Olivia: Everyone. Even the crew was crying.
Mikey: It was just a full day of feeling those emotions. It would be so heartbreaking to the characters, to Max, if she felt like she didn’t take advantage of that time with her mother.
Was it easy for you to keep it in because you had your eyes closed, Olivia?
Olivia: As we started to get deeper into the scene, it was pretty hard to keep my composure. But I thought to myself, You know what? I have to cry at the end of the scene anyway, so it’ll be fine.
Hannah: The more we did it, the harder it was to keep it together because it was just so emotional and so heavy. By the end, we were all exhausted. We all had swollen eyes.
But the way that Pamela chose to end that scene allowed you to have catharsis, right? You’re all dancing in the circle and chanting and laughing.
Olivia: That was actually all improv. At one point, I think we were all chanting, “Sacrifice!” and then at one point someone started singing, “Death is in! Death is in!”
Hannah: That was Pamela. [Laughs.]
Olivia: That was a lot of fun, at least for me, ‘cause everyone was jogging around this little tiny table and I was in the middle of it. [Laughs.]
It was one of the best episodes of the series. Could you tell that day that it was special?
Olivia: Oh, 100 percent.
Mikey: I remember going home and feeling like I just wanted to take advantage of the time with my actual parents. I had a fresh perspective after doing that scene.
Hannah: It felt like a cleanse, like something I should apply to my own life.
Mikey: Sometimes I forget that my parents are actually people, which is kind of a weird thing to say. But it gave me a fresh perspective and made me feel a lot of things toward them that maybe I had forgotten, or had selfishly not thought of in a while.
Why don’t we talk about Pamela since she’s not here?
Olivia: Oh, yes! Let’s talk about her.
What’s it like working with someone who is playing your mom, but also writing the episodes and directing them?
Olivia: It’s pretty incredible to watch how she works. She directs behind the scenes, she’s in most of the scenes, and then she’s writing the scenes, so she knows exactly what she wants — and she knows how to get it out of us. That’s why sometimes she won’t tell us what happens in the scene, ‘cause she wants to get a raw reaction. I don’t know how she does it.
Hannah: And she has that vision. She’s involved in literally every stage of the process of the show. It makes me feel a little bit closer to being able to do all of these things myself. Like, maybe that’s a possibility for me.
Olivia: It’s definitely very inspiring that we get to learn from her.
Mikey: I feel so grateful to her for casting me and taking a chance on me. This show has been so special to me. It’s been such a big part of my life and you guys have been such a big part of my life. There’s a very welcoming, warm feeling on set. It’s just very special, and Pamela has created that.
I’ve heard Pamela talk about how important it is for her to create a kind and gentle environment on set. Do you think about that in terms of other jobs, that other places might be tougher to be young ladies?
Hannah: Kind of. I feel like our set is unique because of its homey atmosphere, just how warm and cozy and close everyone is. That makes you think of other sets differently. Not bad differently, but just differently.
Olivia: It might be because we’ve known each other for so long. It is like family, so we see this as the place we’re supposed to be.
Mikey: I did a movie at the same time I was doing the show. Amazing as both of the sets were, it was very different. Whenever I got to this set, it would be like I was coming home to my family. I had such a comfort level with these girls that it felt refreshing for me to be with people that I loved and knew and felt loved by.
Hannah: You show up on set and you’re just like, Ahhhh.