My character should be in a cape. She’s the worst of me. She’s the best of me. And I’m able to put all of that into so many aspects of the show.
Photo: Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox in ‘Better Things.’ SUZANNE TENNER/FX
03 March 2022 | Mikey O’Connell | Hollywood Reporter
In the six years since its premiere, the 55-year-old writer, director and actress has seen her own perception in town shift dramatically — from character actor to auteur — in relatively short order.
But, as Adlon insisted during a mid-February call from the home editing suite where she’s tying up her series’ final episodes, she does not have the bandwidth for other people’s expectations.
Your character has such good advice for her children. Do you ever think you’d be a different parent if you’d had a writers room telling you what to say?
Everybody needs a writers room, for a relationship, for being a parent, for every single thing. The greatest part about having this show is that I’m able to put stuff in there that, that stuff where you sit there and go “God, I wish I did it that way.” I always say that my character should be in a cape, and it’s true. She’s the worst of me. She’s the best of me. And I’m able to put all of that into so many aspects of the show.
Any people judge your fictional parenting?
I used to get a lot of saying that Sam is a passive parent. Really? That’s what you’re getting from this? I feel like she’s so engaged. She makes lots of sacrifices for her daughters. But other people say, “She’s so permissive. She lets her daughters speak to her in a terrible way.” Well, you try raising three girls by yourself. Just fucking try.
I haven’t watched the new season yet. What would you like to tell me about it?
Don’t watch it on FX with commercials. I’ll throw up. There’s nothing more dehumanizing than watching an episode of my show with commercial breaks. And when they squeeze the title at the end? It’s like taking my balls and ripping them off and throwing them in the garbage can.
So, you’re saying that your next project is not going to be a broadcast network sitcom.
Here’s my secret fantasy. Besides just continuing to make television and movies, I’ve always wanted to do a multicam as a showrunner. I just think there’s so many missed opportunities in multicam, and, that world excites me. I love it.
This is the beginning of a farewell tour of sorts. How are you feeling, celebratory or somber?
I feel exhilarated. I always live my life in a very reflective way. When I started this show, it was over seven years ago. All three of my girls were still in school and under one roof. I had the time to reflect and dream about when my kids were younger. When you’re a parent, it’s a way that you have of connecting to the world. And that’s what my experience is with my show: considering where my kids are first, and then diving into it. I’m really the mommy of the whole show. I’m just filled with gratitude right now.
Considering what the job entails, maybe we should abolish the term showrunner and call it what it is — “mommy.”
Yes! Thank you. When I had my first apartment, living on my own when I was a teenager, everybody came through my apartment, lived on my fucking couch and called me mommy or mother, so that’s something that’s always been a part of my DNA.
In terms of being a reflective person, how does that translate to your artistic process? Are you the type of person who wishes you could go back and make tweaks to a final edit, or do you sleep well knowing that it’s done?
Oh, I’ll definitely say, “Can I go back in and unlock that cut to fix that one thing?” Or, “Ok, that’ll go in the next show or in a movie or another project or something.” This season, I just want to make sure that I put everything in there. I took a cat nap before I spoke to you, and they woke me up to approve a new cue for 506. I had watched it yesterday, and went “What the fuck is that song?” That’s a throwaway cue and we don’t have those in the show. So, I just went in and I approved this beautiful cue. If I had slept on it, it wouldn’t have happened.
After collaborating with Louis C.K. on the first two seasons, you’ve run Better Things solo for the past three. What did you learn about yourself in taking it all on?
I think that it just kind of proved a point about myself, which is that I’m a lone wolf. I look back at my life, and I was in and out of relationships since I was 18. You get very codependent in the world. You think you need to have some backup. You don’t think you can really stand on your own two feet. That’s a very significant thing — and, particularly for women, it’s a disease that doesn’t go away. It’s quite significant that the show is ending like this, with me still standing and representing the show with just this one face on my head. I’m extremely grateful to the support that I had getting here and staying here and the fact that I didn’t give up. I just kept going. I feel extremely grateful and blown away.
You’ve mentioned gratitude twice now. Why you aren’t saying that you’re proud?
Yeah, that’s funny. A month or two ago, my friends and I had this weekend at one of their houses. There was a Yogi and a wise Indian sage astrologer man. He was talking about karma and everything. He said, “It’s gratitude you should feel and not pride.” I kind of scare myself away from that word just because I just did this intensive weekend.
A little of both seems appropriate here. And I’m not psychoanalyzing you, but, anecdotally, it seems like women often say gratitude while men drift to pride.
Oh, I hear you. Listen, it’s been proven to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that — if I was a man and if Better Things was still my show — the world would look very different.
How do you think you’re seen in Hollywood now versus seven years ago, before Better Things premiered?
More people know about me, but there’s still a significant number of people who go, “Who? What show?” (Laughs.) I’ll never be in a place where I’m like, “They’re going to know me!” I’m always insecure thinking that people think that I’m somebody else — that they’re not getting my name right or that they don’t know my show. That might even be a better place for me to be, because the work is going to speak for itself.
But for the people who do know you, you now have been sort of labeled with the “auteur” stamp. Do you find that carries expectations?
Well, I guess it means that I’m French? (Laughs.) It’s a compliment because they’re saying that I have a particular way of telling a story. That’s something that I don’t take lightly. It’s why I exhaustively sift through every moment of every episode. It’s the Eleanor Roosevelt thing. Do one thing every day that scares you.
And it’s not nothing. Those are significant words to live by. Don’t worry if people don’t get it or they won’t understand a certain nuance or gesture or a scene or a character or a word. Trust that you know what you’re making. I have this show about a single mom raising her three daughters and she’s got her own older mother who’s living just across the street. These are things that I would have liked to see when I was a young mom. When I was a young mom, I was very intimidated by other moms. And I just wanted to go and look in their kids’ lunch boxes. I wanted to go into their kitchens in the morning and see what they were making their families for breakfast, because I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough — that I was coming up short.
Did you pack your kids Lunchables or something?
Fuck no, Mikey!
Then I think you did enough.
When I found out that they were serving these irradiated hot lunch meals in plastic to the kids at the schools… Oh, my God. I went nuts. Come on, man. We can do better.
After you get through editing this last season, what’s next for you?
I started a development company about two years ago. That’s been going for this whole time. I adapted a book into a screenplay with my high friend based on her memoir. I’m going to be directing a film in September. I can’t really talk about that one, but I’m excited about it. There’s a bunch of little projects, people that I’m shepherding and mentoring. We’ll see if anything sticks. I’ve got a limited series in development at FX. This is all my dad here, this is the “irons in the fire” thing. I can’t believe what I can see in front of me.
Weird place to end this… but you grew up with Lenny Kravitz, who recently told The Washington Post that he had a crush on you in high school. Care to react?
What can I say? This is fucking legendary shit, baby.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine