Since her debut as a teen in 1982’s “Grease 2” and “Little Darlings,” Pamela Adlon has been acting steadily in films and television, racking up more than 200 credits onscreen in series including “The Big Bang Theory” and “Californication,” and behind the mic in animated projects.
Often vocally portraying little boys, she has lent her distinctive voice to characters in “Rugrats,” “Bob’s Burgers” and “King of the Hill,” for which she earned an Emmy in 2002. She received four Emmy nominations for “Louie” and two for “Better Things,” which returns to FX for its fourth season on March 5. Adlon writes, directs, produces and stars in the comedy as Sam Fox, a working actor and single mother to three daughters, which also describes her life off camera.
“It’s a scripted show, not a reality show,” Adlon was quick to emphasize in an interview with the Journal. But she does incorporate things that have happened to her and others, and draws on her own experience as a mother, daughter, actor and woman. These include some epic fights that nearly always end in an embrace, and little indignities of daily life that are at once tragic, funny and relatable. Aging is a recurring theme. “It’s fun because it’s three generations who are aging; chapters that we’re all moving through,” she said.
More abstractly, rain and its power to cleanse and renew is an overall theme this season. After wildfires threatened her home and required her to evacuate twice last year, Adlon was so relieved when the rain finally came that she wanted to put it in every episode.
Her television family, like her own, is Jewish, and the show is peppered with references to it. “The show feels so Jewish to me,” she said. “Something super-Jew-y happens in episode nine, but I don’t want to spoil it.” Jewish actors Judy Gold and Kevin Pollak are among the season’s guest stars.
To Adlon, spirituality and the teachings of Judaism are the most important aspects of being Jewish. “I love the tenets of Judaism,” she said. “We don’t go to temple, but we observe Yom Kippur, Passover and Hanukkah.” Adlon’s mother converted to Judaism before marrying Adlon’s father. “I think converts become more Jewish than Jews,” Adlon opined. “My mother got really mad when I told people she converted, because she considers herself Jewish.”
“The hardest part about making this show is not all the jobs that I do. The hardest part is maintaining the integrity of the stories and the characters, and not being pressured into changing it or making it more palatable or timely.” — Pamela Adlon
Her father, writer-producer Don Segall, was a big influence on her decision to go into show business, comedy in particular. “He was a very funny guy,” she said. When her family moved to Los Angeles from New York when she was about 10, Adlon told her parents she wanted an agent, and didn’t give up until her mother agreed to take her to meet with one. “I read copy for a Tide commercial and she signed me.” Among her first roles were episodes of “Night Court,” “The Jeffersons” and a recurring character on “The Facts of Life.”
Although she’s glad she started working so young, Adlon does wish she had finished college. “But I don’t have any regrets,” she said. She joked that her marriage may be an exception to that, but it did produce daughters Gideon, Odessa and Rocky. Adlon is delighted the two oldest are following in her footsteps. Gideon’s credits include “Blockers,” “The Mustang,” “The Society” and Netflix’s upcoming remake of “The Craft”; Odessa (“Nashville,” “Fam”) will be in “Grand Army,” also for Netflix.
For Adlon, being a single parent — on and off screen — has its advantages. “People think it’s very hard; they’re scared to do it and wouldn’t want to do it. But the reality is the buck stops with you,” she said, also acknowledging a downside: “You don’t have any backup.”
Similarly, she acknowledged the difficulty of wearing so many hats on “Better Things,” but prefers it that way. “I don’t think that I’m a control freak. The show works more smoothly with me being able to do all these jobs,” she said. “I don’t think it’s for everybody, but it’s working out. The hardest part about making this show is not all the jobs that I do. The hardest part is maintaining the integrity of the stories and the characters, and not being pressured into changing it or making it more palatable or timely.”
Asked about her future plans for the show, Adlon said she believes she will have FX’s support for a fifth season, “but I have to decide whether I want to keep going.” Not surprisingly, she has several other projects in the works and wants to concentrate on directing. “I don’t have the technical prowess of people who have been through film school and always knew they wanted to be a director,” she said. “But what I do have is something that is as powerful if not more so, which is the power of being an actor’s director.”
She hopes to add to her directing credits with a pilot for FX and a couple of book-to-screen adaptations, but also will continue to act. She plays the incarcerated, crackhead mother to Jessica Barden’s protagonist in the upcoming “Holler,” and appears in “The King of Staten Island,” a semi-autobiographical dramedy about comedian Pete Davidson’s life and early career, directed by Judd Apatow. It is scheduled to be released in theaters in June.
“Better Things” premieres March 5 on FX and March 6 on Hulu.