Co-creating Better Things with Louis C.K, Adlon was the key creative voice on her series from the get-go. It was in Season 2, though, that the creative took her involvement to new heights, as the series’ showrunner and sole director. “It’s something that was never on my radar,” Adlon says of directing. “If the thought ever crossed my mind, I would be like, ‘I could never do that.'”
But who better than Adlon to steer the ship, portraying the highs and lows of parenting that she knows well?
Registering Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for Better Things, Adlon stars as Sam Fox, an actress struggling with life as a single parent to three daughters, in what amounts to a loose adaptation of her own life story, and a loving tribute to her three children. By honing in on her life as a single parent, Adlon has given new life to the old adage that the specific is universal.
“I’m so incredibly proud of the stories and the way we’re telling them. I think it’s a beautiful legacy for me, for my work, and anything positive that my real-life children can take from it, I think is massively huge,” Adlon says. “It’s a tribute to how we get through every day.”
With Season 2 of Better Things, Adlon was able to expand her exploration of her family unit and those friends acting as its support system, following her instinct and her bliss to develop an elaborate dance sequence for the season’s memorable closer, “Graduation.”
Down a co-creator in C.K. going into Season 3, Adlon is optimistic for the future, seeing the way in which the situation at hand has forced her to grow and work in new ways. “For the first time, I made a writers’ room,” she said, discussing her work in the early stages of the season to come. “Sometimes it feels a bit clinical, but it’s absolutely the most unbelievable experience.”
What were your thoughts as you set out to create Season 2 of Better Things?
Season 1 was more like a mish mosh, putting a puzzle together, and Season 2 had its own stride and momentum. The log line for Season 2 for me is, “It takes a village,” which really culminates in that last episode, when Max’s dad doesn’t come for graduation, and all her circle is there saying, “I’ll take you. I’ll take you.” That, to me, is the defining moment of the season.
Certainly for me, in my life, there was a time where it was just me and my daughters. There weren’t a lot of people, and then after my divorce, I really started embracing my friendships that were there. When you share your kids with your friends, and your friends with your kids, it’s the most miraculous thing in the world. In the “Eulogy” episode, when Diedrich [Bader] and Rebecca [Metz] and the kids are there, and they’re interacting like peers, it’s kind of an incredible thing to see an adult and a kid, who aren’t related, talk on the same level.
Making a series loosely based on your own life, are you cultivating stories from memory, cherry-picking from a series of events that have happened to you and your family?
Absolutely. This is a unique situation because the bones of the show are my life. The thing is, I’m able to go back and excavate stories from my childhood. There’s stuff that happened to me, and there’s stuff that happened to my friends. There’s stuff that happened to my daughters. It all lives within the value of my show.
I’m able to tell stories that I wanted to tell. Some stories have a shelf life, because kids get older, and the kids in my show are getting older. But that gives me opportunities to tell new stories.
What was it like stepping up to direct all of the episodes in Season 2? Is that process something you enjoy, in relation to your other artistic pursuits?
I never thought I would get the opportunity; I never thought anybody would let me do it. I never had ambition to do it. Then all of a sudden, it just happened.
For Season 1, I started looking for a director and a showrunner, and by the end of the season I became my own director and showrunner. I’m there every day, anyway. I’m in all the scenes—I might as well. It’s a very handmade show, so it kind of lends itself to that. I love doing it. I’m a natural mom. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been like a mother, and being a director is being a mother.
It seems that one of Sam’s primary challenges this season is trying to bring her walls down and let herself be vulnerable. Is that what you see going on with your character?
Some people are like, “She’s so hard. She’s a passive parent,” or whatever—and I’m like, “No, she’s not.” You know what I mean? I want to show how lonely it can be—if you have a house full of people, even—when you’re a parent. I have this theory that every mom is a single mom, whether she’s married or not, because moms really do everything. There’s a few exceptions with dads who are there and show up in a momming kind of way.
But showing the loneliness within the chaos, and showing that she kind of blows a gasket every once in a while…She’s like, “Why doesn’t anybody appreciate me? Does anybody work in this store?” She kind of just goes balls to the wall with certain things, and her kids roll their eyes at her. When you’re a parent, you could never imagine that you could get as angry as you could get at your own kids. You could never imagine how hurt you could be—and it’s by these people, your children.
In your work, you seem to gravitate toward life’s rough edges—the ugly, difficult parts of the human experience that we try to push out of focus.
Yeah, I love that. That’s just life. I said to somebody recently that I hate this idea of an anti-hero, because there’s no such thing as an anti-hero. Everybody’s human, and we all have flaws.
When I was a mom for the first time, I would just feel inferior to these other moms, and I would call them “robot moms.” I would be like, “How the fuck do they do everything?” I wanted to look inside every kids’ lunchbox and see what their moms made for them. I finally stopped trying to compare myself, and I just relaxed. When you can relax, you get into your life more. That’s what’s been working for me.
Can we talk about the gender dynamics we’ve seen with your characters on Louie and Better Things? There seems to be some kind of gender swapping going on—while the characters you play are strong and self-aware, their male counterparts often tend to appear pathetic.
I don’t mean to do that. You said, “gender swap,” and that was my thing since I began acting. I was always kind of, ‘One foot here and one foot there.’ Throughout my teens and 20s, I was always kind of gender-bendy. I did that movie where I turn into a boy; I grow a penis because I really want to be a guy. Then, I started doing the animation and doing the gender-bendy stuff.
I feel like I have a masculine side, and I’ve embraced it. I never really felt comfortable being the female. I guess that’s kind of reflecting in my show a little bit with the guys, but I don’t mean to shit on guys all the time. Just most of the time.
How have you managed to write dialogue not only for yourself, but for all the characters that occupy Sam’s universe—including her kids?
I have the advantage of having three daughters, who are three very different people. Yet, they’re completely allegiant to each other. For me, instinctively, I’m an observer, so I remember details about certain things. I do a lot of voices in animation, and I’ve always said that my ability to have such longevity in that field is not really about my voice, which is what gets you in the door. But it’s about my ear. It’s about hearing people and listening, and then being able to cultivate different voices in that way.
How did you put together that elaborate dance sequence for your season finale?
I was obsessed with this video, Christine and the Queens’ “Tilted.” It just kept running through my head, and I knew that I wanted to do the dance with the girls. It so happened that the graduation episode was the perfect place. From the first production meeting until the day we did it, Mikey Madison never knew about it. I couldn’t even talk about it to my DP or anybody, without getting teary and getting chills, because I always knew it was going to work.
Because I was shooting every day, I did secret choreography on the weekends. I would go pick up Celia [Imre] at her hotel in West Hollywood, and we drove to Debbie Reynolds’ dance studio in Van Nuys, and we would dance on the weekends with Kat Burns, my choreographer.
It was just a dream on that day, to be able to do that and have everybody be in on this big gag. It was extraordinary. I don’t think any of us will ever forget it. I said to Olivia [Edward] and Hannah [Alligood], “We can’t say the word ‘tilted.’ Nobody can ever hum the song. We’ve got to think of a code word for it.” She goes, “How about ‘straight’?” I’m like, “That’s perfect.”
Building the stage outside, I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out, and then of course, we finally found the perfect placement for it—the gorgeous trees, and the stage. Then we had to build another smaller stage for when we’re reaching down and the camera’s shooting up. Having Jim Vickers, who I’ve been working with for, I don’t know, 15 years—since Californication—my stunt coordinator and his son did the fall-offs, where the kids jump off the stage. It was just the greatest thing ever, having all these guys coming in and swinging their technocranes all over the place. Being able to run that show was a pretty swaggy day.
You’re currently in the writers’ room for Season 3. What can you share about the future of Better Things?
I can tell you that it’s far more linear of a season than I’ve ever done. There’s just this sinew that goes through all the episodes, as opposed to standalones, which a lot of my episodes are. It’s a journey for Sam and for a few other people this season. It’s about growing up and getting older.
With Louis C.K.’s absence going into Season 3, you’ve created your own writers’ room for the first time. How has the experience been so far?
I’ve always written alone or with one other person. I didn’t think I could do it. I really didn’t know about it, and I grew up with a writer as a father. I would see him writing by himself, until towards the end of his life, when he started writing with a partner. I never saw him in a room. I never saw myself in a room. For me, it’s been an amazing experience. My friend Phil Rosenthal, who’s kind of been my coach through this, he said to me, “It’s the most un-lonely feeling you’re ever going to have, being in a writers’ room.”
It’s just been extraordinary, being able to map things out. I don’t think I ever want to go back to the way it was before. At the end of the day, you’re always writing by yourself. We’re doing drafts now, and I go to my office, I close the door, I take off my jeans, I put on my soft pants, I put on my ambient music—Brian Eno or my chants—and then I just try to zone out. At the end of the day, you can be in a writers’ room of 20 people, but it’s you. You’ve got to keep going by yourself.