Blockers hasn’t even opened yet, and Gideon Adlon has already endured a Hollywood rite of passage: her first press-tour mishap. “I just really embarrassed myself,” the 21-year-old actress exclaims as she plops down opposite me in the lobby of the Ludlow Hotel.
She and her castmates were playing a game on the Today show where they had to guess emoji sentences, and she accidentally let an S-bomb slip. “It was a dog with the circle with the slash through it and a tree, and I was like ‘A dog shitting on a tree!’ and then everybody was like, ‘Huh’ and they all started laughing,” she says with a grimace.
In a movie whose set pieces include a ‘butt-chugging’ contest and Exorcist-style projectile vomiting, this might sound relatively tame. But Blockers is Adlon’s big-screen debut, and she wants to make a good impression. For our interview, she is wearing a low-cut white wrap dress, maroon velvet platform heels, and a sleek curtain of dark brown hair — a sophisticated power-outfit that seems designed to telegraph adulthood. A long, fur-lined beige coat (provided by her stylist) is strewn across her lap. “I was so embarrassed, but it was a genuine mistake,” she says, fiddling with the diamante clasp of her shoes. “I haven’t messed up yet, and it was like Really!? did you really just do that on the Today show?!”
Blockers is Adlon’s first taste of stardom. And yet sitting down opposite her, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve seen her someplace before. Her mother is actress, writer, and showrunner Pamela Adlon, creator of FX’s Better Things, and Gideon shares her quick dark-brown eyes and mischievous smirk. They also sound alike, and she recounts the details of her Today trauma in the same distinctive Adlon rasp that made her mother such a successful voice artist — an appealing, sand-papery throatiness that gives everything Gideon says a slightly jaded quality, even when she’s bursting with enthusiasm. Free from the strictures of daytime TV, an amiable torrent of curse words flows forth: director Kay Cannon is “funny as fuck,” the graphic novel she’s reading is “fucking cool,” and she “fucking loves” Kristen Wiig.
In addition to the mother-daughter resemblance, Adlon may also be familiar to Better Things fans as the real-life inspiration for the show’s neurotic, rebellious eldest daughter Max, played onscreen by Mikey Madison. “Sometimes it makes me annoyed that people are like, Oh my God, I can’t believe you did that. And I’m like, Oh my God, I didn’t actually do that,” she says. “Like, I’m not as whiny as Max.”
Nor are Max’s exploits strictly autobiographical. For instance, in the first episode of season two, where Max is dating an middle-aged Spanish man, Adlon demurs: “I dated an Italian guy that was kind of like him, but he wasn’t 45. He was like, 23,” she says. “It’s kind of stressful sometimes because I don’t always know what my mom’s going to use, but I really do trust her. And honestly my stories are her stories, and this is her art, and I think it’s kind of cool honestly.”
Adlon was always involved in theater; a year into her photography degree at Chicago’s Columbia College, she dropped out to pursue acting more seriously. Now she’s emerging from the shadow of her famous mother — and famous fictional family — with Blockers, a very funny new comedy directed by Pitch Perfect writer Kay Cannon and produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Blockers belongs to a new vanguard of teen comedies, like Neighbors 2 and Love, Simon, that wear progressive credentials on their sleeves. As Allison P. Davis notes in her recent profile of Cannon, it also owes a great debt to Bridesmaids, and the pivotal Maya Rudolph–shitting-in-the-street scene that demonstrated women could “be just as disgusting as men and still get laughs and sell tickets.” Yet Blockers maintains a light touch, managing to have plenty of gross bodily fluids as well as an inherently feminist worldview, without ever bashing you over the head with its wokeness.
The movie follows three best friends, Julie (Kathryn Newton), Sam (Gideon Adlon) and Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan, another excellent newcomer), who make a pact to lose their virginities on prom night. Their parents — played respectively by Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, and John Cena — embark on a mad dash to try and stop them. Despite the familiar olds-vs.-youngs premise, Blockers is a refreshing depiction of young women’s sexuality; the parents’ views wind up seeming dated and unfair, and the three girls are shown to be more than capable of making smart decisions. “It’s extremely empowering for young women, to see other young women in a position of power over their own bodies, over their own choices, and seeing young boys being respectful of those decisions,” she tells me, with Gen-Z fluency.
Adlon comes by her progressive worldview honestly. On Better Things, Pamela Adlon’s alter ego (also, coincidentally, named Sam) is a strong and loving matriarch; in real life, Adlon and her daughters form a similarly close-knit female tribe. “It was always about girl power in our house and always about learning how to say no, and finding who you are and being secure with yourself,” she says. “And knowing that it’s okay to fart and be weird.” Her mom set the tone: “She was always the breadwinner, and I just grew up knowing like, I’m going to be making the money. I’m going to be independent and strong like my mom.”
While the parents in the film freak out when they discover their daughters’ plans to lose their virginities, Adlon’s recalls her own “birds and bees” talk being much more laid-back. “I remember my mom telling me, when all the puberty stuff started to hit its peak, If you ever feel funny, you can just go into your room and touch yourself. And I was like, Mom! That was fucking embarrassing,” she recalls. When she was a teenager, her mom sent her to classes on the weekend with a bunch of other girls her age to learn about their emerging sexuality. “We’d learn about our vaginas and, like, our bodies and how your body is your temple. And they’d give us these necklaces that had these shells called yonis, which means vagina, though I don’t know what language it means vagina in,” she recalls. “In the moment, I was like, This is terrible. But now I’m like, YES, my body is my temple.”
Despite the heartfelt relationships at its center, Blockers is not a serious movie, and Adlon grows animated as she rehashes its wilder moments — many of which remind her of stories from her not-so-distant past. “My prom night was crazy. The parties were crazy. A lot of people vomited. I didn’t vomit,” says Adlon, alluding to a particularly barf-heavy scene in the movie, which required her to be hooked up to a vomit rig and spit out a foul concoction made of Hawaiian bread, lettuce, strawberry, and banana. “I lost my voice for like three days. We’d be on stage from like 3 p.m. to like 9 a.m., just like vomiting all fucking night.”
Talking about what she’ll do next, Adlon’s eyes widen with excitement. Recently she starred as Matthias Schoenaerts’s daughter in the Focus Features film Mustang. Right now, she’s mostly trying to soak it all in. “I’m right at the beginning. All of this is so new to me. My mom really kept us out of the spotlight our whole lives and we had a very normal childhood. Before her show, she was very closeted away from like all that glitz and glam, and it always made her feel weird doing that stuff. But I like the publicity,” she says. “I like the carpets and everything, because I’m very proud of what I’ve done and I want to show that off.”
As our interview starts to wind down, Adlon glances over at her iPhone, which she has placed a strategic arm’s length away from her on the leather couch. She picks it up and immediately gets sucked into some drama. “God, it’s so hard having little sisters,” she moans, rolling her eyes. “My little sister went on a sleepover with my two best friends last night but, like, brought this random guy to my friend’s house,” she says, scrolling a baby-pink fingernail through the countless text messages and Instagram notifications blowing up her phone. “It’s like, why?”
Adlon’s younger sister Odessa recently started dating Jaden Smith, which has made her instant paparazzi fodder — something Adlon says has been weird for the family. “It’s definitely not normal. Like, that’s her first boyfriend, so it’s weird for her. I mean, she hates it but, you know, some things you can’t control. I’m just like: Leave the fucking kids alone. Let them be boyfriend and girlfriend and be in a relationship and be happy together without your cameras in their faces, like, talking about what they are wearing,” she says. Still, she acknowledges: “Jaden is an icon and Odessa understands. He’s a really close friend of mine.”
Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room: the family’s relationship with Louis C.K., who is her mother’s longtime collaborator and Better Things co-writer, as well as a close family friend. (Gideon has herself cameoed on Louie, on which her mother played Louie’s on-again-off-again girlfriend). Any woman working in Hollywood in 2018 is likely to find themselves sucked into the #MeToo conversation, but few young actresses have had a front-row seat to just how messy this reckoning can be — especially when the “bad guys” are people you know and love. After the New York Times revealed C.K.’s habit of masturbating in front of women without consent, his career was disgraced; FX announced that Better Things would continue under Adlon alone.
“My family’s been through a lot recently, in light of the whole #MeToo movement,” Adlon tells me, bringing it up of her own accord. It’s clear that she’s simultaneously eager to talk about this difficult experience, and well aware that anything she says could be blown out of proportion or taken out of context. “It’s been really difficult and a lot of people have asked me questions,” she says. “But I really think that, you know, every single story, doesn’t matter if it’s personal to me or whatever, every single story that has come out has created a safer workspace for me, what with me just starting in the industry.”
How’s your mom doing? I ask. “My mom’s great, you know,” she says. “At the end of the day, she wrote a show with him; she made art with him. It’s always difficult, you have to keep moving forward, and like I was saying, all these stories just keep empowering a movement and make women stronger and provide a safer workspace for us. And I feel like there’s more respect because men are more careful now.” She ponders her words carefully. “My mom’s not responsible for what someone else has done. I don’t know how much I should say about it, because I don’t want to make my mom upset. It’s a hard subject, and they’re very close friends, and I loved him dearly, and he’s not a terrible person, and I’m scared to say this stuff,” she says. “Regardless of what he meant to whoever, it’s good that these things came out. But it does suck.”
Still, Adlon isn’t afraid of the tough questions, and she’s proud that her first movie — a movie she landed on her own, which has nothing to do with her mom’s career, or that of her mom’s former co-writer — is something she can endorse wholeheartedly. “I think I’ve been very eloquent speaking about the #MeToo movement,” she says, with obvious pride. “Every single interview that I’ve done so far I’ve really made a note to be like, This movie is about empowering young women and three young women, empowering themselves, and making the choices for their own bodies, and their own minds, being comfortable with it, and knowing what they want to do.” Four-letter words aside, it’s going pretty well. “I feel like I’m getting a good feeling of who I am.”