Pamela Adlon knew she wanted to make TV from a very early age, but that didn’t mean she got to do it right away. Yes, she got herself an agent when she was 12 years old by cold-calling one named Beverly Hecht, who she’d found in the phone book. But the creator and star of FX’s Better Things, which began its third season late last month, has dealt with pivots and stalls and overcome them all, as those with as much ambition as she has often done. Adlon spoke with Molly Fisher, the host of The Cut on Tuesdays, about the drive that took her from being a kid hanging around production sets with her TV-writer father, to the one running the show. Here are some highlights.
On starting young:
I was a kid and we moved to L.A. and I met this one girl who was like, “I have an agent.” And I was like, “What’s an agent?” “I want an agent!”
So I opened the phone book and I looked up the name of an agency, And I sat my parents down on the couch in our living room of the house that we later had to move out of because my parents went bankrupt. I sat them down on that couch and I said, “I just want to tell you guys, I want to act and I want to get an agent.” And “Also, I made an appointment and it’s on this day and it’s with this lady.”
And my mother was like, “Well, it’s gonna be a lot of you know, cattle calls,
and a lot of rejection.” I was like, “I don’t care. I want in. I want in.”
On knowing she wanted to make TV:
I would go to the set with my dad. I grew up on sound stages and, and I grew up you know, sitting in the audience of his shows and, and walking around. I got the fever early. I wanted to be on a set all the time. I walked around with like a scarf wrapped around my neck, holding a script, pretending that I was, you know, a writer-producer on that show.
I knew that’s what I wanted to be. I just knew I wanted to be part of the making of all of it. I love the excitement of the work. I like that everybody had a job to do in a place like that. And you know, when I started acting, that was I guess, the kind of next natural progression for me.
On getting into voice-over work:
My first job in VO was a commercial campaign for 7/11. I played young Kevin in these 7/11 spots. I was young Kevin, always on the go. “Hey dad! I’ve got a big thirst for a Big Gulp ‘cause I’m always on the go! Can I borrow the car?”
I did that for years and years. And then I started kind of getting parts, like guest-star parts, on animated shows. It was a thing that you looked around, you’re like, “This is a real job? You can come and do voices for cartoons?” And I desperately desperately wanted to do that.
And then in my late 20s I booked King of the Hill. That’s like the holy grail of voice-over. [It’s a] unique ability to use your voice in that way, and so I never felt that I was missing out on anything, I felt like I was part of an elite, brilliant club. But there was a point where after I had my third daughter, I started thinking about my life. Hm I wonder how much longer King of the Hill is going to be going on.
On always seeking the next opportunity:
[My dad] was the first person who I ever heard the term reinvent yourself from when he was not getting hired for writing jobs anymore. You can’t rest on your laurels, because there are no laurels. So, you can’t just expect to sit around and wait for the phone to ring. You have to anticipate things, and you’ve gotta look at the windows of opportunity you have in your life.
On running Better Things on her own:
It’s an enormous amount of responsibility, because if it works, I get all the glory, and if it doesn’t work, I’m totally to blame. I never imagined that I would be in a position like this because coming from so many moments that you’re almost there, you’re almost there and it’s taken away, it’s taken away, it’s taken away, you know what I mean? I just didn’t think that that was in the cards for me. A women who turns 50 all of a sudden finally, I’ve arrived! You know? I’m like Tootsie! It’s crazy. You know? It’s unbelievable.
Click above to hear from Adlon talk about her first gig doing a Barbie commercial, providing the iconic voice of Bobby Hill on King of the Hill, and the responsibility of writing, directing, and starring in Better Things.