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Sterling K. Brown and Pamela Adlon Talk How They Choose Their Roles

Variety logo Variety 6/7/2017 Variety Staff
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Sterling K. Brown and Pamela Adlon sat down for an interview for Variety’s Actors on Actors” series. For more, click here

Sterling K. Brown: How autobiographical would you say “Better Things” is?

Pamela Adlon: Well, I’m a single mom of three girls. And my mother lives next door to me, not across the street. And she’s English. That’s pretty much it. You draw from those stories. I try not to co-opt my daughters’ lives. Sometimes they pitch to me, and sometimes they’re like, “Mom, you can’t put that in.” But the material is rich. I mean, every time my mom talks in the house, I’m kind of like, “I don’t need any more. Please, don’t do anything else. I’m fine. I’ve got, like, 10 seasons under my belt with you.” … And, your show! I watched the pilot. I felt like somebody kicked me in the throat at the end. I died.

Brown: You hadn’t heard anything?

Adlon: Nothing! The thing with the Big Three … I was floored. I was like, “I’ve got to stay away from this. This is kryptonite for me right now. Because I’ve got to make comedy for the next three months.”

Brown: I hear you. It’s probably not the best thing to watch if you want just pure yuks.

Mark Williams and Sarah Hirakawa for Variety

Adlon: You are just … you are transcendent. I mean, you’re beautiful to look at, and you have all these moods and layers. And you’re so strong. And you just wreck me. I know that you’re playing this character who is perfect, and that’s your vice. But it just feels so good to watch you. I feel comfortable when you’re on-screen because you’re so confident. When people ask me advice about going into the studio and doing a recording or doing a job, I say, “Just get rid of your nerves. Because if you’re confident, everything’s going to relax and it’s all going to go well.” And that’s what you are. You’re massively confident. And you’re like a brand-new actor to me. But you’ve been doing it forever.

Brown: For a little while. It’s been about 15, 16 years of hustling and toiling away or whatnot. But these last two years or so have been sort of, like [makes explosion sound]. And people are like, “Where have you been?” And I’m like, “I’ve been living on Pico.”

Adlon: Isn’t that amazing?

Brown: It is kind of crazy too — and delightful to be discovered. Everybody discovers you at their own time, whether it’s friends from theater, the show I did on Lifetime, “Army Wives,” etc. They come to you in their own time. I’ve always been of the mind that what’s mine is mine and nobody can take it away from me. So when it comes, great. When it goes, great. When it goes to somebody else who’s a friend, it’s all good. Now that the success has come my way, it feels good to have other people say, “Congratulations.” I feel like you get back what you put out into the world.

Adlon: It comes in waves. I’ve been doing it my whole life. My thing is a little bit culty. I’m a kind of under-the-radar person, unless you know me.

Brown: You’re not under my radar.

Adlon: But it’s good for me. The ad campaign [for “Better Things”] was me face down on a bed. You know, ass up, face down. I prefer that [anonymity]. Because I really live in L.A. and in New York. I have my daughters. And I’m just always in the world. And so [working is] just enough.

Brown: And you’re able to maintain your anonymity enough to just do your day-to-day stuff.

Adlon: If I don’t talk, nobody knows who I am. But once I talk, people will be like, “What?”

Brown: The voice! I’ve heard that voice somewhere. So you never get mobbed?

Adlon: No. No!

Brown: There must be “Californication” people that go crazy when they see you.

Adlon: Yes, I had some things happen. Inappropriate things. When my girls were younger, people would start to use language in front of me with my kids. And I’d be like, “Yo. Yo. It’s not ‘Coke Smurf’ right now, it’s ‘Mommy.’” … So, what do you look for in a part? Are you choosier now, or did you always take a role?

Brown: That’s a great question. Because I think, for the first 13 or so years, you take what’s offered. I’m auditioning for things, and if people think I’m right for something, I’m like, “OK, cool.” There are very few things that I would not go in for, unless it just really disagreed with whatever sensibility I had. I think any and every story is worth telling if it’s told well. But characters that are making big decisions; I think that’s [what] most of us [want]. To go from “People vs. O.J.” to “This Is Us,” and somebody trying to find their biological father for the first time, and the ramifications that his presence will have in their lives, was massive. So anytime I can play somebody who’s a fish out of water or [facing] a huge life decision, that’s particularly appealing to me.

Adlon: Yeah, and now you have the luxury of maybe choosing. You must be inundated right now. Everybody wants a piece of Sterling.

Brown: It’s one of those things that’s still brand-new. Like, the fact that someone will call and want to check your availability or if you’re interested in this project. I’m giddy on the inside. Because I spent so long just waiting. Like, “Can I get this? Can I get that?” And now people are like, “You want to come play with us?”

Adlon: “Let me just get in the door!”

Brown: Yeah, it’s such a 180 in a really lovely way. I’ll let you know five years from now if it continues. But right now, I’m enjoying the options.

The interview will air in its entirety on Variety’s “Actors on Actors” Season 6, presented by Shutterstock, which premieres June 13 on PBS SoCal. You can also watch the full interview below.

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