Pamela Adlon and Anthony Anderson Talk Tapping Into Personal Stories on the Road to Emmy

Pamela Adlon Anthony Anderson Actors on
Mark Williams and Sarah Hirakawa for Variety

Pamela Adlon and Anthony Anderson both logged many years as supporting players before getting the chance to star in comedy series that are deeply rooted in their own lives. Anderson has earned three consecutive Emmy nominations for lead comedy actor for his work on ABC’s “Black-ish.” Adlon elbowed past competitors on higher-profile shows to land a nom for her auteur vehicle, FX’s “Better Things.” Anderson took a break from filming season four and Adlon ducked out of post-production on season two to speak with Variety about their work, their career trajectories and why it truly is a win simply to be nominated for an Emmy.

What is the value of an Emmy nomination to an actor who is already well-established?

Pamela Adlon: It feels surreal. It wasn’t even on my radar on the day that they announced it because I’m pretty happy just being able to make my own show. I’m in post right now (on season two). The fact that I was nominated for an acting award after being an actor for almost 40 years is an unbelievable accomplishment for me. For someone who has always been a supporting person, to be up for a leading actor award — I was floored. I’m still flying on a cloud. It was just an amazing thing.

Anthony Anderson: For me personally, growing up as a kid with this dream of being an entertainer since I was 9 years old, having my name called from podium on the stage for one of these awards has always been a dream of mine. It’s very humbling to be nominated. Not to toot your own horn. but to be recognized by your peers in the academy you’re a member of and worked so hard to become a part of — it’s truly a special moment. Growing up as a kid in Compton, California, as a boy, having that dream be realized and coming from a mother who wanted to be an artist but she was a single parent. She gave up her dream of being an actor to raise an actor.

Adlon: I’m really excited that the nomination will make more people discover my show, because I love my show. It’s something that I want to share with everybody. A great side effect of this is more people will watch my show.

Anthony Anderson and Pamela Adlon both star as modern parents juggling work and family.

“Black-ish” and “Better Things” are rooted in deeply personal stories. Does that make the job harder or easier for you?

Anderson: “Black-ish” is autobiographical between Kenya Barris and myself. Kenya jokes that in our first meeting he asked why have we never met before and I told him you weren’t ready until now. We sat down and looked at the landscape of television and what was missing for us as a viewer and how we grew up watching TV. We were talking about ourselves. Kenya’s from Inglewood, I’m from Compton. Both of us are first-generation successful and the only African-Americans living in our respective neighborhoods. All of our children are in private school. We just started sharing stories about the trappings of our success and what that meant for our children in terms of having a better childhood than ours. We are providing for them in a way that our parents couldn’t. A week or so later Kenya said, “I have our show.” The title came from Kenya saying “I went from raising a black family to a ‘black-ish’ family.”

Adlon: When it came to creating my show, the show wasn’t clear to me at all. I was like, “Oh who am I, am I a manicurist? What job do I have?” It can’t be me, it has to be completely different. What happened to my husband, did he disappear on a desert island like Olivia Newton-John’s husband? I went through all these crackhead scenarios and then I thought “Oh God just write what you know. Write the story you know.” So I used the structure of my life for my show. Then I was able to just build from there. I’m an actor. I do voice-over. I have three daughters. I have an English mom. And that’s the reality, and from there it just took off. How much of the shows are drawn from your real-life experiences? Is that ever touchy for you with friends and family?

Adlon: I was able to draw a lot from my own childhood, my friends’ childhoods as well and my daughters’ friends who are like my children as well. They multiply all the time. So you can have everything and say I can get all this done and then late at night one of your kids have a freak out about school or an assignment you end up staying up til 3 in morning helping them through it. Or somebody gets sick or has a crisis.

Anderson: My son came home at 12 years old and told me he didn’t feel black. I had to have a heart-to- heart conversation with him. This is his black experience. It’s different from other experiences but it doesn’t diminish his blackness. He finally said to me, “Dad, I want to have a bar mitzvah.” That was our show.

Anthony, did your mother’s ambition to be an actress influence your
decision to enter the business?

Anderson: I would say she had a big part in it. When I realized that dream I wanted to do three things in life. Even though I’m from Compton I grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan. I grew up wanting to play football for the Dallas Cowboys. I always wanted to become a lawyer and then a judge. And I also wanted to be an actor. At the age of 9 I realized I could become all of those things and anything else I wanted to become in life if I became an actor. I had my epiphany moment when my mother (Doris Bowman) was doing a production of “Raisin in the Sun” at Compton Community College. I was in the back of the auditorium and I looked up on stage see my mother rehearsing. At that moment I realized this is what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was going to be a performer. She was the inspiration for it. And now for the success that I’ve had the last three years, the success I’ve had throughout my career is not only for me, I do it for her. I see the enjoyment that she gets out of it, knowing that this was once her dream. I’m fortunate enough to be at a place in my career I can employ my mother. She’s worked with me on “Black-ish” and I hired her as my co-host for “To Tell the Truth.” To be able to do that and see the joy and elation that it brings her — that has elevated my career.

“I’m really excited that the nomination will make more people discover my show.”
Pamela Adlon

Pamela, how did the work of your father, TV writer-producer Don Segall, influence your path?

Adlon: I grew up on soundstages. I would walk around my dad’s sets with a script under my arm. I wanted them to think I’m the producer. I was like 12 and also five feet tall. When we first moved to California we lived with Leonard Nimoy and his family because my dad and he were bros. They were so generous and kind to us. I ended up meeting different people and one day there were kids and one was an actor who was talking about his agent. I was like, “What’s an agent?” She showed me her (head shot) and it had the name of her agent on it. Her name was Beverly Hecht. I opened up the phone book looked up her number. I called and made an appointment for myself. I sat my parents down and said, “I want an agent. Please take me to see Beverly Hecht.” She was unbelievable. A very storied woman. She’s passed away now but she was so awesome. We went to her office. She gave me copy for a Tide commercial. She sat back and watched me. She called my mom and said, “This kid’s terrific. We’re going to make a lot of money.”

“Better Things” depicts the sacrifices your character, Sam Fox, makes in order to raise her children. How much do you think similar choices you had to make hindered your earlier career?

Adlon: I have this whole theory that every mom is a single mom whether she has a partner or not. There’s nothing like being a mom. It takes over everything. I said no to a lot of things when my daughters were younger. When I became a single mom I had to really be picky and choosy and not take every opportunity that came my way because they had to come first. Now my girls are a bit older and they’re self-sufficient, but I still need to be there. When your kids get older they need you more.

Why do you think your shows resonate with viewers and Emmy voters?

Adlon: I had to wait for the right moment. I did have the opportunity to do a show earlier. At the time I was working on “Californication” and “Louie” and doing my animation and raising my daughters. You only have certain opportunities like windows in your life. And I knew that window was going to close. I feel like this was the exact right moment for my show. If I’d done it one year earlier it never would have happened and if I’d waited a year later, I never would have gotten in there. The timing culturally-wise was right. (But) I wasn’t thinking about that — it was about when I could do it. I always try to never take on more than I can handle. I don’t think that’s fair to my kids or me or anybody that I would be working with.

Anderson: What makes our show resonate is the authenticity with which we tell these stories. I remember taking the pilot before it aired to Fortune 500 companies. Overwhelmingly people from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds gave it a standing ovation and they all said, “When I see your family up there I see my family.” That’s when I knew we were on to something special. That’s why this show means that much more to me. This is an unapologetically black family. He has an opinion and a point of view. I’m proud of this show. We are able to do social commentary, we’re able to do deal with and talk about important issues. We’ve had presidents and politicians talk about our show. I’ve had people walk up to me and hand me notes in the airport that say, “I just want you to know that I use your show as a teaching tool in my classroom.”

Anthony, you have limned a range of genres and formats over the years, from sitcoms to hard-edged dramas like “Law & Order” to now game shows. Did you set out to be a versatile player?

“I realized at an early age it was all about diversifying the work that I could do.”
Anthony Anderson

Anderson: That’s always been the plan. I like to tell people I’m a jack of all trades and master of self. I realized at an early age it was all about diversifying the work that I could do. I knew I didn’t want to be typecast as the comic relief of or the fat funny guy. I could have made a career out of those things. But I went to a high school for the performing arts and Howard University to get a degree in fine arts. I understood that if I wanted to have longevity in the business I had to do more than just comedy or drama. I had to find what my interests were. It takes a while for people to do that and get comfortable in the skin they’re in. I did “Golf in America” for three seasons on the Golf Channel. I don’t want to do it for the notoriety or the check. It has to be authentic and organic to who I am and my lifestyle. Golf was a passion of mine. I have been able to transfer my love of cooking into being a judge on “Iron Chef” and to compete on that show and “Chopped” and to have my own traveling food show. I’ve hosted the NAACP Image Awards for five years and the United Negro College Fund awards. Cutting my teeth on these awards shows is another passion of mine. I want to host the Oscars and the Emmys.

You’re working for the right network, given that ABC is the home of the Oscars and carries the Emmys every four years.

Anderson: I’ve been campaigning for it for years. Hopefully one day it will happen.

Pamela, you have taken the Louis C.K. route in writing and starring in your show. In season two you up the ante by directing all 10 episodes. Is that something you learned from working on “Louie”?

Adlon: When I started my show I was looking for a director and a showrunner
for the first season and by the end of the first season I became my own showrunner and director. I directed all of the second season. It was just easier. I’m a single mom of three daughters so multitasking is no problem for me.

Is it daunting to work in television today with 450-plus scripted shows on the air? Do you think your shows were made possible by the expansion of the industry in recent years?

Adlon: Instead of all this age-shaming and sex-shaming and all of that I feel like it’s turned around so much. It’s just a different climate — people want to be engaged. They don’t want these formats that have been around forever. They want to experience something new — that’s what I feel. I just think it’s anything goes. It would be nice to think that art is winning over commerce.

Anderson: I’m humbled by the (Emmy) nominations. Growing up as a kid in Compton with a dream — I look at my life now, I look at the people I’m able to call friends and co-workers. I look at what this dream has become. I don’t call it work. What I do is live my dream every day. Not too many people can say they live their dreams everyday.

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  1. Rebecca M. says:

    Really enjoyed this article. I’ve seen every episode of Blackish and just began streaming Better Things – loved Pamela Adlon in Californication.

    I noticed a formatting error: the 3rd question isn’t bolded/is part of the preceding paragraph: “How much of the shows are drawn from your real-life experiences? Is that ever touchy for you with friends and family?”

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