Thursday night’s standout episode of Better Things shifts in focus to Phil — the meddling, occasionally cruel, usually loving, always unpredictable mother (and neighbor) to the series’ hero, Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon). For once, we see their unconventional parent-child dynamic from the other side. The episode opens on Phil (played by Celia Imrie) rather nastily diminishing her daughter’s accomplishments in front of her friends, and ends with her holding Sam’s hand in a hospital, in tears, professing the love and pride she has for her. The episode works in those kinds of contrasts, and Imrie plays them beautifully.
In-between, of course, “Phil” tackles another thorny topic — that of aging, and the increased feelings of confusion and disorientation that are met with growing older. The episode provides a tender, sad portrait of its impact on a tight mother-daughter bond, as difficult choices start to be considered and the realization of things only getting worse begins to settle in. This second season had hinted at Phil’s very slowly degenerating mental health for several episodes — a surreal sequence to open last week’s found her senselessly scolding a child and then urinating on the floor of a public library — before bringing it to an emotional head here.
Imrie spoke to EW about why she “wasn’t mad” about filming that bizarre library scene, how she ended up becoming good friends with Adlon’s actual mother, and why Better Things has been such a once-in-a-lifetime project for her. Read on below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I loved the episode.
CELIA IMRIE: I haven’t seen it. Am I any good?
You are terrific!
[Laughs] You had to say that, David, that’s not fair. But just remembering it, [Phil] goes through so many hoops [in the episode], doesn’t she?
She really does. It’s interesting the way we see her with her friends and the way she talks about Sam and her family at the beginning, and it’s a nice contrast with the end of the episode where she says how much Sam means to her.
Exactly. It’s wonderful, isn’t it? I mean, what clever writing. I just am so lucky to be in it, David. Seriously.
What was your reaction to the “Phil” script when you got it?
I love the contrasts. I wasn’t so mad about the bit that happens in the library, but on the other hand, Pam knows jolly well that I would do anything she asks me. I love playing this character so much, and as you say, the contrast is so huge actually. It’s what every actress yearns for. One minute she’s being so horrible, and then the next minute — it’s what the show is all about, and she doesn’t dodge any issues. I’m talking about Pamela’s writing: She’s very unsentimental, which I think is so clever. She would go mad if she heard me praising her this much. She really would. But I can’t help it.
You mentioned the library scene, which was from last week’s episode, when you scold a child and then urinate on the floor — it’s a tricky scene, the way it’s so absurdly funny and yet so sad and unexpected.
Well, I wasn’t mad about that bit in the library. I thought, Oh, lord, you know. But on the other hand: Pamela only has to ask me. I will do anything she asks me. I think the character is so rich that you can’t be prissy about it. When I read it, in my heart, I went, “Oh, dear.” But on the other hand, I suppose it’s things that might have happened — I’m not saying that this did happen, but they are things that might happen when somebody gets a bit older. [Adlon] doesn’t shirk the reality. I’m not saying it did happen with her mother, by the way. Must make that clear. But I did slightly have to hold my breath and jump in with that.
Have you met Pamela’s mother?
Oh, yes. I absolutely have. There’s nothing quite like her.
How did you find her?
When we first met, we were a little bit guarded with each other. I think that’s a fair thing to say. But this season we made rather good friends and we used to go out to dinner together. I think she’s a hoot. We’ve been out to dinner together, we went to the theater together, and I know that whatever bits of her being rude to her daughter — I mean in real life, and in the series, I hope you’d agree, she absolutely loves her daughter. There is great love between them, don’t you think?
That absolutely comes through.
How have you approached playing her? It’s a character closely based on Pamela’s real mother: She really does live right by her, and Pamela’s talked about how much material she gets from her own life.
Funnily enough, when I auditioned for Pamela on Skype, we both discovered that I’d bought the house next door from my mother as well. And that is quite a sort of rare occurrence. We immediately could understand each other about what that means, which was great. I’m not caricaturing her mother and I’m not doing an impersonation of her mother, because we’re very different. And I know that Pamela doesn’t really tell her mother very much about what she’s written, so it can come to my surprise. But I like her enormously and it just enriches my thoughts by going out to dinner with her — it’s just lovely.
You’ve got more than 100 credits in film and TV and, of course, have done a lot of stage work. Especially with an episode like this, what’s the significance of the role and this show for you?
The significance for me is that I am very proud to say that I’m in a hit show in America. Actually, I sort of naively — or not — believed that you can’t be internationally well-known unless you have courted America. That was my thought many years ago. But because I had a young son to look after, I didn’t come to America until quite late on. This, to me, it’s so rich, this show. Pamela’s very funny — quite poignant, though, and it’s everything all in a half an hour. I think it’s quite magical what she’s managed to pull together. You can’t say it’s like anything else, can you, really?
And it would be disloyal of me if I didn’t say to you that sometimes the English sitcoms all have a sort of formula, which is, you begin to know what’s coming. But with this show, it quite takes your breath away sometimes. Some of the things she asks me to say — some of them are quite cruel, and some of them are quite loving. In quick succession! I think that’s a) very like life, particularly mother and daughter relationships, but b) it’s wonderfully refreshing, I think. I’ve only got praise for her. But again, she’d be so furious if she heard me praising her. She doesn’t like it very much. Secretly, I think she does, but she doesn’t take it very well.
This episode really focuses on aging and its impact on this kind of close mother-daughter relationship. How did you approach that delicate material?
That’s what I love about Pamela: She doesn’t shirk it. Because I’m afraid to say that it’s going to happen to us all. It has happened to me in my life, that conundrum about what do you do with an aging parent, and it’s something that generally people shy away from. There is no easy way — there really isn’t. And I love that she’s tackling it head-on. There’s no magic solution, either. It is a thing and it has to be thought about. And there she goes — there she does it. She’s trying to make me 99, by the way. She keeps upping my age! I thought I was supposed to be 70, now I think she’s trying to make me 88 or something. I’m like, “Hold on a minute, please.” [Laughs] But truly, I’m afraid I don’t care what she asks me to do: I’ll do it willingly.