Inside 'Californication' and 'Louie' Actress Pamela Adlon's NSFW World

How the Emmy winner went from 'King of the Hill' to one of most talked-about actresses on incisive, adult sitcoms

Pamela Adlon
Jason Merritt/Getty Images for CW
Pamela Adlon
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When Pamela Adlon's oldest daughter was going into middle school, the actress suffered a mini-meltdown. Another mom had said that she allowed her children – a seventh grader and a nine-year-old – to watch Californication, the sexually explicit Showtime comedy series about debauched yet well-meaning novelist, Hank Moody (played by David Duchovny) and his equally depraved friends, one of whom is the professional pubic-hair waxer Marcy Runkle, played by Adlon. "I was thinking, 'How is she explaining "stunt cock" to her kid – or is she not?'" Adlon says in her distinctly husky voice from her L.A. home. "I was so upset that I cried when I was driving my daughter and her friend home after school."

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After trying to get the director of her daughter's school to intervene ("Can you get this stopped? Stop the madness!" she says, even now sounding exasperated), Adlon eventually accepted the fact that her daughter's classmates have seen her do everything from snort pounds of fake coke to dating Rick Springfield to re-enacting Marianne Faithfull's (untrue) dalliance with a candy bar, among other sexcapades. She explained the show to her own kids and told them that she's not embarrassed of the plots, that it's for adults, and now she's at peace with it. "You're allowed to have a life on the side, and everybody's allowed to have redemption," she says now. "I'm very proud of all the shows I've done. I mean, maybe not some of the pilots I did in the Eighties, but certainly Californication. That's just a big piece of candy."

On June 29th, after seven seasons of jokes about cock cages and phrases like "she-nis" (the female equivalent of. . . you know), not to mention smart plot lines that merge lowbrow mischief with highbrow repartee, Californication will be ending its run. But thanks to that show, and Adlon's role as a consulting producer and the object of Louis C.K.'s affections on Louie – another show that finds her fending off the advances of balding men – the 47-year-old actress has eked out a unique space for herself. She can unleash the funniest, most foul-mouthed invective one moment, and show off an endearing, sentimental vulnerability the next. That ability to adapt to any situation has defined her as an actress throughout her multifaceted career.

After making her debut as Dolores Rebchuck in the 1982 film Grease 2, Adlon has enjoyed an unusual career that included roles on The Redd Foxx ShowGrowing Pains and the movie Say Anything, before breaking out as a voice actress in the early Nineties. (She won an Emmy in 2002 for providing Bobby Hill's Southern drawl on King of the Hill.) But since taking a chance on the HBO series Unscripted — a move which led to stints on Boston Legal and, starring opposite Louis C.K., on Lucky Louie — acting flexibility has become her calling card. "I don't feel devastated when a show is canceled, because it just ran its course and everyone got out of it what they wanted to," she says. "And, with Californication, we got to tell these hilarious and very feely stories."

Californication has had no shortage of over-the-top tales, the likes of which prepubescents probably shouldn't witness. But for all of the show's sex, drugs and rock & roll, it was never wholly exploitative or gratuitous. Because of the way the women in Hank Moody's life all seem to get the better of him – which is also the case for Adlon's character's husband, Charlie Runkle (played by Evan Handler) – it transcended mere T&A. "It feels like a very pro-women show," Adlon says. "There are a lot of strong women who were represented there and it was something different. It's an amazing thing to have been a part of, all the sexual shenanigans, yes, but also the stories. I love it."

The Marcy Runkle plot line in the seventh season, which has concerned her husband Charlie's impotence and a rather indecent proposal from her ex-husband, is the sort of story that, were it not so funny, could just as easily read on paper like a great tragedy. One of the more surprising turns, which was revealed in the episode available on the Showtime Anytime app now, (spoiler!) is the fact that her ex has had a sex doll made to look like Adlon's character. It was something the actress had to pose for in real life.

"I went to this place and they made this computer-imaging thing of my head, which looked crazy at first — like this Greek marble statute," Adlon says. Even when the doll was finished and given a real face, she said it creeped her out. "In reality, I don't think she looks anything like me. She's really pretty, and she has a very giant, hairless vagina." Adlon laughs and continues, "I found out later that a lot of the crew had lunch with my doll and did really bad, dirty shit with my doll. Everybody probably had already fucked her or done something, I don't even know. So my doll and I are two different things. We're like Cain and Abel."

But that plot turn was not the most shocking scene she had to take part in over the course of Californication. That moment happened to be in a season-premiere episode, and it was so twisted that she is still uncomfortable talking about it. "I wrote to Tom [Kapinos, who writes the show], 'I'm so excited for a new season, but I wanted to talk to you about my first scene, considering my oldest daughter is in high school now, I have this one thing. . . '" she says. "And he wrote me back and goes, 'Oh, you mean the funny part?' Certain things would make me uncomfortable and I just had to get past them. We all did." (After her interview with Rolling Stone, Adlon still will not reveal the scene – "Ask your wife," she says – and upon reviewing the season five premiere, it was likely allowing actor Stephen Tobolowsky to perform cunnilingus on her as her character's son looked on without her knowing. It's funnier than it sounds.)

According to Adlon, working through Californication's uncomfortable and often-hilarious situations with the rest of the cast helped them form something like a family unit. She calls Duchovny "one of my closest friends" and recalls finding out that she had plenty in common with Natascha McElhone, who plays Moody's ex, Karen (Adlon describes as "this weird, freakishly, so-beautiful-that-she's-ugly person"). "We went through a lot together," she says of the cast. "There was the end of David's marriage, the end of my marriage, Natascha lost her husband, Natascha had a baby, Evan overcame a health scare. We went through a huge amount of life things all together in concentrated three-month shootings, and all this nasty, crazy stuff saved us. I think work saves you – people just love to work, live to work."

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Similarly, Adlon has formed a similar bond with Louis C.K., whom she met when the pair began filming the single-season HBO series Lucky Louie, which premiered in 2006 and found her playing C.K.'s wife, Kim. She compares her friendship with C.K. as being like the ones she's formed with Duchovny and McElhone – "I think you can always find new people in your life," she says, "I still do and I'm a million years old" – because of a rare creative spark she feels with him. Part of that is because is because they're able to argue about their ideas.

As an example, she recalls a Lucky Louie episode where Louis' character gives Kim red roses after she asked him not to, and she gets upset and he calls her the C-word. "It's one of my favorite episodes and it came from a real conversation that we hard, where somebody that had happened to somebody he knew," Adlon says. "And Louis was like, 'That's so fucked up. Why wouldn't she want them?' And I said, 'Because she told him specifically that was a boring, cultural thing that she didn't like and then he did it anyway.' So we had this very hearty debate and we got down to the nitty-gritty, and we've been able to carry that on for a long time.

Adlon remembers the nine months she and C.K. spent waiting to hear whether or not HBO was going to cancel Lucky Louie, time that they spent continuing to write and work together even though they didn't know what the future held. "We wrote a movie together, which we still haven't finished, but it's great and I'm sure we're going to do it," she says, revealing no plot details. "And we wrote a pilot together." Eventually FX picked up Louie.

As a consulting producer on the show, she has continued to help come up with story ideas for Louie, which just ended its fourth season. But while it's easy to assume Adlon has contributed primarily to the "Pamela" arc in the series, in which she plays C.K.'s unrequited love, her contributions include episodes she doesn't appear in — like the Season Two premiere, in which a pregnant woman thinks she's dying but really just has bad gas. "It had happened to Louis' friend's wife, who then told me the story," she says. "We were in a restaurant eating, and I said, 'you've got to do that.' There are certain things I persuade him to pursue."

Beyond acting and doing voice work, Adlon still has territories she wants to explore, but figures she can do it with time. Her latest interest is an occupation that she would likely be perfectly OK with letting her daughters and their school friends watch. "I've always wanted to do a talk show," she says. "But I'm thinking about stuff right now and I'm developing a couple of things, so there's nothing concrete right now." Currently with two of her three daughters getting ready to graduate, she says her goal is to keep working. "Like I said before, work saves you," she says, "and I love working." 

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