Before creating my series, Better Things, in 2016, I was always only ever just an actor. Now I write, direct, and star in my own show, which is both a relief and an enormous amount of pressure. If there’s anything anyone can learn from my story, it’s don’t do just one thing; don’t put all your eggs into one basket. That’s what I would tell the 20-year-old me: “Don’t wait for the phone to ring for acting jobs. Go live your fucking life right now. Do other things.”
With Better Things, I want to set a new example of how people should be treated on sets. I remember one big network show that I was a guest star on, there was just this enormous waste of money and time. It was my first instance of ever hearing the term “Fraterday,” which is when you arrive on set on Friday afternoon and shoot all the way through until Saturday morning. I reported to work at 3 pm on a Friday, and I was wrapped at 4 am Saturday. I remember this feeling of cold water going through my body and thinking, “Don’t these people have children or lives? Because I do. I don’t want work to be like this.” As long as there’s a patriarchy, that type of behavior will always continue to exist.
One thing that really resonated with me was when an actor would direct an episode of a show or a movie I was doing. It was a singular experience. I felt really taken care of. I felt excited about the process, and I wasn’t intimidated. Most directors can be extremely intimidating in an aggressive way. At one point in my career, I was filming California while I was doing an arc on Boston Legal. On Boston Legal, they would shoot two episodes at the same time. I couldn’t even wrap my brain around that! And they always had three hot pots going for the crew. I was always taking notes, because I was like, “One day, I’m going to have a show, and I’m going to feed the shit out of my crew.”
Those things seem very fundamental, but for me it’s always been about collaboration and feeling happy on a set. Better Things has been incredible because I’ve been able to promote staff and people are able to think bigger for themselves.
When I originally pitched Better Things, I told the network, FX, that I wanted to elevate the mundane. It really was about me trying to make sense of my life as a single mom and my experiences as a person in the world. I have always tried to make sure that the stories are universal. Everybody’s got something that they can relate to in the show.
I was the first one in my friend group to have kids, and I was kind of on my own. I didn’t have a North Star figurehead as a mother. My mother is different. She’s from England and grew up during the war and was not forthcoming with information. I would go to these Mommy & Me classes, and I would feel bad that I couldn’t fit in. But that was just me—in school, in work, in life. So I was able to gather all of those raw feelings and put them into the stories in the show, into these characters.
When we first started filming Better Things, it was a huge change for me because people had to listen to me on set. Then I’d come home to my three kids, who didn’t give two shits about what I said. That dichotomy is hilarious in and of itself. Even in the pilot episode, Sam is living her life and punching a time card, and when she gets home she’s pulling the trash cans in. She’s cleaning the house. That was me. I was doing all this dirty shit on California. I was doing voices for Disney’s Tinker Bell movies. And then I was doing all my other animation work, like voice work on King of the Hill, and I would come home and all of a sudden I’m everybody: I’m the housekeeper, I’m the cook, I’m the mom, the cops—all of it. So when I’m on set, it feels really good to be in control.
I knew that season five of Better Things was going to be the last, so I had to make it count. A big theme in the show is the connection people have to their history. Ephemera is a big theme, and people are ephemera. It’s a little bit existential, but it’s not obnoxious. Our minds were cracked open because of the pandemic, and so I started asking myself, “How do I tell this story? Do we have everybody dealing with Covid?”
Finally, we decided not to directly address Covid but to talk about the emotions that came with it. During the pandemic, everybody started feeling, like, “I miss my family, and I want to go back to basics.” These are the result of having lived feelings through the world shutting down and wanting so desperately for us all to take a cue and adapt and change and be better. All of those things really fortified and enriched the stories this season. I reject the idea that this was not an important reset for humanity.
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Harper’s BAZAAR, available on newsstands April 5.
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