After playing sisters for two seasons of Better Things—the second of which debuts tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern on FX—Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward have developed a certain bond. “I love them so much, it’s nauseating sometimes,” Madison told The A.V. Club at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour. “It is nauseating,” Alligood replied sarcastically, her words briefly echoing the sibling rivalry between the show’s two eldest daughters. On the Peabody Award-winning series, Max (Madison), Frankie (Alligood), and Duke (Edward) are a frequent source of frustration, joy, and pride (sometimes all at once) for their mother, Sam, played by Better Things’ co-creator and director of its entire second season, Pamela Adlon. At the TCAs, the trio discussed their characters, what they’ve learned from Adlon, and the way the show has affected how they see their own families—in between the occasional tangent.
The A.V. Club: How soon did this level of comfort with one another come about?
Hannah Alligood: Pretty much instantly.
Olivia Edward: We just clicked.
Mikey Madison: Me and Olivia knew each other a little bit longer than Hannah, because there were some casting things that happened, so she came into the family a little later.
HA: Everybody was so welcoming.
MM: [Sarcastically.] Yeah, they’re really difficult to work with. As you can see, their personalities—there’s just nothing behind the eyes, so it was very difficult for me to get that warm connection with them. So it took a lot of dragging, but we got there. Finally.
AVC: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten from Pamela?
OE: To always be yourself, not care what anyone else thinks, and to just make it real for you.
HA: I think Pamela told me this—and my actual birth mother—a lot: To not overthink it. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
MM: I try to be very professional and prepared—you should always be, for your job—but she also said, “Don’t take yourself so seriously.” At the end of the day, it’s just television.
HA: And you’re doing this because you like it. You’re doing it because it’s fun for you. And if you’re not, don’t do it.
OE: If you’re not having fun during a scene, you shouldn’t be doing it. [Laughs.] Unless you’re doing something terrible.
HA: I mean, you can’t quit in the middle of a job. You made a commitment.
OE: But if you don’t have fun on a regular basis, you shouldn’t be doing it.
HA: If you don’t have fun doing your job, then you’re doing the wrong job.
MM: We’re so lucky because we have fun together, like real sisters. It’s so funny, because the first season, I think, it was still a little bit new, so we were all very sweet—like a little gross, sometimes, how sweet we were to each other.
HA: I thought it was nice!
OE: I thought it was nice, too!
HA: I mean, I’m just an overly sensitive person.
MM: And I love that about you, because I love people who don’t hide their emotions. And you have such an expressive face. So I love that—and also, it shows onscreen. But what [Olivia] said earlier—what Pamela said was to be yourself: These girls are so genuinely themselves at such a young age. When I was 14, I had no idea who I was, and it was so confusing. So to see strong, confident girls, that I get to be around all the time, it’s so amazing. It’s reinvigorating for me.
AVC: You’re on a show that was created by a woman, most of its episodes were written by a woman, and now, in the second season, every episode is directed by a woman. What does that mean to you, as actors?
HA: It’s a big step for women, and I’m so proud of this show, and all the women working on it. And the men, too. But especially the women, working so hard at their jobs. [To Olivia.] Oh, sorry. You can go ahead.
OE: No no no.
HA: It’s—it’s [Loses train of thought, speaks in gibberish.]
MM: Yeah, yeah, great.
HA: It’s an important time for women in this industry now.
OE: It really inspires.
HA: It’s both intimidating and it’s inspiring, because they’re so great at their jobs.
MM: Just being women in this industry, we have to work 10 times as hard as a man to get to the same place, which is just how it is, and I think it’s getting better—there’s exceptions, of course. Just being on this show, for me—I’m sure you girls can identify with this as well—there’s not a lot of roles written for 18-year-old girls that are dynamic and interesting. It’s usually just “girl next door” or “hot girl” that takes off her shirt and is cute. Or she just propels the man’s storyline forward. Playing a character who is her own person and is a real person is everything to me, and I want to do [Max] justice. So that’s what it means—it means a lot to me.
AVC: Has being on this show changed the way you see your own mom?
OE: It shows me what she definitely goes through. It’s not waking you up in the morning—it’s getting herself ready to wake you up in the morning.
MM: That’s so deep.
OE: I know, right?
HA: It really opened my eyes to all the things that mothers everywhere go through. All the work they put into raising their kids and how hard that is.
MM: I read somewhere that your voice towards your children becomes their inner monologue. That was so interesting to me, and I think that pertains to Better Things as well. Because Sam really does try to be a good example for them, but she’s also a real human. She’s not a superhero, she’s not a crackhead—she’s somewhere in between. There’s the “Eulogy” episode [in season two], which was so interesting to me, because people can be gone any second, so it made me—not just with my mom, but with my brother and my older sisters as well—want to be around them more, and appreciate them more for everything that they do.
HA: All too often, you take people that you’re close to for granted, so that was a good reminder for me.
OE: I saw something on the internet.
MM: [Feigning concern.] The internet?
HA: [Also feigning concern.] The internet? You shouldn’t be on the internet!
OE: I was looking up unicorns! Calm down. And I saw this saying—it had a little heart under it—it said, “People always say you never know what you had until you lose it.” And then it said under it, “The truth is you know what you had, you just never thought you would lose it.”
AVC: At the end of the first season there’s that moment where Max says to Sam, “Frankie’s a boy.” Mikey, What was it like approaching that scene? And, for Hannah: How does it inform how you now play Frankie?
HA: I’ve said this in other interviews, and it’s still true: Pretty much all questions regarding Frankie’s sexuality and gender identity need to be directed toward Pamela. It’s her show. Basically, the whole style of Better Things, it’s like life. Not all the answers are spoon-fed to you. A lot of things you have to figure out for yourself.
MM: I remember Hannah saying, “Frankie just is what she is.”
HA: She is.
MM: And it doesn’t need to be explained on television.
HA: And it doesn’t have to be labeled.
MM: People can wonder it for themselves.
HA: And at this age, she’s still discovering who she is and who other people are.
MM: Sexuality is such a spectrum—you don’t have to be on one end or the other.
HA: And it can change and fluctuate so much as you grow and change and progress through life. Nothing’s really permanent.
MM: For Max, the way she was describing it, it’s like, “Well, that’s just where she is at this moment. That’s just Frankie—she’s more like a boy than she is like a girl right now. And that’s just how she is. How do you not see this, because it’s so obvious.” So that was a wake-up call for Sam to be like, “Oh wait: This is what’s happening.”
AVC: Olivia, what have you learned from Mikey and Hannah?
MM and HA: [Both gasp.]
OE: Ahh! Gasp!
MM: You better say something good. We’ve given you some good advice, I think.
MM: I taught her how to make slime.
HA: I taught her how to make flower crowns.
MM: Hannah taught me how to make a daisy chain, which, I don’t know. I think that’s such a useful thing. You never know when you’re going to have to make a daisy chain.
OE: I remember we did try to make slime, but it didn’t work out.
AVC: What happened?
MM: It wasn’t quite the consistency of slime. It was more the consistency of paint that stains your hands.
HA: Our hands were stained for days.
MM: That picture’s my lock screen.
HA: Really? Aww.
OE: I do know how to make slime very well—with the right things. With glue and Tide and shaving cream.
MM: We used too much shaving cream, I think. It was fun to squirt it.
OE: But they’ve taught me to always be myself.
OE: And not care what other… every—[To herself.] English—everyone else thinks.
HA: You hear this all the time: “Be yourself, because everybody else is taken.” And I like it.
MM: You girls have taught me so much. I always wanted to have younger sisters growing up. I was stuck with two stinky boys—that I love, but it’s very different than the dynamic I have with these girls. Looking back, I wish I was as confident as you guys are. And I’m sure there are moments where you’re not.
HA: [In a quivering voice.] Confident? Me?
MM: Yeah, but she’s so well-spoken and articulate and interesting. I was so tortured at a young age. I look back, like, “I wish I knew this much about the world at that age.” Also the daisy chain thing, that was really great.
OE: We’re all going so off-topic, but it’s so fun.
HA: If you got anything from this, the most important thing is the daisy chains.
OE: I think I might’ve dropped my ring.
MM: We’ll find it! We’ll find it!
OE: It’s okay.
HA: I will stop what I’m doing right now and look.
MM: Hannah will look. It’s okay.
OE: I say one thing, and the interview stops immediately.
HA: You’re very important to us.
MM: I don’t want you to lose your ring.
AVC: It’s just a sign of how close you all are.
MM: [To The A.V. Club.] Look at all your notes.
AVC: I took a lot of notes. I over-prepare.
HA: That’s a good thing, though.
MM: I need to over-prepare for things.
OE: I over-prepare for things. Sometimes I over-over-prepare, and I get so confused.
MM: That’s better than under-under-under-preparing, though.
HA: I don’t think over-preparing exists. You can’t be too prepared to tackle something.
MM: That’s deep.
AVC: We’re getting into deep territory.
HA: We are. Are you ready to have an existential crisis?
AVC: Every time I watch Better Things, something pops off in my head like “I’m not doing this right” or “This is a way I could change my life.”
MM: The show’s great for that. Pamela said she just wanted to make people feel something. And that’s the most important to her. It’s not just “a mom show.” It’s for everyone.
I’ve had multiple drag queens come up to me and tell me that they love the show. And it’s completely random. You wouldn’t think that, but everyone can take something from it, whether you are a single mother, you’ve had a single mother, or you just have a mother—which everyone does. Wait, unless you have two gay parents.
HA: Biologically, you still have a mother.
MM: Everyone’s from a vagina. So…
AVC: To that point: Better Things is based on a specific family—Pamela’s family—but it does have a lot of universal themes. How does Better Things remind you of your own family?
MM: Max’s relationship with Frankie reminds me a lot of my relationship with my brother when we were younger—around Olivia’s age. We did not get along. We fought so much. Seeing what’s written on the page, it’s really emotional to see what me and my brother used to go through. Because Max and Frankie are so mean to each other. And they’re so hurtful because they want to get those emotions out, so they’re taking it out on each other. They’re having to fight for their mom’s attention.
HA: Everyone needs an outlet, though. Theirs just happens to be one another.
MM: But I’m so different from Max, and my family’s so different from you guys, which I think is almost better in a way, because I get to experience those things.
OE: And I think we all react differently to different people at different times. Duke will act, to her mother, innocent, and then to her sisters, she’ll act like a sister.
MM: You wouldn’t talk to your grandmother, you talk to your boyfriend—[To Olivia.] okay, definitely not boyfriend. I wouldn’t talk to you the same way I talk to my twin brother, you know?
OE: This is not how I would be talking to my grandmother.
MM: Because she doesn’t speak this language.
OE: I’d have to speak to her in Portuguese.
HA: She speaks fluent Portuguese, by the way.
MM: Yeah, me and Hannah don’t even speak fluent English.
HA: It’s a work in progress. We have to help each other out a lot.
MM: We finish each other’s—
MM: Yeah, that, too.
OE: The first thing I had to learn how to say is “I want cake”: “Eu quero bolo.”
MM: I know some some Russian cuss words, but I won’t say them in this interview.
OE: I think few people learn a language for the sake of cursing.
HA: I know a few Japanese curse words.
AVC: It’s always the first thing you learn in a foreign language.
MM: Because you need to know those things.
OE: When you’re driving—
HA: Especially when you’re with your parents, or people.
MM: Because you guys drive all the time by yourselves.
OE: I have a small Barbie car that I ride.
AVC: And you’re cursing at the other people in their Barbie cars in Portuguese?
OE: [Stage yelling.] “Get off the sidewalk! Are you kidding me?”
HA: “What are you doing?”
MM: You guys think you’re going to do that when you’re driving, but it’s scary as a woman on the road. I freeze up. If someone honks at me, I will cry.
HA: I think I would as well.
OE: I think I would take that a completely different way. [Laughs.]
MM: There needs to be two different honks. There needs to be one that’s like, “Hey, bud, just letting you know you’re a little close to me, or I’m a little close to you.”
HA: And then there’s one that’s like, “What the heck are you doing?”