Pamela Adlon: From 'Hill' Kid To 'Californication'

Jan 4, 2012
Originally published on January 4, 2012 9:51 am

When Pamela Adlon meets her daughters' middle-school-aged friends, she asks them nicely not to watch Californication, the show she's starred in for the past five seasons.

"I say, 'I'd appreciate if you don't watch my show and you don't Google me,' " she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

But Adlon, who plays the brash, unapologetic, sexually charged Marcy Runkle on the Showtime series, says she knows that's not going to stop anyone.

"I am not embarrassed," she says. "I know they Google me."

Over the course of five seasons, Adlon's character on Californication has launched a business waxing porn stars, indulged in various illegal drugs and dabbled in illicit affairs — including one with rock star Rick Springfield. Her raunchy on-screen activities, most of which are unmentionable here, were recently discovered by her three young children, who spotted a picture of their mom in a video store near their home in Los Angeles.

"We were all in the store, and my 11-year-old, who was probably 9 at the time ... takes me to the section where there's a whole bunch of Californication DVDs. She pulls out a DVD, shows me the back, and it's me on all fours being spanked by my [character's] husband, in lingerie," she says. "And she's like 'Mama, that's so funny.' And so my 9-year-old is laughing about it with my 6-year-old, and I'm thinking, 'I'm going to vomit.' ... I was like, 'All right, just put it back. It was a silly thing. We were playing a game in the show. It was like pin-the-tail on the donkey. Put it back.' "

Diverse Roles

Her children aside, Adlon typically likes the passionate reaction she gets from fans.

"I don't think I have a demographic," she says. "I was at Comic-Con in San Diego recently, and I was doing a signing, and my line was all military guys, young girls, housewives and guys in wheelchairs. There was just everybody all over the place."

Adlon says that's because she's taken all sorts of parts — from voicing Japanese anime characters and the character of Bobby Hill on King of the Hill to her live-action roles on the cable shows Louie and Californication.

"There's been points where I'll go do a table reading for King of the Hill in the morning, and then I'll go to the set of Californication and do something insidiously dirty, and then I'll go record a Tinkerbell movie or something like that," she says. "Or the next day I'll do [the Disney show] Phineas and Ferb. It's normal to me."

And compared with the studios where her animated sitcoms are produced, the set of Californication is pretty boring, she says.

"I always say that the Californication set is the most chaste, unromantic set you could ever imagine," she says. "I've never seen anybody flirt, no one comes on to anybody — but when I'm doing one of my cartoon things, somebody's always saying, 'Hey Pammy, what's going on, [and then] saying a bad thing.' "


Interview Highlights

On her part in 'Californication'

"I was never meant to be in the show. I did the pilot and did the whole pilot season. ... When the show got picked up, [creator and screenwriter] Tom Kapinos just kept writing for me, and it was just this gift. ... And it just became a thing. I never thought it would go to the dirty, filthy place it went to. I don't think there's anything too morally reprehensible going on, because there is this wonderful, emotional core, which is the family. And then also, it's funny. It's not dark without being funny. I'm not really a fan of darkness without funny."

On voicing Bobby Hill and other boys

"The thing about women playing boys is that we're not going to age, and we're not going to go through puberty in the middle of a long-running series. I used to take over for a lot of boys whose voices would crack and change. My voice is on the lower resonance scale, so I just naturally go into the boy mold."

On voices

"One of the things I learned in animation is that you never, ever want to start doing a voice that you can't sustain for four straight hours. I learned that when I was doing a game — when I was doing a female Yoda character — and I still can't do it. It tickles the back of my throat so bad. So I'm never going to do that again. You basically can't start a voice that you can't do all day."

On being a voice-over actress

"It's the greatest job ever, and people always say, 'I want to get into that.' Or 'How do you do it?' You have to have something interesting about your voice, you have to be able to act, and you have to be able to act quickly and take direction. If somebody says something to you, you don't say, 'Oh, I've already done it.' You say, 'OK. That sounds good.' And you move on. That's the one thing I've learned. I never say, 'Well, I just did that 20 takes ago.' Nobody wants to hear that. Shut up and say the lines, and get out of the studio."

On her daughters' friends watching 'Californication'

"I found out her friend's mom let her watch, and I was beside myself. I cried. And I went up to the director of the school, and I said, 'I can't deal with this.' ... And the mom was like, 'Hey man, don't be mad at me, it's cool. We're all cool.' I'm like, 'No, it's not cool.' I don't know where the line is for people anymore. You can't regulate what these kids are being exposed to on the Internet. It's so way out of control. All you can do is just try to talk to your own kids. ... I would rather my kids not see my boobs on the Internet, but it's not going to be the end of the world if that happens. ... I'm a good person. I'm a really good mom. I have a little salty language, but other than that, I'm a really good mommy."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Pamela Adlon has done the voices for many animated TV shows, including "King of the Hill," for which she won an Emmy for doing the voice of the 12-year-old boy Bobby Hill. But she now co-stars in a very adult show, "Californication," which is, as the title suggests, all about sex. The season premiere is this Sunday on Showtime.

Adlon also works with comic Louie C.K. On his first series, "Louie," she played his wife. In his current series, she's a consulting producer and plays his good friend, who he now seems to have a crush on. Notes to parents: If you're concerned about whether your child should be listening, our first clip from "Californication" is slightly racy, but our conversation is not explicit, and later, Adlon will demonstrate some of the voices she's developed for animated TV shows and movies.

In "Californication," Pamela Adlon plays Marcy Runkle, who begins the new season recently divorced and remarried. In this scene from the first season, she's still in her first marriage and has just had a fling with another woman. She's talking about that with her friend, played by Natascha McElhone. McElhone speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "CALIFORNICATION")

NATASCHA MCELHONE: (As Karen) So you're done with the lesbitarian experiment?

PAMELA ADLON: (As Marcy Runkle) The grass is always greener, you know. Isn't that how you ended up engaged to be buried?

MCELHONE: (As Karen) Hey, no Bill bashing, you promised me. Stay on the subject.

ADLON: (As Marcy) That is the subject, married people bored out of their minds looking for some strange. It never solves what was wrong in the first place.

MCELHONE: (As Karen) Oh, like you're such an expert.

GROSS: That's Pamela Adlon in a scene from "Californication." Pamela Adlon, welcome to FRESH AIR. It was so difficult to find a scene from that show that we could play on the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: Oh my God.

GROSS: It is all about sex.

ADLON: I was wondering.

GROSS: So when you took the role, did you wonder what you were getting yourself into?

ADLON: Oh not at all. I mean, it was - this show was a happy accident I like to call - like my first daughter because...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: I mean it in the best way. Like I literally, it was one of those things where they offered me a role in the pilot, and it was one tiny, little scene. I was never meant to be in the show. And I kind of did the pilot and went through, like, a whole pilot season. And Tom Kapinos, when the show got picked up, he just kept writing for me. And it was just this gift, he kept giving me this gift and kind of, you know, shepherding this character of Marcy for me.

And it just became a thing. I never thought it would go to the dirty, filthy place it went to, but it never - I don't think that there's anything too morally reprehensible going on because there is, like, this emotional, wonderful core, which is the family, and then also it's funny.

It's not dark without being funny. So I'm not really a fan of darkness without funny.

GROSS: So your character Marcy is having a sexual renaissance this season. What have her issues been?

ADLON: Oh my gosh.

GROSS: For the radio, yes.

ADLON: Yes, she's gone through a lot of different things with, you know, with drugs and sex and with her husband and, you know, going through breakup and divorce and cheating and, you know, friends cheating around her and, you know, living in corrupt ways - horribly morally corrupt ways.

But, you know, at the kind of center of it all, she really loves Charlie, and he really loves her. Like, they're always drawn to each other. I think that...

GROSS: Charlie's the husband from whom she's separated but now has a child with.

ADLON: That's right, that's right.

GROSS: Because she found out she was pregnant after they split.

ADLON: Exactly. The Runkles...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: But so - I mean, I think that what I'm finding in my life right now is that you keep getting drawn back to the same people, whether you have horrible, horrible history that you wish you never saw them again, you're drawn to them.

GROSS: So did you have to set boundaries for what you were willing to do and unwilling to do on the show?

ADLON: Well, I remember one season, I think it was at the beginning of last season, I got the first script, and I was in New York at the time, and I read it, and I was like oh my God, I can't do this. I mean, you have to remember, Terry, I have three daughters, and so I sit there, and I say OK, what are they going to see, what do they have access to.

My oldest daughter is in high school now, you know? And so I just - I kind of wrote an email to Tom Kapinos, and I said I just have a question about the first scene and the thing that's happening to me in that scene. I'm like, does it really have to be, like, in that vantage point. And he means - oh, you mean the funny part?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: So basically that was my answer, it was like shut up and go to work because in my email I was like you know I've always been a team player, I go for it, always take it for the team, so... But we somehow always get through it, and I never have to do something that's awful, you know, and they - we always get through it together, and I know my crew really well.

And Natascha is one of my best friends in the world and David, and just we're all very close, and we don't get to do enough of them as far as I'm concerned.

GROSS: And so what's it like having to give your daughter talks about either abstinence or birth control or, you know, whatever your talk with her is, knowing the show that you're on? Everybody is sexually obsessed on that program.

ADLON: Yeah, it's true, but it's really funny because it's not even my oldest daughter who's so aware of it. We were in a DVD store, my kids are 14, 11 and eight, they're all girls. And I'm a single mom. And so we were in a video store, and my 11-year-old, who was probably nine at the time, said mama, mama, come over here.

And she takes me to the section where there's a whole bunch of "Californication" DVDs. She pulls out a DVD, she shows me the back, and it's me on all fours being spanked, by my husband, in lingerie - by my show husband.

And she's like mama, that's so funny. And so my nine-year-old at the time, is laughing about it with my six-year-old, and I'm like OK, I'm going to vomit. I could either just be like act very European and like well, this is the human body, it's a thing of beauty, and, you know...

And I just was like all right, just put it back. It was a silly thing. We were playing a game in the show. It was like pin the tail on the donkey. It's nothing what you think. Put it back.

GROSS: That's very funny. What kind of reactions do you get from viewers who recognize you on the street?

ADLON: Oh God, it's so - you know, the cool thing is that I like - I like the passionate reactions I get because of the shows and the things that I've been involved with that people are very excited. I took my daughters to Alvin Ailey yesterday in the city...

GROSS: The dance company.

ADLON: Yeah, it was unbelievable, and it was just - I was crying hysterically. We finished re-watching the show, and then all of a sudden I have this new demographic. I had these ladies from - I had their 20-year-old daughters and then these 60-year-old moms and a grandma, and they were like Marcy, oh my God, it's Marcy.

And they were screaming and freaking out. And then - you know, I have - my - I don't think I have a demographic. Like I was at Comic-Con in San Diego recently, and I was doing a signing, and my line was just like all military guys, young girls, like, housewives and guys in wheelchairs. They was just - I don't know what - there was just everybody all over the place, and they were like, they were there for the animation and like the Japanese anime stuff and then the "Louie" stuff and then of course the "King of the Hill" stuff and the "Californication" stuff.

So I don't know. It's a weird kind of life.

GROSS: But you've just touched on something so interesting about your career. I mean, you were first known for voiceover work in cartoons and for playing Bobby Hill on "King of the Hill," an animated series. Then you got to do "Lucky Louie," Louie C.K.'s first TV series.

And then you're no "Californication." So you're on this incredibly adult cable show, and at the same time, you're famous for all these, like, children's cartoon shows. And I - are there two more opposite extremes?

ADLON: Yeah, I mean, it's - you know, there's been points where I just am doing, you know, I'll go do a table reading for "King of the Hill" in the morning; and then I'll go to the set of "Californication" and do something, you know, insidiously dirty; and then I'll go record maybe a Tinkerbell movie or something like that. Or the next day I'll do "Phineas and Ferb," which is, you know, one of the kids' shows that I do.

It's just, you know, it's normal to me. Like if I am in a studio with Tom Kenny, who's a great friend of mine who plays SpongeBob, or, you know, all the guys that I've come up with in animation, what's going on in this studios in between takes is the dirtiest moment you could ever experience in your life.

You know what is really funny? I always say that the "Californication" set is the most chaste, non-flirtatious, unromantic set you could ever imagine. I mean, we're walking around in bathrobes and, like, people are saying ooh, who are you having sex with today?

And nobody's really doing anything. I've never seen anybody flirt. Nobody comes on to anybody, but when I'm doing, you know, one of my cartoon things, somebody's always saying, hey Pammy, what's going on, saying a bad thing, and in "Californication," it's boring. There's nothing going on, hot, at all.

GROSS: I think it's compensation, after you're so exposed in the actual shooting.

ADLON: Probably. Yeah, it's true. I mean, you're trying agent provocateur lingerie and underwear that, like, I've never worn in my life because I dress like a boy, personally, in my life. And then I'm putting these things on looking at my costume designer, Peggy(ph), going oh my God, I can't, I can't wear this, please kill me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: I'm in my 40s. I have three daughters.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pamela Adlon, and she plays Marcy in the Showtime series "Californication," which is about to start its new season. She was Louis C.K.'s wife in the series "Lucky Louie," and she plays his good friend, a single mother, in his current series "Louie," and she's done lots and lots of animated characters, including Bobby Hill in the long-lived series "King of the Hill."

ADLON: That's right.

GROSS: So let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Pamela Adlon. She plays Marcy Runkle in "Californication," which begins its new season Sunday on Showtime. On Louis C.K.'s series "Louie," she's a consulting producer and plays his friend. On his first series, "Lucky Louie," she played his wife.

How did you start working with Louis C.K.?

ADLON: Well, Louie and I met for the pilot of "Lucky Louie" at HBO, and, you know, a lot of people think we knew each other before, but that's actually where we met and forged this friendship. And we just connected and had really strong alchemy, working partnership from the get and really just got each other and were able to come up with some amazing stuff together.

It was extremely fulfilling. It was like doing community theater.

GROSS: Let's play a scene from "Louie," and you're a single mother, and you meet Louie through your kids because he has two daughters. Then you start hanging out together and becoming good friends, and at the end of last season, Louie decided he wanted to be more than friends with you, and you basically told him that's never going to happen.

So in this scene, he's taken you to a very nice restaurant, the kind of restaurant he usually would not go to. So here's Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "LOUIE")

ADLON: (As Pamela) Why did you want to come here?

LOUIS C.K.: (As Louie) I don't know, because it's a good place?

ADLON: (As Pamela) Did you want to take me here because it looks Frenchy and cool-looking?

C.K.: (As Louie) No, I mean...

ADLON: (As Pamela) Have you ever eaten here?

C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah.

ADLON: (As Pamela) When? Liar. You picked it out because you thought that I would think you were cool, which you're not. You need to face it. You're very, very uncool, Louie, and you're very boring.

C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah, well, you're not exactly...

ADLON: (As Pamela) Yes I am exactly. Come on, you think I'm awesome. I think you're OK. It's just the way it is. We need to admit that or just walk away.

C.K.: (As Louie) OK. I wish the food would come.

ADLON: (As Pamela) Why?

C.K.: (As Louie) Because I'm starving.

ADLON: (As Pamela) Really, you're starving? You can't just be hungry for a second? Is your life going to end? You have to constantly shove bread in your hole?

C.K.: (As Louie) I don't have to. I have to.

GROSS: That's my guest Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. in an episode from "Louie." Your character is so abrasive and blunt. She doesn't filter what she's thinking. Are you that way?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: I think yeah. I mean, that's my relationship with Louie certainly. I do have a filter. I know how to control myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: Because I have three kids, and I live in the world, and my kids did start out the year going to Lutheran school this year, I had to definitely learn how to use my filter more. But yeah, that's pretty much Louie's and my relationship in real life, that we like to really make fun of each other and be merciless with each other. And it's very delightful and fulfilling.

GROSS: So do you get to improvise a lot, or have you already done the improvising with him before the script is finalized?

ADLON: You know, really the scripts are down and done by the time we're shooting. Everything is very scripted. There's not really anything that's improvised. I mean, when we were in the restaurant, we were kind of just playing with each other a little bit, but literally everything is scripted in the show.

GROSS: Now, you're also known for doing the voice of Bobby on "King of the Hill," and he's, what, 11 or 12 when the series starts?

ADLON: Yeah, he was 12 for about 12 years, and then he turned 13 for I think one year.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So this is an animated series. Were they looking for a woman to do his voice, kind of like Nancy Cartwright does the voice of Bart Simpson, or were they looking for a male to do it, but you auditioned anyways?

ADLON: Well, the thing is about the phenomenon about women playing boys is that we're not going to age, and we're not going to go through puberty in the middle of, you know, a long-running series, what people hope will be long-running. And I used to, you know, take over for a lot of boys whose voices would crack and change.

It's just kind of a thing where, you know, I have - my voice is on the lower resonance scale, so I just naturally go into the boy mode, and I don't know. I mean, there's something about, you know, doing his voice.

GROSS: How did you create the voice of Bobby Hill because he's a 12-year-old boy from Texas, and you're, you know, a woman from New York who sounds like you're from New York.

ADLON: Do I? Well...

GROSS: You are from New York, right?

ADLON: I am. It's - and also my mother's English. So my dad's from Boston, and my mother's English, and they met at the USO in Paris. So that's one of the crazier things. No, it was just a casting like any other, and you walk in, and they said he's a young boy from Texas, and here's the sides. And I just was thinking in my head oh, damn it, I wish I'd watched "Badlands" last night. I wish I knew, then I could prepare myself and had a Sissy Spacek marathon, something.

But you just kind of wing it and pull it out of your butt, which is what all of animation is about. You literally never see script or sides, and you walk in, and they're like I'm going to call Pam in for this because I need the mom, an Army man and the boy who lives up the street and also (unintelligible).

So I can basically cover all of that. And, you know, you work with a lot of the same directors in voiceover and animation because people tend to know where you can - what you can offer and how many voices you can do, and you could end up doing at least three voices a session, which is what is optimal for people.

And also people want to get in and out as quick as possible.

GROSS: So can you do the voice of Bobby Hill again and tell us how you created that voice?

ADLON: (As Bobby Hill) Well, yes, ma'am. Yes, Ms. Gross. You know, I went into the audition, and I just kind of...

I think that my original Bobby is like he was like slower, and he would say OK, and he was kind of more of a depressed-sounding person. And then Bobby got a little more hyper, and he would be like, you know, I want to be a prop comic, dad, and can I stay home and watch an after-school special? It's about Jesus.

You know, just be different kind of tings. I don't know, it's - one of the things I learned in animation is that you never, ever want to start doing a voice that you can't sustain for four straight hours.

And I learned that when I was doing a game, and I was doing like a female Yoda character, and she was talking like this and the Federation, you see. And I still can't do it. It tickles the back of my throat so bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: And I'm like OK, I'm never going to do that again. You can't basically start a voice that you can't do all day.

GROSS: Pamela Adlon will be back in the second half of the show. She's one of the stars of the Showtime series "Californication," which begins its fifth season Sunday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Pamela Adlon. She is one of the stars of the Showtime series "Californication," which begins its fifth season Sunday. On the Louie C.K.'s series "Louie," she is a consulting producer and plays his friend. Most of her career has been devoted to voice-over work for animated TV shows and movies. She's been the voices of girls and boys, women and men. She won an Emmy for her voice work on the animated series "King of the Hill."

Let's hear a scene from "King of the Hill" in which you played a 12-year-old Bobby Hill. And this is from the episode for which he won your Emmy. Let me just start by saying Bobby's father Hank is real like old-fashioned kind of man. You know, he likes like home repairs and sports and being out with the guys and having a beer. And Bobby is not fulfilling Hank's expectations of manhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, he's not athletic. He's like short. He's pudgy. He has a lot of friends who are girls. So in this episode Bobby has gotten bullied by a bunch of boys and they've not only beaten up, they forced him literally to eat dirt. So, you know, he wants to take a self-defense course but the only self-defense course around is a self-defense class for women that's being offered at the Y. So he enrolls. He's the only male in the class with the exception of the guy who is like the model. He's the guy who the women of the class are supposed to practice their self-defense techniques on. So in this scene it starts with Bobby walking into the class for the first time. And the first voice that we hear is the instructor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SERIES, "KING OF THE HILL")

MADELINE ZIMA: (as Instructor) Are you sure you're in the right class? This is women's self-defense.

ADLON: (as Bobby) Please, Miss, I'll be other courses are full.

ZIMA: (as Instructor) I'm sorry, it's for women only. We're trying to maintain a certain comfort level here.

ADLON: (as Bobby) But I hate men as much as you.

ZIMA: (as Instructor) I don't hate men. I just hate being a victim.

ADLON: (as Bobby) I hate being a victim too. Look, I was at a girls' slumber party last night when three men pushed me to the ground and made me eat dirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF GASPS)

ZIMA: (as Instructor) OK. You can stay. Now grab a whistle and prepare to be empowered. Most women who are attacked are subdued by verbal threats. Today we're going to get used to hearing these threats, keeping our cool, and practicing some responses of our own to the most vulnerable areas of a man's anatomy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as Character) Shut up and give me your purse.

ZIMA: (as Instructor) I don't know you! That's my purse.

(SOUNDBITE OF KICK)

ZIMA: (as Instructor) OK, I want everybody to try. You first.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROANING)

ZIMA: (as Instructor) See? I don't hate men.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as Character) Give me your purse. Now.

ADLON: (as Bobby) That's my purse.

ZIMA: (as Instructor) Don't be afraid to shout it. That's my purse. Try it again.

ADLON: (as Bobby) That's my purse! I don't know you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOANING)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You're really funny as Bobby Hill having to say, that's my purse.

ADLON: Oh, God.

GROSS: So out of all the great episodes that you've done of "King of the Hill," why do you think you won the Emmy for that one?

ADLON: I think that I actually did at least three voices in that episode as well and that's - I found out that that's the way a lot of the judging is done. Hank Azaria, I think he's won multiple Emmys for "Simpsons." And it's really the scope. They don't look at a whole series, which is crazy. They look at one episode. And so within one episode I played Bobby. I think I played Chane Wassonasong in this episode.

GROSS: Do the voices for us as you mentioned the characters.

ADLON: (as Bobby) So I play, I play Bobby Hill. (as Chane Wassonasong) I play Chane Wassonasong, the Chane train stops for the ladies. And I also played a character called (as Clark Peters) Clark Peters. And he was very kind of asthmatic.

And I think I did a woman somewhere or whatever, I mean in that episode that was Ashley Gardner. But I think it's about like the scope of voices that you do. Besides, you know, every once in a while somebody like Mel Gibson, for the "Braveheart" episode of "The Simpsons" will win an Emmy because of that being the thing. But, you know, it was kind of me winning an Emmy for "King of the Hill" was a big victory for voice-over people, that's what I felt. I felt like I was representing my community - my VO community - that doesn't get recognized a lot. So that felt really, really good and I was able to say every single person's name who does voices on the show. It was a really great day. It was exciting.

GROSS: So did you take voice lessons so that you could learn how to do many different voices, many different characters without shredding your voice?

ADLON: No I didn't. I mean I realize when I think back on my life I was always imitating the cartoons that I would see, like I would want to be like really good mimic. And then in terms of voiceover, the man who is still my agent, he is called Paul Daugherty, he brought me in because he heard my voice in something. And he said read this copy and it was a 7-Eleven campaign. And he said you're young Kevin. And I said, but this is a boy. And he said yeah, just trust me. Just read this. And that was my first campaign that I booked and I did it for years and it just opened up all these doors. That's funny because I started in radio and I could not get arrested in animation. I just only did radio ads and then I got into animation and I can't book a radio spot to save my life now. It's completely the opposite.

GROSS: So you started in animation by doing radio ads portraying the boy.

ADLON: That's correct. And when I also think about my career because...

GROSS: Did you change your voice for it or did you just do it as yourself?

ADLON: Yeah. I would be like hey dad, can I borrow the car?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: Like, there's just something, you know, inherently boyish about my voice. And I - this is an older Kevin, and this would be a younger Kevin. Like if somebody said can you pitch it up? Can you make him eight years old? OK mom, yeah. Gee, you know? Or there – you know, you hear like women like I mean there's really like notoriously - I don't want to put anybody down, but you remember "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and the old Rankin-Bass, you know, that kind of claymation stuff and the guy who was Felix? Like it was so obviously a, you know, a lady who would be like gee, I want a lollipop. You know, like that kind of thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: So I kind of tried to take it into a more natural range, you know. But it's the kind of thing where I started out, you know, I've been acting since I was nine years old. And so when I was a teenager I was doing tons of, you know, sitcoms. You know, like on "Night Court" I played a little boy that Bull adopted. He thought I was a little boy but I was, of course, I was a girl pretending to be a boy sold some guy would be my foster dad. And I worked with Redd Foxx as, you know, I was cast. I went through the whole casting process in drag as - my maiden name is Segall so I went through as Paul Siegel. And I went through all the ranks and even tested at network as Paul Siegel. And Redd Foxx was like, I knew you were a girl like from the beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: But I literally did that pilot for the first three quarters of the episode as Tony Rutledge. Hey Mr. Hughes, you know, it's cool here. And then three quarters of the way through Rosana De Soto finds me in the bathroom and outs me as a girl. And Selma Diamond finds me in the bathroom on "Night Court" and she helps me as a girl and that was literally like my whole '80s oeuvre was me in drag on camera. And then I became famous for doing that in animation.

GROSS: Wait a minute. So when you were outed in the bathroom that was your character being outed...

ADLON: Exactly.

GROSS: ...not you the actress.

ADLON: Exactly.

GROSS: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Just to keep that clear.

ADLON: Exactly.

GROSS: So did you ever want to be a boy when you're growing up?

ADLON: I was just very tomboyish. I have always felt more, you know, planted in kind of a boy energy. I love men, you know, I mean it's just I feel like a boyish girl. But a lot of people are like oh Pammy, you're such a girl. But, you know, that's just who I am. I always like wore my brother's hand-me-downs. And when I was pregnant with my first daughter I did a photo shoot with this lady and it was the whole theme was a pregnant boy. So, you know, it's me with my hands handcuffed behind my back with a chain-link fence. Crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So a lot of people assume you must be a lesbian because you have such a masculine...

ADLON: Oh god, yes. I'm sure - I hope people still do. I don't want to ruin anybody's, you know, thought they have in their head about me.

GROSS: So it must be especially true since you're invisible in so many of your roles. It's wonderful to have people just create whatever they think.

ADLON: Absolutely. I'm open to all of it. I love it all and I want my kids, my daughters to live that way. I don't want everybody to, you know, say oh you have to be a certain way or whatever. It's just it's always been that way. I won an Emmy for "King of the Hill" when I was pregnant with my third daughter and I desperately didn't want to wear a dress that pregnant. I never want to wear a dress. Never ever want to wear a dress. And so somebody made something really fabulous and kind of boyish and flowy in a nice way for me that I was able to pull off.

GROSS: A dress?

ADLON: I try to pull off girl things. It wasn't a dress. No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Pants?

ADLON: Yeah. It was like pants-ish. It was like a cool like pants suit with Herman Munster kind of shoes. I was never wearing heels then. Now I'll put a heel on once in a while.

GROSS: Well, good for you. I don't understand why women are expected to wear a dress just because it's formal.

ADLON: No. I hate it. I hate it. And, you know, growing up I think part of it is when I was in elementary school I think I got into a fight one day with a kid, like in second or third grade I used to get into a lot of little mix-ups. I was little toughie. And I think it was the only day of my entire life I was wearing a dress and I felt like I had no power. That's just me. That's who I am. Like I need pants and short nails to feel...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: ....in my body powerful. I'm not making a judgment on anyone else. That's just me.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pamela Adlon. She's one of the stars of the Showtime series "Californication," which is about to start its new season. She is a co-star on the Louie C.K. show "Louie." She co-starred on "Lucky Louie," Louie C.K.'s first series. She played Bobby Hill on "King of the Hill" and has done like a gazillion animation voices.

Let's take a short break here and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pamela Adlon. She's co-stars in the Showtime series "Californication," which is about to start its new season. She is a regular on Louie C.K.'s show "Louie" and played his wife on his first show "Lucky Louie." She was Bobby Hill on the animated series "King of the Hill" and has done lots and lots of other animated voices.

So you started performing when you were nine, professionally.

ADLON: That's right.

GROSS: How did you manage to do that?

ADLON: Well, my dad was kind of a journeyman writer and producer for television. And we moved back and forth quite a bit. I grew up bi-coastally. Even though I'm from New York originally, we were back and forth from New York to LA. And he had a friend who had a radio studio, and I started recording voice-over stuff early. And then I just started getting into acting when I would move to LA more. And then it just kind of kept going from there. And I really wanted to act because I really didn't want to go to school.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: So it was advantageous to me, and somehow I kept doing it. And there were some really tough, lean years, really bad, lean years, and at that time is when I procured my voice-over agent, who's still my agent. And it basically saved my life. And it's just been an unbelievable constant for me. I can't believe how great it's been. It's the greatest job ever. And people always say I want to get into that, or how do you do it? You know, you just have to have something interesting about your voice. You have to be able to act and you have to be able to act quickly, and take direction. Like, if somebody says something to you and you've already done it, you don't say well I just did that. You go, OK, that sounds good. And you move on. That's the one thing I really learned. I never say well, I just did that 20 takes ago. Nobody wants to hear that. Just shut up and say the lines. Get out of the studio.

GROSS: So you mentioned your father worked in the industry - in the TV industry?

ADLON: Yeah. My dad was a writer and producer for television.

GROSS: What were some of the shows that he worked on and what was his name?

ADLON: My dad's name was Don Segall, but he wasn't the director, the Clint Eastwood film director Don Siegel. You know, he used to write everything on television. He actually started out on a show called the "The Dave Garroway Show." And - which became "Good Morning America." It was "Dave Garroway." Then it was "A.M. New York," and now it's "Good Morning America," same studio that's still there in, you know, Lincoln Center. And I grew up on all those soundstages. I used to be on the Halloween episode and sit on Santa's lap, and all of that. And then I just naturally, like, started doing it because I had the bug and I wanted to be in it.

GROSS: So when you were growing up, who had voices that you found really interesting? You know, friends, relatives, teachers, people in the neighborhood.

ADLON: Well, I'm drawn to - when I see people in things and actors - you know, I always remember your voice when I listen to you on FRESH AIR, just the way you say your R's and the way you enunciate, and the resonance to your voice. I remember how you sound. I remember the way things sound, and it becomes like you have this Rolodex in your head that you reference.

And you just go back, and you say I remember this girl in this one movie, or I met a woman at a dog park, and she had no upper lip at all. And she was talking like this and she had no upper lip. And she was, like, I took my dog for a walk. And, you know, and it was just a crazy thing. And I just kind of store the image in my head.

And you just bring it up when you're at a session and somebody says, let's run through all these voices. Let's run it down and see what we can find. And, I mean, that's like something that Billy West does. I don't know if you've ever spoken to him.

GROSS: Dave Davies spoke to him on our show.

ADLON: Oh, my God. He's unbelievable. And you sit in the studio with him, and he can just pull out those cards from his brain, and he can be somebody from the '20s. He can be anybody, from anywhere. And it's just, you know, a kind of thing. My deck of cards is not as vast and expansive as his. But it's just - yeah.

I mean, like I said, when I was growing up, the classic cartoons, like, I would listen to and I would try to imitate them, like Snagglepuss. I remember him saying: Exit, stage left. We've been ousted, dismissed, fired, even. But I haven't heard it in years. Like, if I hear something, I'm able to mimic it pretty well - and accents and things like that.

It's kind of a thing that you kind of get into the habit of.

GROSS: So your kids are, obviously, they're not allowed to watch you on "Californication," but have they seen a lot of your cartoons? And did they grow up with your cartoon voices?

ADLON: Yeah. It's funny, because when I started doing animation and cartoons, it was just a job to me. It was a great job, but I wasn't a mom. And then through my first sessions, you know, and I'm pregnant with my oldest daughter and then I have a kid and then I have another kid, and it became this great thing that my kids are able to enjoy.

You know, I did an episode of "Monk," and they were able to see that. It's fun when they can, you know, participate. They love the Tinker Bell movies. They're so proud. I went to my daughter's kindergarten class, and I was able to show them one of the Tinker Bell movies on a rainy day, because I play one of the fairies. I'm, like, Tinker Bell's nemesis Vidia, and they love that.

They're really super-proud of that. But then, of course, I go to school on Career Day and I bring my Emmy and I bring copy and I have the kids read, like, I run them through, like, a little audition process. And I'll bring, like, stuffed characters of people that I've played. And then, all of a sudden, somebody will raise their hand in second grade and say: My mom says you're on "Californication."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: I'm like, OK, shut up. Why did your mom say that to you? I'm like - I'm there representing this sparkly, shiny, Disney beautiful world, and then it's just, like, my dad IMDb'ed you last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: Oh, great. Thanks. That was a show-stopper.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: But that kind of stuff happens all the time, and I'm definitely taking it less personally. Like, when my oldest started middle school and I found out that her friend - her mom let her watch my show, and her nine-year-old sister, I was beside myself. I was crying. I cried. And I went up to the director of the school, and I was, like, I can't deal with this.

And she's like, well, it concerns me, because in this community, you're your daughter's mom and you're not this person and whatever. And this mom was like, hey, man. Don't be mad at me. It's cool. We're all cool. I'm like, no, it's not cool. It's not cool.

I mean, I just don't know where the line is for people anymore, because you can't regulate what these kids are being exposed to on the Internet. It's just, like, it's so way out of control, and what they've seen. All you can do is just try to talk to your own kids and say if you want to do that and hurt yourself, you're going to see things that are going to upset you.

So I just - I would rather my kids not see my boobs on the Internet or something like that, but, you know, I'm not going to - it's not going to be the end of the world if that happens.

GROSS: Right.

ADLON: I'm a good person.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: I'm a good mom. I have a little salty language, and other than that, I'm a really good mommy.

GROSS: My guest is Pamela Adlon. She plays Marcy Runkle in "Californication," which begins its new season Sunday on Showtime. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Pamela Adlon. She's one of the stars of the Showtime series "Californication," which starts its new season Sunday. She won an Emmy for her voice work on "King of the Hill" as Bobby Hill. And on Louis C.K.'s series "Louie," she plays his friend.

OK. So off-air, you imply that there's this great story that you want to tell.

ADLON: Yeah.

GROSS: But I have no idea what the story is, so - but I'm dying to hear it. So please tell it.

ADLON: OK. So last April, April of 2010, I'm trying to make the airport, to JFK, to get back to Los Angeles, and I was going to fly Jet Blue. I was going to miss my plane, so I ended up taking United first class flight. And I get on the flight, and I kind of meet a couple of people in the lounge. And we're about 40 minutes into the flight, and the pilot bursts out of the cockpit.

Flames are coming out of the windshield, and smoke fills the cabin. I'm in the second row.

GROSS: Oh, my God.

ADLON: And he says to the flight attendant: Get me a fire extinguisher now. There wasn't one in the overhead compartment. He had to run to the business class cabin, where one of the Olsen twins was sitting. This will be significant later. He runs back in, they bring smoke hoods into the cabin.

They say ladies and gentlemen, we're going to have to divert to Dulles International Airport. Anyway, the cabin fills up. We've all seen the flames. We all know we're going down. Somehow, we land in Dulles. There is about 20 fire engines on the ground. We walk - everybody walks past the cockpit. The captain's sitting there.

The windshield's completely shattered. And it was just one of those things. And one of the flight attendants gets on the mic and she says: Ladies and gentlemen, we are in Dulles. She says if anybody wants to change their underwear, you should do so now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: And making - really fast, but it was an unbelievable experience. I had one man sitting to the right of me, his name is John. The man to the left of me, his name is Meneesh(ph), and the woman to the left of him, her name is Deborah. And, like, as we're going down, she turned to everybody and said: Hi, I'm Deborah.

And I was like, oh, no. We're not doing that, are we? We're not introducing ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: It's not like a high-and-the-mighty moment. Like, no, we're not doing - I'm - Deborah, please. And so basically, the man who was to my left, Meneesh, is one of my best friends now, and my daughters and I are staying in his apartment. And we're leaving the city tomorrow to go upstate to stay at a bed and breakfast. And I called the owner of the bed and breakfast and I said, actually, we're coming in on Saturday.

And he said: I have to tell you something. I was your seatmate on the plane that was going down.

GROSS: No.

ADLON: And I said what are you saying to me? This just happened to me, literally, two hours ago. He said I am your seatmate John. I said oh, my God. So he's the guy who was sitting to the right of me. And I'm going from Meneesh's house to John's bed and breakfast. And it just blows my mind.

And he knows that because it was on the AP that, you know, Pamela Adlon from "Californication" and Mary-Kate Olsen were on this plane that caught on fire and had to make an emergency landing.

GROSS: How did you and Meneesh become best friends - or good friends?

ADLON: Well, we bonded on the flight that was going down. We were kind of like, well, we're dying, so - he's, like, well, I love you on "Californication." And we were just sitting there, and I kind of was just, like, this is really surreal. If you see a pilot burst out of a cockpit on a plane that you're on and flames come out, you kind of go to a weird place in your brain. Like, is this real? It was just an unbelievable thing.

GROSS: Would it be intrusive to ask what you were thinking about when you thought you were going to die, that the plane was going to go down?

ADLON: I was thinking my kids weren't there, and that I knew that they would be taken care of. And I was also thinking that I'd been getting divorced for at least a year, and I was numb from that. So I was, like, well, there's worse things.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLON: I was, like, the girls aren't here. They're not going to panic. And here's the reason why I'm like - I don't know if I should tell this, because I've never told my daughters that that happened, because I didn't want to scare them.

GROSS: Oh. Oh, oh.

ADLON: I don't know. I mean, it's just one of those - it just, it's too unbelievable that happened to me today, that that man said I was your seatmate. I'm, like, no, Meneesh was my seatmate. He said, no, I was sitting on the other side of you. And I was like, oh, my God. You were the one with the Super Bowl ring? He said I still have scratch marks on my arm from you grabbing me.

GROSS: Wow.

ADLON: Isn't that crazy?

GROSS: So now you have to find Deborah.

ADLON: I know. Meneesh still knows Deborah. We'll have a reunion at the Dulles Marriot bar in 10 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, gosh. Well, thank God that the plane did not go down.

ADLON: I know.

GROSS: Well, Pamela Adlon, I have to say, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

ADLON: Great talking to you. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it, and I'm a huge, huge fan, and all my friends are.

GROSS: Well, back at you. I'm a big fan of yours. So thank you.

ADLON: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Pamela Adlon plays Marcy Runkle on the Showtime series "Californication," which begins season five Sunday. Our interview was recorded last Thursday. You can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org. You can also find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.