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Exclusive interview: Rebecca Metz on playing Tressa in Better Things

Rebecca Metz
Rebecca Metz as Tressa in this week’s “Phil” episode of Better Things: Season 2 Episode 5. Pic credit: Jessica Brooks /FX

On tonight’s episode of FX comedy Better Things, Rebecca Metz is a key component in the episode titled “Phil”, which explores the burdens and heartbreak of trying to care for an elder parent who is neurologically failing.

The series stars Pamela Adlon and is a wickedly pointed comedy about her character Sam Fox raising three distinctly challenging daughters and one physically frail and homesick English mother living in Los Angeles and working in the entertainment industry.

None of it is easy.

Pamela Adlon
Adlon’s Sam Fox on this week’s episode, where she has to address her faltering mother’s behaviors. Pic credit: Jessica Brooks /FX

In this pivotal episode, amidst Sam’s ongoing issues with her mom Phil (Phyllis played by Celia Imrie), we will learn more about Tressa (Metz) and her family background.

In a poignant exchange at a bar, Tressa informs Sam how it became her task to care for her father — who she was estranged from over her voting for Democrat Michael Dukakis in a past presidential election — as he became housebound and infirm.

“It doesn’t get better,” she tells Sam, whose mother Phil is in the throes of early dementia and exhibiting worrisome behaviors.

Celia Imrie
Celia Imrie as Phil, Sam’s English mother who just wants “to go home”. Pic credit: Jessica Brooks /FX

Rebecca was hand-picked last year for the role of Tressa by Adlon, who as well as being the star is the series creator. She knew from the beginning she wanted to be a part of the show and tells us how she got there.

In recent years Rebecca has had guest roles on Californication, Grey’s Anatomy, Maron, Bones, Lopez, Major Crimes and her recurring role on Shameless. She will be seen in the Disney movie Magic Camp when it hits theaters in 2018.

Many also remember her work on Ryan Murphy’s FX drama Nip/Tuck as the paper bag-wearing masochistic lover of Dr. Christian Troy, which was one for the TV sex books.

Monsters and Critics spoke to Rebecca about her current role in Better Things and tonight’s outstanding “Phil” episode.

Monsters and Critics: This Harvey Weinstein thing is an ethical sea change in Hollywood. I think everyone in entertainment has a story from their past. Everyone was afraid, told, ‘If you say anything, you’ll never get work. You’ll be blackballed. Keep your mouth shut.’ Now it’s like the dam’s been breached. Any Harvey Weinstein stories? What’s your opinion about all of this as it relates to being an actor in Hollywood?

Rebecca Metz: Yes. I don’t have any Harvey Weinstein stories. I’ve never met him or been anywhere near him. As a policy, I believe the women — especially when so many of them have had such similar experiences independently — and men, when they speak out about this kind of thing, although it’s definitely skewed in one direction, gender-wise.

I do think the culture is changing in a really healthy way. It can feel like suddenly we’re inundated with stories like this in a way that some people probably find upsetting…as though it is happening more now all of a sudden.

What’s really happening is people are talking about it more now, which is what has to happen to get it to change. I don’t think it’s in any way limited to the entertainment industry. I’m seeing a lot of press and conversation about Hollywood and what’s wrong with Hollywood.

I did full-time day jobs for 17 years. My experiences with this were in the hospitality industry and other businesses where similar things happened. There were people in management who engaged in this kind of behavior pretty regularly, and when you spoke up, you got reassigned but that person got to stay in their job.

It’s really important that people are talking about it, and really encouraging that so many people are coming out in support of the people who are speaking out finally, which didn’t happen for a long time. It’s important to say that it’s by no means unique to Hollywood.

M&C: When Pamela Adlon approached you about Better Things, how did she describe the series to you in your meeting?

Rebecca Metz: She didn’t. When the series pilot was picked up by FX I read about it because I’m a huge fan of her. I told my reps, ‘Keep an eye on this. I want to be a part of this,’ because it was billed as FX’s first series with a solo female lead, which is both crazy to think about and really exciting that it was happening.

I have an existing professional relationship with the casting director, Felicia Fasano, she called me in for it like any other audition. The way the audition worked was that unlike other auditions where you get the material ahead of time and you can prep it, with this you just kind of show up and get it 15 minutes ahead of time. You don’t know what you’re reading until you get there.

It was a bunch of women. We all have the same material, reading for a character who I think didn’t end up existing in the series. Reading for a friend of Pam’s character.

All I knew about the show really was what I read in those sides. When I got cast, I got told, ‘You’re gonna be in the show, but we don’t know who you’re gonna be yet.’ It was like that for a few weeks because Pam was writing. It was all still in development.

I found out about the feel and the structure of the show when I got the first script. We didn’t know that my character was going to recur. I was initially booked for one episode. I’m grateful that Pam decided she wanted me in more of it. The first episode I worked on was the one in Season 1 where we’re talking about the pilot, where I’m her manager and we’re dealing with that pilot.

Then shortly after that, she started integrating Tressa, my character, into more of the family life and the kids and being around as a friend. It developed really organically that way.

M&C: Your background is so heavy in theater. Do you like that kind of seat-of-the-pants challenge in acting? Some people get anxiety. Do you thrive on that?

RM: I learned to. I think television has helped me learn to. I did so much theater early on and in my training. At the end of college, I was really craving a little more spontaneity and a little more immediacy.

That’s part of why I moved to LA. Television was just starting to become what it is now and I kind of wanted to see what that was like. I actually really love not knowing everything up front. Every time I get a new script, I learn something about my character that I didn’t know before.

It might contradict something I assumed and you have to be fluid and flexible, and able to adapt to that, but I love it. I love both. I love going back to theater and working on the whole script at once and really digging deeply into something for months. It’s like exercising different muscles.

I also love the rapid pace and flexibility and immediacy of working on something like this, where it’s just something new every day and you just have to roll with it.

M&C: Let’s talk about Phil, the episode that’s coming up this week. Celia Imrie does such a phenomenal job of showing her character in the early stages of dementia. Your counsel to Sam in the bar is gutting. I wondered if you could talk about that scene and how you guys approached it.

RM: Yeah. When I first read it, I felt unusually privileged to get that chunk of material. It made me think of my own family. My dad took care of his mother as she went through Alzheimer’s when I was in college, and I really got a close look at what that does to the relationship between a parent and child.

I think it’s kind of a universal experience that almost never gets talked about. I don’t think we’ve seen a lot of frank addressing of that in television and film. It’s a thing that just kind of gets skipped over. I think that’s something Better Things does really well a lot of the time, is talk about things that we never talk about.

I wouldn’t say I stressed about it, but I worked on that material for weeks before we shot it. I felt a lot of responsibility to get it right. I wrestled with how much emotion there should be. Should it feel really intense? At the end of it, as we got closer, I sort of was like, ‘I know what this should be. I know Pam. It’s just two friends talking in a bar. It shouldn’t be super emotional. It should just be telling the truth.’

It’s an old wound, an old experience that I think Tressa’s reconciled with as much as you can. I think she just wants to love Sam enough to tell her the truth, even though the truth sucks because the truth is…Tressa says it.

But she kind of says she’s not going to get better. She’s going to keep getting worse and then she’ll be gone. That’s the truth of it. I think it’s in a way brutal and in a way it’s incredibly loving to tell someone the truth of what to expect and not sugar coat it. I think that’s what Tressa’s trying to do in that moment.

It’s so beautifully written. It was just a privilege to get to be the one to say it.

M&C: It felt like the first season of Better Things was a lead up, and the way it ended was ‘Frankie’s a boy and Sam’s processing the fact that Frankie may transition’…she may not. She may just identify completely gender neutral. It was just sort of left in the air. This season it’s not addressed yet. This season, it feels like it’s about Phil. Every episode thus far has had a moment where Phil has forgotten something or done something inappropriate. Can you talk about that?

RM: I’m kind of repeating what Pam and Hannah Alligood, who plays Frankie, have said, which is it’s kind of like life. These big questions come up and feel like you have to confront them right away and then something else happens and they sort of fall to the background.

I think the character of Sam is dealing with things as they come. At the end of last season, the thing that came up was Frankie’s identity and what that was going to be. And it’s just kind of in stasis right now, that question, as this other thing comes up, as Phil comes up. I think it’s really beautiful.

One of the things I love the most about this show is that it’s not traditionally plot-driven. It’s not one thing happens, the next thing happens. You have to watch them in order or you won’t know what’s going on.

They’re like vignettes. Each day, each story is its own moment in a way that I think feels a lot more like our day-to-day experience of living than everything wrapping up neatly in a half an hour.

M&C: Do you have any indication or do you know how your character will evolve in this series?

RM: I don’t. I’m dying to know. I mean, I think we certainly find out more about her this season, especially in the Phil episode. That’s the first time we really find out a little window of part of what makes Tressa who she is. And we get little glimpses of her with a partner this season if you’re paying attention.

We’ve got a little bit of that. That’s all I know. I don’t know where it’s going from here, which is kind of part of the fun. It’s good with Pam at the helm. And I obviously trust her so implicitly, it’s like whatever it is, is gonna be awesome. I just can’t wait to see what it is.

M&C: You’ve done so much. You worked on Maron, The Mindy Project, and Californication. Did you meet Pam during that series?

RM: I actually met Pam auditioning for an episode of Louie, so she’s a co-executive producer, obviously and co-writer on that show. They were casting an episode cast by the same casting director, Felicia Fasano, and brought me in. And Pam was the person in the room who I read for. We connected there. I didn’t end up getting that part.

Then I worked on Californication. I didn’t work with Pam directly, but she was at the table read. That’s another show Felicia casts. It’s a story of how those professional relationships are important and play out in this business.

When I came in for this, I think Pam recognized me, but she wasn’t sure from where, and Felicia probably reminded her. I had met Pam sort of a couple of times before this and was like probably floating around in her consciousness, but this is the first time we really got to work together.

M&C: You’ve got a film coming out. Do you want to tell me about that a little bit?

RM: It’s a Disney movie. It’s a family-friendly, super-fun Disney movie. It’s called Magic Camp. It’s about a magic camp. I play the mom of one of the campers. We’re talking Magic Castle magic, not Harry Potter magic.

I’m not even sure what I’m allowed to say about it because they haven’t started marketing yet, so we haven’t gotten the viewpoints and stuff, but it’s a really fun…I’ve seen it. It’s really well done. It was lovely to work on something that doesn’t have a dark streak.

I do a lot of work and I love it. I love working on things that ride that line between comedy and drama and have darkness to them. It was fun to just work on a feel-good family Disney movie.

And the kids are so good and so sophisticated. The grown-ups would just sit around and be like, ‘Are these people all 40? How are they this mature?’.

Better Things airs Thursdays at 10 pm Eastern on FX

April Neale
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