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FX Better Things exclusive interview with ‘naughty’ Phil, British secret weapon: Celia Imrie

Phil (Imrie) is a bit of a wildcard for Sam (Pam Adlon) Pic credit: FX Networks
Phil (Imrie) is a bit of a wildcard for Sam (Pam Adlon) Pic credit: FX Networks

Celia Imrie is one of Britain’s best actors and comic geniuses who happens to also pen some really entertaining books.

On Better Things, FX Network’s hit series that features Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox, Imrie portrays her mother who lives in the house next door.

Her interactions with Sam run the gamut, from maddening to sweet, worrisome to downright manipulative. Imrie does it all with panache and adds so much to the already cracking ensemble.

Imrie, for the moment, is slightly better known in the UK where her acting career kicked off with a Royal Shakespeare Company global tour and who later starred in films such as Calendar Girls and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Many know her as Miss Babs from Acorn Antiques in the series Victoria Wood or Una Alconbury in Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Roles in Nanny McPhee and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to the recent Patrick Melrose starring Benedict Cumberbatch and the BBC comedy Hang-Ups are under her belt too.

But for American audiences, we dine on the mischievous British mother of Sam Fox, Phil, short for Phyllis, who is a wildcard on Better Things. Her relations with the three daughters, Sam’s brother Marion, and sorting the haze of the golden years and perhaps finding a devoted age-appropriate companion are what’s in store for season three.

Actress turned author Celia Imrie has four books published and took time out from her busy schedule in England to speak with Monsters and Critics during the recent Television Critics Association winter press tour.

Monsters and Critics: I love your character Phil [Phyllis] on the series…

Celia Imrie: So do I. So do I, I love her.

M&C: How did Pamela Adlon find you?

Celia: Do you know, there’s so much luck in the world, isn’t there? Because I just happened to be over and I was working in Vancouver, funnily enough, and Pamela Skyped me one day.

It’s so lucky that it fell to me. I can’t tell you how proud I am to be in it, and how much I adore Phil. I adore Pamela. And I adore the fact that it’s come to England now, so people don’t think I’ve been on holiday for three years.

They couldn’t understand what I was talking about. And actually, how do you describe this program? You know what I mean?

The great credit must go to Felicia [Fasano], the casting director, because we had met about one week before, and so she pushed me actually. And I will be forever grateful to her.

M&C: This season, Phil has moments of biting clarity and then you have moments of behavior that’s a little bit questionable. From last season, your museum incident where you nicked the jewelry and this season the Easter party where that poor kid gets knocked in the pool. What is going on with Nan?

Celia: Well, who knows? She’s quite naughty, isn’t she? You never quite know. But it is wonderful to have that, but it’s actually… I remember a director once saying to me, “No person is consistent.”

And I think possibly, as we go on in age, everything becomes more extreme. So you’re absolutely dead right, she is very clear at points. And then sometimes she behaves like a child.

I can relate to that completely, and I just love every moment of playing with her. Of course, I want my part to be bigger, but I love it.

M&C: What I found interesting this season is Kevin Pollack’s character [Sam’s brother] Marion is more fleshed out, and also his relationship with you. Why does Phil have such a hard time with Marion?

Celia: I know, isn’t it cruel, actually? I don’t know. I supposed people would argue that parents don’t have favorites, but quite clearly they do. And I don’t know, it is a problem.

I didn’t realize what a problem it was. In fact, in season 2, I remember she’s very dismissive of him when he comes to the graduation party, but I didn’t know there was quite such a problem going on.

Every ball that Pamela throws at me is just a gem to play so … but I promise you, we did laugh, Kevin and I.

Being so horrible to each other, we did laugh afterward, I promise you.

M&C: I have a theory, I think that maybe Marion reminds you of Sam’s deceased father and this season’s scene-stealing specter, your former husband.

Celia: Yes, yes, yes.

M&C: He’s inserted as a ghost. His commentary. Sam sees him and she’s going through physical changes and she has these sleep deprivation kind of bizarre visions of her deceased father…

Celia: Well I do think they adored each other, actually. And I think that there’s an awful lot that Pamela takes from her real life and I happen to know that she was devoted to her father.

In fact … there’s a very beautiful green cardigan that you’ll often see her wear, which belonged to her real father. So his presence in the series is ever there.

And I think that’s what she’s bringing in, his presence into the series, more and more. I do think they adored each other, and I remember a line in a party scene that I said that he, the reason I married him was because he made me laugh even though he was devastatingly ugly.
I mean, that’s what she said, do you remember that?

M&C: Yes.

Celia: I don’t know … a sort of, even worse description than that. It was something like devastatingly ugly. But the thing is that he made her laugh, and that’s why she chose him.

M&C: Its a real air of sentimentality in this series. From everything from the set decoration, the way your home is decorated, to hers, the artwork, the Rosetta stone of that statue at the top of the stairs that they don’t touch.

Celia: That’s right.

M&C: Sort of like, the male presence of the house that kind of isn’t there. Do you feel that?

Celia: Oh yes, and funnily enough, there were quite a few links that Pamela and I discovered on my Skype actually. And one of them, which is quite an unusual one, that sort of drew us together, I think, is that we both had bought houses for our mothers next door. So I understood that whole thing of having the mother nearby.

I mean, I do think Pamela herself is so immensely kind and generous towards her mother. She really would do anything for her. Of course, she drives her mad, as I do in the series, but she’s immensely generous and kind to her.

And we discovered as I said, we both had bought houses for our mother next door. So that was a great link, to begin with. And that we both brought up our children by ourselves.

So there were marvelous things that we understood right from the word go.

And also, the other thing is, that I have the great joy of knowing Pamela’s real mother. And in fact, although we didn’t know each other very well in the first series, by the second series we were going out to dinner with each other, which was a joy.

M&C:  I feel like Phil is very spiritually or soulfully connected to Duke. Am I right or wrong?

Celia: No, absolutely right. It’s a wonderful thing actually about … I’ve just become a grandmother myself in real life so I do understand that, in fact, the further the age gap, the more you understand. Because Duke always sticks up for me, actually, if people are being rude which is rather lovely.

And also I think that all the daughters are exceptional. I think they’re wonderful actresses and I’m terribly fond of them all.

M&C: They are very special. It’s a great ensemble of young actors.

Celia: Yes, and sort of unusual. They’re not … you know sometimes you can see kids and they will sort of look alike, where these are all very, very individual. As are Pamela’s real children of course, as well.

M&C: Tell me about the actor who plays Walter [Harrison Page], your love interest this season, who’s really more of a companion now than a torrid love affair. He’s really bonded to you and we met him last season. Who is he?

Celia: We had such a lovely time in the museum scene, and then the scene when I said I thought I should leave. I said to Pamela, we felt a great warmth to each other.

I mean, I had not met him before that. And I think she notices these things and thought, actually that’s a very good storyline to bring back. So yes, it’s lovely to have that continuing.

Also, I think it shows that whatever age you are, you can still have a bit of fun and a bit of company. And I think that’s rather lovely.

M&C: It is. And there’s a natural chemistry with the actor who plays him and yourself. You guys just feel right on screen. It doesn’t feel forced, it feels very quite right.

Celia: No, I know, I know. Aren’t I lucky, actually? It’s lovely. I think all the actors that Felicia cast and Pamela chooses, they’re all not the number you would first think of. They’re not, there’s a wonderful diversity of the people that she chooses. And they’re all very original I think, don’t you?

M&C: I do. It’s one of my favorite things about the series. It’s not predictive, it’s quite inclusive in the whole spectrum of humanity.

Celia: Exactly, that’s why I found it quite difficult to try and explain to people in England what it was. Because it’s sort of in a cast of its own in a way, isn’t it? You can’t say it’s really like anything else, which I applaud.

Because so often people want to say, “Oh it’s sort of Friends meets Hollywood Housewives.” Or something which is completely ludicrous, but this is on its own, this is an original. I love it.

M&C: How do you think British audiences will interpret it? Do you think that they’ll love it?

Celia: Well so far, most people have loved it. I think some people are shocked at the amount of time Pamela refers to dicks. Because honestly, English audiences can be awfully prudish sometimes.

And so they’re not quite ready for that. But actually, you know, it’s refreshing. And again, bet your bottom dollar there’s nothing like it on English television. I’m just so thrilled that somebody has brought it over. It’s thrilling to me to share it, actually.

M&C: Conversely, Americans now, between BritBox and Netflix, we’re getting to see wonderful English and British television series, and you’ve done a slew of them. Which one of your past TV series are you hoping that we Americans discover on one of these services that’s airing these already done British TV shows?

Celia: Oh gosh, well I love that you get things like the Marigold Hotel, of course, because I love that. I haven’t really been in an English television series for a while actually, so I’d have to think about that one.

But I am absolutely devoted to your American series. I think they’re first class. I love my series of course. I’ve loved The Good Wife and all those little things. I find them very compelling. And I love that we’re swapping a bit more, you know like, English actors are being accepted into American series and the other way around. I find that very thrilling, and the more we can mix it up the better, I think.

M&C: I didn’t know who Monty Don was until I saw him on Netflix and now I’m addicted. I want him to come over and fix my garden.

Celia: Of course you do, of course, you do.

M&C: You’ve got a great role, you’ve got an established, incredible series, is there anyone that you adore, that you have a soft spot for? That you enjoy.

Celia: Well you know, it’s too difficult for me to choose really. And anyway, I don’t want anybody else to be in this series but me. I’m so selfish, but that’s a very Phil reply. But I want for myself. I’m completely obsessed with it and I don’t want anybody else coming in. Pamela would understand.

But also I don’t know whether it’s a forum to mention the books that I have written in England, as well. I’ve got … well, I think that the American, when I was over there, there’s a book called Sail Away, which has just come out, which is set on the Queen Mary, because that’s how I come over to America. I don’t fly, I come on the ship.

Honestly, that’s a very Phil remark, but I … and I’m not being serious particularly, except that I’m so very proud to be in this series, and I consider myself extremely lucky, and you know, Pamela is so loved by the crew and by all of us. I don’t know how she does it quite, acting, directing, and having good fun.

Because we do, we work jolly hard, but we do have a laugh while we’re doing it. Which I think shows, don’t you?

M&C: The warmth definitely is there and it’s resonant when you watch.

Celia: But what I also love, I think, what I also love is that there are bits that are very funny, but there are also bits that are terribly sad, and I love that. Like any good story, she’s got both in spades.

Better Things airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. EP/PT on FX.

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
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