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Better Things: Celia Imrie on Lenny Kravitz's awkward dinner scene

‘It was like jumping into an ice cold sea’

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Justin Lubin/FX

Every week, the cast and crew of FX’s Better Things — a semi-autobiographical comedy created by Pamela Adlon and Louie C.K., centered on Sam Fox (Adlon), an actress and gnarly single mom of three girls — is taking EW behind the scenes. For each episode, a cast or crew member is recapping, sharing thoughts on what went down, and walking us through the ins-and-outs of the show. Here, actress Celia Imrie, who plays Sam’s mother, Phyllis, walks us through episode 3, “Brown.”

On working with Lenny Kravitz, who plays Sam’s director, Mel, in this episode: 

I’m such a fan of his. In fact, I’ve just gone out on purpose to buy his latest record with Trombone Shorty. He sings this beautiful song called “Something Beautiful.” He could not have been more charming. He’s such a sport and so adorable. I quite fell for him. He’s just lovely in every way. 

On that awkward dinner scene where Phyllis uses a racial slur in front of Mel:

They did a really clever thing because they didn’t tell the children what I was going to say, and actually Lenny didn’t know exactly what I was going to say, either. Their reactions were wonderfully of the moment — fantastic. But those scenes are always quite nerve-racking. Remember, I’m not playing myself, so that’s the way to just do these scenes, to just be Phylllis, who is the most wonderful creation and not how I feel about things. She’s naughty. She’s deliberately naughty, and I love that about her, but those aren’t my beliefs, obviously. But, I did think it was like jumping into an ice cold sea.

On how she gets into character as Phyllis and tries to understand her quirks: 

She’s the most marvelous character to play. I think I’m terribly lucky because — this is a British expression — she’s a naughty pickle. Sometimes she knows what she’s doing, and other times she doesn’t. She’s quite a complex character, actually, and you don’t necessarily know why she behaves like she does. It’s interesting because the minute you start to talk about how you do things, it sort of floats out of the window. It’s quite mysterious, and I’m not sure if I can put it into words, really. I just love being part of this series. A director once said to me, “No one is consistent,” and it’s true. She’s sort of an extraordinary mixture of all sorts and that is very interesting to play, but it’s not necessarily easy to pin down or describe. 

On her relationship with the three young actors who play her grandchildren, Max, Frankie, and Duke:

I had seen the pilot before I was cast and I thought that all three daughters were particularly original and marvelous, and I grew to absolutely adore them. They probably thought I was from another planet, but we had great fun. They taught me an American accent and we used to have this contest where I put on an American accent and they put on an English one. They’re terribly good at it. We had the best fun and I was very, very fond of all of them. I think they’re very talented and very original. I think the whole series is, actually.

On meeting Adlon’s mother, who named Imrie’s character after her own mother:

I loved the opportunity to meet her — she’s a marvelous mixture too. She’s got a wonderful sparkle about her, that’s what I love. Sometimes you don’t know whether she’s teasing or whether she’s not, and I love that about people. You don’t quite know where you are.It was a great inspiration to be able to meet her.

Better Things airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.​

—As told to Chancellor Agard