'PEN15' Co-Creator Maya Erskine on Casting Her Own Mother and Season 2 Plans
The actress-producer-writer, who stars on the Hulu series alongside fellow co-creator Anna Konkle as 13-year-old versions of themselves, talks about the logistical challenges of acting opposite younger castmates and the surprising viewer reaction to the masturbation episode.
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle didn't grow up together but, after meeting during their junior year at NYU, they bonded over their shared ambition to work in entertainment. After reuniting in Los Angeles, they found themselves hanging out with Erskine's former middle school classmates (she went to the city's glitzy Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences) and reflecting on their awkward teen selves.
So naturally they decided to revisit this time in their lives with their Hulu show PEN15. Erskine and Konkle co-created and co-executive produce the series, along with starring as 13-year-old versions of themselves. Erskine, 32, spoke with THR about creating the show, casting her own mother and what she and Konkle hope to do next season.
How did you go about writing the show?
It was all of our first time in a writers room. So we had to sort of make up our process on the spot, and it was really like a master class. We spent a couple of months outlining and trying to figure out an arc for my and Anna's characters. We always knew that in the first season we wanted to focus on the straddling between childhood and tweendom — to see them struggle with the confusion of playing with toys but also experiencing sexual feelings and all of that.
How did you find the balance between the lighthearted/awkward/nostalgic parts of this show and the more serious topics?
We first filmed a 15-minute presentation to use as a tool to sell the show. And that was a lot more lighthearted — it almost bordered on sketch. That's what we always wanted to avoid, but it was 15 minutes and so it was more humorous. I remember thinking, "OK, this isn't our ideal version of this show. We know we want to push it. We know we want to just reflect what our realities were at the time." So for me that's always going to be a combination of humor and drama. Because the things that are really painful can be really funny and then they can also be really sad and hard to watch.
You and Anna are playing middle school kids, but the rest of the cast are actually middle school age. What kind of logistical challenges did that present?
Well, obviously the scenarios where it's more mature content — that was something that we always had talked about and were really careful about. It was really important for us to make sure the kids felt safe, and that we used body doubles during those moments. But acting with the kids was great. I felt extremely self-conscious around the popular girls and the popular boys because I was in my bowl cut and my mustache and they hadn't seen what I look like outside of that character. So I just felt like, no matter what, I was going to be seen as the dorky Maya in their eyes.
What's it been like to have your mother play your character's mom on the show?
I was surprised by how game she was for it. I think she is at a point in her life where she just is not self-conscious. I put her in my student films in high school and she could not say a line to save her life. And so it started out as a joke. But she just has this level of authenticity. I was blown away by her professionalism — she hit her mark, she would say her lines. It was pretty wild to see her in that environment. And I think it was wild for her to see me in this role. For her to see me be a boss on set — that was a really new experience for her.
Have you gotten feedback since the show has come out that's really surprised you?
I was really scared about the masturbation episode. I wasn't sure if it was going to come across as excessive or over the top, or just be really embarrassing. I had a lot of shame surrounding it. So the biggest surprise was having people reach out saying, "I thought I was the only one doing that at that time and I felt like a pervert." Just to have other people tell me that they went through the same things that I went through makes me feel so seen and heard and not alone.
What are your goals for next season and your career in general?
Anna and I are going to direct [episodes]. And for sure I want to direct and write features. Some will be with Anna, some hopefully alone. And I do want to keep pursuing acting. I came from the theater world, so I still have dreams of doing Shakespeare in the Park or plays, and acting in films with directors that I adore.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.