'PEN15' Stars/Creators on Reliving Middle School: "It's a Freak Show That We Wanted to Expose"

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter In Studio, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle open up about their weird, raw, hilarious and at times emotionally taxing TV show.

Hulu’s PEN15 follows Maya and Anna, two 13-year-olds navigating middle school in the year 2000. Though the premise may sound straightforward, the show is anything but, mainly due to the fact that the actors playing the two aren’t actually 13: they’re grown women in their early 30s.

Though Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s original idea was that the main characters had escaped a cult and were posing as middle schoolers, third co-creator Sam Zvibleman suggested they simplify the concept. “It was like, ‘Oh, what if we were just middle schoolers in the year 2000 and tried to show it in a way that we experienced it, which was very R-rated?' ” Erskine said. “We hadn’t seen a version of that at the time, and it’s raw and it’s ugly and it’s a freak show that we wanted to expose.”

Though Erskine and Konkle are adults, all the actors playing their classmates are teenagers, including the character Sam, who is based on Zvibelman. “We’re taking from all of our different experiences, but obviously we all didn’t go to middle school together, we didn’t all grow up in the same place,” Erskine said.

Of the budding relationship between the Maya and Sam characters, Konkle clarified that in real life Erskine and Zvibleman aren’t in love. “So we added a lot of fiction into our experiences and tried to weave them together to create interesting dynamics.”

Though overall the show is billed as a comedy, it touches on some heartfelt, more serious subject matter from time to time. “Weirdly, one of the hardest or strangest moments, or more emotional, was doing scenes before [Anna's parents'] divorce happened,” Konkle said. “Going back to this house that’s based on my semi-real experience growing up with doctored pictures of the parents and me…that was weird.”

For Erskine, an episode where her character is otherized by some of the girls from school was particularly difficult. “The Spice Girls episode was a challenging one, and that was because it was such a surprise,” Erskine said. “While we were writing it I think we had no idea. We knew we were touching on serious subject matter, but I didn’t think it was as raw or as present as it was. When we were filming it just hit me out of nowhere, and then it hit Anna and then it hit the rest of the crew.

Erskine continued: “Another moment that was really hard for me to film, or at least just really emotional, was the scene where at the end Maya and Anna smoke a cigarette, because I knew a) that this was the end of the show and b) it was the moment of loss of innocence. That was the first moment that you’re seeing these two kids experience something, and as an adult looking back on that it just had this whole layered effect that was tough to get through.”

Beyond the emotional toll, the show doesn’t hold back on some of the most hilarious and cringe-worthy things middle school girls go through. One storyline involves Erskine’s character experimenting with masturbation throughout an entire episode.

“It was scary in the writers room, going there, and then at the same time we kept just feeling like this is something we’ve grown up watching but on the guys’ side,” Konkle said. “Since the year 2000, going and seeing a movie and the jerk-off thing is the joke -- and it is funny, it’s not to undercut that -- but it’s like, can I as a woman doing that be funny too? And can it be shameful and gross and funny and sad and all of those things?”

“Not just Mulholland Drive, where she’s crying and it’s sexual and sad,” Erskine added. “Not that that’s wrong, it’s just, what about a kid? Girls are going through that.”

“And if a boner can be funny, a pulsing labia can be funny too,” Konkle said.

PEN15 has been renewed for season two, and season one can be seen on Hulu.