- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
This article was created in paid partnership with SK-II
While Maya Erskine might not be a household name (or at least, not yet), many people would recognize Erskine as Maya Ishii-Peters in the hit Hulu series PEN15 — a shy 13-year-old girl with a bowl cut, navigating the treachery of seventh grade with her best friend.
Co-created with Anna Konkle, who is Erskine’s closest friend off-screen as well, and writer Sam Zvibleman, the show features Erskine and Konkle — now both 34 — playing middle school versions of themselves. After its debut in 2019, the cringe-y comedy claimed hearts for its visceral storytelling as it covered life moments like periods, first kisses, and masturbation — relentlessly moving from one awkward situation to the next in the way middle school feels when you’re living it.
Throughout the series, Maya processes a lot emotionally. She gets called UGIS (an acronym for the “ugliest girl in school”), is led on by a toxic middle school crush, and reconciles being othered for her Japanese American identity in episodes like “Posh,” in which she is forced to serve her friends because she isn’t white. Many of those moments read to viewers as normal middle school bullying, but, for Erskine, they represent her struggles with self-doubt and insecurity: “I’m super self-critical. I think I can come across as if I’m overly confident sometimes, but I have to go there because I’m so scared and insecure at times,” she told Hollywood Reporter.
Now, after giving birth to her first child with partner Michael Angarano this year, Erskine is working on implementing boundaries and making time for things she loves. And drawing inspiration from Simone Biles in SK-II’s new short film Simone Biles VS Trolls, Erskine is also learning how to quiet her inner critic—even when it’s challenging.
How did you get started in acting and writing?
I started acting when I was in middle school, you know, just in school theater. That was where I first fell in love with it, because it was kind of this haven for me: I was feeling a bit like an outcast, and that was the one place where I found my people, and I felt really safe to be me and super free. From that point on, I was constantly chasing theater, doing it throughout high school and college; I studied experimental theater at NYU. That’s where we learned it’s a lot about creating your own work — there was a lot of writing involved, but I never really thought about that. I was like, “No, I’ll keep acting.” After graduating, I kept auditioning for theater and would just get unpaid work, really. I would just be in an office room, performing Shakespeare, with maybe three people watching. And this was happening a lot, for many years.
My first audition for TV was for a role labeled “Chinese Waitress No. 2,” and it just had two lines. I remember thinking, “Oh, wow. This isn’t sustainable. If I want to keep doing this, or doing what I love, I have to create the opportunity for myself.” So that’s when Anna [Konkle] and I started to write a web series together, because we found that we just wanted to play characters and we weren’t getting the opportunity, so we had to do it ourselves.
Auditioning for that role you mentioned, Chinese waitress No. 2 — I think that’s such a prevalent theme in TV and film. What has your experience been like, as a woman of color, especially an Asian woman of color, in the industry?
You know, it’s so interesting, because I would say that was sort of the beginning. There were not many roles afforded to me — but I also had never acted in TV before, so that was part of it. But then, I found that I was afforded almost more opportunity in some sense because a lot of shows needed more diversity. There were the friends that needed to be either Black, Latinx, or Asian, and I could audition for [those roles]. But as I kept getting jobs, I found that I was always the sarcastic friend, or a token person of color. And again, I got brought back to that same spot of, “Oh, I have to create my own opportunity, because I’m not going to be able to play fully dimensional characters by being cast in those roles.”
Once, I also auditioned for a big movie — it was one of those quirky roles that are open for any sort of any ethnicity. And when I went in, the producer was there. He’d produced other big movies in this franchise, and, after my audition, he was like, “I know you. You were in my movie.” He basically assumed that I was the one Asian in a movie, even though the real actress was in her 40s and I was in my 20s. For me, that was the most extreme moment — like you really just compared me to the only other Asian in a movie you made? I feel like it’s changing, but it always feels like there has to be an example of a successful movie with an Asian or Black lead for the rest of the industry to be like, “Oh, let’s copy that formula.” It just reinforced for me that I had to make those characters for myself.
It’s incredible that you transformed those challenges into opportunities rather than getting defeated. Where did you find the motivation to undertake those changes?
I mean, it helps to have a friend like Anna doing it with me, by my side. I don’t know if I would have had enough belief in myself to do that. But I think the motivation was really years of relentless rejection, as well as the stagnant nature of the industry. It was beyond even the idea of success or anything — it was more like, what is going to make me happy?
Well, making work that I am passionate about makes me happy. That’s sort of the motivation — the stories I want to tell and making what I love. Also at the time, Lena Dunham had just done Girls, so we lucked out when we made our web series because, like I said, as soon as the industry saw the success of a woman creating her own show and starring in it, they were like, “Oh, great. We need more female creators and actresses.”
Are there specific instances that you can recall in that journey where you had to overcome self-criticism?
Every day. [Laughs] Every day I work, I would say. In theater class, I would hide in the back, you know, and then I’d somehow be called up to present. I was just so scared to fail in front of my classmates, like so scared to make a fool out of myself. But once I was pushed to go up in front of everyone, it would open up a whole world for me. So, it was sort of this big lesson that I’m having to learn over and over again that the thing that scares you is the thing you need to go towards. Like, why are you scared? What is that saying about you? Having to push yourself at times is really important because it can lead to eye-opening experiences: PEN15 was terrifying to do, but we had to keep pushing each other to say, “No, we can do this.”
In Simone Biles VS Trolls, the Olympic gold medalist battles tons of negative comments and insecurity after sharing a photo of herself online. Did you find the film relatable?
I’m not a universal figure like Simone Biles so I don’t feel like I’m even worthy of having internet trolls. [Laughs] Most people don’t know who I am — I remember there being some posts about me and everyone under it was like, “Who is this?” so I guess that’s my trolling. But I related to it in the sense that those little trolls were the trolls inside of me. I mean, I hate to keep saying that, but I think that really is my demon, the thoughts that I have about myself are something that I feel I have to battle like Simone.
Did you feel that the film impacted your perception of Simone Biles at all?
It’s funny, because you look at someone like [Simone] and you think that stuff won’t affect her. She seems impenetrable. Like, her talent is like this shield, like she doesn’t have to deal with anything. But that’s obviously false. She’s human. And that’s what, to me, makes her even more amazing. She’s a human being, and she’s overcoming all of that negativity with such grace and dealing with it on such a massively public scale.
It’s so vulnerable and exposing and that is the strength and beauty that I look up to. It’s incredibly inspiring. To continue to define and exceed your own expectations — and everyone else’s around you — while being so singular and strong. I wish I had that as a kid, you know, I wish I had someone like her to look at. And that would be like, “Oh, I want to be beautiful like her.” You know? I’m just so grateful for someone like her.
In PEN15, Maya came across as being similarly bullied in the series. Were those scenes inspired by your personal experiences?
There are, for example, moments like when Maya is playing Posh Spice. There are things that were pulled from my personal experience. But, you know, something we wanted to show with that scene was that these kids are kids, you know, they’re 13. And I think what it was for me — in real life — was that I desperately wanted to continue to be friends with this popular group. And I just wasn’t. I was left out and left behind. Bullying is such a broad term, so I don’t know if I would call it outright bullying. But what I do know is that I was very hurt as a kid by all of that.
I was kind of the token jester, I would say. That was my way of trying to please and fit in, because I didn’t look like everyone else. I didn’t have wealth like everyone else around me and the people that I wanted to be like. So, in PEN15, I wanted to show the nuances of it, that it’s not right and wrong. They’re not villains — the girls who are doing that are kind of unsure themselves of what damage they’re inflicting on Maya’s character.
Yeah, it kind of goes back to the self-criticism that we were talking about. In reality, a lot of the series is demonstrating personal self-criticism and the way that manifests.
Totally. I can still look back and be like, “Oh, man, that was fucked up when they said that or did this.” But I was placing such importance on their words and needing to fit in and be validated by these people that I felt like I bullied myself a lot, really. I mean, there’s like that scene where Maya’s looking in the mirror and she’s trying to make her eyes bigger. That’s drawn from direct personal experience, where I realized that what I looked like was different from everyone around me. That I wasn’t seeing myself reflected back to me on TV or anything. And I took that as I’m not good enough. So, in that sense, I would say society or the media was bullying me, you know?
How do you cope with external negativity or pressure, especially when it manifests in self-criticism?
The biggest thing I’m learning is an inner boundary. Meaning that if I were to ever receive any external negativity, having boundaries within myself that whatever they’re saying that’s negative is about them and not about me. Learning to not take those things personally, which is much easier said than done.
You can create external boundaries, but I’ve been learning in therapy about the inner boundary of self-talk to myself. When things happen, I’ll completely re-direct it like, “Nope, turn that away. Not about you.” Because I have the tendency to let something like that spin, I hear something that someone said, and it just spins and spins in my head.
How do you balance your work and self-care? What does that relationship look like to you?
This is such a big question for me, because I’m going through it in an intense way now because I just had a kid. When we first started with PEN15, we had to give all of ourselves over to it. In some ways, I think that it was necessary at that point. But it’s been years and I’m burnt out from that. That wasn’t balanced, and that’s not sustainable for a life of happiness. I want to be able to work but also maintain a life outside of that. So that’s one of the biggest things that I’m trying to figure out — balance.
Because this career doesn’t really have structure, you also have to create structure for yourself. If I don’t have a routine, each day is so different. I can just lay around for three days. Then all of a sudden, it’s like work work work work work for six days straight. As I get older, I don’t have the energy for that anymore. I burn out a lot faster. So I’ve been trying to create more of a routine for myself. Making sure I’m doing three things every morning and ending the night with a bath. That really helps.
The other thing is again, boundaries. Saying no to things and really filtering what I want to do through a new lens of like, I’m going to be taking away precious time with my kid for this. Is this sacrifice worth it? Really answering that and not worrying about my choice not pleasing everyone, because I’ve said no in the past and been talked out of it. That’s something that I’m really trying, but I have to tell you, people in this industry don’t like hearing no.
Learn more about the “VS Series” and SK-II’s ongoing #CHANGEDESTINY initiative to support women pursuing their dreams to create positive change at SK-II.com.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day