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Middle school — that “gray world of dealing with adult feelings before you have the capacity to deal with them” says PEN15 co-creator Anna Konkle — is a chapter of life that most people prefer to forget about and move on from. But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and it’s in the traumatic experiences of adolescence that real-life best friends Konkle and Maya Erskine saw storytelling potential. Performing middle school versions of themselves — bad haircuts, braces and all — easily could have turned gimmicky if not for the dynamic duo’s commitment to keeping it raw and real. After scoring three Emmy noms, Konkle discusses playing 13 at 34, writing from personal experience and the importance of broaching taboo subjects.
The pandemic struck when you were partway through shooting season two. Why release the first seven episodes instead of waiting to wrap the second half?
[The two batches of episodes] were always intended to [come] out separately, and they operate storywise like two different seasons. The animated special that’s coming out [Aug. 27] was intended to come out three months after the first arc of episodes, and then the last arc of episodes was going to come out pretty much after that. The difference is that we didn’t finish shooting all 15 episodes, so everyone’s waiting six months for this last batch of episodes.
How did the animated special come together?
The animated special was supposed to be live-action. We were deep in production, figuring out how we were going to do that [special], because it wasn’t typical PEN15. When that got shut down, [it] was a real change deciding to do this special in an animated world. I thought it would be a killer experience because I’m green to animation — so is Maya — and the idea of not being on set all day every day, we just assumed it would be a little bit more straightforward. We were wrong, obviously. It’s a whole beautiful medium unto itself, and there’s been a lot of learning about that. The challenge, too, is wanting to stay true to the show that we already created.
You’ve said before that when you pitched PEN15, not everyone could see the vision. How did you and Maya know that you could pull it off anyway?
To be honest, we were nervous ourselves, and we were honest with Hulu about that. I remember in the pitch [about eight years ago] being like, “We’re really passionate about feeling that this was a part of our lives that [hasn’t] been told in mainstream media in a truthful way.” Being a girl, being 13, and the R-rated things you go through — there hadn’t been the right frame to tell those stories, frankly and without apologizing. I think that I looked at Maya and thought, “OK, I might fail at this, but she’s going to be amazing, we’ll just edit me out, it’s fine.” But she weirdly found reverence in trusting me, and we could doubt ourselves, as so many artists do, and still move forward and be passionate about it. The trick, and what we still struggle with, was trying to do it as grounded as possible.
The teen genre seems to be undergoing a renaissance with shows like PEN15, Chad and Big Mouth. What do you think is the driving force behind this trend?
I think that humanity is always rediscovering the shame we all hold and [the way] you’re programmed to not talk about some things. [What] falls under that category [is] we can’t talk about masturbating [at] 13, we can’t talk about the intricacies of hating my mom. But the more we mined into it, we realized that was ingrained thinking that wasn’t based in anything real. Because you’re in between kid-dom and teenagerdom, it’s this gray world of dealing with adult feelings before you have the capacity to deal with them. I can’t tell you how many people are like, “I blocked that out, that point in my life was very traumatic and I can’t remember anything.” But to me and Maya, and I think other artists too, so much of the best humor and touching moments come from the stuff that you feel the most scared to talk about. It was kind of a treasure trove of untold stories. And now a lot of us are trying to tell them.
Are there any classic middle-school moments in the show that neither of you experienced?
I would say that everything is based on truth in feeling, and then the situations, many of them are just fully written in, like the third best friend dynamic … that is sort of a universal story. We certainly didn’t wrestle, Maya wasn’t quite that much of a stalker. I think the third episode [“Vendy Wiccany”] plays with real things and pretending to be witches, which Maya and I both did …
How much of your and Maya’s onscreen dynamic is based on real life?
The way that Maya and I grab each other and hug each other and put our heads together close and the way we laugh, it can pop [into] our adult lives, but it’s not really how we are. It’s almost like we’re approaching the characters from the ultimate weirdo nerds that we are, [and] every honest, reject-y part of ourselves [is] infused into these characters. Something about who we are and our comfortability with each other fortunately translates onscreen as these two wild best friends that are co-dependent and love each other to the end, unconditionally. But it’s hard to say where we begin and end because it feels so deeply natural. And there’s a kinship that we get to bring out when we’re playing the characters.
As a showrunner, writer and actor, does wearing all these hats simultaneously ever take you out of performing?
In a lot of ways, it makes it a lot harder. Toggling between the showrunning responsibilities, it’s hard to stay in character. [For years,] Maya and I have been like, “We’re going to get a couple of weeks to rehearse before we start [shooting] and really get into our characters.” Of course, we’ve never gotten [that]. But I think the upside is that most of the words [we get to say] we’ve written in some way, so we get to really make sure that our characters are authentic to who we created.
After the success of season one, did you feel any pressure going into season two?
Season one was really scary, because there was a ton of skepticism about the show. But that also gave us a lot of freedom, because [we said], “Let’s throw everything we have at it. People don’t get this, and we’re getting to make it, and how lucky are we?” It wasn’t like nine networks were fighting for it. So we felt like underdogs and we really banded together to try to take out the critics in our heads and just write something that we love, because that was all we could do. When there was some more success than we were expecting, going into season two for me at least was really challenging, mentally. We just had to keep going back to the same mantra that we have, to find what’s most fulfilling to us and keep challenging ourselves, because we’re getting older every year and we’re still playing 13-year-olds and your perspective changes.
Do you ever worry about writing something so specific that it actually may not be relatable? Or do you have confidence in “the more specific, the more universal”?
I think we’re gaining that confidence, but yeah, there’s been so many times. I mean, the whole show is very specific. It wasn’t the goal, necessarily, that people would be like, “This is me.” We just thought, this is an insight into two very specific people, and this is the truth of them. But the more specific we got, the more messages we got [that were] like, “This is straight out of my diary, this is straight out of my life.” There definitely have been moments in the writers room when Maya and I try to share stuff that we’ve never told anybody. We can’t really expect other people to do that if we’re not doing that. Most of the time, people will be like, “Oh, my God, I forgot I did that.” But every once in a while, there’s definitely times where there’s awkward silence. You’re like, “O-kayyy, let’s keep going.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s awkward ode to adolescence is the kind of show that awards-gazers pre-write snubs stories about on the eve of nominations. So PEN15‘s inclusion in the main comedy race, not to mention a writing mention for Erskine, is in and of itself a victory. But with its Hollywood appeal — comedy writers adore PEN15 — and the memorable shtick of adult actresses playing children, it’s exactly the kind of series that’s been known to stage an upset. — Mikey O’Connell
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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