In recalling stories from seventh grade, Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle and Sam Zvibleman were so entertained by their own memories that, in 2019, the close friends created PEN15, a comedy series where Erskine and Konkle, then 32, portrayed their semi-autobiographical journeys through middle school. Little did the audience know that through the eyes of two adolescents they would get a lesson in the relevance of teenage issues and emotions. “At the time we were conceiving it, we would go to these parties and feel like we were back in middle school,” Erskine says. “We were having an epiphany that the 13-year-old inside of you is always there.” Here Erskine talks about the catharsis of going back in time, and why it was time to bid farewell to her tween self.
DEADLINE: When you announced the end of the series after its second season, it was met with such profound sadness. Did you expect that reaction?
MAYA ERSKINE: No, I didn’t. I think I felt profound sadness, too, even though it was our decision. Then, to hear other people be sad about it, just amplified how we felt about it. It felt like the mourning and grieving commenced at that point. But I think with audience reactions, we never expect any of them. Even when the show first came out, I think we were very scared of how people were going to react—if people were going to even watch it. You just can’t anticipate what the reactions are going to be. So, it was very heartwarming that people were sad about it.
DEADLINE: it make you for a second reconsider doing more?
ERSKINE: No. We had always seen it as three seasons. Yes, it’s technically two seasons, but we look at it as three because there are three different story arcs and three different chapters. Also, because it’s seventh grade forever, there were a couple things [to consider]: How long that can go story wise, and just having the restraint to say, “This is where the story ends.” But also, practically speaking, the kids are all getting older. There were many factors that played into that decision, but I feel happy with how it ended.
DEADLINE: Take us back to the beginning when you, Anna and Sam were conceiving the idea. What was it about seventh grade that stood out and what did you want to say with the show?
ERSKINE: In the beginning, especially with Anna and Sam, a lot of the stories that made us die laughing were always from that age. We would comment on not having really seen anything portrayed that authentically on TV. Welcome to the Dollhouse is something we always reference as being our beacon of middle school truth. That movie’s amazing. But other than that, we hadn’t really seen an R-rated, honest portrayal of that time. That’s what we kept coming back to. Then, when we were in our 20s, that felt like a second adolescence. At the time we were conceiving it, we were so insecure. We would go to these parties and feel like we were back in middle school. It was this really odd time. I still feel that way sometimes. We were having an epiphany that, “Oh, this never leaves you.” That 13-year-old self inside of you is always there. The first time you got embarrassed, the first time you felt heartbroken, that’s in you. It felt like the only thing we wanted to write about.
Maya Erskin in Hulu comedy hit PEN15.
DEADLINE: The tone deepened significantly in the second season. Was that always the intention?
ERSKINE: I don’t know if that was the intention from the beginning. I think we had always thought it would only be one season, so let’s put it all into it. And then when it did well, and we got a second season, time had passed. We had grown up a bit. I think we had evolved a bit in our tastes and it just naturally went to that tone. But there was a lot of talk about not wanting to escape too far from how this show was in the beginning. How do we keep the essence of it, but go deeper and play with the tone?
DEADLINE: How does one go about getting back into the emotions of a 13-year-old? All those feelings are so intense in PEN15.
ERSKINE: Because they are. It’s operatic. That age is life or death. If you wear the wrong tank top, that could mean the end of your year. I recall having such a deep, emotional reaction to something that now I can look back and laugh at, but at the time it was so major. You’re also going through such massive transformations, physically and mentally at that age that everything’s out of whack and extreme. I would say, acting-wise, when we first started acting that age, it was hard to click in, and then we didn’t want to leave that age. It’s funny because it’s a paradox; you’re so insecure and self-conscious at that age, but you’re also totally able to be free and unabashed with your emotions, with your best friend, your mom, you can scream, you can do whatever. So, getting to act all of that out, it was very freeing and comfortable.
DEADLINE: What was the challenge in the beginning? What is it like to literally step back into your 13-year-old body?
ERSKINE: Physically it was very uncomfortable because we had to strap our boobs down and we had to wear these low rider jeans that make your belly stick out and all these things that just naturally make you feel so uncomfortable. Our goal was, we didn’t want it to come off like a sketch. We wanted to try to make it as real as possible. So, there was a lot of fear going in how to authentically portray that age, let alone your version of yourself at that age. It was a big challenge. And then we just fell into it naturally. It helps that we write, too, because then we could change things if it didn’t feel right.
DEADLINE: Does it help being surrounded by real 13-year-olds?
ERSKINE: Very much so. Oh my god, we learned so much from them. All the small behaviors. We would just watch the way they would touch their hair or hide a little bit behind their hands and their bellies. All these things were so informative and the way the cliques would form, and the friendships would form. It was very helpful.
DEADLINE: It is interesting how you guys shot the kissing scenes, using body doubles. That’s something that a lot of thought has to go into, I assume.
ERSKINE: Tons. We talked for hours about it. When we were writing those things, we always made sure that we knew how we were going to shoot it before. It was never a ‘day of’ thing. We would shot list it out so that we knew, “You’re going to first do a close up of Anna and then Brendan. And then the two-shot they’ll start to come close, but then we cut before you even get that close.” It was always about protecting the kid and also protecting the audience, not wanting for the audience to be taken out in any way of the story, being able to watch comfortably, not be worried, but also for it to feel realistic. It was challenging.
From left, Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine.
Courtesy of Hula
DEADLINE: How much of it is autobiographical in terms of storylines?
ERSKINE: I would say 70 percent to 80 percent. It all stems from something that has happened. The last season, it’s less so, but the first season was pretty autobiographical. The other thing is, me and Anna weren’t friends in middle school. We didn’t know each other. So, we’re taking from our lives, but we were creating a new story out of that to join both mine and Anna’s stories.
DEADLINE: What were some of the stories from your own life that you were eager to include?
ERSKINE: Eager, I don’t know. But definitely the story where my pad flew out—that happened, but not at a sleepover. That happened on stage, actually, but I always wanted to include that because it was such an embarrassing moment in my life. The masturbation story, I wasn’t eager to include that, but I’m so thankful that we did. It was so major for us to put that out there. Doing “Yuki”, that was not from real life, but there were things about that episode that were from my real life or my mom’s real life.
DEADLINE: How did the decision to cast your own mother, Mutsuko Erskine, come about?
ERSKINE: We were holding auditions, and no one wanted to audition for [the show]. People would cancel when they read the sides. They were like, “No, we’re not sending our kids to this. What is this?” Also, I didn’t find any authentic Japanese women. That was something that was really important to me. Then it just came up. I’d put my mom in my high school film. She wasn’t great, but what if I could get her to just say a couple lines? She might be able to do it. It was sort of a joke at first. I still have all her auditions on my phone and they’re insane, but it’s just two lines and she ends up nailing it. And then we were like, all right, let’s do it. And she just blossomed in front of our very eyes.
DEADLINE: What is it like to re-examine the relationship between your mother and your teenage self, as an adult?
ERSKINE: At first it was just so meta. I was on set in the beginning, getting annoyed with my mom, as me, Maya, trying to be like, “Mom, no, you have to hit this mark and say the line when I say that.” I start talking to her like I was a 13-year-old child, but I’m being Maya. My brother was the editor on the show and he hated his life when he was editing our scenes, because he’s like, “That whine of yours is traumatizing to me, and I never want to hear it again.” But I think when I directed her, that was the most transformative experience we had as mother and daughter. I really got to see my mom as this woman and not just as my mom, and that was a wild experience for me. I directed half of it before the pandemic, half of it after, and I had become a mother after that. It just added so much depth to the way I see everything in that episode. That was special.
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DEADLINE: Is there catharsis in reliving your most embarrassing moments?
ERSKINE: Yeah. I mean there’s catharsis in all of it, really. The embarrassing moments you’re able to laugh at and you have distance from it. It’s not embarrassing anymore. But the sad moments, the moments where my heart was broken, it was wild that I would still feel just as devastated when filming it. That was surprising to me. I didn’t think that those emotions were so close to the surface.
DEADLINE: And what are you working on or writing currently?
ERSKINE: I’m about to film Mr. And Mrs. Smith. I’m here in New York doing that for the next seven months.
DEADLINE: What’s exciting to you about the new project?
ERSKINE: What’s exciting is that it’s very different from PEN15. It’s a very different character. I’m just acting in this, so I can take a break from the three roles, because that really was the biggest grind of my life. I think this will still be challenging, it’s just going to be different. I have to really step into the woman part of myself. I’ve been stuck in this kid part of myself and enjoying that so thoroughly. This is out of my comfort zone, to play a woman, like a woman. I hope I can do that.