"PEN15" stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle: "We still feel like we're in seventh grade"

Salon talks to the stars of the Hulu hit about returning to adolescence, and why nobody ever really grows up

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 6, 2019 5:16PM (EST)

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle (Matthew Smith - "Salon Talks")
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle (Matthew Smith - "Salon Talks")

My school had the least period-friendly uniforms in the world. I went to an all-girl Catholic institution, where students, still new to the whole menstrual experience,  were expected the endure their academic days in pale pink polo dresses. Of all the lessons I learned there, I'd put "how to skillfully tie a dark cardigan around your waist" right near the top of the list. Because that's adolescence. 

It doesn't matter when it happened, or where you lived. Being 13 years old is almost always a guaranteed rung of hell. In the past few years, shows like "Big Mouth" and movies like "Eighth Grade" have offered an honest exploration of the mortifying and hilarious adventure that is early adolescence. Now, in their acclaimed Hulu comedy "PEN15," costars, co-creators and co-executive producers Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle offer a nostalgic and frequently awkward interpretation of the blunder years of the early 2000s.

Playing their seventh-grade selves within a cast of real teenagers, the 31 year-olds get to offer a view of that time that's simultaneously authentic, because as Erskine puts it, "We still feel like we're in seventh grade." Who doesn't?

It was the era of gel pens, K-Ci & JoJo and of course, AOL Messenger. Salon's Erin Keane recently called the show "hilarious and heartfelt" and Cosmopolitan says that it is "so relatable, it feels like a personal attack." Is that the best review ever?

Anna Konkle: That's amazing. That's really incredible. That, or "Did you read my diary?" It's really unexpected and cool. With every trauma that Anna and Maya go through separately in the show, [someone] being like, "That happened, that happened, and that happened," which is interesting.

Even though you play friends who are in the same middle school together, you grew up on opposite coasts. Anna, you grew up in Massachusetts. Maya, you grew up in L.A. at the same time. You met in college in Amsterdam. You bonded over Bertolt Brecht.

Konkle: We bonded over the anxieties of performing in that way.

And then, the idea for this show sprang up a couple of years later when you were going to a party in your 20s. Can you talk a little about how that inspired the grain that became the pearl that is this show?

Maya Erskine: Anna had just moved to L.A. I was there for a couple years. We went to a party where there were a lot of kids from my middle school there. They still hang out and have the same dynamic that they had in middle school, and they're cool kids. We instantly felt insecure around them and just started going in our heads, "Wow, I'm not good enough. I'm not cool enough."

It was such a surprise and a revelation. Wow, we still feel like we're in seventh grade. How does this not escape me? I'm in my twenties. Even, Anna, you're not from LA and you didn't know these kids.

Konkle: Right, and I still felt like that.

Erskine: That just got the wheels turning about middle school. What if you never really left it? Anna and I really like playing different kinds of characters and especially rejects of society. So we started with a very convoluted idea of us being two characters who escaped from a cult and try to hide in a foster family.

Konkle: And go to middle school as the foster children to hide from the cult, but as adults. That didn't go anywhere.

It's a little like the movie "Orphan" as a comedy. Or like "21 Jump Street."

Erskine: Sure, or "Never Been Kissed." We just stole from every movie. We worked with Sam [Zvibleman, another of the show's co-creators] who is one of our best friends and an amazing creator. All three of us brainstormed for a couple days and just stripped away everything. It was like, "What if we're actually 13-year-olds around 13-year-old kids?" Showing the reality and the R-rated nature that we hadn't seen at the time, because this was six years ago, to portray it in an accurate way how we experienced it.

I don't know if anybody ever says, "Yeah, I was really super cool when I was in seventh grade. I had the world by the short ones." Everyone I know is like, "No, it was a mess."

When you went back and to see these people from your middle school, were you thinking, "Wait, maybe they weren't as together, maybe they weren't as exalted as I thought of at the time?" Or was it, "Nope, cool kids are still cool"?

Erskine: This is funny but Sam, our third, will always say, "It was my peak in middle school. I hit it big and it's gone downhill since then."

Konkle: Which is sad and funny too. In a totally different way.

Erskine: Exactly. But I've gotten some messages from the popular kids who have said they felt bullied or hurt and went through all this pain that I had zero idea of. But I'm still waiting for a couple more messages on that front. I think that even the bullies are bullied themselves, and the bullied bully. It's all about survival at that time, so I feel like there's no one who goes by unscathed.

I have two teenagers so middle school is still a fresh trauma for us. Sometimes, I look at them and think, "Is there someone who's going home and crying over my kids? Are they the ones who are just ruining somebody else's childhood?" Who knows?

Konkle: It's inevitable that we all sadly play a part in that because you're at a point where you're just trying to survive. This is something that makes us laugh and cry, the idea of something that can appear to somebody else so small or as adults looking back so tiny, and it can feel so massive.

I always talk about this one moment in middle school where I went home after someone's birthday party and I had danced with this guy for like two minutes. I danced on his feet, stepping on his feet. That was the first time I felt like I couldn't stop talking about it. Even now as an adult, I think about it, and that was the first real potential for love feeling, even though that was the only instance. That was that little moment.

I think that goes both ways with the positive and the negative. You could do something really small and it could really affect somebody else, but that's being human.

Your characters do that in the show. They spin around not necessarily aware of what they're doing to each other.

Konkle: I think that's something like Maya and I — as adults, as best friends, as business partners — have to navigate. It's almost reassuring to look back at that time and see that we were even dealing with that then. And it doesn't go away really. But you just figure out how to deal with it, maybe.

Erskine: I feel like that's the first time you're dealing with complex relationships. You're navigating more emotions than when you were a kid. Your brain is actually quite different.

Konkle: It's changing so dramatically at that moment. A lot of those relationships or dynamics are still the same as you grow. You can try to evolve them.

Your relationships are getting more sophisticated, your brain is changing, your hormones are just going off, you've got hairs popping up suddenly on your chin.

Konkle: Everywhere. Moles.

On your nipples. 

Konkle: I love that.

This has been six years in the making. I heard an interview with you where you said you had the idea for this, and you were like, "I better clear my schedule."

Konkle: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Naïve.

Optimistic. Hopeful.

Konkle: Sure, optimistic.

You said that at the time, you weren't seeing as much of the conversation out there or as much of this dramatized or depicted in popular culture. What did you draw on? What did influence you at the time when you were looking to inspiration?

Erskine: "Welcome to the Dollhouse" is a big one that we always reference. Todd Solondz. "Palindromes," his movie. "Freaks and Geeks." "The Squid and the Whale."

Konkle: Storylines that felt adult, where you were acknowledging the kid having some adult knowledge. Now it's happening a lot, but at the time, we were going, "How do we tell these adult stories that, as adults, we can talk about, but that really happened as a kid?"

And at the time it was like, OK, we won't have kids do it. We'll do it ourselves. And get real with it.

Which is just a brilliant way of doing it, because it then makes the comedy safe. You can be really absurd. When you see a movie like "Welcome to the Dollhouse," which is beautiful and brilliant, it just is so painful. You just feel Dawn's pain so deeply, her humiliation, because you also are thinking about the actress.

Erskine: Yeah, exactly. It's darker. And with adults, there's the distance to make yourself feel comfortable and put yourself in those shoes. I also think because we've had years from being in middle school, you can see the years of depth or emotional understanding that we have as adults placed into that.

It's not just having kids go through these emotions in front of you. It's like watching an adult relive that pain is another level.

Konkle: Even casting kids and kids being around us in some of the situations. For the most part, we are more the butt of the joke often or the lowest on the totem pole, which made me feel more comfortable casting other kids as opposed to putting them in that position.

There was still the feeling of, "They're witnessing something — or experiencing it too, being actors in it — kind of shitty. How much should we talk about this scene with them? What does their parent think about this? What does the schoolteacher on set think about this?" Occasionally we would have those conversations and everybody seemed to be really on board.

I read a really great review that said this is a show that is about the trauma of middle school, it's not an instrument of traumatizing kids. What I find even more incredible is that you are doing these scenes with your mom, Maya. You are humping pillows in front of your actual real mother. What's that like?

Erskine: Strangely, it was fine. I didn't feel embarrassed in front of my mom. It was more, knowing that my dad was gonna watch this show.

[My mother and I] are very open, we're very close with each other. And I still didn't talk about masturbating to her. I kept saying to her on set, "This is a bit dramatized for the sake of comedy." I think by now they understand. I think they actually are really happy about it.

Konkle: They're proud of you.

Erskine: They're proud that I shared that openly.

Konkle: I'm so grateful.

Erskine: It was really nice and comforting to have my mom on set. Any time I'm around my mom, even now, I revert back to the age of 13. I don't know what that says about me emotionally but it's so easy for me. I feel so safe, I just revert back to my kid self. Being on set with her, it just helped that much more.

You're both really playing very much versions of your 13-year-old selves. How do you change that? Do you just get right in there and you're back in that place? Or is it "No, I can be a little kinder to myself or go a little easier on myself or a little harder on myself?"

Erskine: I think it changes depending on the scene.

There were certain scenes that felt more at home and more reminiscent of what happened as a kid. That was quite surprising when it would happen. That felt cathartic and traumatic and a way to relive. Anna and I tried to approach these characters as not necessarily just Maya and Anna, because they're not exactly what our lives were growing up and we weren't real best friends as 13-year-olds. But there was lot to mine from from our own personal experiences. Anna, you had a best friend that was like Maya, and I had a best friend that was like Anna.

Konkle: I relate to my character more of how I was in fourth and fifth grade. By middle school in real life, I had in certain ways figured out how to hide it a little bit more. I felt weirdly like it was more peaceful going back now, because I'm going back by choice.

Also, being an actor and playing roles, there was something to not having to feel like I'm meeting somebody else's expectation of what the girlfriend is supposed to look like in that role or whatever. I didn't put in hair extensions, there was no makeup. There was something that was really incredibly peaceful and freeing about playing that kind of character. What a rare opportunity. I can't believe that someone gave us permission to do it.

Erskine: We are so lucky. It also felt l felt like I was giving a hug to my younger self. I was in certain scenes being like, "You are enough, you are beautiful." And we don't get to say that to ourselves. I don't say that enough to myself now. So doing that, getting that opportunity to do that for our younger selves is so beautiful.

It comes out of the creative control that you have on this show. I want ask you about that, because you both are already veterans in the industry. You'd been slugging away for a really long time before this show came along. It feels like there are a lot of parallels between middle school and the entertainment industry, where there are the cool kids, there are the beautiful kids, you have to look a certain way, and if you don't you can get very lost and passed over and rejected. Did you draw on that as well? Is there a subtext that's also about the entertainment industry?

Konkle: I think it was more that I am in the entertainment industry and I am Anna at 31 years old. Going back to 13 did not feel very different from how I feel now. Where I'm putting my arm and how I'm slouching my body are things that I pretty much want to do now. I just have learned, "That's a giveaway that you feel that way, so don't do that." I'm going to sit up straighter because I feel perfect about myself. You learn how to cope more with those feelings but for me, they don't go away. And that has to do with being a human and being an actress and being all of these different things. The acting in Hollywood definitely has to do with mining things for the character.

Erskine: Just being Asian-American and trying to work in this business for so long. In the beginning, it was incredibly difficult. Then I felt like it was easy in some ways, because I was getting the opportunity to fill in a token minority character in a lot of network shows and things like that.

It wasn't a conscious effort making "PEN15" of drawing the parallels to Hollywood, but I think it's just there. Hollywood does feel like my middle school. It's starting to change and it's great. But I felt like an other for so long and I still felt that in the industry. But it's starting to change slowly for me.

Konkle: I'm seeing a lot of things online and even messages about you starring in this show, and other Asian-Americans feeling seen.

Erskine: That's been an amazing. That's been what this is all about, just to get messages saying, "Oh, I've never seen my story of an immigrant mother and a white American dad together," "Oh, I haven't seen my parents' divorce in the same way that it happened to me," "I feel seen and heard." And that thereby makes us feel seen and heard. It's really crazy.

It stretches across generations. It's not just viewers who are the same age as you. It's everybody who's gone through adolescence or who's gone through having immigrant parents or having parents divorce. There is that touchstone of what it feels like to be 13 and having stuff going on around you in the world and that you're participating in. You're not a passive observer.

You work with these amazing young actors, but it's a period piece. What is like for them confronting the year 2000? Are they just completely baffled like, "What's a landline? What's Lisa Frank?"

Konkle: I would start going into it for fun. I'd be like, "You know, when we dialed the internet, you'd sit there for minutes." And they're like, "OK." It's like your parents saying, "I walked to school miles in the snow."

Erskine: Or they'd be like, "Yeah, I've heard of it. Yeah, I know. Yeah, you guys used to have AOL. Whatever." You're just ready to get your next text. Or they were texting and talking shit about us, probably.

Do you then look at them and think, "Oh my God, these 13-year-olds are so cool?"

Erskine: They were so nice, definitely so cool. But I did just start thinking about that. Right, they could've been texting group chats talking shit about us.

Konkle: To our faces, they were super nice.

Erskine: Super nice.

Konkle: And I got the vibe that truly from just about all of them. They were pretty special kids.

Erskine: They were.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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