Anna Konkle & Maya Erskine
In all reality, no one really wants to revisit the experiences of middle school; those awkward and uncomfortable moments of puberty, hormones and simply navigating what it means to enter the teenage, or rather tweenage', world. Yet, that’s exactly what Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine are doing—literally. The comedic duo behind the Hulu series PEN15, named after the infamous and cheeky middle school prank, return to their 13-year-old selves to give a candid look at what really went on during the period of time many refer to as their “awkward phases.” Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, who created, write for and produce along with, star in PEN15. Konkle and Erskine discuss why they wanted to highlight a world of cringe-worthy middle school moments, transforming into 13-year-olds and working so closely alongside your best friend.
What inspired the idea of PEN15?
Anna Konkle: It was a culmination of many different moments and many years but the shorter answer is that as adults, we realized how often we reverted back to that 13-year-old time emotionally. Which is funny—and sad. We realized we just got better at hiding it. Also, playing rejects in school around school-aged kids always felt inherently funny. We had to try it.
Maya Erskine: Anna and I are naturally drawn to playing characters on the fringes of society: the rejects—the misfits in all forms. We would go to parties and realize that, even as adults, we never quite fit in, we just got better at hiding our insecurities or the pain associated with not feeling “enough.” It brought up a lot of memories from middle school for both of us. We realized that the entire trauma we went through in middle school never really left us, and that we still felt like 13-year-olds stuck in adult bodies. That idea really made us laugh.
There are a lot of shows focusing on high school. What went behind the decision to make a show about middle school?
Anna: At the time, which was about six years ago, we had seen very little material about the honest, R-rated side of this time between being a kid and a teen. There was this bizarre, rarely talked about moment that we would laugh at and agonize over, where Maya and I both discovered we grew nipples before breasts and we both taped down our puffy nipples. You hear about teens taping down their breasts but not their nipples and yet neither of us was alone in the experience. Over and over, we kept finding more truths between us three creators and yet we found these truths hadn’t been talked about much. A lot of times bringing up something from that time up felt embarrassing and you thought you would be sharing this cringe-y story that was unique only to you. But often, though it was in fact cringe inducing, it would be all of our stories in one way or another.
Now, in 2019, there are many great and accurate things out about tween-hood. But at the time, it was limited. And compared to high school it’s still limited. And more funny to us because there’s even more extreme “faking it” in middle school and more extreme mess-ups because this “adult or teen” information you are receiving, is so deeply new. You can’t help but really be a fool.
Maya: At the time (six or so years ago) we hadn’t seen anything on TV that represented our middle school experience in an authentic, R-rated way. The only movie we had as a reference was Welcome to The Dollhouse, which served as a huge inspiration for all of our work. Middle school is an incredibly difficult time to capture honestly—it’s highly emotional, perverse, ugly, strange, and a time that most people want to forget, not relive. It excited us to attempt making an honest portrayal of how we experienced middle school. Everything is life or death in middle school—whether your friend invites you to this sleepover or not, if your crush looks at you for longer than three seconds; we love exploring such high stakes for small moments.
What has it been like playing 13-year-old versions of yourselves?
Anna: Surprisingly freeing! Despite being in a literal binding strap on our chests. At times it was like sharing parts of ourselves that we’re the most ashamed of, and on-camera. At the end having survived the whole thing was kind of elating and created more self-love in the end, maybe.
Maya: Freeing and incredibly cathartic. I loved being 13. It felt like a love letter to my younger self because I was, in a way, celebrating things that I did at that age that made me feel like a monster, things that made me feel ashamed. I felt like I was never good enough or valuable and this show provided me with the opportunity to shift that belief system.
What have you guys done to transform yourselves back into teenagers both physically and emotionally?
Anna: The ill-fitting clothes really helped. Often our amazing costume designer, Melissa [Walker], would source actual stuff from that time. Stuff that was made for teenagers. And we are not. Inherently our hips or stomachs wouldn’t fit and we were good with that. Nothing feels right on you at that age.
Maya: Physically we strapped our chests down which made me want to hunch over and hide. The wardrobe was not made for adult bodies so it was ill fitting, which made me even more physically self-conscious. My stomach would roll over the top of my low-rider pants and I’d wear big underwear under tight corduroy flares. Not a good combo. The wig was helpful in transforming, as well as wearing a retainer, which changed the way I spoke. I tend to work from the outside in as an actor, so the physicality would trigger emotions within me: deep insecurity, shame, embarrassment etc. Scenes that we wrote would also be very triggering on set—just having my parents (on the show) talk to me like I was 13, made me respond as my 13-year-old self.
You also star alongside actual 13-year-olds. What has that experience been like?
Anna: Wonderful! They are learning so much, their brains are changing, they are open and interested, and it made working with them so gratifying. Ego is a natural thing, especially on sets and it was much less of a thing on this one.
Maya: Amazing and terrifying at the same time. They were so kind and lacked ego in a way that made it really enjoyable to hang around. Yet there was also the fear that they could be making fun of us at any point because when I was 13 I remember how kids talked about adults and it was pretty cruel and unforgiving.
You both went to school to pursue a degree in experimental theater. How did that lead you to comedy?
Anna: You can kind of do whatever you want there. It’s an incubator to let out any sort of freak you feel inside of you, sad, serious or otherwise. We happened to gravitate towards the sad and strange, and stuff that made us laugh.
Maya: I think in this business you set out to make work that makes you creatively tick and whether that’s comedy or drama or something in between, you do it. Experimental theater training gave us the freedom and tools to find our artistic voice and express it without limitations.
You’ve known each other since junior year of college. What is it like working with each other as such close friends?
Anna: The highest highs and the when-you’ve-had-a-less-than-good-day, sometimes those days can feel even harder because if you see something differently creatively, it’s not just your co-worker you’re disagreeing with, it’s disagreeing with your best friend. And then you have to process that in those multiple facets. We’ve had to grow thicker skins in work and friendship, but we also have had to hone in our communication skills and skills as partners like whoa. As Mya (the singer) says. But wouldn’t trade it for anything. The relationship is that much more full and beautiful. We are very, very, very close. Does that sound scary?
Maya: It’s like a marriage. It takes a ton of work, a willingness to look at yourself and grow and be open. It’s incredibly fulfilling to be able to work with your best friend—sometimes it freaks us out how in tune we are with each other. We speak the same language, a language that no one else understands (laughs). If I make her laugh, and nobody else, that’s enough for me. That’s a huge gift to find someone who implicitly gets you.
If you continue the show into a second season, what would you want to include in it for Maya and Anna?
Anna: Sam, [Maya and I] have some ideas, but we want to keep a surprise that hopefully we get to share in a season two. At the end of the day we never want these girls to stop changing and growing.
Maya: We have a lot of stories that we didn’t include in season one that we don’t want to give away but there are many experiences to share and explore that we’re very excited about.
Why do you feel it’s important to have a show like this right now?
Anna: If people watch and feel a little less alone in things that they once perceived as oddities, that would be pretty cool.
Maya: I hope it’s a good reminder to be kind to one another and ourselves. There’s a lot of hate being thrown around so recklessly right now that hopefully seeing two adults go back to middle school who build each other up on a daily basis can be a good influence. I also hope it makes people feel less alone in their own experiences.
Anna, you starred in medical drama Rosewood, a show with an entirely different tone from PEN15, how did your work on that set contribute to your career as an actor today?
I’m not sure I would have been ready to do this without Rosewood. I was so scared to be on that set. It was a different animal in tone, compared to anything I had ever done. And it was my first time being a “regular” on a TV-show. I had been a regular in restaurants for years—just kidding. I felt imposter syndrome big time, and did my best to keep up and learn. It was very humbling and the creator and producers gave me a big opportunity with very little experience behind me. It taught me strength, to just try and be less of a control freak, learn from those around me and have faith in myself. Plus I love that whole cast and crew.
Maya, your mother plays your mom on the show. Can you tell us how that adds to the overall tone of the comedy?
I’m not sure how to describe how it adds to the overall tone of the comedy but I do know that it added a layer of truth and depth of a real mother-daughter relationship that’s hard to emulate. I loved that she spoke Japanese and English on the show because it’s what I grew up with but never saw on TV as a kid. And to be given that opportunity was a privilege. She’s my best friend. Her personality just cracks me up, so having her on set and playing a version of herself really lent itself to organically comedic moments. Honesty is what makes me laugh the most and so I think that might have something to do with it.