Partners in ‘Pen15’

Maya Erskine + Anna Konkle open up about their Hulu hit comedy and breakout year.

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Photo Source: Emily Assiran

“Pen15” is a comedy of firsts—first boyfriends, first school dances, first kisses, first AIM screen names and smutty chatrooms, first R-rated movie nights, first experiences with loss. It’s also a first of its kind: a female-led and -written half-hour cringe comedy that unapologetically tackles the pubertal and coming-of-age phenomena previously deemed too taboo (and awkward) for TV. (And, yes, first nights masturbating and first periods also feature heavily within its 10 episodes.)

The series, produced by the Lonely Island and co-created by Sam Zvibleman, follows middle-school outcasts and heroes Maya and Anna as they navigate the daily perils of adolescence in the year 2000. For today’s average millennial, the attention to detail in the girls’ day-to-day may seem a little too spot-on, but we assure you creators and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle haven’t been scoping your pre-Facebook photo albums: “Pen15” is the world in which they lived to tell the tale.

At 31, Erskine and Konkle—longtime friends since studying experimental theater at New York University and previous collaborators on web series “Project Reality”—play unlikely and exaggerated 13-year-old versions of themselves alongside actual teenage actors. But their braces, spaghetti strap camis, and discomfited postures (not to mention their airtight performances) prove the casting choice less of a visual gag and more of an acting feat. You’ll soon forget you’re watching adult actors landing a big swing and instead strap in for heartfelt laughs that hit close to home. It all makes for one of 2019’s most joyous binges—and in the six weeks since its Hulu debut, it has garnered the critical acclaim and devoted fan base to back it up.

In an expansive sit-down interview—and the official debut of our In Talks conversation series—at Holy Ground, a cushy speakeasy steakhouse in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, Erskine and Konkle open up about their unlikely creative partnership, their early days after NYU auditioning and reading Backstage, their strengths and insecurities as writers and actors—and how the two came together to inform “Pen15” for the better.

What was the impetus for sitting down and doing “Pen15”? Was it a result of not seeing the roles you wanted and creating your own?

Maya Erskine: I think in the beginning, when we did the web series [“Project Reality”], I was feeling frustrated by the limitations of the industry. For me, I was having trouble getting auditions, and the auditions I did get were roles that weren’t particularly fulfilling. They would just be a couple lines. And so that was one of the motivations, I think, for creating our own work. But I think Anna and I also were interested in seeing if we’d enjoy the other elements of telling stories—writing and producing. It was really an experiment, and we fell in love with it. It was a bug that I just didn’t want to stop. I got bit by that bug.

Anna Konkle: And Maya and I, in the past, have been perfectionists, and so being an actor in that situation is pretty much the hardest. You’re craving to do things right or well, and the constant rejection and stuff—to care about approval and to not be getting it opened my eyes to the fact that maybe this wasn’t the right path for me because I was feeling so not happy.

ME: That’s a great point. Especially when auditioning, [you’re] going in with work that you think they want to see. [Writing] is this opportunity [for something different]. And we still have to remind ourselves to do what makes us laugh, what makes us cry—not what we think people want to watch.

AK: Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish. How do you know if you are feeling excited by it or if you’re on some level excited because other people are going to be excited by it?

ME: Having a collaborator that is your best friend and that you trust so implicitly holds up this mirror of, like, if Anna is liking this, it gives me a little bit more confidence to go forward with this idea.

How did you two first learn that you had such creative chemistry?

ME: I think in Amsterdam. We did this workshop summer program called ITW, International Theatre Workshop, which was experimental training at NYU, and Anna and I created a dance with our other friend Kate Hopkins, who’s an incredible theater director, and we just connected on the inane and the weird and the dark sense of humor that we felt so alone in. I think that was our first collaboration.

AK: And then it kind of developed as just a friendship from there, and then in addition to that, we have a creative synergy. I’ve said to Maya a lot: I’ve often laughed by myself. I’m either laughing at the wrong time or I’m the only one laughing inappropriately or not laughing with everybody else. I just felt like a little freak, kind of; like, why am I on my own here? Maya can attest to this: I’ll say things and nobody really understands what I’m saying because I’m not clear sometimes.

ME: But I can translate. Even for our closest friends. And, likewise, you would translate for me or you’d finish my—because I don’t finish my sentences sometimes, as you’ll probably hear on this recording. So Anna will finish it for me because she knows what I’m trying to say. And, I mean, it’s a bad habit that I know I have to break, but I get dependent.

AK: But it is interesting. It is a fascinating thing that I didn’t even notice until one of our close friends pointed it out that it’s like you’re translating for Anna…. That’s why we’re creative partners and best friends. And often, even lately, the more that we work together the more it feels like ESP or something.

ME: When we write, we see the same images almost all the time. The way we see it visually is usually exactly the same without talking about it beforehand, which is really nice shorthand.

That’s seen in “PEN15” in an incredible way. You connected on a darkness or absurdity when it comes to humor. Why did you want to bring those traits to a series set at the turn of the millennium?

ME: Well, I guess bringing in some of those inane moments, like, it’s a bit irreverent having my mom turn into an owl at the end of an episode. But in terms of bringing that in as an intention, I think we were just being as honest as possible to what we were like at that age, which is weird and irreverent and insane and sometimes dark. And that’s what makes us laugh.

AK: Maybe that’s what connects us as creators and friends. The truth of how I feel inside is all of those adjectives. I always felt kind of like an outsider in certain ways, or dark or absurd or whatever.

ME: And things that are shameful for us or things that we held to our hearts as secrets, as soon as we got to share them in a way that was humorous or sometimes sad, that was an exciting experiment to put into this show.

The way the series explores that shame—do you feel like, even now, cutting to age 13 was a cathartic thing? Were you finding yourself letting go of any shame?

ME: I mean, definitely. For me, especially now that it’s out there, talking about masturbation and not having rocks thrown at me—on me, not being buried by a barrage of rocks—is incredibly liberating and shocking and exciting. I think that was something that I learned in college because I was so secretive about it, and I finally started talking about it to close friends in a sort of humorous way and that broke the spell for me of being ashamed of it. I still didn’t recover completely, but it was a way for me to process through it and to not be embarrassed about it by just outwardly talking about it—maybe too much, because we overshare. Putting it on TV as playing a 13-year-old was really a scary feeling, but I’m glad that we did it.

AK: Yeah, me too. When I met Maya, she would talk about masturbation as a joke at parties and stuff, but also own it; it could be sad or it could be funny or it could be dark, and I think I related. My own example would be not something nearly as interesting, but with my parents’ divorce and how they used to fight, it’d be [my] banter at a party. I’d be like, “Well, they lived in the same house for two years while they were divorced, so.” Some people would think it was funny and some people would be like, “You should go to therapy.” So that was sort of an overlap with us in our sensibility. Really painful things—maybe that’s just how I learned to cope—can be the funniest. It can make me laugh, it makes me tear up, it’s my favorite thing. Todd Solondz really does that—“Welcome to the Dollhouse” and stuff, where it’s so fucking painful and it also makes me laugh hysterically. That always felt kind of wrong, so it’s really nice to be able to do that, and the fact that people are, like, laughing with us is what’s blowing my mind.

It’s clear that you’re in part pulling on your own experiences. With that in mind, what advice do you have for other aspiring writers or actors who want to transition into writing? Is it a matter of writing what you know?

ME: I think that’s a good place to start, of writing what you know. But I don’t think it has to just be that. I think your own experiences or people you meet can inspire ideas and help you to start writing, at least.

AK: I feel like it’s so unique for every person. For me, getting to writing was about understanding [and] accepting failure. I had this idea in my head of what my life was supposed to look like, and that not happening allowed me to start over, which is really painful and scary. I still struggle with doing things because I think that’s what I’m supposed to do or somebody else is going to think that’s good, [but] what I ended up with was: “I’m going to get up and do something that makes me happy today.” And it ended up being writing. And the more that happened, the more I was like, “Well, now I want to figure out how to do this well.” So maybe, yeah, just getting it on the page, starting with what you know. Then the other thing, it was very weirdly intimidating going to L.A. and seeing everybody on their computers writing in Final Draft in the coffee shops. It was like, Jesus Christ—it was everywhere, and we would make jokes about that. But there was something humanizing about it, too, seeing people just using a program on their computer that I could buy doing it.

ME: I had impostor syndrome of like, “OK, I didn’t study screenwriting. I’m not a writer. Why am I writing?” And I remember listening to this interview with Elizabeth Gilbert of “Eat, Pray, Love,” and she talked about how 90 percent of writing is just the work. It’s the boring work of actually just sitting down and writing. And I think a lot of us can sometimes feel like we need to be hit with this bout of inspiration or this moment to just start feverishly writing for hours on end, and maybe that can happen in a blue moon, but I think that to wait for that is [dangerous]. It’s nice and almost a relief to just sit down and write, because that’s what it takes most of the time, to not be precious about it and really just sit down and start writing. It could be awful and you might use only one sentence of that, you might only use one word and that spurs another idea. So if you’re disciplined about sitting down and writing every day, that’s what I think is helpful.

What role did Sam Zvibleman play in all this?

ME: Huge role. He’s the third creator, he’s our best friend, and he’s a really incredible director. He directed the last four episodes.

He also had experience in TV prior to working with you.

ME: Yes. He brought structure for us and creative wisdom and all of these things. I struggled with just basic forms of structure. I would write tons of dialogue and flowery description and not have any semblance of A, B, C. So he was really instrumental and helpful in that and just having another perspective. We all grew up in three different places, we all have different experiences, so that’s three different minds and points of view trying to come together to form one point of view; so it’s incredibly challenging, but also really fruitful because there is just so much to come out of it.

AK: And when we met him, he was making his own feature-length movies, and we saw a short of his and then a feature, and there was a similar thing between us.

ME: That’s how we felt about each other; it was that same.

AK: And we had done our web series and we had this semblance of an idea about, like, foster kids—cult adults that left the cult to go into a foster family to hide, and then would go to middle school.

ME: Like, pose as kids, but be adults. That was the seed.

AK: And then we saw his stuff and we were friends and [asked], “Will you make this with us?” It became clear very quickly that that idea wasn’t going to work. [It was a matter of] trimming it down, and [getting] to “Pen15,” and so it was really the three of our minds together. The work that Maya makes or Sam makes or I make alone would be different. Sam brings, like you said in the last four episodes, he’s a different kind of filmmaker. His tone is cleaner than the rest of the series, in a way that really matched the emotional tone of the story. By the end, it becomes more cinematic.

ME: I feel like he is so incredibly intentional with his shots.

AK: There has been so much learning from him, and his background was screenwriting. So he’s been very patient with us. I feel like because we started six years ago on this project…

ME: I mean, our first pilot was supposed to be a half hour, but it was 48 pages and we had 60 characters. The problem is about stripping away; we have so much we want to jam into each story. So thank god that it’s taken six years to make this show, because if we’d made it six years ago, I don’t think it would be what it is.

You also had to find these 13-year-old actors to work opposite of. What was that process like?

ME: It was challenging because we had a lot of [people] that we needed to cast. We didn’t do it the traditional way of filming the pilot first and casting all your regulars and then adding characters throughout; we were just filming the whole season at once, so it was fast-paced. We were really interested in authentic kids and kids that didn’t have a shine or gloss to them, just reading it as naturally as possible. There were so many amazing kid actors that we auditioned, and I think we definitely disagreed, all three of us, sometimes, on certain roles, and then there would be one person we all completely agreed on. And I learned so much myself, like, as an actor. Just thinking, Oh, wow, you really have to do nothing. Nothing works so well—when it’s so completely stripped away and they’re just being, in a way, themselves or even the character, that’s it. And no matter how talented you are, it wasn’t about the best actor. It was always about who was right for this role, who sparked interest for this, who brought something out of this character that either we all imagined or that we never imagined and it was really exciting. So it was helpful for me to learn, too, just for my ego: I can’t control my outcome when I go into an audition, I just have to do it how I would want to do it because it’s either going to match with what they want or not.

AK: We kept talking about trying to define it in terms of falling back into a memory: Who do you look next to in your school and can we find those kids? And it’s hard because kids are trained in TV to be a little exaggerated.

Like something you’d see on the Disney Channel.

AK: Exactly. So that was much more difficult than I anticipated it being, but we were so lucky with who we found.

What advice do you have for the audition room, then? You sort of learned along the way to make it simple and just go in as yourself.

ME: Yeah, and I wouldn’t say that for every role because obviously not every role will be yourself. I think with these kids, especially.

AK: It’s kind of complicated because it’s not like all those kids—like, Sami Rappoport, who plays Becca, is the sweetest, nicest…

ME: Right. She’s not her character.

AK: She’s a completely different person.

ME: [But] there is something about her that clicks, like you said, a memory where you’re just like, “I know that girl, I know who she is,” and she’s believable. I think the biggest advice—a lot of times when I get an audition, as soon as I’m thinking about what I think the director wants out of this role or wants in the tone, it just messes with all of my instincts. It totally paralyzes me. Think of it as: How would I want to play this? How would I enjoy playing this role if I were in this movie? Because that’s what’s going to end up happening. So what can you do that can give you excitement for that role? That is helpful advice for me. And, also, this is a hard thing to do, but when I at least pretend that I don’t need the job, it seems to really help me with nerves and with the energy that they can easily pick up on.

It sounds like a matter of giving yourself a little more power in the room.

ME: It’s owning it. It’s owning the role as if it’s yours, in a way, and going, “Here I am.” And then you’re able to let it go because it’s not the expectation or waiting. “Did I do good? Did they like me?” It’s like, “I liked what I did. I’m good with this. Bye!”

And then forget about it afterward.

ME: I mean, yeah, that’s really hard sometimes. The roles that I feel that I’m so right for are mostly the ones that I don’t get because the pressure that I put on myself of, “Oh my god, this role is mine and I can do this,” and then I just put too much pressure on myself and I forget the intentions of just being this character and telling the story.

We’ve spoken a lot about your creative process on “Pen15,” but that’s not to mention your incredible performances. What was the one thing that kind of dropped you into these characters’ bodies? The costume and production design must have been essential.

AK: I totally agree with that. Obviously as an actor, I want to wear what my character would wear, but so often there’s an adding-on. My character’s the girlfriend and she should be pretty, so I’m going to put in hair extensions and I’m going to put on extra makeup. The inclination with this role [on “Pen15”] is to strip everything away. Take off the makeup, take off the things that I’ve learned as an adult to cope. Like, “To be pretty, I’m going to cross my legs.” I want to bring that into the [performance]. I’m just going to show you my insecurities because, at that age, you’re so bad at covering them up. So that was super helpful. And then, in addition to that, wear the proper pants, meaning ones that were way too tight and didn’t fit my body right because that’s how that felt. Even the right pants that fit me felt like they were wrong back in the day. And adding hair in my eyebrows, and the braces were uncomfortable. It was all so visceral, and getting to create the show and write it, you get to make all those decisions. It was such a gift.

You knew what you needed for the performance.

AK: And I don’t have to ask, like, “Can I?” You do feel like you’re bothering people still, because everyone is working really, really hard, but it was, like, “This is going to help me, so let’s try it.”

ME: All of those elements definitely informed the character so much. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that a huge part of my process that I’m learning to understand and deal with is a deep self-doubting and insecurity, no matter what. Luckily, self-doubting would lend itself to the character, because the character is so insecure and scared—and also sometimes brazenly confident. But I get those feelings. I feel like I swing back and forth from extreme self-doubt to arrogance or something.

Well, I hope that the needle’s moved a little bit now that the show is out and the response has been so positive. What has that been like for you two?

ME: It’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming that more than five people have watched it. I think the best part, for me, has been to get messages from people who have said, “Thank you for sharing this story because I feel seen and heard now.” I’ve gotten messages from half-Asian actresses or girls saying, “I felt like I was alone in this and I haven’t seen myself represented, or my story, and I feel really grateful,” and that’s everything. I think that’s all you can ask for, as an artist: to just have people be touched or feel understood because it makes us feel understood.

AK: Yeah, that’s been amazing. And we’ve said it a bunch, but we started working on this six years ago, and we’ve been talking about it for so long, and you have to pitch it so many times and write so many different iterations for it to continue on and stay alive and get it made. So we’re still talking about it, but it’s hard for me to process that people have actually seen it, even with the amazing outpouring of love.

ME: It’s new, we’ve never experienced this before, and yeah, it’s alarming.

So you started “Pen15” six years ago; you were college graduates about 10 years ago. What is one thing that you would tell your younger self that you’ve learned along the way?

ME: I’d say a lot of things.

AK: I think my main one would be: There’s a voice inside that you need to listen to that is not happy right now, and if you can admit that to yourself, you will find a path that will be far more fulfilling than what you’re doing now, and it’s not what you think it is.

ME: For myself, sort of along those lines: Try to not compare yourself to other people’s paths or journeys. I did that a lot and I still tend to do that sometimes, where I’m like, “Why am I not here? I should be here.” It’s sort of the same idea of, like, looking inward and looking at yourself and your past. Comparing yourself to yourself, as opposed to trying to attain some other way. There’s no one road to where you’re going to end up or one “road to success.” I think success is different for each person and it’s about figuring out what that is. It’s being authentic to your true direction.

I like that idea of comparing yourself to yourself—still holding yourself to a high standard, but not to other people’s standards.

ME: Because it’s never going to be the same. And that’s hard to see, especially, I think, because there are so many actors, so many creators, and we’re all surrounded by each other all the time. It’s really hard to not look. And you can still be happy for other people, but you look at yourself and think, Wow I must not be good enough because I’m not doing that. And you don’t look at yourself like, “Wait, but I’m doing this. This is good enough. This is OK.” I would try to tell myself that.

Want to work on a series like Hulu’s “Pen15”? Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!

Photographed by Emily Assiran at Holy Ground in NYC on March 7