Maya Erskine + Anna Konkle of ‘Pen15’ on How to Achieve Creative ESP

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“In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast” features in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy actors and creators. Join host and Awards Editor Jack Smart for this guide on how to live the creative life from those who are doing it every day. This episode is brought to you by UCLA’s Professional Programs at the School of Theater, Film & Television.

Writer-actors always make for insightful interviews, but that’s particularly true for Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. As the co-creators, producers, editors, and stars of Hulu’s Emmy-nominated, Gotham Award–winning cringe comedy “Pen15,” they speak to not only the page-to-screen process, but also how to achieve the synergy they refer to as “creative ESP.” 

“The motivation to write a lot of times is like, will Anna like this? Will Anna laugh at this?” says Erskine of their collaboration. “That’s what I trust.... There’s something about having friends involved [who] you believe in so hard, that takes the pressure off yourself.”

“It took meeting Maya to be pretty much a muse,” agrees Konkle; in addition to their chemistry on- and off-screen, there’s a mutual accountability that encourages productivity. “I have to get up and write today—for her.”

After meeting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where they both spent a summer studying experimental theater in Amsterdam, Erskine and Konkle taught themselves screenwriting and producing by launching a web series, “Project Reality,” together. Multiple acting auditions that led nowhere (plus failing to even be seen at open calls found through Backstage) caused both to make it their mission to create their own opportunities. Erskine has since starred on “Betas,” “Casual,” “Plus One,” and the upcoming “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” while Konkle has appeared on “Rosewood,” “Baskets,” and “Together Together.”

“[We] put making something together as the priority to everything else,” remembers Konkle of their early career days. “The insecurity never goes away, I still feel that,” adds Erskine. “But it was the first time that I felt empowered, because we were putting it into our own hands and actually taking risks together to try to create something. Even if we were going to fail, we were doing it for what we liked.”

As Konkle says, a “willingness to fail” is what propelled the two toward a critically acclaimed Hulu comedy over which they have more creative control than most working actors. “All of us as humans, but especially actors—you’re just trained to wait for the applause and to wait for the approval. It’s really hard for me to get out of that mentality.”

But another fundamental aspect of “Pen15” allows Erskine and Konkle almost limitless artistic license: by playing middle school–aged versions of themselves, complete with unflattering hair, makeup, and accessories painstakingly accurate to circa 2000, the two can liberate themselves from audience expectations or Hollywood’s beauty standards. “The external stuff really helps inform the internal for us,” says Erskine. “Every time the wig comes on, I instantly feel different. It just feels like I am slipping into her and I have permission to be free and wild and sort of unapologetic.”

“I’m so grateful that we got the opportunity to just be characters with zero sex appeal,” says Konkle with a laugh. “Zero!”

In addition, mining their own childhoods for material and then performing it to such an absurdly awkward degree is therapeutic. “It’s like having a mirror up to you,” Erskine says. “We didn’t get to actually be 13 together, but we kind of are going through this adolescence together. And we’ve grown from our 20s to now having kids!” (Both Erskine and Konkle have recently become new moms.)

As for the advice they would give their actual 13-year-old selves, both agree they’d try to impart lessons they’re still in the process of learning. “What is something that gives you joy?” is Erskine’s question for herself. “Just ask for it and do it and don’t apologize.”

“You’re gonna fail a lot,” adds Konkle. “And I know you’re not going to want to. You’re really going to hate it in the moment. But every single one, you’re going to look back on and go, ‘That was really important.’ And if you aren’t afraid of the failure, and really look at it, and talk to it, it’s gonna propel you to something that you will enjoy even more than whatever your initial goal was.”

Listen to Erskine and Konkle’s full joint interview at any of the podcast platforms below. And in this week’s Backstage casting insider segment, Christine McKenna-Tirella addresses a frequently asked question: How does one pursue a career in casting? Her recommended highlights of the week include commercials for Highlights Magazine and a global financial brand.

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