Maya Erskine on Toning Down Expressions and ‘Training Hardcore’ for ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’

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Maya Erskine is widely known for playing a preteen—while in her 30s—on Hulu’s “PEN15,” a comedy series about the agonies of youth that she co-created alongside Anna Konkle. She’s all grown up on Donald Glover and Francesca Sloane’s Prime Video series “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” a reimagining of Doug Liman’s 2005 action comedy. Erskine and Glover star as Jane and John Smith, two spies forced into marriage. Here, she shares what she’s learned from being on both sides of the camera.

1. Did “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” challenge you in any unexpected ways?

I didn’t realize how much I had to keep inside. There was so much in this character that she couldn’t reveal. I’m such a naturally expressive person. It’s fun for me to step into a different character’s shoes because it teaches me things about myself in terms of my need to overshare. It was such a release at the end. 

2. You’re adept at physical comedy, but what did you learn from doing action? 

For Jane, it was all about becoming strong and [being] in my body. I had just had a baby, and I didn’t really understand how much I would be taking on. I spent several months training hardcore; I hated it at first, but grew to love it. When you’re doing something so physical, you don’t have time to overthink, so you can’t get in your head. I was like, Oh, my God, all I have to think about is this one task and achieve that. It just puts you in the moment like no other.

3. What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done for a role?

One day I will say what I actually said, but it was a commercial audition. In those auditions, you’re just supposed to tell a story. They’ll go around and [ask], “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done in L.A.?” 

[The other actors] were like, “I saw a bobcat on a hike, and it was crazy.” It was all guys. Then it was my turn, and I told a sex story of this weird thing that I had gone through, and it was a 15-minute story that no one needed to hear. I was like, I can’t believe I just said that. I didn’t
get the part. 

4. What advice would you give your younger self?

When auditioning, you don’t really know what people are looking for. Sometimes you think, Oh, they want to see this thing, or they want this. The biggest freedom and the thing that actually worked best for me was when I was like, I’m going to do it how I would want to play this. If this were my project and I was writing it and creating it, how would I play it? It took me a long time to get there because I would always try to be what I thought they needed me to be, which never was being authentic. 

5. How does your experience as a writer shape your acting work? 

It helps me with specificity and being able to ask the right questions. I like to look at it now as a whole scope, as opposed to just the scene of the day. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” [has] great writing. And when the writing is really good, a lot of the work is done for you. If you’re having trouble memorizing it or speaking it, that’s usually a sign that [it] needs some work, maybe. It’s a good lesson for me as a writer, too. 

This story originally appeared in the June 20 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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