How PEN15’s Mutsuko Erskine Wound Up Playing Herself on TV

Mutsuko Erskine, Maya Erskine, and Dallas Liu in PEN15.
Mutsuko Erskine, Maya Erskine, and Dallas Liu in PEN15. Photo: Hulu

In Hulu’s PEN15, Mutsuko Erskine pulls double-duty: Offscreen she’s the real-life mother of star Maya Erskine (who plays a 13-year-old version of herself), but she also plays Maya’s TV mom on the innovative coming-of-age sitcom. It’s a casting trick that calls to mind the best-known real-to-TV parent trick of recent memory — Shoukath and Fatima Ansari, parents of Aziz, in Master of None — and Erskine brings a similar naturalness to her screen role that feels at once radical and inevitable.

Erskine the elder isn’t by any means simply playing herself, though. Born outside Tokyo, she developed a teenage interest in America, nurtured by a high-school exchange that brought her to upstate New York, then a small town in Missouri, before she settled out West. While the set design of her character’s early-aughts home seems to her mind to imply an immigrant owner full of nostalgia for the old country, she herself feels a rather unambivalent love for her new land. Her actual house is “very Californian,” as she puts it, with only a few, relaxed nods to a Japanese aesthetic.

As Erskine recounted to me recently by phone, she took on the PEN15 part primarily to do her daughter a logistical solid — her own late-stage bit of supportive parenting, as it were. In the process, she became a member of a small group rewriting a Hollywood script, one populated by “strict” Asian parent characters often dreamed up by white writers. We spoke about the shades of variety in the immigrant story, her sense of surreality in re-creating the past with her daughter, and how PEN15 made her reconsider some aspects of her actual parenting. Spoiler alert: We both cried a little.

How do you feel about the show?
I’m just really happy about the whole success of the whole PEN15. I’m happy, yes.

How did you get involved?
They had to make a film so that they can sell the PEN15 [idea] to networks. Maya came to my house one day and said, “Mom, would you like to audition for the role of Mother?” I said, “No, you know I can’t act.” She said, “We need someone who can speak Japanese as well as English.” So I said, “Well, that I can do.” So she filmed me on her iPhone and they thought I was okay. I got involved in a test-case, 15-minute film.

You thought it would be a one-time deal?
I was really hopeful for their success. They were trying so hard. I’d like to help them out whatever I could. So, yeah, I thought it was just one time and I was really surprised when it was picked up. Maya said, “Well, Mom, you’re going to be in it.” I was really happy for them first, surprised for myself [second].

Maya plays a unique character. Is her persona a close facsimile to how she was as a kid?
Very much, yes. Very close, but a little bit exaggerated. Some of the things like when she gets all upset with the family — “I hate you!” — that happened quite often. We’re transferring all [our home] films and videos into DVD and we are seeing Maya at 2 and 3 and 4. We can see the similarities, oh my God. She was wild. Making up stories, singing in the car, making up songs.

Was it surreal to re-create the past with your daughter? Did you have moments of wondering, Which time am I in?
I don’t know if you know this, but our son Taichi, he edits four episodes of the series in real life. And he was telling us later that he had PT — what is it called, when you go to a war? What is that?

PTSD. Seeing me slightly younger and me fighting with Maya and all that just reminded him, yes, very much.

And for you? Did you ever have a sensation of déjà vu?
I only had déjà vu when I was acting with Maya alone, but the whole environment was different. The house was very, very different. [Ours] is quite Californian and slight touch of Japanese here and there. The [PEN15] set designer did an amazing job. Some of my friends have houses like that, a Japanese house.

What does that mean to you? A Japanese house?
[The house of a] Japanese housewife missing Japan and decorating the house as much as possible close to how she was used to.

With what sorts of details?
Shrines, a lot of shrines, all the ancestors. I don’t have that here in my house. If I had a big enough house, it would be nice to have a small area that I can make prayers. Some of my friends would have a corner — a picture of their parents.

You never had that sort of nostalgia?
I always wanted to come here since I was 7 years old, so this is like my dream come true — having a family here. I was always admiring all the Western artistic sensitivity. Our house is a little bit of Japanese writing or something here and there, but it’s a very Californian style.

One of your performances stands out: When Maya’s best friend Anna has to stay over for an extended period of time, you wind up really taking to each other. The scenario struck me as relatable from a few standpoints. Many people might recognize the conflicted feeling of watching their parent get close to another kid, as well as of wanting to get close to someone else’s parent. Was that episode based on a real experience? What did you tap into to play it?
That whole episode felt really not awkward. It just felt natural. I’d known Anna [Konkle] also for many, many years. When she first moved [to L.A.], she lived here, so I’m not acting with a total stranger. I had that relationship with Anna when she was here. Not to that extent — we had dinner here and Christmas here. Maya didn’t go crazy, didn’t go jealous then.

Everything [on set] was so natural because some of the crew members were Maya’s friends, so I know them. I felt really comfortable. I felt like I was in my own house, although all the decorations were different. The atmosphere was as if I were in my house.

You bring out a strain of mother-daughter antagonism, especially in how you handle the last Oreo cookie: encouraging Anna to eat it, and dismissing Maya when she gets upset after Anna does. There’s something kind of cruel in that scene.
Maya thinks that I play too nicely in the show. I could be really mean-mean to Maya, I just feel I was really not nice to her. That cookie thing, even to this day, Maya and I have little qualms. You’re so mean to me, at this age still. You’re so nice to Taichi, but not me. So that still continues, you know. She’s 31 and I’m like, Please! [laughs], but I still think it’s there. It never goes away. I don’t know what’s the fabric of the relationship of mothers and daughters. I don’t think I do that with intention or I’m conscious about it, but my husband says, “That was not nice,” and I always think, Oh. I feel like my mother used to be like that to me. It goes on.

Were you thinking about different ethnic senses of motherhood, in playing your role? The Asian mother is such a loaded, and often monochromatic type in Hollywood.
In Western culture, you’re more expressive, and we are more subtle. I guess it’s complicated because I’m 100 percent Japanese, but I came here as an exchange student and I was educated here. So half of me is very, very Japanese and half of me is, Oh, women shouldn’t do that [be like a Japanese mom] – that kind of liberated Western thinking. It’s always a mixture. I’m thinking, Oh my God, was I too harsh in raising Maya and Taichi? Sometimes, I was giving mixed reaction to the kids because I had both influences — my Japanese side or my American openness. This was a wonderful experience to learn, to actually look back at how I was at the time.

When did you come as an exchange student?
I was in high school, in 1966. I went to Schenectady, New York, for one year, and then two years in Nevada, Missouri, the middle of nowhere.

Where in Japan did you grow up?
Outskirts of Tokyo.

You returned there?

And then you came back here.

Like your character, you married a white American man.
If I had married a Japanese-American, I think my household would be different.

One thing I admire about the show is how it deals with some of the specific angsts for a kid born to a parent not from here.
I’ve come to love [that about it] too.

So you had mixed feelings?
Yes, of course. You don’t realize what kids go through at school. I cried [watching episodes], even if they were not exactly what happened. I have seen some [times when] Maya would come home and [be] not too happy, but you know you have day-to-day things to take care of so you don’t stop. So I wish I had [had] more time to think about her.

Hearing that makes me emotional. I actually wrote about the bullying episode and similar experiences I had growing up.
Oh! You made me cry! Both my husband and I read that. Maya had a very similar experience at art school in Interlochen and she was just like how you were, [told] by the director to walk like a geisha. That really hit us and we were so touched by your article. You must keep writing. Are your parents still here?

My mom actually passed away.
Oh, I’m so sorry.

It’s fine, it was a while ago. But I appreciate what you’re saying about having a limited view of your daughter’s state of mind.
You can learn a lot with time.

How PEN15’s Mutsuko Erskine Wound Up Playing Herself on TV