Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, the stars and creators of PEN15, were getting ready to join a Zoom call to discuss the second season of their series when something went wrong. Erskine, who, like Konkle, plays a middle-school version of herself on the Hulu dramedy, dropped her laptop, shattering the screen.
After switching to her iPad, Erskine reentered the Zoom chat, but all that was visible was the top half of her face and her background screen: a photo of her mother, Mutsuko Erskine, who also plays Maya’s mom on PEN15, wearing a face mask on a subway and seemingly looming over her daughter’s right shoulder.
“May-aaaa,” Konkle said through laughter. “Did you have that background on there before corona or after?”
“I don’t know why this is my background, but this is my iPad and that’s my mom,” Erskine said, still fiddling with her tablet. “This was before corona, that picture. I think we were in Japan. She was worried she was getting sick, so she did that.”
“I’m sorry if this is distracting,” she added. “This is what we have. This is what we have.”
It was a classic PEN15 moment: awkward, funny, beholden to the inescapability of parents, and aware that sometimes life sucks and you have to sit in the suckage until it gets better. Undaunted by technology problems, Erskine and Konkle pushed forward to tell Vulture about the excellent new episodes of their series, how it felt to play moments that reflected their own experiences with their mothers, how theater saved them in middle school, and why kids with access to Gushers and Cheetos were so seductive. And everything went completely fine from a technical standpoint … well, mostly.
This season gets into deeper, more emotional territory than the first season does. Was that something you set as an intention before starting on the season, or did that stuff come out as you broke the story?
Anna Konkle: I would say it more came out as we broke the story. We were just talking about this, but we’ve been working on this since we were 25. We’re 33 now. So one of the goals for us in the face of one, the intimidation of people liking season one, and two, just getting older and wanting to still be invested and to actually love what we’re making — we wanted to keep evolving. We knew that we wanted to have Anna and Maya go through experiences that continue to be R-rated, but that we wouldn’t be afraid of it going to darker territory, because that is truthful to being 13 years old.
We didn’t know what that would look like or how low it would go or whatever. But it’s also, for me, hard to gauge sometimes, because that was what I grew up in. I did at times, I guess, feel like it was more serious, but I didn’t feel it was darker until recently.
Maya Erskine: Yeah, it wasn’t a straight intention, I would say, to go darker. It was more that as we were writing it and trying to figure out what the arc would be, we found that there were darker themes coming into it, but we always strived to maintain the voice of the show and make sure that Anna and Maya have lightness, too. Because they stay in seventh grade forever, we wanted them to keep evolving. To keep evolving at this age, that sometimes means being exposed to things that are adult or a little bit darker that you might not be able to process fully. If you have a friend to go through it with together, that’s what gets them through it, at least for this season.
When Maya and Anna start being so rude to their moms this season, that hit me from both sides because I’m the mother of a 13-year-old boy and when I was 13, I acted the same way. I’m assuming that you guys went through those phases, too, where you were just not nice to your parents.
AK: I think we explore hating yourself, and we try to touch on the complexity of that as identifying as women and being taught, really, the crazy expectations of what you’re supposed to be like. We had this sort of pro-dad, anti-mom thing going on that we wanted to explore. And it was hard. I can’t even imagine what it was like for you, Maya, going through it [on the show] with your real mom. I was so on my dad’s side growing up, like so much more extreme than is in the show. I did not do that apology at that age to my mom like at the end [of episode seven].
Did you debate whether you should actually have Anna apologize?
It came naturally. They had been through a lot. In my real life, I didn’t call my mom a cunt until high school. I’m ashamed I did it at all, but I did. So the revelations just came later and the apology came, but not quite like that at 13, you know? I didn’t have the revelation until much therapy later that I was like, “Oh, I was on my dad’s side. And I wasn’t seeing certain things clearly.” But that feeling inside is guilt and knowing you were doing something wrong was real to that age. It felt authentic in the moment, but Maya, for you, I’m so curious. We haven’t really talked about this, how it felt with your real mom.
ME: Well, remember while we were in the dressing room, I was getting very angry at her naturally. Just as actors, I was like, “Mom, stop touching my back.” It was starting to filter into our real life and our real interactions with each other. What’s interesting is you do this show and then you come to realizations later, even years after it happened as a 13-year-old, like you said, Anna. I think I had so much hatred for the Japanese side of myself, which is completely just what my mom is. She represented the Japanese side of myself. She represented Japan to me. She represented everything I wanted to not be. So I think I really gave it to her at that age because I was really hating on myself.
Also, it was mixed with extreme closeness with her and that codependency and breaking apart as you become a young woman, that you’re no longer this little girl in your mom’s eye. I dealt with such heartache over that. So it was just this kaleidoscope of emotions that happens at that age that just bursts out. I feel for my mom so much now, because I have some perspective. But I don’t even have the perspective of having my own kid yet, so I can’t even imagine. I’m sure when that happens, I’m going to be like, “Oh my God. I’m so sorry.”
When you were acting those scenes with your mom, how did she feel? Was it bringing back memories of when you treated her that way?
ME: I don’t know. I don’t remember, actually. Anna, do you remember my mom talking about it? She would be polite on set about it, but she would make little comments like, “Oh yeah, this is how you were. This is what you would say to me.” And then when it came to having to smack the back of my head, I’d be like, “Mom, do it how you did it when you were really mad at me.” And she’s like, “I didn’t, I just went like that.” I was like, “Mm-hmm, that’s not what happened. Nice try.”
She was very professional, I would say. That was the weirdest thing. She wasn’t getting swept up into it, and I think I was probably less professional and getting really swept up in it and really starting to get those feelings back of being annoyed at my mom, angry at my mom. It’s easy to revert back to that age, especially if you’re acting with your own mother.
AK: Yeah, plus when you’re dressed as your 13-year-old self–
ME: It’s crazy. I mean, it’s truly batshit.
AK: It’s incredible how well you guys worked together.
ME: I mean, I love her. She’s my homie. But I yelled, too. I’m like, “Mom, do it again, say it faster!”
I want to ask you about the introduction of the new friend, Maura. Is that character based on experiences that either of you had?
ME: The thing that we both related to was a friendship of three. And in the three, you always experience a moment of feeling left out, no matter what. Each single person goes through it, and it’s always because of these micro-moments or microaggressions. That was really exciting to us, to not just show one big moment that happens of two girls leaving a girl out. It’s this constant play between the three of, Okay, now it’s us two bonding, and this person is having self-doubt all of a sudden, because these two are getting along a little bit better in that moment.
AK: I think that three rule is real with human dynamics in general. I remember feeling it also, even in my own family with my parents and–
At this point, Erskine adjusts her iPad in an attempt to better center herself in her Zoom window, but things go haywire.
AK, laughing: Your screen just flipped–
ME: I’m so sorry!
AK: And it was like your head–
Was floating through the subway.
AK: It was very cool, actually.
ME: I’m so sorry. I’m just trying to figure this out.
AK: Yeah, I mean the part that I related to the most and I think what was exciting to us, at least for a minute in this season, was to feel the threat of, “Are they going to lose each other?” Because there were a few groups that I went through before finding my people, you know? And then you find your people and then there’s the risk of that shattering again and going to shit. Especially at that age, it’s like your identity can be formed on the people that are around you. We wanted there to be a threat. What is the threat to Anna and Maya’s relationship?
One of the ultimate threats that isn’t a repeat of them being against each other, like we did at the end of season one, is they’re really solid but they need a rescue boat. And what if an asshole is the rescue boat? It’s a kid going through her own thing, and I could say all this empathetic stuff about Maura’s character, actually, but also she was tough on our characters, you know? So I think that threat — I experienced that. I think Maya and I both experienced being left by groups and losing friendships that leave you feeling pretty lost. So fortunately Maya and Anna don’t lose each other, but there’s the threat that they will.
What do you think they like about Maura? Because I could just tell right away, this girl is a wannabe and I don’t know what’s going on, but something’s not right.
ME: Maya and Anna are in such a desperate place at that moment. They’ve been completely thrown to the side by all of the school, just from being slut-shamed and from their experience in the closet, and then they started doing witchery at the school. So they’ve really just created reputations for themselves that they think, Okay, we’re at the bottom of the rung, this is it. And this girl, who seemingly just helps them out of nowhere, wants to be their friend. It’s like, Okay, yeah, we’ll take that.
I remember going over to a new friend’s house, you open the cabinet, there’s Gushers, there’s Cheetos, and you’re like: This person is God. Like, I’m going to worship them. So you become friends with them over these kind of superficial things right away. You don’t really see the clues of what this girl is really like.
AK: I do think that that’s one of the dangers of that age that’s very real. When you are at a low place, you make decisions, whether it’s drugs and alcohol — I’m going to sound like a DARE ad — or the person that you hang out with. So I relate to that. That for me was more in high school, but there was a rumor that went around about me, actually. Icebox, which we referenced in the first episode, that was me. [Note: In the first episode of season two, a girl is referred to as Icebox because she allegedly masturbated with ice.] I was super slut-shamed. I hadn’t even had my first kiss, I don’t think. Or maybe I had had just a kiss. I was not ready to be sexual at all. So it was put on me in a way that I was really embarrassed by and I totally ran from it. This senior girl befriended me, who was probably questionable at the time. She ended up just really throwing me under the bus. She cheated with my boyfriend, the whole thing. But it was interesting, that thing of the questionable person that can save you in the lowest moment.
Maya, can you talk about playing some of those scenes that you had to play with the boys on the show? Like when Brandt tells Maya that she’s ugly. It’s got to be weird to have to tell a woman 20 years older than you, who’s kind of your boss, that she’s ugly.
ME: He really didn’t feel good or comfortable saying it. It was hard for him to get to a loud place, even with, “You’re ugly.” We had to keep telling him, “You’re getting to the place of such frustration because this girl is putting hair into your locker. She’s following you. She’s putting an imprint on your social status, just because she’s so low, and it’s something that he’s embarrassed by.” Because he’s such a kind guy, he was having trouble connecting to that. But then he really went there at one moment and it felt really real for me, so it was pretty disturbing to hear that from a young boy, to be just called ugly. But it was really important for us to explore that because I know at that age I was like, “Oh, I’m ugly.”
That’s just a fact. I thought many times like, Maybe if I do this, I could look pretty. Like put blush on and make my eyes look a little bigger and do these things that never really resulted in any … I wouldn’t ever get my crushes to like me. That just didn’t happen in middle school for me at all. So that led me to the belief of, well, something’s wrong with me. I’m ugly. I’m not good enough. Maya’s whole goal for this season is to get a first kiss. She never gets it.
I want to talk about the theater stuff in this season. Given your backgrounds, I don’t know if it’s fair to assume that you did theater in middle school.
Were there any connections between the way that you two relate to each other as creative partners and the way that Maya and Anna relate to each other in the theater?
ME: Yeah. A great example is when we’re having a fight backstage and we’re talking to each other like, “I’m allowed to give you constructive criticism.” It’s a little bit of a stretch for 13-year-olds to talk that way, but we just wanted to give a slight nod to when we have these conversations: “Okay, I’m really happy with the work you’re doing, but I just have to say you yell a lot, and it’s really upsetting me.”
AK: “No, I’m not ready for a hug right now, but I will let you know when I am ready.”
ME: “I’m fine. I wasn’t ready either, but I really appreciate you saying that.”
Theater was my haven and I think it was Anna’s haven, too. It was an escape when I was in middle school. That’s what saved me, I think, is the community of theater. Being able to recreate that, the fun and the hell of Hell Week, was very exciting, but we knew we didn’t want Anna and Maya to both be acting in it. The idea of Anna’s character as a stage manager and finding her power and voice in that was very exciting and very appealing when we talked about it. I had a memory of the techies versus the actors. There was always a bit of actors talking shit about the techies, techies talking shit about the actors, even though they’re supposed to come together and work together.
AK:I think I related a lot to me and Maya making PEN15 in real life to being the stage manager and the journey that we’ve had that has mostly been just amazing teammates. Of course, we’re going to have the occasional argument or something, but this journey from the apologizing — I mean, it’s not a new story for women certainly, but the apologizing and “I don’t want to be bossy” and “I don’t want to raise my voice too much,” and to then the other end of the spectrum where you’re like, “Shut the fuck up!” I relate to that as an adult now, and being in our first position of leading a crew and a writer’s room and showrunning and all of that without having that experience beforehand. I’m going through it with PEN15. We got to play with that in that episode that Maya wrote, so brilliantly, I think. Playing with your voice and that you’re not supposed to be so anything.
ME: It takes a second for Anna to find her voice and her power. And then once she does, she kind of soars.
AK: I feel like PEN15 and working with you, my best friend, is such a profound mirror because you’re not going to let me … it’s different than working with Bob down the way that I’m going to say niceties to and move on from. You’re the ultimate mirror for me. And I’m going to work as hard as I can to continue to be a better friend, human being, business partner, all of those things. [Anna’s Zoom connection starts to glitch.]
You’re breaking up, Anna.
ME: Anna, you’re completely frozen and broken up for me.
Uh-oh. I think she’s saying something really good, too.
AK: Am I back?
ME: We just missed the end of it. Or I would say the last third.
AK: I was basically just saying– [Zoom glitches out.]
ME: Oh shit.
It’s doing it again.
ME: Damn, Zoom.
After previously being told in the chat window by the publicist to wrap up, the interview ends, as it began, with a weird Zoom moment. Once again, this is what we have.