The crux of PEN15 hinges on Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, adults, playing versions of themselves in middle school, surrounded by actual middle school-aged kids also playing kids in middle school. As the show has sped into its second season, there’s plenty of Maya and Anna getting into cringe-inducing early-2000s shenanigans, but there’s also more space for the actual middle schoolers who surrounded them. Among them: Gabe, a misfit who starts to grow apart from his guy friends as he begins questioning his sexuality, and who ends up starring opposite Maya as a crotchety husband in a very adult school play. Given Gabe’s extended arc this season, Vulture called up Dylan Gage, the 14-year-old actor who plays him, to talk about middle school plays, Gabe’s sexuality, and trying to get his friends to watch the show.
The play that you and Maya do as the characters has a lot of you shouting as a married couple, but it’s not specific. Did you have a full script for it, or an idea of the plot in general?
There was not a whole script for it, and I was frankly kind of disappointed that there wasn’t. There’s certain scenes where you see the script in my hand, and you just see the first page of the script, which is actually just the PEN15 script for those lines, but my name is actually Joe and Maya’s is Debra, but it’s just blank pages after that.
But it was very fun to shoot those scenes, because it brought me back to when I was in school plays and such, overacting and having an accent and stuff. Those were probably some of the funnest scenes in the second season.
Were you ever in a school play where you had to play a cranky old man?
It’s funny that you asked that! The first ever acting job that I got was for a professional play that I did. I didn’t play an old man, though, I played a child. But I did play an actual drama thing.
What play was it, was it like a famous Arthur Miller one or something?
Probably not. It was kind of local. It was called Appropriate.
As you and Maya are rehearsing the play, there are also the scenes where Maya is trying to get together with Gabe and he keeps dodging it, since he’s figuring out his sexuality. What was it like working on that with her?
As a person, working with Maya is amazing, I play off of her so much and she’s really good about that. But in character, I tried to make myself as uncomfortable as possible, and whenever she brought up the question of kissing I wanted to dodge the question and be like, “maybe later,” until the part where we cannot go any later. In the car there’s nowhere to go.
Did you know where things were going to go with Gabe at the start of this season?
Even in the first season, I knew coming into it that Gabe is a character that is struggling with his sexuality. In the second season, they did tell me that “you’re gonna have a lot more scenes focusing specifically on this” and they gave me the rundown beforehand.
Do you have much input on what those scenes end up looking like?
I did have input. They were like, “If you’re comfortable doing the scenes, we would love you to do them, but if this doesn’t sound good to you and you want anything to be edited, we’re open to everything.” And I was like, no, I want to push myself as an actor!
This show is so grounded in the early-2000s era. Was there anything about it that felt especially different than what it’s like as a teen today?
Kids back then, from what the show portrays, were a lot more vicious in middle school! They were calling each other “icebox” in the show. The worst thing that happens now is that maybe for a week they’ll make fun of you, but they’ll, like, forget about it. My generation is not as long-lasting as that.
You were also in the first season of the show. What was it like when that came out? Did you know people who watched it?
The first season, I was 12 when it came out, so none of my friends watched it. But me and my family sat down and did. Then I had my first ever moment of getting recognized in public. Someone spotted me and was like, “Oh my god, are you that kid in PEN15?” They were like, “can we take a picture?” And I was like, “Hell, yeah, that’s awesome.”
Who were the people who recognized you?
It was just like, a guy and a girl. It was at a theater. I had an improv troupe at the time — that sounds really nerdy, but yeah — and before the show they came up to me.
I mean, I went to a theater camp in middle school, so I respect that. Now that season two is out, what’s the response like? Are your friends old enough to watch it?
There’s a lot more of a response for season two than season one. I tried to get my friends to watch it, but none of them have Hulu, so I was like, “man, sad!” But one of my friends is going to get Hulu for a bit at least to just watch the show, and I was like, “yes, that’s awesome.”
It feels like Gabe’s storyline this season has gotten an especially positive response from queer people who were also confused in middle school. What’s your reaction to that been?
Yeah, there’s quite a bit of people relating to my character, which I find really cool. It’s probably the best compliment an actor can get.