Maya Erskine Talks Fight Scenes, Couples Therapy and Not Taking It Personally on ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’

TheWrap magazine: As for a second season, “All I will say is I’m excited about where the story goes,” she says

Maya Erskine (Karwai Tang/WireImage)

When Maya Erskine got the offer to play Jane to Donald Glover’s John in his and Francesca Sloane’s reimagining of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” for Prime Video, her interest was piqued. She’d just come off two seasons of writing, producing and starring in the Emmy-nominated Hulu comedy series “Pen15” with Anna Konkle and was excited not to play triple threat again. But she would be stepping into the lead female role after Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who had been attached to star and exec-produce, left due to creative differences with Glover. “There was the fear, obviously, of taking over from Phoebe because I respect her immensely,” Erskine told TheWrap. 

What she wasn’t worried about was appearing in a lackluster retread of the 2005 Doug Liman movie starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — not with Glover and his “Atlanta” collaborator Sloane running the show. “I had full trust in their point of view that I just knew it was going to be something different,” she said. 

And it is. The eight-episode series, which has been renewed for a second season, weaves drama, action and wry humor to tell a complex story of a marriage in the context of dangerous missions, aliases and cool gadgets. In this telling, two lonely people are thrown together as married spies, fall in love despite themselves and try to keep their relationship intact while outrunning bad guys and explosions.

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Maya Erskine in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” (Prime Video)

You’ve talked about how playing a 13-year-old in “Pen15” became comfortable for you because it was like wearing a protective mask. To go from that to playing a woman who’s a strong, skilled spy must have been refreshing, but was it daunting to no longer wear that “awkward teenager mask?”  

Definitely daunting. I had just had a baby. And I was so used to being a-13-year-old that doesn’t have to be quote-unquote pretty in the eyes of the audience. And there was the standard of Angelina Jolie, which is impossible to meet. It helped that they described [our characters] as normal people; it wasn’t the Hollywood glamazon version. But it still crept up on me because it was like, Oh, I have to get in shape. I have to be believably a person that would be able to get into these fights and these missions and be falling in love. I start from that physical transformation. I had to stand proud and tall and be strong and not apologize for my feelings, not apologize for what I was saying. And that’s very different from me. 

PEN15
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle in “Pen15” (Alex Lombardi/Hulu)

You said it was a relief to only have to act in this project, after doing “Pen15,” which I can imagine, especially if you’d just had a baby. Where there times, though, that you missed being the superwoman on set?

The weird thing was, I never felt like that. There were times where I probably wanted to insert myself more than I should have, but the great thing about Fran and Donald was they were so welcoming with me that they treated me like someone who is a writer also. So it wasn’t like, “Maya, be quiet.” They wanted me to collaborate and we would end up rewriting together on set or talking about things, so felt I was an actor who got to have a voice.

But I didn’t have the pressure of having to go off after a full day of filming and rewrite something. That was someone else’s job. It was kind of the perfect thing for me to transition into because I think there are some jobs that you could just come on to set and you might not have any voice really at all.

Jane is a better spy than John, but she downplays her talents, which felt so familiar to me. As women, we’re always apologizing for everything, including success. Did that resonate with you? 

I mean, I grew up apologizing for everything and I still do it. I still do it in my emails to work colleagues. It’s just a constant battle that I’m fighting. I actually felt with Jane that she at least didn’t do that right away. She places such an importance on success because I think that was her way of escaping loneliness. Both Jane and John are incredibly lonely people seeking connection. And that’s complicated, too, because why shouldn’t you be successful and also in a meaningful relationship? But I love that, in the end, she is the one that has to save John. She has to pick up after him.

This is a very physical role. You run so much in this, I started to think you’d replace Tom Cruise as the standard of running on screen. 

It’s funny you say Tom Cruise because, first, I’m not a runner. I smoked for many years, so my lung capacity is that of, you know, nothing. [Laughs] But in that first episode, we’re supposed to run side by side and I definitely was running slower than Donald. So he had to slow his pace. But for me to look faster, they did say, “Raise your arms like Tom Cruise.” And it works!

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Donald Glover and Maya Erskine in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (Prime Video)

Jane and John struggle with honesty and communication throughout the series. That is literalized in the couples therapy scenes with Sarah Paulson, because you can’t tell her what your real job is and why it’s affecting your relationship. Was that breakdown of communication fun to play? 

The therapy episode was a really fun one to film. Just the idea of: What could you really say to a therapist? And what is it like when the therapist favors one over the other? Sarah is amazing and she intimidates me, and it felt like [her character] was favoring John the whole time. So I was like, “Wait, do you like me?” [Laughs] My favorite part, though, is actually the last episode, where I get the truth serum and we spill everything. The whole season, I did feel like I was having to hold so much in. And for me, I’m such an over-sharer by nature that it’s so hard to hold in those feelings and emotions. [Laughs

The verbal fight that Jane and John have while camping is intense. You both do some really phenomenal acting in that scene. It’s so raw. I don’t wish that fight on anybody.

Yeah, that scene. It kept raining and we had to wait for it to stop raining. We were all in a trailer together deconstructing it because fights are really hard to nail. If you’re watching a real fight, it can be circular and it can be repetitive and things don’t make sense sometimes and they come back around and what’s the really dark thing that someone says that sets it off and turns it into a whole other fight? And so we were playing around with that a lot and sort of rewriting it all together. And finally, we just finally decided to film it.

It was satisfying to film but also really intense because Donald, when he was fighting with me as John, there were moments that I felt like he won in a way that I couldn’t. I had nothing else to say. I felt really stunned and shut up by him. It was really hard to not feel like it was personal because it felt so personnel. I think we’ve all been in certain fights that felt reminiscent of it. And so it just felt really hurtful. So having to get out of that and be like, “Alright, okay, we’re friends, it’s fine” — yeah, that was a hard one to shoot.

Maya Erskine and Donald Glover in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (Prime Video)

You famously acted with your real mom in “Pen15.” You act with Donald’s mother [Beverly Glover] in this one. Is it was it easier to work with someone else’s mom than your own?

Definitely. My mom is so easy to work with, but I just act differently around my mom when she’s on set. I turn back into a child and I’m like, “Mommm!” I get very annoyed easily if she’s not doing the things that I want her to do. It’s hard for me to keep the role of just pure director or actor with her, whereas Donald’s mom, it felt so nice because it was getting to see another side of Donald and his family. And it she was so natural and so easy. She was great.

You mentioned how Jane has to save John. This happens in the finale, which ends on a cliffhanger where you don’t know if the Smiths are alive or dead

Yes. And it’s how Fran has described it: It shows what kind of a person you are, glass half-full or glass half-empty, if you think that they survived or not.

Well, I’m such a hopeless romantic that I’m like, they have to live! 

Me too. 

So…can I hope that you return for Season 2? 

You can hope! When they first approached me, I did think it was just a one-off or if not that, then each season would be a different “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” When they’ve been talking about their plans for what a second season would be, it’s very exciting because I really like where they’re going with it. I don’t want to give anything away and I absolutely will. [Laughs] All I will say is I’m excited about where the story goes. Doesn’t mean I’m involved or not. 

A version of this story first ran in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap
Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap

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