‘PEN15’ Stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle on the ‘Cathartic’ Misery of Revisiting Middle School

“It wasn’t fun in some moments, I’ll be honest, to go back to some of those traumatic memories,” Erskine tells TheWrap

Seventh grade is objectively miserable. When you’re hovering between childhood and tweendom, new sources of embarrassment, anxiety and insecurity lurk around every corner. Best case scenario: You make it through without drawing too much attention.

So, naturally, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle chose to go back and relive every single one of seventh grade’s daily indignities for their Hulu comedy “PEN15.”

“It’s pretty masochistic of us,” Erskine told TheWrap. “But I think why Anna and I bonded in the first place was because we both are over-sharers. We would explode with secrets to one another, and explain things that I had had shame about for many years … That was kind of liberating.”

Co-created by Erskine and Konkle with collaborator Sam Zvibleman, “PEN15” stars the duo as younger versions of themselves, mining childhood traumas from bad haircuts to doomed crushes to the emotional terrorism of middle school cliques, for equal parts comedy and pathos. The result is wholly unique — and uniquely difficult to pull off — a show starring two grown adults playing seventh-graders, surrounded by a supporting cast of actual seventh graders, that’s both hilarious and deeply affecting.

PEN15

Alex Lombardi/Hulu

“Something that unites me and Maya is the sense that we laugh at the wrong time or don’t think the proper things are funny, just feeling like, I have a f—ed up sense of humor,” Konkle said. “This felt like it had that element of darker things and sadder things and whatever, but also really joyful and funny things, so [middle school] felt like a kind of perfect time to try to revisit.”

Konkle and Erskine said that it was surprisingly therapeutic to confront fraught memories like Erskine’s early encounters with racism and Konkle’s parents’ divorce.

“It wasn’t fun in some moments, I’ll be honest, to go back to some of those traumatic memories,” Erskine said. “And we didn’t anticipate that fully when we were writing it, but it ended up being cathartic and strangely healing because other people, after this show came out, would reach out and say, ‘Yeah, that happened to me too,’ or, ‘I felt that same way.’ So, we felt less alone. I felt like I got some closure from sharing the things that I felt so scared to share.”

Read TheWrap’s full interview with Erskine and Konkle below.

PEN15

Alex Lombardi/Hulu

TheWrap: I think if you were to try to explain this show to someone, the idea of two grown adults playing middle schoolers would seem a little strange. Can you tell me a little bit about where the idea for the show came from?

Konkle: I guess to make it short, Maya and I met in college. It was the junior year of college, and we became really close, really fast. I feel like that’s usually the kind of thing that’s reserved for when you’re younger, when you find your real best friends. Then, we eventually started writing together. We went to a school for experimental theater together, where we got to play weird characters and do untraditional kinds of stuff, and we really loved that and wanted to write in that vein. Eventually, that totally unexpectedly led us to TV, and this idea. It was kind of, what would we want to make, what would be really fulfilling and exciting, if we had the gift of it getting to do for a long time.

I think we were at some party and it was a bunch people Maya had gone to middle school with that all still hung out together as adults. We kind of felt like, ‘Oh no, I feel like a loser here.’ As an adult, you can still feel like that all the time. I do all the time. It wasn’t like, this is the first time it’s happening, but I felt it. So we started talking about this idea of being around a bunch of 13-year-olds, playing 13, and what would be that story. At some point, the idea was that we were in a cult and then we had to hide after we get out, so we hid in a foster family full of kids, and to fit in with the foster family we’d have to go to middle school and be around kids. It was very convoluted. That eventually went away and it was just us as 13-year-olds around real 13-years-olds. But that was kind of the trajectory.

Erskine: Yeah, and I think also at the time, because we were also collaborating with a third creator, Sam Zvibleman, we all had sort of realized that we hadn’t seen middle school portrayed in the way that we had experienced it. There was “Degrassi” and other Nickelodeon shows, but the only one that felt close to it was “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” That was a really dark interpretation of it, but felt really honest. That was something that I think really inspired us to keep going for the truth of it. Even with us as adults playing 13-year-olds, which can inherently feel like a sketch, that was always the aim, which was an interesting challenge for us.

What made you want to play these younger versions of yourself? I think if you ask most people they would say, you couldn’t pay me money to go back to the seventh grade, but what was it that appealed to you?

Erskine: Yeah, I know. It’s pretty masochistic of us. But I think why Anna and I bonded in the first place was because we both are over-sharers. We would explode with secrets to one another, and explain things that I had had shame about for many years. Anna, too. And we found acceptance in sharing it with the other person. That was kind of liberating, and a lot of those secrets stemmed from that period. It’s such a painful time of experiences, and of firsts, and of shame that we found a lot of humor in that, and we also found a lot of that pain and pathos.

PEN15

Alex Lombardi/Hulu

If you don’t mind me asking, which moments do you find difficult to revisit?

Erskine: For me, it was the scene in [episode five] “Posh.” It wasn’t pulled directly from reality — the way it happened [on screen], it didn’t happen quite like that — but a lot of the emotions and names that were thrown at me came from reality. I thought I had gotten over that, and I didn’t realize how raw and how present those emotions were to the surface. As soon as we started acting it I realized, wow, this still really hurts just as badly as it did when it happened, and I don’t know that that pain ever goes away. It can get smaller by other experiences filling up those holes maybe, but it’s always there.

Whatever hurts you at age 13 can still hurt you at this age, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it can maybe feel universal to play this age, or at least for audiences to watch. Because you’re becoming an adult at that moment, but you don’t really have the tools to cope with some of the adult emotions you’re experiencing. I don’t know for you, Anna. I know you have some tough scenes.

Konkle: Yeah, I was also thinking about the last question you asked about why would you go back there. … This [show] felt like it had that element of liking darker things and sadder things and whatever, but also really joyful and funny things, so it felt like a kind of perfect time to try to revisit.

In terms of hard things– well, not to be like, It was so hard watching you go through a hard thing, but it was really intense watching Maya go through, from my point of view, that “Posh” episode. [In that episode,] all of us are — Anna less vocally — but all of us are marginalizing Maya, and that was really intense. Because I felt like I was watching little Maya also, and that was really tough.

Then, I think all of that stuff with my parents, too. My parents really did divorce when I was that age, and I’ve always had a really hard time with it. I’d love to say that I dealt with it and it’s fine but for some reason it just really affected me in my path in life. Going back to the childhood home that we re-created, and the first day of walking into that house, casting actors to play my mom and my dad to be there together. I remember them both hugging me and being like, “We’re so excited to be here,” and I’m like I shouldn’t feel weird right now because you’re actors, and this isn’t my house, and this isn’t my real mom and dad, but I feel weird. Because my real parents do not talk to each other, don’t like each other, and I haven’t had that in, I don’t know, 12 years or something? And the divorce scene, that really scared me. That wasn’t towards the end of the season until we shot it, but I was really intimidated about going back there and doing it honestly, and what that would be like. But I’m glad we did it, but it definitely was cathartic but it was weird.

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Alex Lombardi/Hulu

In kind of a similar vein, this is a project where you really can’t have any vanity kind of going into it–

Konkle: [Laughs.] But we looked hot, no?

Erskine: I think I look fine as hell.

I mean, the bowl cut was fantastic.

Erskine: Thank you. I wish I had the balls to do that to my real hair. We almost did. Anna really wanted me to cut my hair into an actual bowl cut for the shoot. I’m considering it for season two to be honest because it’s easier than putting a wig on every day.

But did you ever feel like, “Oh my God, this is too embarrassing”?

Erskine: I think Anna and I, we share this thing where we actually feel freer when we get to show the things that we’re self conscious about. Like my mustache. If I get to accentuate it and even add more hairs to what already exists there, there’s a freedom with that because you’re just showing all of your warts. I don’t know, it was freeing.

The only thing that I felt probably some slight embarrassment, but not really for myself, for the people around me, was when I had to masturbate in the bowl cut, because I don’t want to impose that onto anyone, make anyone watch an adult wearing a Carebear shirt, and having fake vagina lips while she’s playing with My Little Ponies. That’s just exposing. So yeah, there were definitely a couple moments for me where I was embarrassed for the crew members. But yeah, I don’t know. Anna?

Konkle: Yeah, you spoke to something interesting I think, which is what it does to you — and this is a much bigger thing so I won’t go far into it — but what it does to you subconsciously when you’re putting on a ton of makeup, fake hair or whatever every day. By the end of the shoot, Maya and I would turn to each other and be like, “I feel like I look too good today,” and it wasn’t a joke. There were certain days where I’d look in the mirror and I’d be like, “Well, she’s not a reject today. She looks hot.” I think it was good. It started permeating my mind in a different way.

Erskine: Yeah, we legitimately would turn to each other and ask, “No, but do I look too hot today?” And everyone around us had to be like, “You’re totally fine. You guys are okay.”

Konkle: Everybody answered way too fast. Before I could finish, people would be like, “No. No.”

Erskine: “No.”

The show also has this kind of interesting dichotomy where it feels like a really honest portrayal of what kids this age are going through, but at the same time it’s very much not a show for kids. So in terms of the younger actors, how do you find the line? I know you use body doubles for some scenes, but how do you find the line for what you have them do, and the situations that you put them in?

Konkle: We kind of tried to take it moment by moment, and not make an overall rule for how we would address it. We knew that we wanted to tell our honest stories, and we didn’t want it to feel like sketch-y or broad where all of a sudden it’s like this child is being played by a man with a beard, and we know it’s not him. But we also wanted people to feel comfortable, able to assume that there’s a body double being used. That was the tactic when we went into using a lot of extreme close ups to tell the more R-rated stories. To me, that was kind of the way in.

PEN15

Alex Lombardi/Hulu

The show really does feel almost like a string of traumatic incidents, which is also kind of how you would describe middle school. How do you go about finding the comedy in those moments? Because the show is also very funny, but it is really tragic at points, too. How do you find the balance?

Erskine: Thank you. Yeah, I think Anna spoke to this a bit before, but our sense of humor — I don’t know what that says about us, but our sense of humor, the things that we find funny often come from the most painful emotions or the most traumatic things. We found humor in those situations. Middle school was also just an inherently funny time because everyone’s going through physical transformations and it’s your head is growing, your face might be growing faster than your body, but then your friend is six feet tall and you’re still two feet. It’s like a circus. If you have kids [on screen] who are actually going through those transformations, I think it would be more painful to watch, and it wouldn’t be funny. But I think because there’s distance with us as adults going back to those moments, you’re able to see the humor in it.

I think that’s what draws us to comedy. We never were really good at writing jokes or any of those things. It was finding humor through situations that might’ve been painful or embarrassing, or just really honest. Sometimes that’s enough to be funny. Even though we do go into the ridiculous with our physicality at times.

Konkle: Yeah, I agree and I think this is what you’re speaking to, so I’m just repeating it, but adults blaming 13-year-olds and being honest about feeling outcast-y I think is funny because in part you’re admitting as an adult you still feel this way or something. You know? The self-consciousness and all the imperfections that you have are so intense at that age, and they don’t go away but you figure out a better way to hide them. I think a lot of the humor comes from the way those issues are magnified at that age and you have fewer ways of hiding them or coping or dealing with them, so it’s like you’re just pretending so much more, which I always think is so funny.

Erskine: So funny. Also, the logic at that age can be so insane. My dad told us the story where he had friends over, and a big booger came out of his nose, and instead of just getting up and getting a tissue he just spent the next two hours keeping his hand over his nose and pretending that that was a normal way to hang out. That to me is such the essence of a kid trying to be accepted, but in the moment not having the skills to do it.

I know you guys just started working on Season 2. Is there anything you’re really excited to do that maybe you didn’t get to do in Season 1, or any storylines that you’re really excited to incorporate?

Konkle: Yeah. I’m excited about going a little bit darker. The goal with season one was staying more innocent than not. Part of the core of the show is being right between childhood and tweendom, you’re not a teenager, you’re not even a tween, you’re both a child and not. So, really just exploring all of what that is and playing pretend in a specific way. The idea was if we went farther, we’d have the opportunity to say, what does it look like if more childhood is gone and you’re still in limbo? What is more adult about it? What is darker? The fact that me and Maya have gone through, for the first time in our lives, a certain level of pain, loss, shame, what does that do to someone’s psyche? Do you become angrier? Do you find different groups that are more identifying as outsiders because you’re angry or whatever. I’m really excited about exploring that stuff.

Something that just occurred to me, I know your plan is to keep the show in seventh grade kind of in perpetuity, but what’s your plan for the supporting actors moving forward?

Erskine: That’s a question that we ask ourselves all the time. Because we fell in love with these actors playing these roles, and we want to keep them. I think something that’s exciting to us is a lot of times when kids are going through that awkward physical moment in puberty, they generally tend not to be on TV. They somehow disappear. There’s something exciting to us to let that live and see that change. But we’ve also talked about options of what if every year it was a completely different cast because all these kids are archetypes so it could be played by anyone, really. But as of right now I think we’re excited to keep the same cast and see how it transforms. Because you’re right, in one day someone can grow four inches. That might mess up our continuity, but it could be interesting. It’ll be a big experiment.

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Alex Lombardi/Hulu

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