Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle didn’t know each other in seventh grade, but by the way they play seventh-grade best friends in Pen15, you would think that they did.
“It’s funny, I wish I knew Maya,” Konkle says in her Zoom tile, wearing a green tulle blouse, as her dog, George, snoozes on the couch behind her.
“I wish I knew you too,” Erskine gushes from her square, in a red ringer tee and gold necklace. “I think we would’ve been best friends.”
“I think we would too.”
The now-33-year-olds met years after middle school, while studying at NYU, but they bring their destined adolescent friendship to life in their hit Hulu series, where they portray versions of their tween-age selves in the 2000s among actual teenagers and tweens. Konkle’s Anna Kone wears braces and sparkly lip gloss; Erskine’s Maya Ishii-Peters sports a mom-made bowl cut and a rolling backpack. They talk to boys on AIM, wear Limited Too, fuss over the school dance, and try out their first thong (singular, as in they share one after stealing it from a classmate).
In the R-rated comedy, they share an unfiltered, relatable look at puberty—the title is a play on the word penis, for starters—from covering up your first period to masturbating in secret and feeling guilty about it after. Part of the novelty is revisiting your favorite trends from yesteryear, like tankinis and butterfly clips; another is seeing the unspoken, hormonal weirdness of your adolescence on-screen and realizing that you weren’t alone. For millennial women, it’s like retroactively watching Broad City for your middle school self.
“The things that were exciting to us in terms of nostalgia were the things that you don’t always remember right off the bat,” Erskine says. “It’s something that comes up in conversation or in a story where you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, when they were playing Pogs—oh, my God, Pogs, I haven’t thought of that in how many years?’ Something that would just then insight all these other memories or spark other things.” Some nostalgic factors were even cut because they didn’t authentically fit into the story, Konkle says. In the next batch of episodes, though, be on the lookout for a Tamagotchi cameo.
Whereas Season 1 drew viewers in with its nostalgia-peppered humor, Season 2, streaming now, gets realer and darker as Anna is caught in the middle of her parents’ divorce and Maya is ignored by a school fling. The story weaves in “humor and devastation,” Konkle says.
“At this age, you can somewhat process and understand [something] in your brain, but you don’t have the coping mechanisms or skills yet to deal with it,” Erskine explains. “And some of the ways you deal with it is by turning to your friends or trying to find different identities. Because if I become a different person, maybe that will fix whatever this thing is that’s happening to me or that I’m seeing.” That’s true of Maya and Anna this season, as they dabble in wrestling, witchcraft, theater.
In preparing for the second season, Konkle had to revisit memories of her own parents’ divorce when she was young. “It was definitely weird,” she says of unpacking the memories. But the upside was “getting to rewrite my history” with a best friend to help her through it. “I grew up as an only child. And so I’m hiding by myself watching these things. I don’t have my friend next [to me]. So to be able to rewrite it in a way where we’re spying together, and then at the lowest moment, she pulls me out of it, that was my fantasy.”
As an actual 13-year-old, Erskine was also struggling with friendships and acceptance. “I think I was very similar to Maya but not as brave all the time.” Konkle, meanwhile, sees her awkward fourth- and fifth-grade self in her character, but that began wearing off when she hit middle school. “I started figuring it out that, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t tell people not to swear.’ Or, ‘I shouldn’t sing the loudest in chorus, because that’s annoying.’”
“You picked up social cues more than Anna Kone can,” Erskine tells her.
“Barely. Barely,” Konkle jokes.
Despite the evolved themes in Pen15 Season 2, on-screen Maya and Anna remain in seventh grade. “They stay 13 forever,” Erskine says. “It’s sort of like the Simpsons,” teases Konkle. “[The timeline] doesn’t make sense.” Arguably, though, that allows the show to more deeply explore the highs and lows of growing up.
Take the girls’ sexuality and sexual desires, which were taboo, if not condemned, while boys openly made dick jokes at school and in movies. “In real life, Maya felt internal shame for her private discovery of sexuality, which we showed in Season 1, while I was publicly ridiculed and sexualized and called a slut before I was ready to be at all sexual, which we show more in this season,” Konkle says.
“Both real-life experiences taught us at young ages that the combo of sexuality and girls was wrong, while boys talked about masturbating in school publicly and mainstream media made jokes and movies about boys being horny, and that was unilaterally accepted and funny. Socially accepted no matter your political standing. Just a given. It’s way past time that girls’ sexuality be the same. Let’s joke about the labia like we joke about hard-ons, y’all. And own the range of sexuality that girls and women feel. It’s not going anywhere.”
Let’s joke about the labia like we joke about hard-ons, y’all.
This season introduces the ubiquity of slut-shaming in that time period, even for middle schoolers. After Maya and Anna have a dalliance with a boy at the school dance, gossip spreads and kids are calling them “sluts” by gym class. Watching as an adult, it’s not only jarring to hear kids fling these insults, but also to remember how common this language was at the time, from the vilifying of Monica Lewinsky to internalized misogyny in the school yard. “This theme showed itself in our lives constantly,” Konkle recalls. “We were shamed as women and given expectations far more restrictive than the boys or men were given. The self-loathing this subconsciously taught us was often then given out by us to women and girls.”
That also carried into Maya’s and Anna’s relationships with their mothers, with the former clashing with her immigrant upbringing and the latter clinging to her dad during his divorce. “We knew we wanted to show that and explore the anti-woman, anti-self, anti-mother way of thinking at that age and that time. This is what we were taught and lived. And in turn, show the pro-boys, pro-Dad, pro-men sensibility girls are simultaneously taught,” Konkle explains.
“I think at that age, you start to see that you’re very much like your mom and you hate that about yourself and you then hate your mom,” adds Erskine, whose own mother, Mutsuko Erskine, plays Maya’s mom in the show. “You go through these self-loathing moments, because you just are struggling so hard with your own identity and that’s reflected in your mother.” By the end of the season, they learn to love, accept, and acknowledge their mothers for “why they’re amazing and all the work that they do for you.”
Maya, who is half-Japanese in the series and in real life, includes elements of her heritage and the shame that entails for an Asian girl who’s just trying to fit in. In one episode, a friend laughs at Maya’s mother’s “really thick accent,” which is based a real high school experience. “I hated being ‘othered,’” she says. “My friends didn’t mean anything by it, but as soon as they said my mom had an accent, it felt like I had to defend her American-ness.”
In the Season 1 episode “Posh,” Maya unknowingly experienced racism while pretending to be Spice Girls with a group of white friends. She was pressured into being Scary Spice, because she has “dark skin” and had to play a servant. In Season 2, the microaggressions and racist comments continue, and so does Maya’s shame. “In real life at this age, there were so many moments that subconsciously taught me to be ashamed of or to hide the Asian part of myself that it became second nature,” Erskine says.
She was excited, though, to revisit tender moments with her mother such as the heartfelt discussions they’d share in the Japanese bath, which was fashioned after the one she grew up with. “It’s where we had all of our conversations, where I shared all of my problems, hopes, and dreams with her. I cherish those memories. And to relive that on-screen was magical. And to have that be on TV, well, goddamn, that’s a miracle.
“I didn’t see anything close to that on TV when I was growing up. I didn’t see mothers speaking Japanese to their kids, and then the kids responding in English, or see any of the food I grew up eating. It was foreign to everyone I went to school with. The fact that we get the opportunity to put it in our show in a way that normalizes this half-immigrant household is so wonderful. All the things that caused embarrassment for me as a kid now bring me immense pride.”
All the things that caused embarrassment for me as a kid now bring me immense pride.
As Konkle and Erskine continue to delve into life at age 13, it’s important to make sure that their young costars are safe and comfortable filming the content. “There’s a lot of conversation with the kids, there’s a lot of conversation with the parents beforehand,” Konkle explains. “We’re just really clear. When there’s anything from a more R-rated situation to watching porn, we’re just double-shooting everything essentially with body doubles that are adults.” That’s what they did for those close-up kissing scenes. “We hope that you’re not knocked out of the scene in those moments, but we also hope that the kids and the audience feel safe, because there are adult body doubles being used.”
As the upcoming Pen15 episodes “get even more mature,” more adult actors are used. “We discovered, okay, there is a line. We don’t want to do everything R-rated with real 13-year-olds, no matter if it’s with body doubles or how we shoot it. We’re going to cast adults. So you’ll see that in the future as well.”
In one scene, Maya and her new boyfriend, Gabe, “kiss” by touching face masks, which were padded with Styrofoam to keep “the moment safe for the actors,” Konkle says. Filmed months before COVID-19 swept the United States, the sequence is eerily relevant, though it was part of a parody on middle school theater kids who are overly protective of their health before a performance.
The Pen15 team were just a week and a half short of filming before the pandemic upended everyone’s schedules. “Fortunately we finished filming this new season that’s out, but we didn’t finish everything,” Konkle says. They spent the beginning of quarantine busy with postproduction from home. “We were stuck in our rooms for 16 hours a day not seeing the light of day until maybe a month ago or two months ago,” Erskine recalls. While the first seven episodes drop today on Hulu, the other eight will arrive in 2021.
For the next chapter, Pen15 will return to the “lighter” humor of Season 1 but with more mature themes. After Maya’s and Anna’s identity crises, the next group of episodes show them landing on an identity and leaning on each other. “We are going to own this. We don’t need everybody else’s approval anymore. And we’re going to be even more mature and meet some older people,” Konkle says. “And they get a little in over their head.”
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