Unlike so many onscreen transformations, the goal for “PEN15’s” 33-year-old stars wasn’t to become wholly convincing 13-year-olds.
“There’s a high possibility we’re going to come across as adults,” Maya Erskine told IndieWire. “Even if we do our best to portray 13-year-olds, we will naturally stand out —and that’s OK.”
“Part of what was freeing was knowing we are rejects in this world, so even if we don’t disappear, [it’s OK],” Anna Konkle said. “We are 30-year-olds in bizarre clothing trying to do it authentically, and maybe it’s OK [if] we don’t fit in — it can just enhance that, which was the idea.”
Erskine and Konkle play two best friends starting seventh grade as isolated outcasts. Given the two women are in their early thirties, the prep it took to get into character is on par with the more gravitas-laden projects out there. Prosthetics came into play, as Konkle strapped on braces and Erskine sported a clunky retainer. Outfits were carefully chosen to be period-appropriate for the year 2000. Hair was cut, chests were “strapped down,” and plenty more details went into getting these two actors into character.
“The physical transformation is incredibly helpful,” Erskine said. “You’re being placed into these clothes that are ill-fitting for adults. You’re wearing low-rider jeans […] and squeezing your stomach in and out like a sausage. […] When I put my retainer in, it transformed the way I spoke. I wanted to hunch over and hide my flat chest. I wanted to hide my face because I hated how my hair looked. It was a constant self-consciousness that was almost liberating because we were showing what we were most afraid to show.”
And yet, perhaps because it’s such a joyous comedy, it doesn’t feel like the two actors are getting their due for pulling off such make-or-break performances. Two adult leads among a cast of kids could’ve been a disaster — an awkward stunt that pulled viewers out of the story and away from the touching coming-of-age tale brought to such beautiful light. Instead, “PEN15” is being heralded as one of the year’s best new shows, and its two leads’ turns are due a lot of the credit.
“It felt very vulnerable and exposing to say, ‘OK, I’m going to try to authentically do this,'” Konkle said. “For me, it’s very easy to feel like you’re failing.”
Erskine said making the 15-minute pilot for Hulu helped prepare them for the experience, but they didn’t have time for the rehearsals they’d planned and relied heavily on the work they’d done writing scripts to inform who Maya and Anna would be. Erskine even kept a journal as Maya, which she wrote in each morning before the shoot began.
“We had experimented with these roles a bit, but we wanted to keep deepening them and enhancing them and getting more specific nuances with these characters,” Erskine said. “But we didn’t have time for rehearsal, so I remember making it a mandate that the first scene we did was with each other. Anna and I work so much off of each other and play off of each other, it was really important for us to have our first scene [together].”
Yet what can be helpful for getting into character can still be physically exhausting. Maya and Anna (the characters) are head over heels for each other, dancing around in each other’s clothes and maniacally hugging one another onto the ground. Erskine and Konkle have to exude the kind of madcap energy only teenagers (and certain on-the-street hosts) possess.
“We are going to places where you’ve emotionally shut down, that you’ve repressed for years — certain memories that you think you’ve gotten over or got closure on,” Erskine said, of what it took to get into that mindset. “That would be really surprising how that would hit you.”
“I really felt all that,” Konkle said, adding that she developed severe leg pain from all the running, jumping, dancing, tackling, and other outlandish signs of affection Anna shows Maya in the series. “I would have to remind myself I’m not 13, but actually 33, to realize why I was so beaten down. […] Our bodies for years to come will probably have issues.”
But they both still enjoy those scenes, which give them an opportunity they rarely get now.
“As adults, you don’t get to show your love for your friends quite like that, so there was something really beautiful and exciting to being so physically close to Anna in real life — holding on her, tugging on her, loving her with such intense fierceness,” Erskine said. “As a kid, it can be life or death with your friend. They’re your everything, and so I think it was really rewarding to be able to express my love in that way.”
With “PEN15” Season 2 on the way, Erskine and Konkle are enjoying the chance to play characters outside of what Hollywood offered them before.
“We created roles we wouldn’t normally be cast in,” Erskine said. “There’s no world in which we would be cast as 13-year-olds, or old men and women, and those were the roles we were drawn to — very naively, I think, because we were in experimental theatre at NYU. […] In that school, you’re led to believe you can play any role you want. You can play a stick that has a wide variety of emotions.”
“My first agent meeting was right after school, and […] they were like, ‘What are the roles you want to do? What’s your thing?'” Konkle said. “And I was like, ‘Men, women, children…’ and she was like, ‘Bye bye.'”
“We didn’t understand that [when] you’re trying to get roles [in Hollywood], it’s very limited,” Erskine said. “Especially when we started auditioning, the roles we were getting were one-liners. I was Chinese Waiter No. 2 or things of that nature.”
With the success of “PEN15” — and the amazing performances at its center — these two deserve more chances to stretch their range. Be it a stick, an old man, or whatever else they dream up, Erskine and Konkle have earned the chance to go wherever their imaginations take them.
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle are both eligible for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for “PEN15.” The first season is streaming now on Hulu.