There’s so much brilliance contained within Hulu’s “Pen15” that it’s difficult to know where to start when attempting to dissect what makes the unconventional comedy series work. Created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman, the coming-of-age story set in 2000, stars Erskine and Konkle as adolescent versions of themselves, fumbling their way through middle school surrounded by honest to god, real life teens.
And though the most natural point of entry to discuss the series would be through stars Erskine and Konkle, there’s another woman toiling away behind the scenes to ensure the series feels as earnest and relatable as possible — by finding the perfect batch of young actors to play opposite its stars.
Melissa DeLizia earned her first-ever Emmy nomination this year for her work casting “Pen15,” as unique a challenge as she’s faced in her career, which has seen her populating a host of recognizable, but unconventional comedies including Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” and “Another Period.”
“I came up through the ranks in casting actually working on a lot of dramas,” DeLizia said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I just assumed that’s what I would do when I went on my own. But I ended up falling into comedy — just like, tripped and fell into it — and I’m just I’m so incredibly glad that I did, because it’s such a pleasure to get to go to work every day and just laugh.”
With “Pen15,” DeLizia has an opportunity to stretch all of her muscles, finding actors who can roll with the innate humor of the premise and the awkward realities of adolescence, while also being able to deliver when the series delves into more serious questions of identity, sexuality, and divorce.
“‘Pen15’, for example, has both comedy and drama. It has laughter and heart. It’s literally the best of both worlds,” she said. “I, myself, love to watch shows that make me chuckle and make me feel something at the same time. So getting to cast shows like that and put those positive messages out into the world is just like the best feeling.”
It’s one thing to find adults to fill those roles on the series, whose more mature cast includes Melora Walters, Richard Karn, and Erskine’s own mother portraying herself, Mutsuko Erskine, but to find kids to pull off the same task is a particular challenge in and of itself.
Adults, DeLizia explained, are settled. They’re professionals coming in for a role because acting is their passion or they want to further careers. They’re prepared; they have the capacity to understand the character and story they’re auditioning for.
But with kids, not so much.
“Kids are there to just have fun, without having to really define the experience any further than that,” DeLizia said.” “And there’s just something so magical about that innocence in them, that no matter what they end up doing in an audition, it can just always put a smile on your face. You have a good time.”
But “Pen15” is no ordinary kids show. The challenge is not so much needing to find down-to-earth child actors who excelled at naturalistic acting, but finding those talents who could do so in the face of extraordinary circumstances.
“Obviously Anna and Maya are comedy geniuses, so finding tips that could hold their own against them was a very tall order. We really looked for kids that were confident yet very real and grounded at the same time,” the casting director said. “Honestly, most of the kids we ended up being drawn to were relatively new to acting, just intrinsically playing themselves in one form or another. They each have their own extreme individuality.
“It was a cool experience, because sometimes you have kids that are not the age that they’re portraying but these kids were actually all going through the trials and tribulations of middle school in real time. I think it really made their performances authentic and I know that it helped them bond as a cast.”
And it shows. To sit down and invest in “Pen15” is to relive all of the pain and pleasure of growing up, embracing the emotions, both good and bad, from the relative safety of the future. That DeLizia has discovered these young talents, these priceless gems, that make up the bulk of the show’s cast, who are then able to bring pieces of themselves and their experiences to the series, while still grappling with adolescence themselves, is simply miraculous.
“Anna, Maya and Sam had a very specific, authentic, innovative vision for the show. They wanted to make sure that all types were portrayed and then anyone watching the show could see themselves in one character or another,” said DeLizia. “So I think the actors that we cast are all beautifully unique and quirky, along with being incredibly talented. As a casting director, that’s the dream, right? I love to be able to think outside the box and cast creatively. And in casting ‘Pen15,’ I was actually given that opportunity with each and every role, which never happens. So it was a big challenge, but in the most wonderful way.”