Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle have made waves with the series they co-created, produce, and star in, “PEN15.” Over the years, the middle school experience has been one that’s largely ignored in the mainstream entertainment media. In the cases that it does appear, it’s been shown through a rosy filter, where a lot of the nitty-gritty, painful, and downright awkward moments are hidden. “PEN15” does not do that at all.
Both Erskine and Knokle channel past experiences into their performances, as well as a lot of physical labor to play middle school-aged girls. While their roles are indeed hilarious, they infuse a lot of heart into the series, and show three-dimensional characters that are learning about life one lesson and mishap at a time.
I was able to speak with both Erskine and Konkle about “PEN15,” some of the influences behind the show, and the importance of showing more authentic experiences on screen. Enjoy the conversation below:
Adriana Gomez-Weston/Awards Circuit: Can you talk about your journey to getting “PEN15” made?
Anna Konkle: It’s been such a long road. It’s probably been almost seven years now since we first started it. The short answer is trying to make something we felt would be endlessly inspiring, where we could love it so much we wouldn’t care what other people thought. We encountered a lot of skepticism along the way. We were skeptical too. We didn’t know if it would work. We really wanted to make sure that we tried it, even if we had to pay for the production ourselves, which we had done many times before. That was kind of the beginning of it.
Maya Erskine: When Anna and I met in college, we found that we shared the same anxieties when it came to performing well, and we had a shared affinity for pain and expressing it through humor. We found that we had this similar dark sense of humor, and we both overshared a lot when we both shared our secrets. I would say that’s sort of the theme that runs through all the work we’ve made together.
Also, this feeling that we’ve never fully belonged, being on the fringes of society. We studied theater, so that’s where a lot of our ideas would come from, our characters. There were characters we wanted to play, explore, and find what stories would come from them. I think the idea “PEN15,” came about for a couple of reasons. One was we went to this party back in LA where there were a bunch of kids from my middle school. We instantly reverted back to that age, feeling all of sudden not cool enough, and not good enough. We were acting like we were thirteen and realized that a lot of those insecurities and feelings of inadequacy never really leave you, even after this age.
AGW: There haven’t been too many shows that portray such an honest view of what it’s like to grow up as a teen girl. Why do you think it’s so important to put that on screen?
ME: I think it’s important for any kid who can relate to it, or any adult even who can relate to it to feel represented in the media. I know when I was growing up at 13, that didn’t exist. I had no one to talk to about it because it wasn’t in pop culture. No one was talking about it. There weren’t any movies that I saw. When I started masturbating, I thought that I was a monster and a freak, and that I was the only one. It was really damaging for me because I felt this wall of shame around it for many years that’s been hard to shed as an adult. This was a great opportunity to release some of the shame that clouds female sexuality.
AK: I think part of it is finding solace in people that are willing to share the things they’re ashamed of. I don’t know who has more secrets than women first of all, because we’re kind of taught to keep secrets, especially at that age. We’re really conditioned at that age that men can say and do certain things and that’s normal, and women can’t. That became more and more clear doing this series. At 32, I said, “This is a little late realizing this,” but better late than never.
There’s this misconception of girls at that age being a certain way, and the truth can be different. Girls can be really gross and weird, and really prudish and shy, and really confident and delusional. It’s just a mixture of things that you don’t get to see at that age, and it felt very vital for us to explore.
AGW: “PEN15” shows the beginnings of how social media influences teens and how they present themselves. How do you think it has shaped teens today?
AK: The first thing I though of, was when you’re at that age, it’s more intense now because of all the different social media. We’re trying to show ourselves and our identities through technology. I remember AIM, it was the beginning of it with the profile. It was choosing how many asterisks I was going to put, what colors, and what quotes I was going to add. Was it going to be a Ghandi quote, or a Boyz II Men quote? Who am I? What is OK about me? It was putting hours into that. Thank God that’s all I had!
The access, and the choices, and how quick it is, and the multitude of ways that you can express yourself. I think it’s a burden in the sense of the identity that you’re able to express online, and the pressure that comes with that. It’s intense for me, and I’m not that age, and I don’t do it that much compared to other people. I find it really hard on sense of self, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to be 13 going through your identity with those tools around you.
ME: In some ways, I imagine there’s some positive aspects to it now in the sense that it broadens the scope. You get to see more people like you. You get to connect with more people. The negative side of it is that you’re being exposed to a lot of things that you might not be ready to see for one, and then the other is that you’re seeing images of unattainable figures with all these filters, and all these edits, all these things people are able to do their photos. Girls are looking at these bodies. I can’t imagine what it does to your self-image. I would think it would be incredibly difficult at that age especially to be exposed to all of that. To see a picture of Kendall Jenner, and to think that at 18, that’s a normal way to look just by diet and lifting weights once a week. That’s just not real.
Then I think you’re also exposed more to effects of being left out because you get to see other people’s Instagram and who they’re hanging out with. You get direct proof.
I remember talking about how exciting it was to get that message on AIM. Because it takes so long, to wait for the message to come up, to wait for the dial-up to happen. All of those steps took so long that you really were grateful every time. Now, it’s so immediate, it’s so constant that it must be incredibly numbing to wait. We got to experience both sides of social. We got to experience what life was like before it, and during.
AGW: What were some of your favorite, and not-so favorite aspects of playing teenage girls on-screen?
ME: For me, one of my favorite aspects was the unabashed love you have for your best friend, and the way you express it physically and emotionally. There’s no judgement about that. You can treat them like your absolute soulmate, ride or die, and they can be your whole world. It’s so joyous in that way but it can also be so incredibly painful when you’re hurt or left out by them. Those grand emotions associated with that was so fun to live out.
The parts that were hardest were obviously, were the ones that were the most traumatic. It was really cathartic and enjoyable to live it out in a way because it gets some closure from those painful memories.
The actual filming side, I would say the physicality was quite uncomfortable. I was in a wig everyday. Anna was in braces that were cutting up the insides of her mouth. We were strapping our breasts down, which is incredibly uncomfortable but worth it.
AK: It’s getting to play characters that aren’t tropes. So often, especially in my experience, if you’re doing a character that’s a big departure from yourself, it’s often a trope, or just one thing, like funny. It was so amazing to be able to play a character that you don’t have to cut down the humanity of, and be able to be funny too. That’s also what was really difficult and intimidating. It all felt bigger and like there was more room to fail. But, most days it was amazing, and to do that next to your best friend and co-creator, it all was pretty magical.