And it was hard. AK: I was basically just saying– [Zoom glitches out.]

ME: Oh shit. But I don’t even have the perspective of having my own kid yet, so I can’t even imagine. She would be polite on set about it, but she would make little comments like, “Oh yeah, this is how you were. Is that character based on experiences that either of you had?ME: The thing that we both related to was a friendship of three. AK, laughing: Your screen just flipped–

ME: I’m so sorry! That was really exciting to us, to not just show one big moment that happens of two girls leaving a girl out. So it was just this kaleidoscope of emotions that happens at that age that just bursts out. She’s putting an imprint on your social status, just because she’s so low, and it’s something that he’s embarrassed by.” Because he’s such a kind guy, he was having trouble connecting to that. Or I would say the last third. They had been through a lot. And everything went completely fine from a technical standpoint … well, mostly. Like when Brandt tells Maya that she’s ugly. So they’ve really just created reputations for themselves that they think, Okay, we’re at the bottom of the rung, this is it. So I think I really gave it to her at that age because I was really hating on myself. AK: Yeah, I mean the part that I related to the most and I think what was exciting to us, at least for a minute in this season, was to feel the threat of, “Are they going to lose each other?” Because there were a few groups that I went through before finding my people, you know? She’s my homie. AK: Yeah, plus when you’re dressed as your 13-year-old self–

ME: It’s crazy. If you have a friend to go through it with together, that’s what gets them through it, at least for this season. Konkle and Erskine, ruling middle school. Erskine, who, like Konkle, plays a middle-school version of herself on the Hulu dramedy, dropped her laptop, shattering the screen. Especially at that age, it’s like your identity can be formed on the people that are around you. I’m ashamed I did it at all, but I did. When Maya and Anna start being so rude to their moms this season, that hit me from both sides because I’m the mother of a 13-year-old boy and when I was 13, I acted the same way. I think Maya and I both experienced being left by groups and losing friendships that leave you feeling pretty lost. I think I had so much hatred for the Japanese side of myself, which is completely just what my mom is. One of the ultimate threats that isn’t a repeat of them being against each other, like we did at the end of season one, is they’re really solid but they need a rescue boat. I’m like, “Mom, do it again, say it faster!”

I want to ask you about the introduction of the new friend, Maura. It came naturally. That’s what saved me, I think, is the community of theater. It’s this constant play between the three of, Okay, now it’s us two bonding, and this person is having self-doubt all of a sudden, because these two are getting along a little bit better in that moment. I remember feeling it also, even in my own family with my parents and–

At this point, Erskine adjusts her iPad in an attempt to better center herself in her Zoom window, but things go haywire. “This is what we have. “Did you have that background on there before corona or after?”

“I don’t know why this is my background, but this is my iPad and that’s my mom,” Erskine said, still fiddling with her tablet. After previously being told in the chat window by the publicist to wrap up, the interview ends, as it began, with a weird Zoom moment. It felt authentic in the moment, but Maya, for you, I’m so curious. Maya, can you talk about playing some of those scenes that you had to play with the boys on the show? AK: It’s incredible how well you guys worked together. “This was before corona, that picture. Maya Erskine: Yeah, it wasn’t a straight intention, I would say, to go darker. I’m assuming that you guys went through those phases, too, where you were just not nice to your parents.AK: I think we explore hating yourself, and we try to touch on the complexity of that as identifying as women and being taught, really, the crazy expectations of what you’re supposed to be like. And in the three, you always experience a moment of feeling left out, no matter what. I remember going over to a new friend’s house, you open the cabinet, there’s Gushers, there’s Cheetos, and you’re like: This person is God. She represented the Japanese side of myself. You’re the ultimate mirror for me. I feel for my mom so much now, because I have some perspective. I’m going through it with PEN15. I’m ugly. Of course, we’re going to have the occasional argument or something, but this journey from the apologizing — I mean, it’s not a new story for women certainly, but the apologizing and “I don’t want to be bossy” and “I don’t want to raise my voice too much,” and to then the other end of the spectrum where you’re like, “Shut the fuck up!” I relate to that as an adult now, and being in our first position of leading a crew and a writer’s room and showrunning and all of that without having that experience beforehand. But it’s also, for me, hard to gauge sometimes, because that was what I grew up in. But it was really important for us to explore that because I know at that age I was like, “Oh, I’m ugly.”

That’s just a fact. I was not ready to be sexual at all. Anna, do you remember my mom talking about it? I’m so sorry.”

When you were acting those scenes with your mom, how did she feel? What do you think they like about Maura? So you become friends with them over these kind of superficial things right away. Was that something you set as an intention before starting on the season, or did that stuff come out as you broke the story?Anna Konkle: I would say it more came out as we broke the story. But it was interesting, that thing of the questionable person that can save you in the lowest moment. Yeah. Related

PEN15 Goes Deeper in Season 2

Tags: ME: It takes a second for Anna to find her voice and her power. It was hard for him to get to a loud place, even with, “You’re ugly.” We had to keep telling him, “You’re getting to the place of such frustration because this girl is putting hair into your locker. After switching to her iPad, Erskine reentered the Zoom chat, but all that was visible was the top half of her face and her background screen: a photo of her mother, Mutsuko Erskine, who also plays Maya’s mom on PEN15, wearing a face mask on a subway and seemingly looming over her daughter’s right shoulder. What’s interesting is you do this show and then you come to realizations later, even years after it happened as a 13-year-old, like you said, Anna. [Anna’s Zoom connection starts to glitch.]

You’re breaking up, Anna.ME: Anna, you’re completely frozen and broken up for me. So that led me to the belief of, well, something’s wrong with me. She’s following you. Maya’s whole goal for this season is to get a first kiss. And this girl, who seemingly just helps them out of nowhere, wants to be their friend. A great example is when we’re having a fight backstage and we’re talking to each other like, “I’m allowed to give you constructive criticism.” It’s a little bit of a stretch for 13-year-olds to talk that way, but we just wanted to give a slight nod to when we have these conversations: “Okay, I’m really happy with the work you’re doing, but I just have to say you yell a lot, and it’s really upsetting me.”

AK: “No, I’m not ready for a hug right now, but I will let you know when I am ready.”

ME: “I’m fine. I had a memory of the techies versus the actors. Undaunted by technology problems, Erskine and Konkle pushed forward to tell Vulture about the excellent new episodes of their series, how it felt to play moments that reflected their own experiences with their mothers, how theater saved them in middle school, and why kids with access to Gushers and Cheetos were so seductive. I did not do that apology at that age to my mom like at the end [of episode seven]. I’m just trying to figure this out. You don’t really see the clues of what this girl is really like. This senior girl befriended me, who was probably questionable at the time. ME: We just missed the end of it. AK: And it was like your head–

Was floating through the subway. Was it bringing back memories of when you treated her that way?ME: I don’t know. The idea of Anna’s character as a stage manager and finding her power and voice in that was very exciting and very appealing when we talked about it. She cheated with my boyfriend, the whole thing. I dealt with such heartache over that. I think she’s saying something really good, too. We didn’t know what that would look like or how low it would go or whatever. When you are at a low place, you make decisions, whether it’s drugs and alcohol — I’m going to sound like a DARE ad — or the person that you hang out with. AK: I feel like PEN15 and working with you, my best friend, is such a profound mirror because you’re not going to let me … it’s different than working with Bob down the way that I’m going to say niceties to and move on from. Uh-oh. It’s like, Okay, yeah, we’ll take that. It’s a kid going through her own thing, and I could say all this empathetic stuff about Maura’s character, actually, but also she was tough on our characters, you know? This season gets into deeper, more emotional territory than the first season does. I did at times, I guess, feel like it was more serious, but I didn’t feel it was darker until recently. I was so on my dad’s side growing up, like so much more extreme than is in the show. We’re 33 now. AK: I do think that that’s one of the dangers of that age that’s very real. And what if an asshole is the rescue boat? Nice try.”

She was very professional, I would say. ME: Well, remember while we were in the dressing room, I was getting very angry at her naturally. To keep evolving at this age, that sometimes means being exposed to things that are adult or a little bit darker that you might not be able to process fully. So it was put on me in a way that I was really embarrassed by and I totally ran from it. I can’t even imagine what it was like for you, Maya, going through it [on the show] with your real mom. Like put blush on and make my eyes look a little bigger and do these things that never really resulted in any … I wouldn’t ever get my crushes to like me. Just as actors, I was like, “Mom, stop touching my back.” It was starting to filter into our real life and our real interactions with each other. Playing with your voice and that you’re not supposed to be so anything. Or maybe I had had just a kiss. AK: It was very cool, actually. And I’m going to work as hard as I can to continue to be a better friend, human being, business partner, all of those things. That for me was more in high school, but there was a rumor that went around about me, actually. I’m sure when that happens, I’m going to be like, “Oh my God. So fortunately Maya and Anna don’t lose each other, but there’s the threat that they will. And I wasn’t seeing certain things clearly.” But that feeling inside is guilt and knowing you were doing something wrong was real to that age. Were there any connections between the way that you two relate to each other as creative partners and the way that Maya and Anna relate to each other in the theater?ME: Yeah. It’s doing it again.ME: Damn, Zoom. Once again, this is what we have. We had this sort of pro-dad, anti-mom thing going on that we wanted to explore. I thought many times like, Maybe if I do this, I could look pretty. “May-aaaa,” Konkle said through laughter. That just didn’t happen in middle school for me at all. And then once she does, she kind of soars. That was the weirdest thing. She wasn’t getting swept up into it, and I think I was probably less professional and getting really swept up in it and really starting to get those feelings back of being annoyed at my mom, angry at my mom. So I think that threat — I experienced that. We knew that we wanted to have Anna and Maya go through experiences that continue to be R-rated, but that we wouldn’t be afraid of it going to darker territory, because that is truthful to being 13 years old. This is what we have.”

It was a classic PEN15 moment: awkward, funny, beholden to the inescapability of parents, and aware that sometimes life sucks and you have to sit in the suckage until it gets better. In my real life, I didn’t call my mom a cunt until high school. Did you debate whether you should actually have Anna apologize? I don’t remember, actually. [Note: In the first episode of season two, a girl is referred to as Icebox because she allegedly masturbated with ice.] I was super slut-shamed. There was always a bit of actors talking shit about the techies, techies talking shit about the actors, even though they’re supposed to come together and work together. It’s got to be weird to have to tell a woman 20 years older than you, who’s kind of your boss, that she’s ugly.ME: He really didn’t feel good or comfortable saying it. ME: I’m so sorry. I mean, it’s truly batshit. AK: I think that three rule is real with human dynamics in general. I didn’t have the revelation until much therapy later that I was like, “Oh, I was on my dad’s side. We were just talking about this, but we’ve been working on this since we were 25. We haven’t really talked about this, how it felt with your real mom. She ended up just really throwing me under the bus. She represented Japan to me. Given your backgrounds, I don’t know if it’s fair to assume that you did theater in middle school.ME: Yeah. Because they stay in seventh grade forever, we wanted them to keep evolving. This is what you would say to me.” And then when it came to having to smack the back of my head, I’d be like, “Mom, do it how you did it when you were really mad at me.” And she’s like, “I didn’t, I just went like that.” I was like, “Mm-hmm, that’s not what happened. But then he really went there at one moment and it felt really real for me, so it was pretty disturbing to hear that from a young boy, to be just called ugly. I wasn’t ready either, but I really appreciate you saying that.”

Theater was my haven and I think it was Anna’s haven, too. It was an escape when I was in middle school. She was worried she was getting sick, so she did that.”

“I’m sorry if this is distracting,” she added. Because I could just tell right away, this girl is a wannabe and I don’t know what’s going on, but something’s not right.ME: Maya and Anna are in such a desperate place at that moment. I hadn’t even had my first kiss, I don’t think. We got to play with that in that episode that Maya wrote, so brilliantly, I think. What is the threat to Anna and Maya’s relationship? AK:I think I related a lot to me and Maya making PEN15 in real life to being the stage manager and the journey that we’ve had that has mostly been just amazing teammates. I’m not good enough. Each single person goes through it, and it’s always because of these micro-moments or microaggressions. Icebox, which we referenced in the first episode, that was me. Photo: Courtesy of Hulu

Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, the stars and creators of PEN15, were getting ready to join a Zoom call to discuss the second season of their series when something went wrong. So one of the goals for us in the face of one, the intimidation of people liking season one, and two, just getting older and wanting to still be invested and to actually love what we’re making — we wanted to keep evolving. So I relate to that. Being able to recreate that, the fun and the hell of Hell Week, was very exciting, but we knew we didn’t want Anna and Maya to both be acting in it. And then you find your people and then there’s the risk of that shattering again and going to shit. She represented everything I wanted to not be. ME: I mean, I love her. They’ve been completely thrown to the side by all of the school, just from being slut-shamed and from their experience in the closet, and then they started doing witchery at the school. We wanted there to be a threat. It’s easy to revert back to that age, especially if you’re acting with your own mother. Also, it was mixed with extreme closeness with her and that codependency and breaking apart as you become a young woman, that you’re no longer this little girl in your mom’s eye. She never gets it. It was more that as we were writing it and trying to figure out what the arc would be, we found that there were darker themes coming into it, but we always strived to maintain the voice of the show and make sure that Anna and Maya have lightness, too. But I yelled, too. Like, I’m going to worship them. I want to talk about the theater stuff in this season. AK: Am I back? So the revelations just came later and the apology came, but not quite like that at 13, you know? I think we were in Japan.