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Return To Middle School In 'PEN15': Creators Say 'It's All About Survival'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Last year, the Hulu streaming service premiered a very unusual, very daring and very funny comedy series. It was called "PEN15," was set at a middle school in the year 2000 and starred the show's creators, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. They play seventh graders who are navigating everything from romantic crushes and puberty to peer pressure and the general awkwardness of adolescence. A second season of "PEN15" begins next Friday on Hulu.

What makes the show so distinctive and often so intentionally uncomfortable is that Erskine and Konkle are in their early 30s, yet play young teen versions of themselves opposite young actors who are the age of their middle school characters. It's a tricky illusion to pull off, but "PEN15" does it with a surprising amount of tenderness and intimacy. Many of the stories in the series come from Erskine and Konkle's real tribulations in middle school.

A heads-up to parents - this interview includes a couple of brief, non-explicit mentions about how they dealt with those kinds of sexual situations when they were in their teens. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger last year when "PEN15" first premiered. They started with a clip from the show. Anna and Maya are having a sleepover after Anna has just had her first kiss with her first boyfriend, Brendan. But it wasn't how she imagined it would be. Maya asks her about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PEN15")

MAYA ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) And then, like, were your lips close together when you guys were standing close together?

ANNA KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Yeah, they touched.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) They did? That's, like, romantic.

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) No, it wasn't. It literally wasn't at all.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Why?

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) He put his lips, like, all the way around mine...

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Ew.

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) ...And, like, sucked.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters, laughing).

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) It's not funny.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Wait. And then what? Was that it? Like, he just sucked?

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) No. And then he put his tongue in my mouth. And he, like, did, like, a torpedo cat tongue and like drilled my mouth.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Like, what was it like? What did he do with it?

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Like this.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Ew. Ew. Stop.

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Yeah. I can't. I wish I could.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) What did you do with your tongue? Did you do it back or did it just like...

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) It was pinned back like it was in trouble, you know?

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) That's crazy.

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) I know. It was awful.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) I'm sorry. Well, at least you've, like, had your first kiss, you know?

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) I wish that I hadn't.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Don't say that.

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) I really do. Everything's just different. I don't know. I just have to break up with him, so...

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Really?

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Yeah. He's not the Brendan that bought us snacks at the bowling alley, you know? He is like the Brendan that drilled the back of my throat with his tongue.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) So?

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) It's up to you to get the next boyfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SAM BRIGER: That's a scene from the Hulu show "PEN15" created and co-starring my guests, Maya Erkine and Anna Konkle. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

ERSKINE: Thanks.

KONKLE: Thank you.

ERSKINE: Thanks so much for having us.

BRIGER: You know, those early teen years are such a strange time. And you have these bodies that are starting to sprout in adulthood, but you have minds that are probably not ready to handle that yet. And you're having to cope with these more adult situations. And the thing that makes it so worse is that your emotions are just so intense. Like, everything is just saturated and overwhelming. Like, just the way that teens respond to music, like, it's so important. And it's like their theme music. So everything feels so consequential. And, you know, and then they're talking - they're thinking about romance. So, like, everything is a powder keg.

KONKLE: Yeah. And there's so many misconceptions, too.

BRIGER: Right.

KONKLE: It's like, in real life, Anna - me - I thought kissing was going to be the ultimate feeling of romance. And, like, that's all I wanted. Like, I was not interested in sexuality at the time I just wanted to, like, hold someone's hand and fall in love and kiss like Zack and Kelly on "Saved By The Bell." So when the real version happened, which was just this weird tongue...

ERSKINE: Yeah

KONKLE: ...Like, just drilling me, I - it was a shattering of expectations. But you're - and I think that's true in a lot of different ways. But you're fronting as though you either enjoy it or you get it or whatever. And there's a lot of sadness and humor that I think that comes with that.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

BRIGER: Did you guys feel targets of bullies at that age?

ERSKINE: I wouldn't necessarily call them outright bullies, but I had friends that would put me down a lot. And I didn't really comprehend what they were doing until years later. But yeah, I wouldn't say necessarily bullies that would...

BRIGER: Outright bullies, yeah.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

KONKLE: I had a weird thing happen where there was kind of a cycle in my school where the older girls would harass the younger girls. And that was even more in high school. But in middle school, there was a rumor that went around about me that I masturbated with an ice cube. It was really fun for me, that rumor. And they came up with a really brilliant nickname called Ice Box - unfortunately, like, brilliant. And that followed me for, you know, the next - well, really till I graduated high school.

ERSKINE: That's awful.

KONKLE: And with it came this kind of sexualization of me that I wasn't ready for. Like, I was very much a prude at the time, you, know, quote-unquote, and wasn't going there. And yet there was this, like, thing there about me out there. And I was labeled as a slut essentially. I mean, there are posters put up about me that said slut and...

BRIGER: Really? Wow.

KONKLE: Yeah. It got really extreme. And in other ways, like, I was simultaneously accepted. I mean, I had, you know, groups of friends and had found my place in high school. But that followed me.

ERSKINE: You were saying that you felt like you were accepted too at the same time. And in my memory, I wasn't accepted. But when I talked to people who went to my middle school, they always say, you seemed so happy. Like, you were friends with everyone. And you were doing OK - while I was going through this private misery, I guess.

And I looked in my yearbook recently. And I got overflowing messages of love. But in each message, it was - you are the cutest Asian I've ever met. Oh, my God. I love you so much. You're the cutest Asian, Maya. Oh, screw those other Asians. You're the best Asian. You know, that that was the majority of these messages in my yearbook. And I'm sure I took that in as a kid and in my heart of, oh, no one likes me for me.

BRIGER: Well, you addressed that in one of the episodes called "Posh," which has a really funny preface where you guys are doing, like, a public service announcement at your school. And there's, like, five girls. Some of them are, like, the scarier popular girls. And you're going to be the Spice Girls, but you're, like - you're now elderly, and you're suffering from osteoporosis. And you drink milk, which makes your bones feel better. And then you can dance, right? So...

(LAUGHTER)

KONKLE: Yes.

BRIGER: It's very funny. But then, you know, Maya wants to be Posh Spice. And - but these three other girls, not including Anna, says - well, no, you should be Scary Spice. And for people who don't remember the Spice Girls, Scary Spice is the only Black member of that group. And they're like, you should be Scary Spice 'cause you're tan, and you look the most like her. And Maya's - the character Maya's like, well, OK, I guess. And then things start getting really bad. Like, the popular girls are like, you should bring us the milk 'cause you're - should be the servant. And then they start calling you Guido the Gardener. They're sort of, like, free-associating, like, all the racist things that they can think of.

And then, you know, your character doesn't know what to do 'cause it seems like she's not totally clear what's going on. She's like, this is uncomfortable, but maybe I'll play along 'cause the girls are laughing. So maybe I'm funny. She starts acting like how they - she thinks they want her to act. And that's really uncomfortable. And that's true, right, Maya? That came from - that's your experience, isn't it?

ERSKINE: That did happen to me a lot. And I would play into that role really easily - to become the jester. And I would make characters up and imitate my mom with a thick Japanese accent, and it would cause kids to laugh. And I thought, OK, I'm doing good. I'm a funny person because they're laughing at me. But really, they were laughing at my mom's accent, the thick accent. And I didn't put that together as a kid. And it never penetrated me the way we show it in the show at the time because you're just trying to survive.

BRIGER: Yeah.

ERSKINE: So I think we were trying to show, you know, a lot in 30 minutes. But what is that like when it's kind of hitting the person? And what is it like when you first realized, for the first time, that you're not like your other friends? You're not white. You don't sound the same. You don't look the same, even though this whole time you've held this belief that you are the same person, especially as your best friend. And so that moment of recognition in the mirror of - oh, I don't have eyes like Anna or those girls. Why don't I? I wish I did - and that hitting harder. That was something that I don't think I fully explored till we started writing this show.

BRIGER: Do you remember that first time when you felt that way?

ERSKINE: I think I remember when I went over to a friend's house, and we were putting makeup on. And when they would put eyeliner on, they had, you know, double eyelids (laughter), so you could see the skin above the eyeliner. But when I would put the eyeliner on, it covered my whole eyelid. And I'll get emotional thinking about it. (Laughter) Anna's crying, too. And not having it look the same was such - it made me hate myself. I hated my eyes. I hated that I didn't have thick, double eyelids like my friends because that's all I saw around me. And I didn't have any ideals of beauties to look up to, really, when I was a kid growing up - of Asian beauties.

Aw, Anna is so sweet.

KONKLE: No. I'm - don't make...

ERSKINE: Sorry (laughter).

KONKLE: Sorry (laughter). Yeah, it's not fair.

Watching you go through that in the scene and the girls talking to you that way was extremely moving. And, you know, it's a bunch of white girls, and I'm one of them. And I'm the best friend, and I'm not saying, everybody, stop. It - it's a mirror of that. And it's a mirror of now in the sense of, you know, I've been raised from a small girl in real life in a very liberal, progressive - you know, I went to a Unitarian Church.

And the way that diversity was dealt with was like, we should all be colorblind; we're all the same. And that's as far as it went. And I think that you can see in the episode the negative results of that, really - of Anna just going, well, we're the same. That's just funny, and that's just humor. And I - something feels off, but, like, it doesn't - it's not important.

ERSKINE: And the other thing I wanted to say was just reiterating how important it was to not vilify those girls because they weren't aware fully of what they were doing, that it was somehow ingrained in them. And I was so grateful that we got to write an ending where Anna acknowledges...

KONKLE: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...How Maya feels, that I don't think I ever received that in life. So to have your friend say, you're right. I don't know what it's like to be like you...

KONKLE: Right.

BRIGER: Right.

ERSKINE: ...And I'm sorry.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded last year with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, creators and stars of the comedy series "PEN15," which returns next Friday on Hulu. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S "SHIMMER")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded last year with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the creators and stars of the Hulu comedy series "PEN15," which returns with new episodes next Friday. In real life, Erskine and Konkle are in their early 30s. But in the show, they play middle school versions of themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRIGER: Could you describe what you guys were like in seventh grade? I mean, are these characters pretty similar to how you were?

KONKLE: I was the same and different. I think that the version of me in "PEN15" was more me in fourth and fifth grade. I think in real life, by seventh grade, I learned to hide the things that I realized that made me, you know, a target. In fourth and fifth grade, you know, I would tell people not to cheat. I would tell people not to swear. I don't know. I was just, like, generally annoying.

(LAUGHTER)

KONKLE: But it came from who I really am and always will be, which is, you know - there is a good and bad to it, you know?

ERSKINE: Yeah.

KONKLE: Yeah.

ERSKINE: And I think for me, I was full of contradictions. I was incredibly insecure and then brazenly confident at moments...

(LAUGHTER)

ERSKINE: ...Delusionally so.

BRIGER: Let's talk about how you decided to actually play these characters yourselves. Like, why did you think that that would work? You're women in your 30s, and you're acting like 13-year-olds. And the rest of the middle school actors are actually teens. How did you think that was going to fly?

ERSKINE: I mean, we didn't know it would work necessarily. But we knew that if we wanted to explore a lot of the real things that happened to us at that age, we couldn't ethically or legally put 13-year-old actors in those positions.

BRIGER: Right. Sure.

ERSKINE: And then, you know, Anna and I are - we're first actors. So we always approached telling stories through character. And it'd be great to be 13 again, you know, go through all of this trauma. But there was a lot of fear and questions of, how is this going to actually work with real 13-year-old kids? And so we had to film half a pilot essentially to see if it would work as an experiment.

BRIGER: Yeah, I think it totally worked. Like, you look awkward and look insecure. And you don't look like everyone else. So that sort of embodies how you must have felt at the time.

ERSKINE: Exactly, yeah.

BRIGER: And it's even funny, like - Anna, like, you, like, tower over all of the seventh graders, too.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: What did you guys do to your appearance and, like, physically to embody those younger versions? Like, what did you do in terms of makeup and just also how you held your bodies?

KONKLE: I had braces. And it was kind of like Invisalign with, you know, braces put on it. So it just slipped in and out. But I did start using wax on set.

(LAUGHTER)

KONKLE: It got very method because it starts, you know, scratching the inside of my mouth. And then, yeah, we had kind of, like, binding straps on our chests. And then - and it really - Maya always says, and I love this, that the jeans were always ill-fitting because they were for kids, usually from eBay. And then the strap on the chest would, like, push your stomach in, you know, to the most pouchy, sausage way that it could go, which feels right.

And then, yeah, for me, you know, again, something that I did when I was 13 was kind of casually always be blocking my stomach as though - you know, just hoping that everybody would just see me as skinny and not - they wouldn't know that I was trying to not bring attention to my stomach essentially.

BRIGER: Right.

KONKLE: I was trying to hide it all the time.

ERSKINE: Yeah. And I think I was just so physically uncomfortable, like you were saying, because I had to wear a wig every day. And I had this retainer put in. We put mustache hairs and eyebrow hairs on ourselves in addition to the hair we have already.

KONKLE: Pre-wax, pre-tweeze.

ERSKINE: I tried not to shave my face for months in preparation for this role.

KONKLE: (Laughter) That's a whole other conversation.

ERSKINE: (Laughter) Yeah.

KONKLE: Let's go there.

ERSKINE: But yeah, with the straps and the jeans, you're just so physically uncomfortable that it makes you self-conscious. And even though you want to have bigger breasts at that age, you also want to hide whatever is developing because it's not your ideal version of what you want.

BRIGER: How much do you feel like either of you are still carrying around the middle school version of yourself?

KONKLE: She's always there, I think. And she's a big part of who I am. And it's, I guess, about learning to take care of her. What that means now, you know? And I have tools now to help her out and get through that moment maybe.

ERSKINE: Right. I think a lot of my insecurities came from that time. So anytime I'm dealing with any of those insecurities or anytime I'm dealing with any conflict with anyone, I have to ask myself, oh, what does 12-year-old Maya really want from this moment? What does 12-year-old Maya really need? Oh, it's love, or it's security, or knowing she's OK, or knowing she's smart enough. Or it's, you know - a lot of it's just being able to tell your child self, you're enough...

KONKLE: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...Which I have to do constantly.

BRIGER: Well, Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, thanks so much for being here today.

KONKLE: Thank you for having us.

ERSKINE: Thank you so much.

BIANCULLI: Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the creators and stars of the Hulu comedy series "PEN15," spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger last year. Season 2 of "PEN15" begins next Friday.

After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie from writer-director Charlie Kaufman "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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