Six years ago, in 2013, Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine made a 15-minute mini TV pilot doing their damndest to pitch a show called PEN15. The comedy series would chronicle two dorky seventh graders living in the year 2000—in all their butterfly clip, braces-clad, achingly honest awkwardness. Konkle and Erskine’s idea was to base the 13-year-old characters on their own middle school experiences; they’d play the tween leads themselves (and keep their real names) but cast actual children as the rest of their on-screen peers: their popular-girl nemeses, their first boyfriends and sloppy first kisses (with body doubles, of course).
Best friends on screen and IRL, Erskine and Konkle, now 31, had never written for TV before PEN15. They’re comic actors, who met in college at an experimental theater workshop and quickly developed a level of obsessed intimacy similar to that you have with your middle school bestie. “After we graduated, we finally started making things together,” Konkle recalls. “It took a couple of years out of school and our dreams being crushed to make something, but thank god that happened.” Six years ago, when Erskine and Konkle made that first pilot, they were busy acting in projects that prevented them from going all in on PEN15 (supporting roles on various medical dramas, guest spots on New Girl—that sort of thing). Plus, it wasn’t exactly effortless convincing networks to hop on board with a show depicting pubescent girls masturbating and huffing computer cleaner. But in 2018, when narratives authentically depicting female adolescence, like Eighth Grade and Ladybird, were on the rise, Hulu went Fuck it, why not? and laid claim to 10 episodes of PEN15. The first season of the show premiered earlier this year on February 8.
Erskine and Konkle embody the cringiness of seventh grade with visceral, detailed accuracy, sending millennial women all over the country into squirmy, Santana-soundtracked strolls down memory lane. (“Dad, get out!!!” Anna screams with jarring sincerity in a scene where her father walks in on her and Maya practicing kissing inanimate objects on her bed.) “Our main drive was that we hadn't seen anything that represented middle school the way we experienced it—in an R-rated, uncensored, raw, authentic way,” says Erskine, who cites Todd Solondz’s 1995 black comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse as the pair’s most significant media influence.
When asked how the idea of playing their 13-year-old selves at 31 first occurred to them, Maya answers: “Just being in our 20s and going to these parties where I’d see kids from my middle school. I’d instantly revert back to that age of insecurity. We don’t ever leave that time, or at least Anna and I seem not to.” For middle school, Erskine (whose father is a legendary jazz drummer) attended the boho-chic Crossroads school in Santa Monica, California, which boasts alumni like Gwyneth Paltrow and Zooey Deschanel; Konkle went to school in suburban Massachusetts. Despite having lived very different seventh-grade realities, Erskine and Konkle were connected in that the two always felt a Kate Spade bag shy of popular-girl status. As actors, Erskine and Konkle are both drawn to character work, and they quickly determined that middle school was “a ripe time for trauma… and comedy,” says Erskine—the perfect fodder for TV. In the early stages of PEN15, they struggled with the idea that playing 13 at 31 would seem farcical—hard for audiences to accept for more than a one-off sketch. “But we figured if our characters were 13-year-old rejects, then us not looking right, us looking 31 years old, was okay,” Konkle explains. “Our freakdom was brought out more.”
It is some special recipe of delicious irony that their middle school freakdom is precisely what has led Konkle and Erskine to become one of the most buzzed-about duos in Hollywood—an industry that’s notoriously just as catty as seventh grade. The best friends call the process of making season one (which they did with a fun-size web series budget) “essentially a master class.” A big experiment in how to make a TV show. Though the craft clearly comes naturally to them; they’ve charmed every 20-something female in my social circle, including and especially me, which was impossible to conceal on the set of our shoot. “I’m never like this,” I told Erskine and Konkle, trembling with embarrassing fangirly enthusiasm, as they had their makeup touched up for photos. Still new to fame, the two fortunately had as little chill as I did. They were both gracious and giddy to accept my rhapsodic praise of the show, commiserate about popular-girl fashion pieces of the aughts, and dance before the camera wearing Proenza Schouler and Versace like the stars they’re bound to be. They even offered a couple hints about season two of PEN15 (which isn’t a sure thing yet, though they’re optimistic), like how they’re toying with the idea of keeping the characters in seventh grade forever—like how the Rugrats never grew up.
We dare you not to smile as you scroll through our shoot with Konkle and Erskine below. And as you do, check out what I can sincerely say is the most delightful interview I’ve ever done.
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At the risk of sounding dangerously creepy, I just need to say I have never been this excited to interview anyone, ever.
Maya: Oh my god. It must be because we feel like old friends or something? Because we’re not, like, famous.
You ARE famous, though. I watched you on TV! I connected to you so much. And I don’t even like TV. There’s just too much of it. I get choice overload paralysis.
Maya: So how did you find our show? What made you want to watch it?
A friend posted about it on Facebook, and I thought the concept of you two as 30-somethings playing your middle school selves was fucking hilarious. I got into it so fast. Now I tell everyone about it.
Maya: Woah, word of mouth.
Anna: That’s how it happens!
I got my boyfriend into it too, and now he and I do this bit called “seventh-grade kiss…”
… inspired by your [Anna’s] icky first makeout on the show, where we kiss badly on purpose for fun.
Maya: But then it’s actually hot? Ha!
Anna: That’s my real boyfriend in that scene. That was the kid's body double.
That’s amazing. I love all the kids in the show. Casting: *chef’s kiss.*
Maya: Ugh, I know. I hope they don’t grow old.
I always think as I’m watching it, Oh I hope Maya and the guy who plays Sam are friends in real life. And then I remember he’s a literal child.
Maya: I’ll take it one step further. I’ve had adult friends tell me, “I have a crush on him.” It’s because you’re putting yourself in their shoes! You’re seeing it through the lens of being that age.
He’s like the boy next door. Like Mattie from 13 Going on 30.
Maya: Oh Mattie! Yeah. And Mark Ruffalo is hot.
Sam’s gonna be hot. Speaking of hot: What are some fashion moments from the early 2000s that you knew had to make it into the show?
Maya: I felt passionate about so many things because I had such burned-in memories. I wanted Sketcher platforms, which we couldn’t find. But we did end up getting those Rocket Dogs. I wear them in the last episode.
Anna: Wait, what are Rocket Dogs?
Maya: You remember like the thong platform sandals?
Anna: Oh, I didn’t know that’s what they were called! Those are classic.
Maya: Obviously we wanted low-rider jeans. What was difficult was that we were portraying just one town, so it wasn’t like L.A., where I grew up and was probably exposed to more things than you were, Anna.
Anna: I was in Massachusetts for middle school.
Maya: So the things that were popular there were not necessarily the same.
Anna: We were behind.
Maya: Not even behind, just different! Like in L.A., it was all about Frankie B. jeans. So we wanted to do a mix of everything from all across the states—a lot of striped T-shirts. Definitely chokers.
Anna: Our costume designer, Melissa [Walker], was really good with this. We really wanted to get stuff from the time. We wanted to go on eBay and find it because the fabric is really different. You can see it on screen. You know it’s different.
Maya: The sneakers we’d wear back then weren’t always brand-new, so we’d get off-brand Adidas. Weird, shell-toe slip-ons. We didn’t want ourselves to always have the brand-name clothing or shoes.
Anna: The other thing I remember being really important, which I remember you being cool with, Maya, because you identified with it too, was popular girls having silver Tiffany’s jewelry. You did not wear gold then. That was tacky. That was what your grandma wore. It was all about silver. I remember in my real school a girl wearing that chunky-style Tiffany necklace, and it blew my mind. At first, I was like, That’s ugly. And then the next day, I was like, That’s awesome. And then I found out how expensive it was, and my mind just kept getting blown.
Maya: There was a Bar or Bat Mitzvah every weekend where I went to school, and I would beg my mom to buy the Tiffany heart necklace as gifts, the one that was a couple steps down from the chunk. And she was like, “Absolutely not, we’re giving $18.” Tiffany was a sign of status.
Oh my god. Why wasn’t there a Bat Mitzvah scene in the show?
Maya: We almost did one. We wanted to. Maybe next season.
Anna: We honestly didn’t have the budget to do it how we wanted.
Maya: Because Bat Mitzvahs are expensive. The ones I went to were like weddings.
Mine was on a boat, but like a janky boat. We were terrible Jews, so there was no family there; it was all just a bunch of kids making out on this weird boat. Pretty disgusting.
Anna: That’s actually a really funny idea. On a boat is funny. How would you feel if we put that in season two? Somebody should get seasick.
Are you kidding? I would love it. I wore the most vile thing too. This stretchy strapless red minidress with a pirate-cut skirt. My dad was so pissed.
Maya: Did you hook up with anyone that night?
Fuck yeah. Dan Taylor.
Anna: Miranda Taylor was the name of our popular girl.
Maya: In my school, it was Katie. And Leah Marsh. She was new. She came in and she had straightened hair and MAC Lipglass. She was the one who introduced it, and she was just glowing.
Anna: I never knew what that was until we did the show, and Maya was like, “Lipglass, lipglass, lipglass.”
What were some other early-2000s pieces that you remember popular girls wearing that you wanted but couldn’t get?
Anna: Do you guys remember the Limited Too stretchy shirts? The boatnecks? They were tight, and they really accentuated my pit stains, but I wanted one. Most of the ones I had were off-brand. All I wanted was a Limited Too stretchy shirt and a chunky Tiffany necklace.
Maya: And a Kate Spade purse! The box bags. I really wanted one. But I never got it. The Michael Stars shirts too. The sparkly ones? They were glittery and three-quarter length and also boatneck? Maybe you didn’t have those on the East Coast.
Anna: I also remember being obsessed with getting a smooth ponytail. Because all the other girls had it, but I had cowlicks, so there was always but something sticking up. Remember, some people would gel theirs back with a comb?
Maya: I wanted the perfect bun with bangs, but my bangs were too thick, so it never worked.
Anna, I was so jealous of the one-shoulder top you wore to the dance on the show.
Maya: That was really cute. You do look good in that one-shoulder.
Anna: Thank you!
There are so many little textural details in the show that bring it to life for me. There’s one moment when Maya’s lip catches on her top retainer and Anna just flips it back over totally casually. Where did those moments come from? They’re brilliant.
Maya: To me, something like that just comes in the moment. It wasn’t something we planned. It’s just that if my lip would get dry, it’d land on there, and Anna would naturally…
Anna: That stuff is more a reflection of our real friendship.
Maya: Yeah! I remember in the edit, we would always fight for moments like that—moments that wouldn’t further the story but that to us created something real.
You can really tell. It’s all so real. Too real.
Makeup: Kara Yoshimoto Bua; hair: John Ruggiero; video: Samuel Schultz; photo: Hillary Comstock
Video fashion credits:
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