Maya Erskine on 'PEN15' & 'Plus One' Maya Erskine has come a long way from the NYU experimental theater department where she met her 'PEN15' co-creator Anna Konkle. Now she's the star of a new romantic comedy that turns the genre on its head. She talks to Sam about 'Plus One' and how the second season of 'PEN15' might differ from the first. Email the show at samsanders@npr.org.
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Maya Erskine on 'Plus One' and 'PEN15'

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Maya Erskine on 'Plus One' and 'PEN15'

Maya Erskine on 'Plus One' and 'PEN15'

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Hey, y'all. From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. So Maya Erskine stars along Jack Quaid in this new rom-com called "Plus One." And in some ways, it looks like your typical rom-com. But there are many scenes in this film that subvert the whole genre. For instance, there's this one scene. Maya and Jack's characters, Alice and Ben, they are dressed up all nice, slow dancing with each other at a friend's wedding reception. And it looks like they're falling in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLUS ONE")

JACK QUAID: (As Ben) All right, what have we got?

SANDERS: But no.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLUS ONE")

MAYA ERSKINE: (As Alice) See cuties, cuties everywhere.

QUAID: (As Ben) OK, let's see.

SANDERS: Alice is trying to be Ben's wingman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLUS ONE")

QUAID: (As Ben) OK, bridesmaid with the braid.

ERSKINE: (As Alice) All right. You're going to have to spin me out, ready?

QUAID: (As Ben) OK. Yeah.

SANDERS: And Alice is not your average rom-com heroine.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLUS ONE")

QUAID: (As Ben) OK, what about green with the glasses?

ERSKINE: (As Alice) Where? Rotate. Her? Jeez. God, you like them fresh and young.

QUAID: (As Ben) What? She's normal age.

ERSKINE: (As Alice) Ben, I can hear the sirens coming for you.

QUAID: (As Ben) [Expletive] off.

ERSKINE: (As Alice, laughter).

QUAID: OK. All right, let's see.

SANDERS: Today, I talk with Maya Erskine about this movie, "Plus One," and how it flips our idea of the rom-com on its head. We also talk about "PEN15." This is a very, very funny Hulu show that may have introduced a lot of you to Maya Erskine. As a note, for our chat on "PEN15," there is going to be some discussion about puberty and sexuality and how those things go together in awkward, awkward ways. We'll give you a warning before that part comes up, but just know it's coming. All right. Maya and I were in LA for this chat. I hope you enjoy it. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: I want to talk about all of the things.

ERSKINE: Yes.

SANDERS: But I want to start by thanking you for that moment in your movie in which your character says, if I go to your wedding, I don't have to bring you a gift.

ERSKINE: Right. What do you think about destination weddings? Do you think that if it's a destination wedding, that's the gift. Your presence is the gift.

SANDERS: My presence is the present.

ERSKINE: Because I'm paying for a hotel. I'm paying for flights.

SANDERS: I'm taking vacation days from work.

ERSKINE: Exactly.

SANDERS: To do your vacation, not my vacation.

ERSKINE: Thank you. You don't have to give a gift.

SANDERS: Literally.

ERSKINE: But I still do because I feel the guilt. Yeah.

SANDERS: Oh, I don't.

ERSKINE: (Laughter) Oh, you don't?

SANDERS: I gave a gift. So last year, I went to - I was supposed to go to six weddings. And one got canceled - drama.

ERSKINE: Ooh.

SANDERS: But for all five of them, I showed up - no, for one of them, I got the couple a tequila of the month for, like, six months because I love them.

ERSKINE: That's - so that's the thing. It's like, how...

SANDERS: How much do you love these people? (Laughter).

ERSKINE: How much do you love them? And Jeff Chan - he's one of the directors - he described it as tiers, social tiers of his friends.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: He's like, you know, if you're level one, you're going to get in the $150 gift range.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: Level two...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...Fifty.

SANDERS: Exactly.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: And then it's like, you know in the back of your head half of them will get divorced.

ERSKINE: I know.

SANDERS: Right? It's so absurd.

ERSKINE: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Anyways, I just had to get it off my chest.

ERSKINE: Get it out. Get it out there. It feels good.

SANDERS: Yes, yes. Yes. And so, I mean, what I like about the movie, which we're going to talk about a lot...

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Is that you kind of poke fun at the marriage industrial complex. And I want to talk more about that. But first, let's just describe the movie to folks so they know what it is. "Plus One," what is it?

ERSKINE: It's a movie about two friends who are both lonely in their lives and have to go to 12 weddings. And they take each other as their plus ones, essentially. And it's a romantic comedy. But we also like to describe it as a buddy comedy for the first half of the movie, which turns into a romance.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. Whose idea was the movie?

ERSKINE: It was Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer. And I had met - I was friends with them. I went to NYU, but I didn't know them that well. And then they asked me to read some bit parts at the table read, and I fell in love with the script at the time.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: And then they asked me to audition for the main part, which was great...

SANDERS: I love it.

ERSKINE: ...Because I loved that character.

SANDERS: Yeah. What I appreciate about this movie is that, like, it is definitively a rom-com.

ERSKINE: Right.

SANDERS: But it is not allowing the thing that usually happens in rom-coms where the woman just has to be weak to get the man, or the woman has to be...

ERSKINE: Right.

SANDERS: ...Subjugated to the man. Your character is hornier...

ERSKINE: Mmm hmm.

SANDERS: ...And louder...

ERSKINE: Mmm hmm.

SANDERS: ...And usually more in control...

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Than the dude.

ERSKINE: Yeah. And I think that's what was so interesting coming from two men.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: It wasn't under the gaze of a man.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

ERSKINE: Like, it really - that was what was so surprising, and I think it's a testament to them and their female friends. Like, I think they really wrote it with a lot of their friends in mind. And that was the first character that I have ever read in a movie that I would be allowed to audition for where the female is messy, ugly, dirty, raunchy...

SANDERS: (Laughter) Drunk half the movie.

ERSKINE: Drunk, you know, and yet also really intelligent and vulnerable and all of these things.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

ERSKINE: So I was like, this is a full person, and you never get to see that in a romantic comedy.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: And that's what I loved about it too is because it's not trying to chase some idea of perfection, which is always the case.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: And so even this relationship is not perfect, and this girl's not perfect and...

SANDERS: And they acknowledge it.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: Did you have - when I - I had wanted to interview you for a long time.

ERSKINE: Aww.

SANDERS: And - but when I heard that our interview would be tied to you doing a rom-com, I was like, her doing a rom-com? Because, like, when you see you in "PEN15"...

ERSKINE: Yeah, I'm not...

SANDERS: ...That's anything but.

ERSKINE: Yeah, yeah (laughter).

SANDERS: Was there reluctance to do this kind of movie?

ERSKINE: Yes.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: Yeah, I mean, because that's not my - even though I loved rom-coms growing up.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: I mean, there was a part of me that always wanted to be a lead in a rom-com just because I never saw that as a kid.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: I never saw that as a possibility. So I wanted to dream, like, will I be that person who's (laughter)...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: ...Being fallen in love with? But yeah, "PEN15" is not a (laughter)...

SANDERS: It's not a rom-com.

ERSKINE: I mean, it's not a rom-com.

SANDERS: But you know what?

ERSKINE: It is a love story in some weird way between the two friends.

SANDERS: Between the two - yeah. Yeah.

ERSKINE: And it's also like a love letter to your younger self in some way of, like, you're OK as you are.

SANDERS: You're OK. It's going to be fine. Yeah.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: What's your favorite rom-com, on that note?

ERSKINE: "When Harry Met Sally" is the obvious one.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: I've watched that maybe 25 times, and it never gets old. And "Hannah And Her Sisters."

SANDERS: Oh.

ERSKINE: I love "Hannah And Her Sisters."

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

ERSKINE: "Annie Hall." I mean, those are the...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...Obvious ones. But I can watch those on repeat and never get old of them - tired of them.

SANDERS: Yeah. I can do every Julia Roberts one. And I particularly love...

ERSKINE: Which one is this?

SANDERS: "My Best Friend's Wedding"

ERSKINE: Oh, "My Best Friend's Wedding" is just...

SANDERS: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

ERSKINE: And she's so wonderful in it.

SANDERS: Yes. And Rupert Everett...

ERSKINE: I forgot all about - oh, my God.

SANDERS: ...Is the real star.

ERSKINE: And do you know that story too?

SANDERS: What?

ERSKINE: That last scene where he comes in, that - they didn't have that when they first did a test screening of it. And everyone got outraged, and they were like, he needs to come back.

SANDERS: Yes.

ERSKINE: That is - and so they wrote that scene...

SANDERS: Oh, my God. I love it.

ERSKINE: ...Shot it and brought him back. And it's - ugh.

SANDERS: I love it. So on top of your character being good and raunchy, a lot of the movie is these scenes from, like, actual real-life weddings.

ERSKINE: Right.

SANDERS: Like, toasts and, like, receptions and such. And it's - it is poking fun at a lot of the wedding industrial complex, but it is particularly going after the idea and the art of the toast. And your characters deal with that a lot as well.

ERSKINE: (Laughter) Yeah.

SANDERS: What is it about the toast that y'all were trying to skewer the most? Because you were going for a few things with it.

ERSKINE: I mean, I think they had gone - this is Andrew Rhymer and Jeff Chan - they had gone to a slew of weddings as they were writing this movie.

SANDERS: Really? For, like, prep?

ERSKINE: So every time they would - yeah, so every - or no. They just happened to have a lot of friends who were getting married at that age.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

ERSKINE: And so they would go and be like, oh, that drunk uncle. OK, that's going in there. That is such a thing that happens.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: So - yeah. I mean, (laughter) wedding toasts give me a lot of anxiety.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: I actually have a fear of public speaking even though I'm an actor.

SANDERS: OK, OK.

ERSKINE: It's a really - no, I swear. I get...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: Even doing this interview, it's making me sweat.

SANDERS: You're doing great. You're doing great.

ERSKINE: (Laughter) No. But there's something about - it's a very vulnerable thing to go up there and to, in so many words, surmise, like, the love that's between these two.

SANDERS: Yes.

ERSKINE: And what if you don't even believe in the love between these two, and you don't like the...

SANDERS: Listen. Because half the time, the best man and the best lady don't want them to get married.

ERSKINE: Exactly. And so what do you say in those moments?

SANDERS: Yes.

ERSKINE: And then you start going too far in the comedy direction. And it's just turning into a roast that's not funny, and you've said something too inappropriate.

SANDERS: Yep. Yeah.

ERSKINE: I mean, there's just so many things that can go wrong, so that's why I love that they did a range of wedding toasts.

SANDERS: A range. It was so good.

ERSKINE: And it's also a great benchmark. Like, sort of like in "When Harry Met Sally," you have those interviews with the couples. And it sets each part of the movie of, like, OK, five years. Now we're at five years later, or now we're here. And with this movie, if you notice, the toasts are indicators of what the wedding's going to be and what the emotional journey's going to be...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...Between Alice and Ben. So, like, the first wedding is just anxiety-inducing. Like, but it's a big wedding. The next one, they're on a bus. It's raining. It's the start of their journey. And then, as...

SANDERS: They're on the - I love that they're on the bus singing Third Eye Blind.

ERSKINE: Yeah (laughter).

SANDERS: Because that is what...

ERSKINE: Thank God we got the rights.

SANDERS: If there's a reception with a bus, and everyone's on the bus by the end of the night...

ERSKINE: Oh, my God. It's a camp singalong.

SANDERS: Yes.

ERSKINE: And it can be fun for some people, but you see that Alice is just in pure pain.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

ERSKINE: And so from there, it then starts to transform and get really pretty and beautiful, and the toasts get better. And then you're in Hawaii. And, you know, it's the perfect bridesmaid...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...Saying the perfect speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: All right, listeners. Time for a break. When we come back, there's going to be some discussion about sex, so you probably don't want kids to listen to this part. You can skip ahead around 14 minutes and come back after the second break if you want to bypass. All right, BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: There is this very poignant moment near the end of the film where one of the characters is talking with this other character about doubts he has about pursuing a long-term, perhaps lifelong partnership. And one character says, how can I know what's best and know if this person is the best and the right for my whole - and right for me for my whole life? And his friend, who is married and partnered and happy, he says, you won't.

ERSKINE: Right.

SANDERS: That really shook me.

ERSKINE: What I love from hearing - what I love about it is that you hear from a married guy who's like, you have to make that decision every day that I want to stay married to you. I mean, I think it's a choice every single day.

SANDERS: Every day.

ERSKINE: It doesn't - because there's not just one person for you, I don't think.

SANDERS: Did doing this movie change the way you think about marriage?

ERSKINE: Yes, I think so. I mean, this is so personal.

SANDERS: Let's do it.

ERSKINE: But I did just go through a breakup. And it was one of those things where - OK - he didn't want kids. I want kids eventually.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: And we had to come to that decision together as people who love each other of, like, oh, this is just - we're not...

SANDERS: It's not going to happen.

ERSKINE: It's not going to happen. We're not going to be together forever. And that's sad, but that's also OK.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: So it was this, like, really - was the most mature breakup I've ever had.

SANDERS: Really?

ERSKINE: (Laughter) It's usually [expletive] him, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: But it's - it was coming to that realization, I was like, oh, right. It doesn't - at first...

SANDERS: You didn't fail.

ERSKINE: I didn't fail. And I - it changed my view of having a forever. It kind of got me excited about just having multiple relationships and not needing it to last forever. And I think, as a kid, of course I'm going to idealize and have - because I watch all the Disney movies and all of that. But I don't know how my life is going to turn out. It's also interesting because I grew up with - my parents are still together. They're still very much in love. So that also has messed me up because...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: ...It's put it on a pedestal.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: Like, I don't know if I'll ever have that. But I don't think that's a problem. I think it's also OK if I end up alone.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: And I'll fall in love probably a bunch of times, and I'm OK with that.

SANDERS: Yeah. That is very good and balanced and even-keeled perspective.

ERSKINE: (Laughter).

SANDERS: You know? And, like, this is my thing. Like, I feel peaceful about this, and it's going to be fine no matter what. And then you try to feel that way all the time.

ERSKINE: Oh, no. It's not...

SANDERS: But then you go to your friend's wedding. You're like...

ERSKINE: I know.

SANDERS: Or like...

ERSKINE: I haven't been to a wedding in a while. So we'll see if that changes.

SANDERS: That was it. Yeah.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: Or, like, you just see, you know, a rom-com. And you're like, oh, I could - should I - do I - what?

ERSKINE: (Laughter) Yeah.

SANDERS: It's hard to stay grounded when thinking about these things...

ERSKINE: Totally.

SANDERS: ...Because the culture is constantly telling you...

ERSKINE: Find your one. Find your one. And also just with the dating apps and...

SANDERS: Oh, my God.

ERSKINE: I mean, it's in your face at all times.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: But that's why I think - maybe because I'm just in the phase where I'm, like, liberated from a relationship, so...

SANDERS: Yeah. I'm like, hey, let's do it. Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...I'm kind of, like, free and excited, but I feel like it'd be hard to stay in a relationship because there's so much distraction right now.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: It's just that it's a constant. How do you...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Well, and...

ERSKINE: That scares me.

SANDERS: And it also gives you an inflated confidence because...

ERSKINE: Right.

SANDERS: ...You swipe on everything on that app, and you think you have a chance with all of them. You don't.

ERSKINE: No, you don't. Also, I've swiped yes on, like, 100 people and gotten two matches.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: That has happened to me a lot (laughter).

SANDERS: You need to, like, put your name and your credits in the photo.

ERSKINE: (Laughter) Oh, hell no.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: No, it's pretty - yeah, it's brutal (laughter).

SANDERS: Yeah. I'm going to go real personal here now.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: But, like, hearing you say that you want kids and also hearing you say you have this really balanced perspective about partnership, whether it happens or not, does the reality of a clock ticking...

ERSKINE: Yes.

SANDERS: OK (laughter).

ERSKINE: Absolutely. I mean, I'm having women tell me constantly, get your eggs frozen. And I've gone to doctors. And they're like, nah, you don't need to. So...

SANDERS: How old are you?

ERSKINE: I'm 32.

SANDERS: I mean, I want to say you have time, but I don't know. I'm a man.

ERSKINE: But I hear conflicting thoughts.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: Some people say I have time. Some people say I don't. So I'm just - I'm trying to take it day by day and also know that I don't want to put shots in my [expletive] now just to get all those hormones.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: I'm not there yet.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: So maybe next year. But it's true that you don't want to have that in the back of your head every time you're meeting a guy. I don't want to think about that. I don't want to have that pressure. So if that were to alleviate that, then maybe I would do it.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. It's hard. But also, like, Michelle Obama had them kids when she was what - 40?

ERSKINE: I know. A lot of women have had them. My mom had me when I - when she was 40.

SANDERS: Oh, wow.

ERSKINE: But I've also smoked for a lot of years, so I don't know if that's going to (laughter)...

SANDERS: It's fine. It's fine.

ERSKINE: And also, if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: I have to adopt that mentality too. I can't force it.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

ERSKINE: But it is scary to meet women, you know, with a lot of experience saying, I have gone through 10 years of IVF.

SANDERS: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

ERSKINE: If you don't do this, you will regret it. So yeah...

SANDERS: It's so much.

ERSKINE: ...Those thoughts are in my head (laughter).

SANDERS: (Laughter) I want to talk about your time at NYU. You met your "PEN15" co-star, Anna Konkle...

ERSKINE: Yes.

SANDERS: ...In the experimental theatrical wing?

ERSKINE: Yeah. Well, we actually met in Amsterdam.

SANDERS: OK.

ERSKINE: And it was the international theater wing (laughter).

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: And it was experimental, and it was this really intense, amazing program. But Anna and I bonded at first because we're both perfectionists and have a lot of anxiety around performing and doing well. And that program was really intense because you had to come up with many three-act plays in 10 minutes and then perform them. And I - I mean, it was a...

SANDERS: That sounds like torture.

ERSKINE: Really intense. And for me, I would hide in my room. And, you know, it's Amsterdam, so everyone's smoking weed also. And I would get really high by myself and freak out.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: And people would knock on the door. And I'm like, I'm not here.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: And so we met and in a moment of anxiety and became best friends and then also realized we shared a similar sense of humor.

SANDERS: OK.

ERSKINE: And we both are oversharers.

SANDERS: Love it.

ERSKINE: So we would just share a lot of things that were shameful, things that we felt ashamed about and that were secrets and found humor in a lot of the pain.

SANDERS: So then the two of y'all end up working together to make "PEN15," which I'm not going to make you talk about because you've talked about it before. And the Terry Gross interview was amazing, and, like...

ERSKINE: Aww.

SANDERS: But I do want to talk about where I feel that show falls into a certain moment that the cultures haven't. And I guess, one, for those living under a rock, "PEN15" is this comedy all about two 13-year-old girls figuring out puberty and middle school and life and love. But the catch is you and Anna play the 13-year-old girls, but everyone else in the cast is, like, actual 13-year-olds.

ERSKINE: Yes.

SANDERS: Did I say it right? Did I get it?

ERSKINE: Yeah. Perfect.

SANDERS: OK. Yes.

ERSKINE: Perfect.

SANDERS: Hilarity ensues.

ERSKINE: And we're 30-year-olds.

SANDERS: Yes.

ERSKINE: Thirty-two, yeah.

SANDERS: But y'all really do a good job of, like, becoming 13.

ERSKINE: Thank you.

SANDERS: You get a bowl cut.

ERSKINE: (Laughter).

SANDERS: She puts braces on her perfect teeth.

ERSKINE: Yeah, perfect teeth.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: Perfect, yeah.

SANDERS: Perfect teeth. And then, like, you look 13. But I feel like this show does a good job of showing teenagers, 13-year-olds, having their sexual awakenings. And there are other shows that are doing it right now too, like "Big Mouth," like the movie "Eighth Grade." And I feel like when I was a kid, I wasn't seeing that.

ERSKINE: Yeah. It's interesting when it all happens at the same time...

SANDERS: Right?

ERSKINE: ...Because I think it's indicative of society being ready to see that.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

ERSKINE: We had started making this six years ago. So I remember that being a big conversation for us, of why have we not seen this other than - you know, we say this all the time - but "Welcome To The Dollhouse" was one of the only things I had seen of a 13-year-old girl going through trauma in a real way but also, like, sexuality in a real way. But I think it was really scary for me, especially the masturbation episode.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: If I didn't have Anna and Sam to tell me that it was OK to just go for it....

SANDERS: You should name who Sam is.

ERSKINE: Oh, Sam is the third creator, Sam Zvibleman. He's our - also our really good friend. If I didn't have Sam and Anna to encourage me to go there, I don't know if I would have had the balls to put it out there...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...Because I think, which is also really sad, that I would have the fear to talk about something that actually is really normal and...

SANDERS: For everybody.

ERSKINE: Yeah. And - because when I was growing up, I only saw men that were in high school jerking off and joking about it...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: ...And it being really funny and it being really silly and gross. And no girl at my age would talk about it.

SANDERS: Yeah. There was no "American Pie" for girls.

ERSKINE: No, no. And it's still - there's still no real "American Pie" for girls. I mean, I think "Booksmart" is maybe becoming that.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

ERSKINE: But there's no - and it's not just about being raunchy. But it's like, let's just show the reality that, like, some girls are doing this. And it's gross, but it's also funny. And it's also...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...Really shameful and real and uncomfortable.

SANDERS: And complicated.

ERSKINE: Really complicated.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: Like, I mean, that's why Maya's turned on by sand dunes and rotten apple cores.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: It doesn't make sense, but it's just...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

ERSKINE: You know.

SANDERS: Yeah. And the way that y'all express these 13-year-olds coming into their sexuality, it really only works because y'all are actually 31, and we know that.

ERSKINE: Right.

SANDERS: Like, there's a scene in which your character in "PEN15" - she, like, begins to have the stirrings, and there's this close-up shot of her bottom parts, through underwear...

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Throbbing.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: (Laughter) And you're like, this is hilarious, but thank God she's 31.

ERSKINE: Oh, yeah. I mean, that was, I think, always the concept just from the beginning, of we can't - if we want to explore these R-rated themes, if we want to explore it in an authentic way, we cannot place kids in those roles...

SANDERS: (Laughter) You can't do it.

ERSKINE: ...Or in those positions.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: It gets complicated, of course, when we're dealing with, like, first kisses and things like that. But we, you know, use body doubles and - but I think that is one of the reasons we - another reason we wanted to have adults in those roles is because the audience can feel safe watching it.

SANDERS: Yes.

ERSKINE: Also, by the way, those lips are not my real lips, just so you know.

SANDERS: (Laughter) How did y'all get the throb?

ERSKINE: It's amazing. So props team are incredible. We found labia underwear.

SANDERS: Wait.

ERSKINE: I shouldn't call it labia underwear.

SANDERS: What does that even mean?

ERSKINE: It's cameltoe (ph) underwear. So people...

SANDERS: It comes with the cameltoe?

ERSKINE: Look it up on Amazon. You can - on Amazon...

SANDERS: Who would...?

ERSKINE: People - I don't know, to wear under leggings sometimes? I think people like cameltoe.

SANDERS: To give themselves a...

ERSKINE: Yes, to give some...

SANDERS: I am shooketh (ph).

ERSKINE: Yep. So that you can get - you place it over your underwear, and it creates the perfect cameltoe.

SANDERS: Oh, my God.

ERSKINE: So - but that wasn't enough, right? We wanted it to pulse. So the...

SANDERS: (Laughter) Did you motorize it?

ERSKINE: The guys who worked on "Swiss Army Man" helped create this pump that we thought we were - they had attached balloons to it. And we thought those were going to be the lips, but it was way too big.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: So instead we put it under the cameltoe underwear, and so it just pumped it.

SANDERS: Oh, my God.

ERSKINE: So we have a girl on the corner, you know, just pumping it....

SANDERS: Pumping it (laughter).

ERSKINE: ...As we were doing the close-up.

SANDERS: Oh, my God.

ERSKINE: Yeah. And that was filmed in the first week.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: So people were freaked out. They had no idea what they were getting into. Yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah. Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: Were there any sex scenes for your and Anna's characters that you were like, actually, we can't do? Anything that got cut, anything you didn't tape?

ERSKINE: There were things that we didn't tape.

SANDERS: OK.

ERSKINE: Because there were things - we had made a pilot presentation before we made this show. And in that, Maya's character gets fingered. And that was something that we were wondering are we going to have in this first season. And instead, it ended up being that Maya and Anna get felt up and that the fingering was too far for this first season. But the thing is we don't want to shy away from those things because that happened.

SANDERS: That actually happens. Yeah, yeah.

ERSKINE: You know? And so - but it's really complicated because we're working with kid actors, so we don't want to ever place them in those positions. And so there are thoughts of, are we going to have adult actors play some of these roles? And we definitely did not want to do that in the first season...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...Just because I think it would have muddied up the show and the voice because it's through Maya and Anna's perspective. So to have them as the only adults was important, I think, to set up the world.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

ERSKINE: But then maybe in the second season we can change the rules. I don't know.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Time for one more break here. When we come back, the heartbreaking true story from Maya's childhood that wound up in "PEN15" and the one thing she changed about that story when she told it on screen. All right, BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: From what I've read, "PEN15" is pretty true to life for the two of you and your upbringing. But there are some things that have been edited in post, you could say, to...

ERSKINE: Yes.

SANDERS: And there's one moment, one episode in which this happened, and I want to kind of talk through it. This is a Spice Girls episode.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: I guess, one, we should set up the episode and what happens to your character. And then tell me what changed between how that happened for you in real life and how it happened on the show.

ERSKINE: OK. Well, so...

SANDERS: Sorry. I gave you a lot to do (laughter).

ERSKINE: No, no, no. So the episode is called "Posh." And the setup is that Maya and Anna have to do a school project. And I think it's for science, and it's about osteoporosis. And the popular girls dress up as Spice Girls who drink milk and - or no. First, it's they're Spice Girls, but they're old. And if they drink milk, then they'll get strong bones and can kick and sing like the Spice Girls. So...

SANDERS: Also, sidebar, all that is a product of big dairy lying to us.

ERSKINE: (Laughter).

SANDERS: You can get the vitamins you need to stay healthy without milk.

ERSKINE: Can you believe that?

SANDERS: They have conned us.

ERSKINE: Did you grow up drinking milk?

SANDERS: Yeah, and I just realized my whole life I've been lactose intolerant.

ERSKINE: (Laughter).

SANDERS: You know?

ERSKINE: IBS, yeah.

SANDERS: They played us.

ERSKINE: They played us.

SANDERS: They played us.

ERSKINE: Oh, yeah.

SANDERS: Anyway, I digress.

ERSKINE: There's still - we're still being played by other things.

SANDERS: Yes, yes.

ERSKINE: But - yeah. So the popular girls come over, and they're three other white girls. And when they're going around deciding who's going to be what Spice Girl, Maya says she wants to be Posh. And they say, no, you're Scary because you're, like, tan.

SANDERS: Wow.

ERSKINE: And then Maya right after looks in the mirror and for the first time sort of realizes that she doesn't look like her other friends. And I remember that moment for me...

SANDERS: Really?

ERSKINE: ...When I went over - and I talked about this - but when I went over to my friend's house, and we were all putting eyeliner on. And when they put it on, their eyes looked really beautiful. And when I put it on, it just, like, covered my whole eye.

SANDERS: But your eyes are so beautiful too.

ERSKINE: (Laughter) Thank you, yes.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: But I think it was the - just....

SANDERS: The difference.

ERSKINE: Clocking the difference and them clocking the difference and being like, oh, I'm not white?

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: Because I had been surrounded by white kids.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: So that - I didn't understand how I was different.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: So that was...

SANDERS: And then, like, parents do that thing where they want to shield you from that as long as they can.

ERSKINE: Right, right.

SANDERS: And so, like, a lot of parents aren't sitting down with, like, 8-year-olds, saying, just so you know, you're going to be different. You know?

ERSKINE: Right, right. No. And I think when I was a kid, my mom said that I was - it was something to be proud of, my Japanese side. When I was in elementary school, you know, she would bring sushi, and all the kids would be really excited and things like that.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

ERSKINE: And then it was as soon as I hit middle school that it became a huge identity crisis for me.

SANDERS: That's when the kids get mean.

ERSKINE: Yeah. And so - and then I started to get embarrassed about that side of myself. And so - yeah. So I think what happened in reality was that I was friends with popular girls, and I was sort of their jester. And I played into certain Asian stereotype characters because it made them laugh. And we wanted to show that and not villainize those girls also because...

SANDERS: They didn't know better.

ERSKINE: They didn't know better. And it is [expletive] up. But they didn't - I mean, it's [expletive] up because they're putting me down. Like, that is - isn't great, but they didn't understand what they were saying.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: Like, and the further, you know, consequences of what that could do to me.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, what happens in the show...

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Is that Anna's character sees this injustice.

ERSKINE: Right.

SANDERS: And she tries to intervene and teach the white folks a lesson. You can set it up, by the way.

ERSKINE: Yeah. No, that was perfect.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: I mean, she tries to essentially solve racism...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: ...Which is so Anna's character and so naive. And that was - I mean, this was a really complicated episode to write. We did so many rewrites. So Anna, because she grew up in a really progressive family, very liberal. But she was schooled when she was in college because she used to say, like, we're all the same. You know, we're all treated the same. And she had a black friend who said to her, no, but we're not. Like, that's the thing.

SANDERS: Like, literally.

ERSKINE: We're actually not.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: And so that was interesting to have her try to do something good but be schooled herself.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: But the one thing we changed that I didn't realize till later was that we have Anna say, I'm so sorry because I don't know what it's like to be you. And I don't know, and I just don't know. And I never got that acknowledgement from my friends. I've never...

SANDERS: What did they say?

ERSKINE: No acknowledgement whatsoever. It wasn't talked about. The differences weren't talked about. Like, it wasn't - or the pain that came with it. Just be like, that's weird, or that's messed up. But there wasn't any real, wow. Like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...No one really saw me. Like, there was no seeing.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: You know, there was no acknowledgment, and there was no - that's all I needed to hear, probably.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: So in a way, it was like I did get to have some closure.

SANDERS: Through the episode.

ERSKINE: Mm-hmm.

SANDERS: Thinking back on those friends that couldn't see all of you, does it still hurt?

ERSKINE: Yeah, it does. And I was so surprised by that. I mean, even talking about it now, I feel like I could cry (laughter).

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

ERSKINE: And that was what was so - we thought that the episode was - especially the Spice Girls scene. Even though it sounds messed up now to say that we thought it was going to be funny, but we thought it was going to be more comedic. And we wanted it to be both. But on the day filming it, I mean, I also had my young family, my cousin's children, came by. And they're a quarter Japanese.

SANDERS: And they were watching this scene.

ERSKINE: And they were watching. And after I had filmed the first part, and I was trying to go up to them to explain what the scene was, I just started breaking down...

SANDERS: Oh, my God.

ERSKINE: ...Because I was looking into these young, innocent eyes - like a younger version of myself, almost - and having to explain that to them. I was like, oh, God.

SANDERS: Well, you have to say to them, like, you're going to enter this world in which, like, this will happen.

ERSKINE: Yeah. And they were like, but are you popular? Why are - why aren't you popular? I was like, I'm not...

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

ERSKINE: ...In this. And it was interesting.

SANDERS: Well, this is the thing that's so hard because, like, as a person of color, you can of course have close friendships with white people or people who aren't you.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: But there's that moment in which you have to explain to them that there's some stuff they'll never get.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: And I think there's a lot of folks who consider themselves allies who think that if they love you enough...

ERSKINE: Right.

SANDERS: ...And if they listen to you enough, they will get it all. and then they can be your warrior. And part of it is explaining to folks who actually care about you...

ERSKINE: Right.

SANDERS: ...that they can't do everything.

ERSKINE: Right.

SANDERS: And that it's - in some moments, all that they can do is just listen. Like, that's all they can do.

ERSKINE: That's it.

SANDERS: And that's hard because, like, people want to problem-solve.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: But, like, sometimes, the fix is just shutting up.

ERSKINE: It is shutting up because I think a lot of the fixing, though, is also not listening...

SANDERS: Yes.

ERSKINE: ...Because it's just jumping straight to, OK, this is how we can - yeah.

SANDERS: We're going to do this, yeah. And they're, in this benevolent way, centering their whiteness.

ERSKINE: Yes, exactly.

SANDERS: You know?

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: And they mean so - they mean well.

ERSKINE: I know.

SANDERS: Bless them.

ERSKINE: I know.

SANDERS: You know? But it's complicated. Gosh, now I'm thinking about...

ERSKINE: It is, I - yeah, are you thinking about friends?

SANDERS: Friends of mine from back in the day, yeah.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: And it's just like if you could talk to the other Spice Girls that were in your life doing you wrong in middle school, what would you say to those girls now?

ERSKINE: Oh, I'll cry (laughter).

SANDERS: It's OK. Whatever. I'm about to cry too. It's fine.

ERSKINE: Yeah. See; I don't know what I'd say, and that's why I make art because I don't know.

SANDERS: It lets you say. Yeah.

ERSKINE: It does. Like, I don't know how I'd put it into words. I still don't have that answer to that. The thing that's hard, though, is when it's something - when you're in middle school, like, you don't think you were that person.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: So that's the other thing is that if I were to say, that was you, I think they'd be like, no.

SANDERS: They'd be crushed.

ERSKINE: Yeah, or they'd be like, that wasn't me.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: I never felt that way...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...Or I never said those things.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: I loved you, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: So that would be really interesting.

SANDERS: What would a "PEN15" look like if it were set in 2019? Because, like, the Internet and smartphones have changed everything.

ERSKINE: I couldn't write that show.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

ERSKINE: I think that's why we had to set it in our time...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...Because we didn't want the influence of that...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...Because it just also complicates everything.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

ERSKINE: I also think it would look a lot darker. I mean, I - if I had social media at that age, I don't know if I would have survived, really - me, personally. I don't - just to see the constant comparing, for one. So you're seeing all these bodies and images of, like, Kendall Jenner and the - just the impossible-to-achieve looks.

SANDERS: Well, they're robots.

ERSKINE: Robots, right.

SANDERS: They have augmented their bodies to where they're, like, part cyborg.

ERSKINE: Right. And then they just say, I just drink celery juice and have a good diet. And so girls are like, that's all I have to do to look like that.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

ERSKINE: So that's really damaging. And then the other thing is when you were in middle school at my time, you didn't always know if you were being left out. Like, if people had a sleepover and you weren't invited, sometimes, you found out. But on Instagram, now you can see it all.

SANDERS: You see it all, yeah.

ERSKINE: And that's - I don't know.

SANDERS: It's so mean, yeah.

ERSKINE: Yeah.

SANDERS: Do you know what the kids do now?

ERSKINE: What?

SANDERS: To invite people to parties, they make an Instagram account. And you know that you've been invited if they let you follow that account.

ERSKINE: Oh, God. So you can request to follow and then get denied.

SANDERS: Yep.

ERSKINE: Oh, God.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. And it's not - and the account is an account, so you don't know which person in the cool club was saying no to you.

ERSKINE: Oh, no.

SANDERS: It's hard.

ERSKINE: Oh, no. Oh, no. And I heard about finstas for the first time.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah, the fake Insta. All of it is - I'm starting now just to feel old. I'm, like - I just I can't do it.

ERSKINE: Yeah, because it's not just Instagram. It's, like, there's many facets to the world now, I'm sure.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

ERSKINE: Yeah, like that. that's...

SANDERS: It's insane. Is season two going to get darker? I've heard it might.

ERSKINE: Yeah. But, you know, it's funny. So we just started the writers room Monday.

SANDERS: OK. Oh, congratulations.

ERSKINE: Thank you. And we're trying - you know, we're just putting up a bunch of ideas up on the board. And it's funny because right now it's starting off really light...

SANDERS: OK.

ERSKINE: ...Even though it ended in a dark place.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: We never want to shy away from that.

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: But we also don't want it to lose some of the joy that it had.

SANDERS: Yeah, and the humor.

ERSKINE: It's got to be both, I think.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

ERSKINE: So we will explore darker themes just because Anna - Anna's parents are divorced. So how does that affect her in the house if they stay together in the house being divorced?

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: You know, we want to explore more mature content...

SANDERS: Yeah.

ERSKINE: ...So I think sex, drugs, a lot of things that get introduced, you know, later on in seventh grade or eighth grade.

SANDERS: Yeah. This was such a fulfilling, heartwarming chat.

ERSKINE: Yes. Thank you.

SANDERS: I thank you so much, and congrats on the movie and all the other good stuff coming your way.

ERSKINE: Thank you.

SANDERS: That experimental theater - it worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Many, many thanks to Maya Erskine. "Plus One" is out now, and "PEN15" is also out now on Hulu. It was just renewed for a second season. Check it out. It's seriously - seriously, y'all. I've never seen a show like it before in my life. OK, listeners, do not forget Friday is coming. It always is, actually. So don't forget to share with me the best thing that happened to you all week. You know how to do it. Record the thing on your phone, tap a little few buttons and then email it to me at samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org. Send it over. You could be in the show hearing your voice being all happy and stuff. All right, listeners, till next time. Thank you for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. Talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

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