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'PEN15' Stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle On Middle School Girlhood

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I can't tell if "PEN15" is a comedy or a drama. And maybe that means it's real life, middle school life. Anna Konkle and Maya Esrkine play versions of themselves as 13-year-old besties in the seventh grade 20 years ago. Times of crushes, dances, exploratory kisses and heartbreaks, pimples, braces, red faces and hormones, moaning hormones. I mean, whatever.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PEN15")

MAYA ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Literally, I was this close to getting my first kiss with Brandt.

ANNA KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) How was I supposed to know that? I didn't know that? That's amazing, though. Congratulations.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) No. Thank you. It's fine. It's great. But if it doesn't keep happening because you keep interrupting.

SIMON: "PEN15" - write out the title - you'll get it - has begun its second season on Hulu. Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, who are also part of the writing and production team, join us from Los Angeles. Thanks very much for being with us, both of you.

ERSKINE: Thank you for having us.

KONKLE: Thank you so much.

SIMON: What's it like to play 13-year-olds who work with other 13-year-olds?

KONKLE: I think, the first season, they truly didn't know if we were children or adults for the beginning of it (laughter).

ERSKINE: Right.

KONKLE: And now they know. And Maya kind of replaced me this year. I feel like I came back. I was gone for a week. And then I came back. And you were best friends with one of the 14-year-olds, so I had to get over that. But...

ERSKINE: We just spent a lot of days together. You weren't there.

SIMON: To set up the characters a bit, Maya, played by Maya, is a shy, sensitive seventh grader - Japanese American family - being raised by her mother. She's also kind of a class clown. Anna Kone, Maya's best friend - her parents are getting divorced. And she finds herself through singing. What do these two young women find in each other? Anna Konkle.

KONKLE: I think it's similar to the friendship that me and Maya really have as 33-year-old women, which is a little bit codependent, I like to think, in a beautiful way rather than unhealthy.

(LAUGHTER)

KONKLE: You know, in your lowest moment at that age, if you're lucky enough to have that best friend, you have this mere reflection that you get to look out as even better than you. And they love you, and you love them. And there's this sort of circle of identity that you're forming together.

ERSKINE: But it's that age where you get to show sort of unabashed love. There's no censoring. There's no self-consciousness in how you express your love for your friend at that age. And you can physically smash your faces together without anyone (laughter) blinking twice at that age. And I think we wish, as adults, sometimes you could express your love for your friends that way.

SIMON: I have to ask in your series, which, as you know I enjoyed a lot, adolescent boys are portrayed as a bunch of booger-smearing jerks. Are we?

KONKLE: Some of them are.

ERSKINE: (Laughter).

KONKLE: Some of them are not. I mean, I think we all have the booger-smearing part of us - no matter, you know, the girls and the guys. And even though, we can - Maya and Anna can be victims in the show, the villain can be within all of us. We can throw, you know, everyone can throw each other under the bus because you're just at a point of insecurity where it's survive or be killed.

ERSKINE: It's really survival of the fittest.

KONKLE: Yeah. And, you know, we did want to address though a theme in this season that we were calling anti-mom, pro-dad, which was this kind of thing that you learn to not like the girls and not like yourself and not like your mom. And we really wanted to reflect in this season. So yeah. Some of that came through as the guys not being kind to us and continuing to put them on a pedestal.

SIMON: I have to ask, Maya Erskine - your mother plays your mother.

ERSKINE: Yes.

SIMON: What a blessing...

ERSKINE: I know.

SIMON: ...That must be to work with your mother.

ERSKINE: Yeah. It's been a wild experience because I was just looking at videos the other day of me and my mom. And it's just us hanging out on a couch. And I'm like this could just be from "PEN15" because I'm whining, and I'm hugging her. And I'm in my 20s, you know? And it's like, just being around my mother, I revert instantly back to that age. So to have her on set and play my mother and to go back to that age instantly, it's just - it's a really wild experiment that we're doing here. It's like a form of therapy and bonding and, you know, making art with your family but reliving certain traumatic experiences are beautiful experiences with them has been really a blessing.

SIMON: May I ask, you play yourself at 13. Do you wind up feeling that, boy, I'm glad that's over or gee, I wish I could do it all over again.

KONKLE: Even though you're being pummeled the whole time, there is a certain innocence that's so refreshing and fun to live in and, for Anna Kone's character, just like immense positivity. But it can feel sort of masochistic sometimes where you're reliving painful things that you've written for yourself exactly as it happened. And then you're reliving that going, why am I doing this (laughter)?

ERSKINE: Right? You know, but the beautiful thing that that Maya and I talked about a lot is, even though we're trying to hold up a mirror to exactly our experience, I didn't have my Maya next to me literally when my parents were fighting, spying on them, you know? And in this season, I get to write - we get to write saving each other in those moments. And there's an aspect of therapy that's happening that we didn't realize we were doing.

SIMON: Somebody said - I'll say it's Hemingway, and I'll wait for someone to contradict me - that artists are created because they're trying to rewrite their childhoods the way they want.

ERSKINE: Yeah. When - that was in the first season. But there's an incident where the girls kind of start to leave me out - the popular girls - and put me down and start referring to me as their servant and I'm dirty because I'm a little darker than them and things like this happened and happened even with my friends. And what I didn't have at that time was someone to acknowledge it because I couldn't even acknowledge it. I didn't even have the resources or ways to cope at that time.

And so in rewriting this season - and we try not to. But we realized, oh, that's actually really great because we never want it to seem sort of like everything's great now. And now, you know, this is the cure to racism. Maya will never worry about this again. That's not what we do. But what we do is we just have Anna be there for her and acknowledge it. And she may not understand it fully. And Maya may not understand it fully. But there's a friendship there that's saying, I see you. And I'm sorry. And let's keep going, you know? It is healing. It is, you know?

SIMON: Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine of "PEN15." Go ahead. Write it out. You'll get the joke. Thank you both so much for being with us.

ERSKINE: Thank you.

KONKLE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.