‘PEN15’ Stars Maya Erskine and Anne Konkle’s Real Middle School Was Even Worse Than What’s On the Show

The joke about PEN15 is that creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle were 32 when they played their 13-year-old selves. Now they’re 33 and still playing their characters in season 2. The Hulu original will continue to explore the difficulties of those formative years with a sense of humor.

PEN15: Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle in 'PEN15' Season 2 Episode 1 'Pool'
L-R: Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle | Erica Parise/Hulu

Konkle and Erskine were on a Television Critics Association Zoom panel for season 2 of PEN15. They discussed what their middle school years were really like, and it sounds too intense even for PEN15!

Anna Konkle was even more confused than her ‘PEN15’ character

On PEN15, Anna (Konkle) tries to be the person she thinks will make her popular. In her real childhood, Konkle said she was trying on more than one persona.

I had moved from Vermont to a new state and I always told everybody how much I missed Vermont, which was like really not a good start,” Konkle said. “By middle school, I started to blend in, like to figure out how to blend in a little bit more. But, my true nature was like inside was freaked out and then it was like hide the freaked out and blend in, be a chameleon. But, then you’re holding a lot of secrets of how rejected you feel and what’s going on in your family life. So I feel like I was carrying a lot of different people in one, if that makes sense.”

Anna Konkle, Television Critics Association panel, 8/7/2020

Maya Erskine dealt with a lot of unspoken racism before ‘PEN15’

Now that she’s the successful co-creator of PEN15, some of Erskine’s friends try to tell her middle school wasn’t so bad. 

“Anytime I describe myself at that age was like complete outcast, barely any friends, in pain, miserable,” Erskine said. “Then I look at yearbooks or I re-meet up with people from that time and they’re like, ‘You were so nice and we all liked you. You seemed happy and great.’”

Erskine has the receipts though. A lot of that fanfaire from the year 2000 included some couched racism.

Maya Erskine and Isaac Michael Edwards
Maya Erskine and Isaac Michael Edwards | Lara Solanki/Hulu

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“I look in my yearbook and I see these comments where it seems actually very positive, but I also was just noticing it was all like ‘You were the happiest, cutest Asian we’ve ever seen! We love you!’” Erskine said. “So it was these like weirdly-positive comments, but actually not and something that undermined my feelings all the time.”

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle give their middle school selves a platform now 

Playing their middle school selves on PEN15 has sort of paid off all the feelings Erskine and Konkle buried while they were growing up. All the subscribers to Hulu can see them now. 

“I’d say we are who we are, in a way, in the show and we are still that,” Erskine said. “Those parts come out in us now even as adults. So it’s like a really easy place to go to when we’re acting it, I think. I mean, that’s just constantly what our show is aiming to do is just to keep pushing to see the truth of what happened to us and a way to put it into our world and the show that can elicit humor and pain and sadness.”

Anna Konkle, Brady Allen and Maya Erskine
L-R: Anna Konkle, Brady Allen and Maya Erskine | Alex Lombardi/Hulu

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Konkle agreed, “I feel like it’s the truest essence of me then and now, in a way.  If I just take out all my adult thinking, sometimes when I’m on set I’m like, ‘Oh, this is more real than my every day,’ which is kind of really sad.”