Hulu’s cringe comedy series PEN15 has been praised up and down as one of the most hilarious TV shows airing right now. Its unflinching look at the reality of middle school life combined with amazing performances by the entire cast, particularly the series’ creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle who play the leads, have made it an instant classic for many.
But when a series like this inevitably gets to portraying things of a somewhat more adult nature, what do they do to protect the many child actors on set? Thankfully, the show’s creators have an effective and kind of funny solution to the problem.
PEN15’s stunt doubles
One of the central conceits of PEN15 is populating its world with actual kid actors to play the kids in the show. It’s a fun flip of the usual TV and movie standard of casting adults to play teenage characters, made all the funnier with how thoroughly both Erskine and Konkle (who are in their 30s in real life) manage to convincingly play teens. This decision is one of the major reasons the show feels so fresh and authentic.
These casting choices do present a bit of a problem, though. In a show that’s all about growing up, coming of age, and adolescent romantic and sexual awakenings, things are bound to get a little touchy-feeling sometimes. It would get pretty uncomfortable for everyone to act out these kinds of scenes if one party is an adult and the other is a child.
That’s where the stunt doubles come in. When these kinds of scenes come up during filming, the kids step off the set to be replaced with adult actors. That way, the “stunts” can be conducted without actually exposing children to things that aren’t appropriate for them. It’s also not uncommon for the leads themselves to get the replacement treatment, though it’s mostly as stand-ins and the like.
Camera tricks and hiding the switch
Just like shooting an action movie, PEN15 used a few different camera tricks to help hide when switches like this occurred. The show makes frequent use of extreme closeups on characters, letting the kids swap out with adults in a way that viewers won’t notice with how zoomed in the shot ends up.
They also use this as a way to shoot the adult and child actors separately from one another, placing the shots back-to-back so that it looks natural. “We spent a lot of discussion and time figuring out how we would shoot in a way so that every person in the scene would be comfortable,” Erskine has said.
As an added bonus, these frequent too-close shots help set the uncomfortably intimate tone of a lot of scenes and make things feel all the more awkward for the characters.
The show’s authentic awkwardness
Much of the show’s humor and relatability comes from the real experiences of the show’s creators. Drawing on their own pasts in middle school, the duo has created one of the most authentic shows out there. An added benefit of this authenticity is that, when the show does delve into the more mature side of being a teen, there’s plenty of ways to keep it from getting too risque.
Erskine and Konkle have talked a lot about the strange and embarrassing ways they and their characters have acted in the show, some of it helping to keep a safe distance between the actors and their underage costars. In many episodes, the characters of Maya and Anna are too nervous to even interact with the boys in their lives, ensuring that the times that they do go bad in a ton of hilarious ways.
“Let’s see it go awry up close,” Konkle details, adding, “Fortunately that allowed us to use adults to do the making out, the body doubles.”