"Seventh grade is going to be so amazing!" Maya (Maya Erskine) declares in the first episode of Hulu's PEN15. On the other end of the phone, Anna (Anna Konkle) agrees. "It's going to be really, really good."
Therein lies the main conceit of the coming-of-age comedy series, which Erskine and Konkle co-created with Sam Zvibleman. The show, which the streamer describes as "middle school as it really happened," sees the two 30-something actresses playing 13-year-old versions of themselves. So while PEN15 looks back at the turn of the millennium with a nostalgic lens not unlike Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade, it does so with the silliness of Wet Hot American Summer's casting adults as adolescents.
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle talk PEN15
"At first, many of these kids thought we were really 13 but just a little freakish," Erskine tells Metro. "Like, they thought something was off about us because we were there acting alongside them, but I had this weird bowl cut and Anna is super tall."
"I remember this moment with the girl we'd cast as the popular kid in one episode," Konkle laughs at the mention of the bowl cut. "Everyone was directed to go into a classroom and sit down. When we were all sitting together, I heard her whisper to another actor, 'Is that her real hair?' I just died laughing."
As ridiculous as the concept of two adult actors playing significantly younger versions of themselves might seem, however, PEN15 isn't simply doing what Wet Hot American Summer did before it. On the contrary, Erskine and Konkle's comedic take on middle school in the year 2000 treats its subject matter with as much seriousness as Burnham's film. The comedy and the drama blend so well, in fact, that it's easy to forget that they're not actually 13 years old.
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"We were aiming to try to be as authentic as possible in our portrayal of being 13," Erskine explains. "That was always the goal because everything was so hyper-real when we were 13. We did everything we could to ground the show, the writing and our acting in reality as much as possible. So having real kids to play off of was really helpful for us."
"By the end of the shoot, I think they finally kind of got it, the 13-year-old actors," adds Konkle. "Because in the beginning, when we were working with them I think they were still coming to terms with these older people who were trying to be like them. I don't think they really had any idea what they were getting into at first, but they were all so great about it."
The pair explains that it was always their intention to play the younger, fictional versions of themselves in PEN15 alongside young performers. At no point were they ever only going to develop the series solely from behind the camera. "We started from a place of character work," says Erskine. "We were trying to find a character-centric concept, especially one that would let us play these kid versions of ourselves, and that's basically how this idea first came about."
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle talk PEN15
Along with Zvibleman, who ultimately directed several episodes, they spent years developing the idea and trying to get it off the ground. When an opportunity to pitch the idea to Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone of The Lonely Island fame's production company Party Over Here, however, things started happening.
"We lucked out," says Erskine. "They were given a lot of funding to throw at TV projects that usually weren't made or were passed over, and our show was definitely one of those. So when we got the chance to pitch the show to them, that was a huge break and a gift for us. With an idea as weird as this, I don't think it ever would have been made if we hadn't the opportunity to create a short-form version of it and run it by them. So that was great."
When does PEN15 premiere?
All episodes of PEN15 begin streaming Friday, Feb. 8 on Hulu.