The first time they were teenagers, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle found life was tricky.
“You’re hiding all of the freaky parts of yourself,” Erskine said.
And what’s it like, now that they’re teens again, in Hulu’s “Pen15” series? The more she gets into it, Konkle said, “the more confused I get about who I was.”
In “Pen15,” the actresses (both 33) play 13-year-old versions of themselves. (They’re shown here, with Erskine at the back of the bike.)
Yes, that could have been a gimmick – grown-ups dressing funny and talking funny. It also could have been, Konkle said, “just so masochistic, (to) keep living the worst parts of your life.”
But it’s neither. It’s a comedy – sometimes a bittersweet one – reflecting life’s tangles. The first season drew praise from critics and several nominations, including one from the Emmys, for a script Konkle and Erskine wrote with Stacy Osei-Koffur.
Now the second season has just arrived, with new frustrations. “Maya’s … trying desperately to get her first kiss – for the entire season,” Konkle said.
These are stories the women have told each other about their own past. “What I repressed was more the pain,” Erskine said. “I always remembered them as very funny, so I would – you know, as a defense mechanism – tell them in a humorous way.”
It was a time when both felt that simply didn’t fit in.
For Konkle, that started when she was 7, moving with her family to Massachusetts, along Cape Cod.
“I always told everybody how much I missed Vermont, which was like really not a good start,” she said. “And just was kind of an outcast in general.”
In middle school, she “started to … figure out how to blend in a little more. But my true nature was like freaked out. And then it was like, ‘Hide the freaked-out and blend in, be a chameleon.’”
Erskine grew up in Los Angeles. Her dad, Peter Erskine, is a jazz-fusion drummer who has been a member of Weather Report and Steps Ahead and has backed Diana Krall, Linda Ronstadt and Queen Latifah; her mom is Mutsuko Erskine – who plays her mother on the show.
“In my memory and any time I describe myself at that age, (I) was a complete outcast, barely any friends, in pain, miserable,” she said. But “then I look at yearbooks or I meet up with people from that time and they’re like, ‘You were so nice and we all liked you.’”
Still, she’s not sure what to do with comments like “you were the happiest, cutest Asian we’ve ever seen.” She considers them “weirdly positive comments, but actually not.”
Fortunately, she had magnet schools, including the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. “Theater … was sort of my safe haven, to really let my freaky-deaky come out.”
Next was theater at New York University, where she met Konkle. Tbey swapped stories of their past, while having some separate success as actresses.
Konkle did guest roles, plus a recurring one on “Rosewood” as the girlfriend (and then wife) of Dr. Rosewood’s sister. Erskine did many episodes of “Insecure,” “Casual,” “Heartbeat” and “Man Seeking Woman” … in which she broke up with the protagonist, then kept returning and fueling despair.
Then – after all those years of talking about their teen troubles — they decided to re-create them. Real teens play the guys they covet … sometimes with body doubles for trickier moments.
But this isn’t all about guys. The second season ponders relationships with parents, Erskine said, “especially in a divorce, who you start to align with …. Anna and I both shared the same experience of wanting to (not be) like our moms, which was a really fun area to explore.”
Or a painful one; the two notions sort of blend together.