Few people look back on their early teens without grimacing at the memories. But that doesn’t stop the creators and stars of Hulu comedy PEN15 from staring those memories down in all of their awkwardly painful glory.
Creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine star in the Hulu series (currently on hiatus in the middle of its second season) as 13-year-old versions of themselves, working their way through all the uncomfortable baggage that comes with living in the realm between child and teenager. As Anna and Maya, the two stars have done and seen so much: a riveting exploration of high school theater in the midseason two finale “Opening Night,” brutal cruelty between friends in the middle of a “Sleepover” and even some witchcraft in the delightfully named “Vendy Wiccany.”
With 17 episodes already released and an additional seven episodes on the way in the upcoming second half of season two (now in production, following a COVID-mandated production hiatus), one would think Konkle and Erskine’s critically-acclaimed turns have become easier for the actors to access than ever. Turns out, that’s a dangerous assumption.
“I think Maya and I always feel like frauds to a certain extent all the time.,” Konkle tells The Hollywood Reporter during a one-on-one conversation with THR Presents, powered by Vision Media. “We were 32 at the time of the first season. Playing 13-year-olds and trying to do it authentically and not like a joke was humiliating every day, especially to our crew who had no idea what they signed up for and were like, ‘Are they the showrunners? Are they kids? What’s happening?’”
Adds Konkle: “The second season was even more intimidating in a way. We had gotten some positive feedback and the feeling of ‘now we really can’t mess this up’ was there.”
Beyond its foray into ridiculous comedic territory, PEN15 season two delved headfirst into some deeply dramatic material as well. For Konkle, that meant her character Anna weathering the reality of her parents’ separation and impending divorce. The season two finale reveals Anna’s father is moving out. The remaining episodes of season two will deal more with that fallout, among other intense subject matter.
“The first part was pretty serious, compared to season one,” Konkle says about the opening seven episodes of the show’s sophomore season. “I think this next leg behaves as a season unto itself. It’s a fully new arc. We’re growing up. The theme of the show [is] we’re always 13. But inside and story-wise, we’re getting older. There may be some older boyfriends on the horizon. I think the content in general becomes more R-rated and mature. I think we’re dealing with even darker subjects than you’ve seen before.”
Does that mean PEN15 is moving away from its comedic roots? Absolutely not, according to Konkle. In fact, she thinks the show is only amping up the comedy in the coming episodes: “For me at least — though this may be one of the times I’m laughing alone because I have a dark sense of humor — it gets funnier and more absurd.”
“Every arc that we’ve done has a really different feeling,” she adds, “and that’s been fun as artists. But it’s scary not knowing how people are going to feel about it.”
This edition of THR Presents is brought to you by Hulu.