There aren't many people who would choose to go back to middle school — what with all its braces, bullies, crushes and drama.
But that's exactly what actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle have done in their Hulu comedy series PEN15. The show is based loosely on their own middle school years and Erskine and Konkle, who are both in their early 30s, play 7th-grade versions of themselves on the show — alongside castmates who are actually middle schoolers.
The decision to cast adults in the starring roles was dictated, in part, by the show's content: "We wanted to explore a lot of the real things that happened to us at that age," Erskine explains. (Ed. Note: The conversation below includes some frank talk about sexuality.)
Transforming to their middle school selves meant donning ill-fitting, 2000s-era low-rise jeans, as well as wigs and retainers. "We had kind of binding straps on our chests," Konkle says.
But beyond the physical transformation, they wanted to explore the emotional lives of their 13-year-old selves. Anna watches her parents' marriage fall apart, and feels uncomfortable at home. Maya gets her period and hides it from everyone out of shame. The two are curious about boys and want to be in with the popular girls, but are full of anxiety about being left behind or excluded.
Hulu renewed PEN15 for a second season, so there will be more cringe-worthy stories coming. But even outside of the show, Erskine and Konkle say the middle school Maya and Anna are never too far below the surface.
"She's always there, I think. She's a big part of who I am," Konkle says. "If I'm insecure, if I'm feeling less-than ... I have the tools now to help her out and get her through that moment."
On developing the concept for the show, in which they play characters decades younger than themselves
Erskine: Anna and I were first actors, so we always approached telling stories through characters. ... [We thought] it'd be great to be 13 again, go through all of this trauma, and but there was a lot of fear and questions of how is this going to actually work with real 13-year-old kids. And so we had to film half a pilot [episode] essentially, to see if it would work, as an experiment.
On what they were really like in seventh grade
Konkle: I was the same and different. I think that the version of me in PEN15 was more me in fourth and fifth grade. I think in real life by seventh grade I learned to hide the things that I realized made me a target. In fourth and fifth grade I would tell people not to cheat. I would tell people not to swear. ... I think as I got older I just learned that I'm going to keep some of those things to myself. ... But I definitely have always been the type that connects better with adults, like the character in PEN15. I can be like delusional[ly] optimistic, and that can be good and bad, and so that's still with me.
Erskine: I think my fear of letting go of childhood was a huge issue for me. I wanted to be an adult, yet I was really scared of losing my innocence — especially in front of my parents — because I equated innocence with love. So I thought if I maintained this childlike-self or identity, then my parents would continue to love me the way they've loved me all these years. So that's a weird misconception that I created in my head.
On feeling excluded because of race
Erskine: In my memory, I wasn't accepted. But when I talked to people who went to my middle school they always say, "You seemed so happy! You were friends with everyone and you were doing OK!" — while I was going through this private misery, I guess.
And I looked in my yearbook recently and I got overflowing messages of love, but in each message it was, "You were the cutest Asian I've ever met!" "Oh my God, I love you so much. You're the cutest Asian, Maya." "Screw those other Asians, you're the best Asian!" That was the majority of these messages in my yearbook, and I'm sure I took that in as a kid in my heart, of, "Oh, no one likes me for me." ...
I remember when I went over to a friend's house and we were putting makeup on and when they would put eyeliner on, they had double eyelids, so you could see the skin above the eyeliner. But when I would put the eyeliner on, it covered my whole eyelid. I'll get emotional thinking about it. And not having it look the same, it made me hate myself. I hated my eyes. I hated that I didn't have thick double eyelids like my friends, because that's all I saw around me. I didn't have any [Asian] ideals of beauties to look up to when I was a kid.
On being harassed in middle school by other classmates
Konkle: There was kind of a cycle in my school where the older girls would harass the younger girls. ... In middle school there was a rumor that went around about me that I masturbated with an ice cube. ... And they came up with a really brilliant nickname called "Ice Box" ... and that followed me till I graduated high school. With it came this kind of sexualization of me that I wasn't ready for, like I was very much a prude at the time ... and yet there is this thing there about me out there, and I was labeled as a slut, essentially. I mean there are posters put up about me that said "slut" and it got really extreme.
On portraying Maya discovering masturbation and being turned on by inanimate objects
Erskine: Sexuality at that age is really bewildering and confusing and it doesn't make sense. I was turned on by, like, ... rotten apple cores and sand dunes. For some reason [they] came into my head once. I don't know what the connection is, but the point is that abstract things can turn you on at that age, and what we really wanted to explore was the shame around it and how you're never told about it. Kids don't talk about it. I thought I was a complete pervert. I thought I was gonna go to jail. I thought I was a monster. I had no knowledge of what I was doing and yet I [instinctively] knew how to do it, and so that really scared me.
On how Maya hid her period from her parents and everyone for a year
Erskine: I might've been one of the first to get my period and at my school. ... It was the end of innocence for me. I thought, oh, now I'm a woman. Now my parents won't look at me the same way. I somehow instilled in my head that having my period was a death sentence, a death of my childhood.
I didn't even ask for pads or tampons, I just rolled up toilet paper like I do in the show into these thick stacks. And did that for a year until I was in a play. ... I didn't have enough toilet paper and so I had found an old pad in the green room. We were doing a performance of A Little Princess and ... there was like a pad from the '70s. It had no adhesive. So you just plopped it in, which I was used to with my toilet paper, and I had to wear underwear you know tights, petticoat, boomers, layers upon layers. I was like, "This baby's gonna stay in there!"
And for some reason ... [in the play] I jumped into [my father's] arms and he spins me around, and everyone started laughing. This was a dress rehearsal for the students, so it wasn't even a performance with adults, and my pad flew out onto the stage. I didn't know. So I kept going with the scene then it went black and the techies put a spotlight on the pad, and so I had to grab it during the transition and then go into the next scene and hold it in my hand.
It's so funny, because I don't look at that as this traumatic time. I was embarrassed, but it sort of released me in a way like, OK, well it's out there, I got my period!
Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The middle school years have got to be one of the most awkward periods of life. I don't know if many people would want to go back and revisit those years, but that's kind of what our guests Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle did. They co-created the Hulu comedy series "PEN15," in which they co-star as seventh grade versions of themselves in the year 2000. In reality, they're both in their early 30s, but the rest of the show's middle-schoolers are played by actual teens. "PEN15" explores what it's like for Maya and Anna to deal with puberty, mean girls and their first sexual feelings. It's embarrassing, poignant and very funny. And many of the stories come from Erskine and Konkle's real tribulations in middle school.
A heads-up to parents - this interview includes a couple of brief, nonexplicit mentions about how they dealt with those kinds of sexual situations when they were that age. "PEN15" has just been renewed for a second season. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with a clip from the show. Anna and Maya are having a sleepover after Anna has just had her first kiss with her boyfriend Brendan, and it's not how she fantasized it would be. Maya asks her about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PEN15")
MAYA ERSKINE: (As Maya) And then, like, were your lips close together when you guys were standing close together?
ANNA KONKLE: (As Anna) Yeah, they touched.
ERSKINE: (As Maya) They did? That's, like, romantic.
KONKLE: (As Anna) No, it wasn't. It literally wasn't at all.
ERSKINE: (As Maya) Why?
KONKLE: (As Anna) He put his lips, like, all the way around mine.
ERSKINE: (As Maya) Ew.
KONKLE: (As Anna) And, like, sucked.
ERSKINE: (As Maya) Ew (laughter).
KONKLE: (As Anna) It's not funny.
ERSKINE: (As Maya) Wait. And then what? Was that it? Like, he just sucked?
KONKLE: (As Anna) No, and then he put his tongue in my mouth, and he, like, did, like, a torpedo cat tongue and, like, drilled my mouth.
ERSKINE: (As Maya) Like, what was it like?
KONKLE: (As Anna) It was like this.
ERSKINE: (As Maya) Like, what did he do with it? Ew (laughter) Ew, stop.
KONKLE: (As Anna) Yeah. I can't; I wish I could.
ERSKINE: (As Maya) What did you do with your tongue? Did you do it back, or did you just, like...
KONKLE: (As Anna) It was pinned back like it was in trouble, you know?
ERSKINE: (As Maya) That's crazy (laughter).
KONKLE: (As Anna) I know. It was awful.
ERSKINE: (As Maya) Well, at least you've had, like, your first kiss, you know?
KONKLE: (As Anna) I wish that I hadn't.
ERSKINE: (As Maya) Why'd you say that?
KONKLE: (As Anna) I really do. Everything is just different. I don't know, I just have to break up with him, so.
ERSKINE: (As Maya) Really?
KONKLE: (As Anna) Yeah. He is not the Brendan that bought us snacks at the bowling alley, you know?
ERSKINE: (As Maya) Mmm hmm.
KONKLE: (As Anna) He is, like, the Brendan that drilled the back of my throat with his tongue. So it's up to you to get the next boyfriend.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That's a scene from the Hulu show, "PEN15," created and co-starring my guests Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. Welcome to FRESH AIR.
ERSKINE: Thank you.
KONKLE: Thanks. Thanks so much for having us.
BRIGER: You know, those early teen years are such a strange time, and you have these bodies that are starting to sprout into adulthood.
BRIGER: But you have minds that are probably not ready to handle that yet, and you - having to cope with these more adult situations. And the thing that makes it so worse is that your emotions are just so intense.
KONKLE: Oh, yeah.
BRIGER: Like, everything is just saturated and overwhelming. Like, just the way that teens respond to music - like, it's so important, and it's, like, their theme music. So everything feels so consequential. And you know, and then they're talking - they're thinking about romance, so, like, everything is a powder keg.
KONKLE: Yeah, and there's so many misconceptions, too.
KONKLE: It's like, in real life, Anna - me (laughter) - I thought kissing was going to be the ultimate feeling of romance, and, like, that's all I wanted. Like, I was not interested in sexuality at the time; I just wanted to, like, hold someone's hand and fall in love and kiss like Zack and Kelly on "Saved By The Bell."
KONKLE: So when the real version happened, which was just this weird tongue...
KONKLE: ...Like, just drilling me.
KONKLE: I - it was a shattering of expectations. But you're - and I think that's true in a lot of different ways. But you're fronting as though you either enjoy it or you get it or whatever, and there's a lot of sadness and humor that I think that comes with that, you know.
ERSKINE: Yeah, I think you create these beliefs of, you know, things lasting forever. Like, your friendships - I will be friends with this person until the day I die, and not realizing that things will change because you might go into different classes than your best friend, or you start developing different tastes than your best friend. It's...
KONKLE: Yeah, different trauma.
BRIGER: So Anna, that scene was based on your first kiss, right?
KONKLE: Yeah, it was amazing.
KONKLE: Yeah, that - Yeah, I mean - and what I found out recently, and Maya had a really similar experience, is that - I went home after my real first kiss, and I had been looking forward to it for so many years, and I was one of the last girls that I knew to do it, so I remember just being like, OK, I just have to do this, and I have to get it out of the way. And then I did, and then I went home, and I told my mom, who I didn't tell anything to, and I cried. And I was like, I never want to do that again. Yeah.
ERSKINE: Yeah. I had the same experience, where I was a late bloomer with boys, and when I had my first kiss, I had the same expectation of it going to be this romantic, movie-like kiss. And again, I don't know what's with these boys drilling their tongues in people's mouths (laughter).
KONKLE: Yeah, what are they watching? I don't know.
ERSKINE: I don't know what they're watching.
BRIGER: Well, I think they're watching something; I think that's where they're getting it from.
KONKLE: They're watching something.
ERSKINE: They're watching something. But I cried after as well because I thought - in my mind at the time, I thought, oh, I guess that's what kissing is like.
ERSKINE: That's how kissing will be for the rest of my life.
KONKLE: Right, yeah.
BRIGER: Could you describe what you guys were like in seventh grade? I mean, are these characters pretty similar to how you were?
KONKLE: I was the same and different. I think that the version of me in "PEN15" was more me in fourth and fifth grade. I think in real life, by seventh grade, I learned to hide the things that I realized that made me, you know, a target. In fourth and fifth grade, you know, I would tell people not to cheat. I would tell people not to swear. I don't know, I was just, like, generally annoying.
KONKLE: But it came from who I really am and always will be, which is, you know - there's a good and bad to it. And I think as I got older, yeah, I just learned that I - I'm going to keep some of those things to myself. I'm going to adjust how - where I put my paper so you don't cheat off my paper, but I'm not going to tell you not to, you know.
KONKLE: Things like that. You just learn to cope a little bit more. But I definitely - I can be, like, delusionally (ph) optimistic, and that can be good and bad. And so that's just still with me, you know.
ERSKINE: And I think, for me, I was full of contradictions; I was incredibly insecure and then brazenly confident at moments.
ERSKINE: And delusionally so. I was incredibly whiny as a kid, and I think that comes through a lot (laughter), as a way to get things. And I think my fear of letting go of childhood was a huge issue for me. I wanted to be an adult, yet I was really scared of losing my innocence, especially in front of my parents because I equated innocence with love. So I thought if I maintained this childlike self, then - or identity, then my parents would continue to love me the way they've loved me all these years. So that's a weird misconception that I created in my head.
BRIGER: Yeah, and that's played out in the show, where Maya sort of becomes almost babyish in front of her parents.
ERSKINE: Yeah, that still exists to this day, at 31.
ERSKINE: I'm sad to say that I revert really easily in front of my parents, and I'm sure there's something that they're gaining from that, too, which is something I'm exploring...
BRIGER: Mmm hmm. Sure.
ERSKINE: ...Of, why does this happen?
ERSKINE: Not to put the blame on them. But I'm like, why do you guys enjoy this, you know?
BRIGER: It probably brings them back, too, you know.
BRIGER: Did you guys feel targets of bullies at that age?
ERSKINE: I wouldn't necessarily call them outright bullies. But I had friends that would put me down a lot. And I didn't really comprehend what they were doing until years later. But, yeah, I wouldn't say necessarily bullies that would...
BRIGER: Downright bullies, yeah.
KONKLE: Yeah. I had a weird thing happen where there was kind of a cycle in my school where the older girls would harass the younger girls. And that was even more in high school. But in middle school, there was a rumor that went around about me that I masturbated with an ice cube. It was really fun for me, that rumor.
KONKLE: And they came up with a really brilliant nickname called Ice Box - unfortunately, like, brilliant. And that followed me for, you know, the next - well, really, until I graduated high school (laughter).
ERSKINE: That's awful.
KONKLE: And with it came this kind of sexualization of me that I wasn't ready for. Like, I was very much a "prude" at the time - you know, quote, unquote - and wasn't going there. And yet there was this, like, thing there - about me out there. And I was labeled as a slut, essentially. I mean, there were posters put up about me that said slut and...
BRIGER: Really? Wow.
KONKLE: Yeah, it got really extreme. And in other ways, like, I was simultaneously accepted. I mean, I had, you know, groups of friends and had found my place in high school. But that followed me.
ERSKINE: You were saying that you felt like you were accepted, too, at the same time. And in my memory, I wasn't accepted. But when I talked to people who went to my middle school, they always say, you seemed so happy. Like, you were friends with everyone. And you were doing OK - while I was going through this private misery, I guess. And I looked in my yearbook recently, and I got overflowing messages of love. But in each message, it was - you are the cutest Asian I've ever met. Oh, my God, I love you so much. You're the cutest Asian, Maya.
ERSKINE: Ugh, screw those other Asians. You're the best Asian. You know, that that was the majority of these messages in my yearbook. And I'm sure in - I took that in as a kid...
ERSKINE: ...In my heart of - oh, no one likes me for me.
BRIGER: Well, you address that in one of the episodes called "Posh," which has a really funny preface where you guys are doing, like, a public service announcement at your school. And there's, like, five girls. Some of them are, like, the scarier popular girls. And you're going to be the Spice Girls, but you're, like - you're now elderly, and you're suffering from osteoporosis. And you drink milk, which makes your bones feel better. And then you can dance, right?
BRIGER: So it's very funny. But then, you know, Maya wants to be Posh Spice. And - but these three other girls, not including Anna, says - well, no, you should be Scary Spice. And for people who don't remember the Spice Girls, Scary Spice is the only black member of that group. And they're like, you should be Scary Spice 'cause you're tan, and you look the most like her. And Maya's - the character Maya's like, well, OK, I guess. And then things start getting really bad. Like, the popular girl's like, you should bring us the milk 'cause you're - should be the servant. And then they start calling you Guido the Gardener. They're sort of, like, free-associating, like, all the racist things that they can think of.
And then, you know, your character doesn't know what to do 'cause it seems like she's not totally clear what's going on. She's like, this is uncomfortable, but maybe I'll play along 'cause the girls are laughing. So maybe I'm funny. She starts acting like how they - she thinks they want her to act. And that's really uncomfortable. And that's true, right, Maya? That came from - that's your experience, isn't it?
ERSKINE: That did happen to me a lot. And I would play into that role really easily - to become the jester. And I would make characters up and imitate my mom with a thick Japanese accent, and it would cause kids to laugh. And I thought, OK, I'm doing good. I'm a funny person because they're laughing at me. But really, they were laughing at my mom's accent, the thick accent. And I didn't put that together as a kid. And it never penetrated me the way it - we show it in the show at the time because you're just trying to survive.
ERSKINE: So I think we were trying to show, you know, a lot in 30 minutes. But what is that like when it's kind of hitting the person? And what is it like when you first realized, for the first time, that you're not like your other friends? You're not white. You don't sound the same. You don't look the same, even though this whole time you've held this belief that you are the same person, especially as your best friend. And so that moment of recognition in the mirror of - oh, I don't have eyes like Anna or those girls. Why don't I? I wish I did - and that hitting harder. That was something that I don't think I fully explored until we started writing this show.
BRIGER: Do you remember that first time when you felt that way?
ERSKINE: I think I remember when I went over to a friend's house, and we were putting makeup on. And when they would put eyeliner on, they had, you know, double eyelids, (laughter), so you could see the skin above the eyeliner. But when I would put the eyeliner on, it covered my whole eyelid. And I'll get emotional thinking about it. (Laughter) Anna's crying, too. And not having it look the same was such - it made me hate myself. I hated my eyes. I hated that I didn't have thick, double eyelids like my friends because that's all I saw around me. And I didn't have any ideals of beauties to look up to, really, when I was a kid growing up, of Asian beauties.
Aw. Anna's so sweet.
KONKLE: No. I'm - don't make me...
ERSKINE: Sorry. Sorry (laughter). Yeah. It's not fair.
KONKLE: Watching you go through that in the scene and the girls talking to you that way was extremely moving. And, you know, it's a bunch of white girls. And I'm one of them. And I'm the best friend. And I'm not saying, everybody, stop. It - it's a mirror of that. And it's a mirror of now in the sense of, you know, I've been raised from a small girl in real life in a very liberal, progressive - you know, I went to a Unitarian Church.
And the way that diversity was dealt with was like, we should all be colorblind. We're all the same. And that's as far as it went. And I think that you can see in the episode the negative results of that, really, of Anna just going, well, we're the same. That's just funny. And that's just humor. And I something feels off, but, like, it doesn't - it's not important.
ERSKINE: And the other thing I wanted to say was just reiterating how important it was to not vilify those girls because they weren't aware fully of what they were doing, that it was somehow ingrained in them. And I was so grateful that we got to write an ending where Anna acknowledges...
ERSKINE: ...How Maya feels, that I don't think I ever received that in life. So to have your friends say, you're right, I don't know what it's like to be like you.
KONKLE: Right. Right.
ERSKINE: And I'm sorry.
BRIGER: Let's talk about how you decided to actually play these characters yourselves. Like, why did you think that it would work? You're women in your 30s, and you're acting like 13-year-olds. And the rest of the middle-school actors are actually teens. How did you think that was going to fly?
ERSKINE: I mean, we didn't know it would work necessarily, but we knew that if we wanted to explore a lot of the real things that happened to us at that age, we couldn't ethically or legally put 13-year-old actors in those resolutions.
BRIGER: Right. Sure.
ERSKINE: And then, you know, Anna and I are - we're first actors. So we always approached telling stories through character. And it'd be great to be 13 again, you know, go through all of this trauma. But there was a lot of fear and questions of, how is this going to actually work with real 13-year-old kids? And so we had to film half a pilot, essentially, to see if it would work as an experiment.
BRIGER: Yeah, I think it totally worked. Like, you look awkward and look insecure. And you don't look like everyone else. So that sort of embodies how you must have felt at the time. And it's even funny like - Anna, like, your - you, like, tower over all the seventh-graders too, so...
BRIGER: What did you guys do to your appearance and, like, physically to embody those younger versions? Like, what did you do in terms of makeup and just also how you held your bodies?
KONKLE: I had braces. And it was kind of like Invisalign with, you know, braces put on it. So it just slipped in and out. But I did start using wax on set - very method because it's hard to, you know, scratching the inside of my mouth. And then I - yeah, we had kind of like binding straps on our chests. And then - and it really - Maya always says, and I love this, that the jeans were always ill-fitting because they were for kids, usually from eBay. And then the strap on the chest would, like, push your stomach and - you know, to the most pouchy, sausage way that it could go - which feels right.
And then - and then yeah, for me, you know, again, something that I did when I was 13 was kind of casually always be blocking my stomach as though, you know, just hoping that everybody would just see me as skinny and not - they wouldn't know that I was trying to not bring attention to my stomach, essentially. I was trying to hide it all the time.
ERSKINE: Yeah. And I think I was just so physically uncomfortable like you were saying but because I had to wear a wig every day. And I had this retainer put in. We put mustache hairs and eyebrow hairs on on ourselves in addition to the hair we have already.
KONKLE: Pre-wax, pre-tweeze.
ERSKINE: I tried not to shave my face for months in preparation for this role.
ERSKINE: That's a whole nother conversation, but let's go there.
KONKLE: But yeah, with the straps and the jeans, you're just so physically uncomfortable that it makes you self-conscious. And even though you want to have bigger breasts at that age, you also want to hide whatever is developing because it's not your ideal version of what you want.
BRIGER: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, co-creators and co-stars of the Hulu series "PEN15." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And we'll talk about how hard it is to start an organic farm with John and Molly Chester. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIN HAT'S "BLIND PAPER DRAGON")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the creators and stars of the Hulu comedy series "Pen15." It's about the traumas and embarrassments surrounding puberty and life in middle school. Erskine and Konkle are in their early 30s, but in the series, they play middle-school versions of themselves. All the other students are played by actual teens.
BRIGER: Well, I'd like to play a clip about Anna interacting with one of the kids in the show. And this is a great scene. And this is - Anna has just recently gotten a letter from a possible suitor. And it's written in this tiny, tiny handwriting, like seventh-graders do. And you're in science class, and you put it underneath the microscope because you want to read it. But at that moment, your teacher calls your partner to go over to you. And it's - your partner turns out to be Alex, who is, like, your romantic ideal. So let's hear that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PEN15")
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) You smell nice. Like, can you read that? Or - I can't quite - I don't know how to use a microscope. So...
LINCOLN JOLLY: (As Alex) It says - I like playing with you, Anna. Let's hang out sometime.
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Oh, my God. Whoa.
JOLLY: (As Alex) Who's Anna?
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) It's just me. It's stupid (laughter).
JOLLY: (As Alex) He likes you.
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Who? You? What?
JOLLY: (As Alex) Brendan Saxville (ph). Who's that?
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Oh, him - I don't know. Who cares?
JOLLY: (As Alex) Yeah.
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) So what's up with your GF or whatever?
JOLLY: (As Alex) I broke up with her. I don't have one anymore.
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Oh, my God. I'm so sorry.
JOLLY: (As Alex) It's chill.
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) What did you hate about her?
JOLLY: (As Alex) She was just, like, always there.
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) If I was your boyfriend - I mean, girlfriend - I would not be anywhere unless you wanted me to be somewhere. And then I'd be there on time.
JOLLY: (As Alex) Coo (ph).
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) It's crazy. There's this, like, kind of music concert thingy tomorrow night. So...
JOLLY: (As Alex) Cool.
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) And I'm in, like, the band and chorus.
JOLLY: (As Alex) Nice.
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Barely have time for a boyfriend - but I do have a little. Are you going to go? Or...
JOLLY: (As Alex) Yeah. I think we have to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER CRUMPLING)
KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) I, like, hate that thing.
KONKLE: Oh, God.
BRIGER: So I just love all the work that Anna's doing there and getting...
ERSKINE: It's so funny.
BRIGER: ...Like, absolutely nothing back. Like, flash-forward to Anna, like, doing all the emotional labor in a - some relationship down the road. But...
ERSKINE: That's so funny.
BRIGER: So like, the cool boys are just so dismissive of Anna and Maya. But like, it's blunt. It's, like, these direct rejections, you know? He doesn't...
BRIGER: ...Even know her name. And you know, that must really hurt. But it's kind of like tearing off a Band-Aid. Right? But with the popular girls, it's different. Like, they never outright say things like - you're a loser; I don't want to hang out with you. It's always, like, these very strange excuses. Like, oh, there's not enough room in my parents' car for you. Sorry. Or like...
BRIGER: Oh, I don't - I'm not supposed to loan clothes to my friends even though all the girls around her are wearing her clothes. And like, in some ways, it feels worse than what the boys do. It's, like, more torturous 'cause it - in part, it gives Maya and Anna hope. Like, it gives them something to hold out for. And like, you know, maybe there'll be room in the car next time, or - and because, on some level, like, the characters want to accept those excuses, I think.
ERSKINE: Yeah. I really related to that experience with the popular girls. We were all really close in elementary school. But then once middle school came and people started looking more beautiful or showing their expensive bags and things, I slowly was getting pushed out. But they were always really nice to me and would say - oh, Maya, sorry you can't come to the brunch at the bat mitzvah, like - but happy birthday; we love you. You know? And they would call me from the brunch. And...
ERSKINE: ...All of them were there. My mom - yeah, I remember that moment. I started bawling after. And my mom - I probably can't say this on-air...
KONKLE: Why did they call you?
ERSKINE: But she was like, those little b******. I'm over it - no more.
ERSKINE: And like, I - they called me because - I was like, no, they're being sweet. They're saying happy birthday, Mom. And she was like, no, it's not OK - you know? - 'cause I wanted to be included in the brunch.
BRIGER: Sure. Of course.
ERSKINE: If you were, you were a best friend.
ERSKINE: So yeah....
KONKLE: Oh, my God.
ERSKINE: ...It's the hope. You hit the nail on the head.
BRIGER: And not to really excuse the popular kids' behavior, but I imagine they're probably feeling, like, a lot of the same anxiety. And...
ERSKINE: Yeah, totally.
BRIGER: ...Even though, like, the ways that they're acting out are, like, behaviors that are totally hurtful and bullying - but, like, I don't think anyone at that age is free from that social anxiety.
ERSKINE: Oh, no. And I also probably did the same thing to other girls, you know?
ERSKINE: I think no one is...
BRIGER: It's like the food chain, isn't it?
ERSKINE: Yeah. It's all about survival and being accepted, so you'll sometimes do whatever it takes. There's not a lot of heroic acts in middle school, I think.
KONKLE: Yeah. And we talked about "Welcome To The Dollhouse" by Todd Solondz a lot and how that character - you know, the bullied becomes the bully. And that's very common, even if it's just in a moment. You know, you're flexing this muscle that you see is keeping other people safe, and maybe it'll keep you safer. And so, yeah, we wanted to show that as well, I guess.
BRIGER: So just a warning to parents here - the next section, we're going to be talking nongraphically about sexual feelings.
But one of the episodes is about Maya discovering masturbation. And it's a great example of how these characters are teetering, like, between childhood and adulthood. So she's, like, sitting in her room, and she's playing with her My Little Pony toys. And then she, like, has them start kissing. And then she starts, like, mashing them together. And then she starts feeling these urges, which she acts on.
Then after that experience, she becomes obsessed with that. And like, everything she sees triggers her sexually. Like, in the classroom, she can't concentrate because she's distracted by, like, a kid's ear or, like, a pencil eraser, like, someone's eyebrow. And she finds, like, well-rounded sand dunes really hot. Like...
BRIGER: ...It's hilarious, and it feels very honest. So how did you come up with that idea?
ERSKINE: Well, based on my real experience.
ERSKINE: I mean, I - sexuality at that age is really bewildering and confusing. And it doesn't make sense. I was turned on by - like, what you said - sand dunes. I don't know why.
KONKLE: Apple cores.
ERSKINE: Apple cores, really - rotten apple cores and sand dunes, for some reason, came into my head once. And I was, like...
KONKLE: Off to the races.
ERSKINE: Off, you know...
ERSKINE: I don't know what...
KONKLE: Right. No, it totally makes sense to me.
ERSKINE: ...What the connection is, but the point that abstract things can turn you on at that age, and what we really wanted to explore was the shame around it.
ERSKINE: And how you're never told about it.
ERSKINE: Kids don't talk about it. I thought I was a complete pervert. I thought I was going to go to jail. I thought I was a monster. I had no knowledge of what I was doing, and yet I instinctually knew how to do it. And so that really scared me.
KONKLE: And instinctually felt wrong about it.
ERSKINE: And so the idea of - in the episode, Maya's grandpa haunts her above her bed every time she's about to...
ERSKINE: We were playing on the idea of, someone's watching and disapproving, and if I'm under these covers, then it's OK.
KONKLE: Mmm hmm.
ERSKINE: And I would, like Lady Macbeth, you know, wash my hands religiously, you know, like, out damn spot, of this - what I did, yeah.
KONKLE: Like, once I have...
ERSKINE: Oh, God.
KONKLE: I know. Sorry. Let's...
ERSKINE: So it's real.
BRIGER: You know, I mean, I think that's, like, the great part about this episode, is, like, you're - you deal with that, like, feeling of shame. Like, for a while, Maya's not telling Anna what she's doing, like, because she's making a lot of time for herself, to have free time, let's just say that, right? And so she's kind of lying to Anna about what she's doing, and Anna finally confronts her. And Maya says something like, I'm like a boy, but I'm only grosser because I'm a girl.
And I think that's a really great line because it acknowledges, like, this double standard that exists. There's some sort of tacit acceptance that, you know, well, of course, boys are going to do that, but, you know, girls doing that? And you know, there were movies back then where we talked about boys acting that way, and it kind of normalized it.
BRIGER: But not really for girls.
KONKLE: No, not at all. And I think, too, you know, going back to the icebox rumor that went around about me, I mean, there's a monster feeling with it.
KONKLE: I mean, there certainly was for me. And I think that there's also an interesting juxtaposition of experience that Maya and I have had, this, like, yin and yang thing of - I was a super late bloomer sexually with myself, and yet there was this outward, public reputation around me that was the opposite.
KONKLE: And then you kept this secret and outwardly showed kind of a younger - right?
ERSKINE: Yeah, exactly.
KONKLE: Yeah, yeah.
ERSKINE: I was very - I was a very late bloomer with boys, but by myself I was, you know, level 10...
ERSKINE: ...In experience.
BRIGER: How much do you feel like either of you are still carrying around the middle school version of yourself?
KONKLE: She's always there, I think, and she's a big part of who I am. And it's, I guess, about learning to take care of her - what that means now, you know, and I have tools now to help her out and get through that moment, maybe.
ERSKINE: Right. I think a lot of my insecurities came from that time, so anytime I'm dealing with any of those insecurities or anytime I'm dealing with any conflict with anyone, I have to ask myself, oh, what does 12-year-old Maya really want from this moment? What does 12-year-old Maya really need? Oh, it's love, or it's security or knowing she's OK or knowing she's smart enough, or it's - you know.
ERSKINE: A lot of it's just being able to tell your child self you're enough.
ERSKINE: Which I have to do constantly.
BRIGER: Well, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, thanks so much for being here today.
KONKLE: Thank you for having us.
ERSKINE: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle are the creators and stars of the series "PEN15." All of Season 1 is streaming on Hulu. It's just been renewed for Season 2. They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. After a break, we'll hear from John and Molly Chester, who gave up city life to start an organic farm and faced one horrible obstacle after another. John directed a new film documenting their experiences called "The Biggest Little Farm." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HUGH MASEKELA'S "GRAZING IN THE GRASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.