With American comedy PEN15 landing on Neon today, Alice Webb-Liddall chats with its creators and stars about uncovering all the shameful secrets pre-teen girls thought they got away with.
Being a 12-year-old girl is hard. There’s schoolwork, there’s parents who just don’t understand, there’s friendship dramas and there’s the encroaching threat of periods, first kisses, popularity and sexual awakenings to deal with. All of this is probably why so many memories from my pre-teen years had been suppressed under a thick layer of general disgust at my gross, pimply 12-year-old state. That was until the day I decided to tuck into American middle-school comedy PEN15.
The show is set in a middle school, the equivalent of our intermediate, and follows Anna Kone and Maya Ishii-Peters as they navigate all the worst, grossest and most embarrassing aspects of being 12. The catch? Among the hordes of talented child actors, the lead roles are played by 32-year-old actresses, Maya Erskine (Wine Country, Plus One) and Anna Konkle (Rosewood, Man Seeking Woman).
Alice: Every time I try to explain this show to people I get strange looks, the idea of two adults playing children, especially when all the other ‘children’ characters are played by actual children, that’s a weird one to explain. How did you initially pitch the show?
Anna: We started with it around seven years ago and at first pitching it was really scary. It’s basically the R-rated version of how middle school really was in the year 2000, and that means all the R-rated worries that it comes with. Up until recently it’s been hard to see the real version of being a middle-schooler that only adults could recognise and play the characters of, so that’s really cool that we get to do that.
Maya: Not just that, but seeing the female side of things, the female teenhood, because a lot of times in movies and shows it’s almost glamorised or dramatised. There wasn’t ever depiction of the nuanced experiences that felt real to us, so it was scary to do that because it’s a lot of shameful stuff. I think [Anna] said it really well, it’s the R-rated telling of how it happened in the 2000s, the difference here is that you have adults playing kids surrounded by actual kids.
Even the show title, PEN15, is the perfect example of the immature, but also kind of heartbreaking nature of being a pre-teen, this culture of always wanting to be a part of something, especially if you’re kind of a reject.
Anna: Yeah, well in the shoe we’re following two rejects, essentially. Maya and Anna are best friends and they’re pretty low on the totem pole of popularity hierarchy. They only survive because they have each other, essentially, it’s really a show about celebrating the rejects. The basis of the title is that classic prank that happened in middle school where the popular kids would say to the unpopular kids ‘do you want to be in my club?’ and the unpopular kids are like ‘yeah, how soon can I join’ and they say ‘right now, but I have to take this permanent marker and write PEN15 on your hand, it’s called the PEN15 club,’ and the desperate people like myself would be really excited about it and they would write PEN15 on your hand and then you’re the butt of the joke. There are two things in the title, one is bringing back that memory of that time in our life and the other is just eliciting the feelings of the rejects. The title is an ode to the rejects.
The characters you play have the same first names as you both, but apart from that obvious similarity, how many of the storylines actually happened to you?
Anna: It’s certainly a lot of fiction but we try to draw on autobiographical stuff. My parents divorced and in the show that was really similar to the moment they divorced, I leaned on my best friend and tried to become a part of her family and get out of my house, that is very much a real memory. Maya talks about the shamefulness of discovering masterbation.
Maya: It’s basically coming from our own shameful secrets and experiences. Anna and I didn’t grow up together so we fictionalise and try to leave in each other’s personal stories and bring them together, which is a challenge but a fun way to tell a story. We’ve found it’s also the best way to tell these secrets that we harboured for many years feeling like we’re the only ones who go through this at that age. For example with the masturbating, obviously I didn’t literally see my dead grandpa hovering above my bed, but we’re trying to find interesting ways of externalising the shame and fear.
And that shame is so real and I think you get to a point in your life when you forget about the pure embarrassment of just existing as a 12-year-old in the world, but PEN15 certainly does a good job at bringing those emotions back.
The show also explores the brutal nature of kids at that age, not afraid to say what they think, which comes across really strong in episodes like “Posh” which explores racism, through the Spice Girls of all things.
Anna: It’s so true and I think the problem with that is that some kids will be mean purposefully but then sometimes kids are mean without even knowing they’re mean or leaving kids out without even knowing they’re doing that. Something that still triggers me to this day is I just went to a party where I saw a lot of kids from my middle school who were perfectly nice people but I felt left-out by, and so all these feelings still came out just as fresh as they were when I was 13. Nobody was bullying me or being mean but the heartache that you experience at that age of just wanting to belong and be liked is so strong that there can be huge heartbreak from just a small action of someone not looking your way for a moment.
Despite all these heavy themes, the show still managed to make me cry laughing. I was cackling in the scene when Maya has her drum show. What were your favourite scenes to film?
Anna: One of mine was the thong episode (season 1, episode 5). I could not get through the scene where I’m basically ripping a thong off Maya. I had no idea how stretchy it was when I was going to pull it and we didn’t rehearse or anything. We had about 10 minutes to do the scene and everyone was freaking out that we weren’t going to get the shot like ‘we’re running out of money’ and the costume department told me ‘okay I’ve made a little rip, you just have to pull it.’ We were expecting to just pull it and rip it off, but it was the stretchiest thing in the world and it just went on forever so I’m pulling it like halfway up Maya’s body, way up her ass. I just had to keep going and I was going to pee my pants. That was a real highlight.
Maya: That was also my favourite scene to film too but looking around the room, it was nobody else’s. Everyone was ready to go home and we were just hysterical.
PEN15 is streaming on Neon now.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.