PEN15: You're Not Crazy, Those Middle Schoolers Are in Their 30s
Hulu's teen comedy PEN15 has received plenty of praise for depicting its cast of young teenagers, mostly in middle school, as the complicated people they tend to be in real life. For the most part, the cast of young characters is played by actors who are actually teenagers — with two notable exceptions. For the characters of Maya and Anna, the two best friends at the heart of the show, creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle portray their tweenaged avatars, inspired by their real teenage years and the struggles they faced at that age.
Erskine and Konkle are both 33 years old — an age that's a little too old, even in Hollywood, to be playing young teens. And although they're styled in middle-school-appropriate ways, the show makes absolutely no effort to conceal the actresses' ages; in fact, their adulthood is a key part of the show's quirky concept. In a profile in Vulture, Erskine and Konkle revealed that they struggled, at first, to find a concept for the show that would allow them, as women nearing 30, to play 13-year-old middle schoolers.
"At the same time, they strained to come up with a concept that would allow them, then in their late 20s, to play themselves," the article narrates. Some of the discarded ideas were even wilder than the ultimate concept: "Maybe they were cult members who had taken refuge in a middle school? Oddly large foster children? 'I just had this vision of Maya swaddled on a doorstep,' says Konkle."
As the duo struggled with figuring out the correct concept, they brought in their friend, director and writer Sam Zvibleman. It was Zvibleman who came up with the casual, no explanation needed approach to the age-bending casting.
"Sam was like, 'What if there's no explanation? What if you're just 13?' And it was like, 'Oh, yeah,'" Konkle continued in Vulture. That's the concept that ultimately made it into the show: simply presenting Erskine and Konkle as 13-year-olds within the world of the story without ever explaining why the viewer at home sees them as grown adult women.
Erskine emphasized that the concept of the show is not to distract from the middle school setting or from the rest of the cast (who are all played by teenaged actors), but to actually help tone down the discomfort for viewers who might cringe away from watching actual middle schoolers suffer through, well, the cringey things that middle schoolers suffer through.
"If you saw an actual 13-year-old going through some of these traumatic experiences, it might not be as fun to watch, because you're like, 'That poor kid.' Whereas if you have us as adults playing it, they can be like, 'Oh, that's uncomfortable, but you are not actually experiencing this. Or you did, but you got through it'," Erskine explained in the Vulture interview.
While adult body doubles were switched in for moments such as Anna's first kiss (Konkle told Vulture that her real-life boyfriend is the "lips" stand-in for that shot), this quirky concept has made PEN15 into a wholly unique take on the weird and often hilariously awkward middle school story.