With 'PEN15' and 'Plus One,' Maya Erskine Is Taking Things Into Her Own Hands (Exclusive)

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Maya Erskine is having a hard time believing her remarkable year.

The 32-year-old Los Angeles native is a few months removed from the launch of Hulu's PEN15, the satirical comedy about middle school she co-created with pal Anna Konkle, and the flurry of rave reviews that followed. (NPR called it a "gem"; Entertainment Weekly deemed it a "masterpiece of teen TV.") A memorable bit part as a gay waitress in the Amy Poehler-directed Wine Country, starring a who's who of Saturday Night Live alumnae, soon followed. And now, Erskine jumps into the romantic comedy space as the female lead in the delightfully endearing wedding-themed movie, Plus One, opposite Jack Quaid.

"I don't think it ever sinks in," Erskine chuckles during a May interview with ET of her exciting 2019 so far. "I am appreciative of where I am at this moment, but it feels like I'm constantly going and thinking of the next thing because we're about to start the writers' room on [season two] of PEN15. An 'I've made it' moment is being given the opportunity to make the work you want to make. I know that probably a year from now, I could also have no work for two years in a row. It's nice to have the work, but to remember in the back of my head: This could all go away."

The breakout success of PEN15 crystallizes years of hard work for Erskine, who has guested on comedies such as Insecure and Casual, before finding her way into the comedy spotlight. A major trip for the New York University theater school graduate, who has a refreshing perspective about it all. "Overwhelming," she sums it all up in a word. In PEN15, Erskine and Konkle play heightened, fictional 13-year-old versions of themselves, Maya and Anna, who go through the awkward highs and lows of seventh-grade adolescence, when every "first" -- kiss, date, you name it -- seems like it could be a "last."

"We're essentially sharing our secrets. It's a very personal show where we reveal a lot of things about ourselves that we felt ashamed about for many years because we didn't talk about it with anyone. To have other people say, 'That happened to me too,' or 'I went through that too,' that has been incredibly healing for us," Erskine marvels. "They're making us feel not alone. That's why we do this, right? It reinforced why I love doing this."

Maya Erskine in PEN15

Maya Erskine plays a 13-year-old version of herself in Hulu's 'PEN15,' a show she also co-created.

Hulu

In Plus One, Erskine dips her toe for the first time into the rom-com world as Alice, a free-spirited 20-something who makes a pact with her single college friend, Ben (Quaid), to be each other's plus ones in order to survive months of summer weddings. But Alice doesn't represent the genre's typical leading lady. She's not a damsel in distress waiting for a prince to sweep her off her feet. She's flawed, imperfect and completely her own person -- traits that spoke to Erskine. 

"There were so many shades to her and on the page, she was so funny. That was so rare for me [to read] at the time," Erskine says of Alice. "To see someone who could be incredibly messy and ugly and beautiful at the same time, and also smart and dumb. There are so many juxtapositions. That's what a person is. You're not one thing always, and that was, I think, why I had to do it."

Written and directed by Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer (also graduates of NYU), the film doesn't pretend to shy away from the eventual romance that blossoms between Alice and Ben. After all, the discovery of that mutual attraction is what drives most romantic comedies. Instead, it allows its central characters to figure it out for themselves, however messy it gets, all the while rooting it in a strong friendship. 

"You got to see her be completely herself without trying to adjust or change herself to fit into some ideal of what she thinks this guy wants. In that way I felt I could relate to her with the way I am around my friends," Erskine says. "I can be gross. I sometimes swear like a sailor. They call me 'trash goblin' and so I started calling my character 'trash goblin.' I can be dumb sometimes, but I'm also smart. The thing I admire about Alice is how strong she is in her convictions of love and how she doesn't apologize. Once she knows what she wants, she goes for it. She's not someone who's affected by watching romantic comedies and thinking you need some idealized perfect romance. Every relationship has conflict and this relationship definitely has conflict, and what I related to the most was that that's OK."

The chemistry between Erskine, daughter of jazz musician Peter Erskine, and Quaid, 27, leapt off the page right from the get-go -- a rom-com prerequisite if a film is meant to succeed. What's astounding, though, is that there was no chemistry read between the two actors, who were cast separately, before production started. Instead, they bonded by taking part in a wizard-themed escape room somewhere in L.A. with Chan and Rhymer, followed by dinner at Boiling Crab where they "peeled shrimp together." "Instantly, I felt comfortable with him," Erskine says of Quaid, son of actors Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid. "We have weirdly parallel lives and he's such a warm, genuinely smart, funny, great guy."

Plus One

In 'Plus One,' Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid play two single college friends who make a pact to get through wedding season as each other's dates.

RLJE Films

Two weeks of rehearsal proved invaluable for the pair, who forged a real friendship and developed inside jokes during that time, which Erskine says were reflected onscreen "with our real dynamics." Adds Quaid, "This movie, if anything, taught me the value of rehearsal. For the first week, we were just running through improvised scenarios as these characters and that really helped us figure out what our dynamic was. By the time we set foot on set, we could just say the words and the dynamics were already there."

When Alice and Ben give each other crap in Plus One -- sometimes in good fun, sometimes not -- it's not emblematic of Erskine and Quaid's real-life relationship, however real it may feel. "When it's just the two of us, we're not at all like Alice and Ben. We do not squabble like that. At all," Quaid says. "It's a pretty chill, relaxed time when we're not in character. We're never debating things as intensely as Alice and Ben do. It's respectful. We're friends but in the best sense of it."

Erskine is just entering the time in her life when friends and loved ones are getting married one after the other, a reality her character, Alice, muddles through in Plus One. And she has thoughts on the hoopla often surrounding wedding ceremonies. "Friends are starting to get married and I'm understanding now how serious it is for some people. I almost didn't go to a friend's wedding because of work and I didn't realize that it was a big deal, so I had to take that back and go to the wedding," she shares. "It's such an odd [thing]. It feels like a Broadway show. It varies obviously; some people have very simple weddings. But you've got a stage manager, essentially, with a headset, directing all these people. They're getting their hair and makeup done. The music plays. The entrance. Costume changes. It's a whole event." 

For Erskine, projects like PEN15 and Plus One are symbolic of her mission to knock down the proverbial glass ceiling in Hollywood. "No one in their right mind would ever let me play a 13-year-old. Only we could let ourselves do that," Erskine says of the former. "I do think about that sometimes. Like, 'Oh damn, I got away with murder here.' I got to play a 13-year-old and I'm in my 30s! It just inspires me to keep doing that more."

"When I went to theater school -- and I was in experimental theater -- I naively thought that in film and TV, I was going to get to play King Henry VIII and I could play Gollum [from Lord of the Rings] if I wanted. I could play an old woman. There was no limit in my mind. Then, you come back to L.A. and you're hit with the reality that it's like, 'I'm going to play Waitress No. 2 with three lines. I guess that's all I can play.' Taking it into your own hands is one of the ways to be an actor."

Plus One is available on VOD, Digital HD and in theaters on Friday, June 14. The first season of PEN15is streaming now on Hulu.

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