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Return To Middle School In 'PEN15': Creators Say 'It's All About Survival'

"There's not a lot of heroic acts in middle school," Maya Erskine said in this 2019 interview. She and Anna Konkle play 13-year-old versions of themselves in the comedy series PEN15, now in season 2.


Other segments from the episode on September 11, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 11, 2020: Interview with Donald Ray Pollock; Interview with Maya Erskine & Anna Konkle; Review of film 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Today's first guest is author Donald Ray Pollock whose novel "The Devil All The Time" has just been made into a new Netflix movie premiering next Wednesday. It stars Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson, and here's a taste. In this clip, a young boy has just watched his father pulverize two guys after they made lewd comments about the father's wife, the son's mother. Afterward, the father gives his son some advice.


BILL SKARSGARD: (As Willard Russell) Now you remember what I told you about them boys on the bus that gave you the black eye. That's what I meant. You just got to pick the right time.

MICHAEL BANKS REPETA: (As Arvin Russell) Yes, sir.

SKARSGARD: (As Willard Russell) There's a lot of no-good sons of bitches out there.

BANKS REPETA: (As Arvin Russell) More than a hundred?

SKARSGARD: (As Willard Russell) (Laughter) Yeah, at least that many. How about I buy you a candy bar, huh?


BIANCULLI: In both the movie and the novel, the characters in "The Devil All The Time" are driven to extremes, whether they're fathers and sons, serial killers or preachers. The story begins in the small town of Knockemstiff, a real place in southern Ohio where Donald Ray Pollock grew up. He didn't become a writer until he put in over 30 years at the local paper mill and got sober. But once he did start writing, he was noticed quickly, receiving both awards and critical acclaim. Terry Gross spoke to Donald Ray Pollock in 2011, when "The Devil All The Time" was first published.


TERRY GROSS: Donald Ray Pollock, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a reading from your new book "The Devil All The Time." It's about the second paragraph from the prologue. So would you just set it up for us?

DONALD RAY POLLOCK: Well, what we have here is a young boy. His name is Arvin Eugene Russell. And he's following behind his father, Willard. And they're in a place called Knockemstiff. And they're going to Willard's prayer log. He has a log in the woods where he, you know, wants to communicate with God. And so this is where they are. It's, you know, early in the morning, and they're - have finally reached this log.

(Reading) Willard eased himself down on the high side of the log and motioned for his son to kneel beside him in the dead, soggy leaves. Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn't know which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the devil all the time. Arvin shivered a little with the damp, pulled his coat tighter. He wished he were still in bed. Even school with all its miseries was better than this. But it was a Saturday, and there was no way to get around it.

Through the mostly bare trees beyond the cross, Arvin could see wisps of smoke rising from a few chimneys half a mile away. Four hundred or so people lived in Knockemstiff in 1957, nearly all of them connected by blood through one Godforsaken calamity or another, be it lust or necessity or just plain ignorance. Along with the tar-papered shacks and cinder block houses, the holler included two general stores and a Church of Christ in Christian Union and a joint known throughout the township as the Bull Pen.

Three days before, he'd come home with another black eye. I don't condone no fighting just for the hell of it, but sometimes you're just too easygoing, Willard had told him that evening. Them boys might be bigger than you, but the next time one of them starts his stuff, I want you to finish it.

Willard was standing on the porch changing out of his work clothes. He handed Arvin the brown pants, stiff with dried blood and grease. He worked in a slaughterhouse in Greenfield, and that day, 1,600 hogs had been butchered, a new record for R.J. Carroll Meatpacking. Though the boy didn't know yet what he wanted to do when he grew up, he was pretty sure he didn't want to kill pigs for a living.

GROSS: That's Donald Ray Pollock reading from his new novel "The Devil All The Time."

You know, in the reading that you did, the father tells the son that the next time somebody beats him up, the son has to fight back. And that seems to be a recurring theme. Like, in the opening story of your collection of short stories - the collection is called "Knockemstiff" - the opening sentence reads, (reading) my father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-In when I was 7 years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at.

You certainly seem interested in the idea of a father kind of indoctrinating a son on the need to fight back and then egging him on to do it, even when it's inappropriate. So is this a story that played out in your life?

POLLOCK: Well, not so much in my life - I mean, as far as - I don't - my dad really didn't push me to fight or anything like that. But you know, when I was growing up, my father and I had a very uneasy relationship. You've got to understand - my dad was born in 1930. He's still alive, you know. He's 80 years old, and he's still kicking. But he was born in 1930, grew up in the Depression. He went to the eighth grade. He was working on the railroad by the time he was 16. And you know, then he was in the Navy. And my dad is a very tough, hard man - very strong man.

And in contrast to that, my mother is this very shy, kind, small-boned woman. And either fortunately or unfortunately for me, I took after my mother. And I believe, when I was a kid, my dad was maybe disappointed in me for not taking after him more. So you know, that's where I guess part of that comes from. And part of it also comes from, you know, I was - lived in Knockemstiff. That's where I grew up. And I saw a lot of other fathers who were, you know, drinkers and hell-raisers, and they didn't treat their families very well. You know, maybe they went and worked for a while until they got enough money to, you know, go on another binge or whatever and pretty much left the family to take care of themselves. So yeah, fathers have a pretty rough time in my work.


POLLOCK: I just - you know, it's just - you know, I'm a father. You know, I have a daughter who's about 30 years old now. And I have always felt that I wasn't as good as I could have been. Her mother and I were divorced when she was very young. She was, like, a year old. And I wasn't around her that much, and that's probably, you now, the best explanation I can give for why I treat fathers like I do in my work.

GROSS: Were you bullied in school? You said you took after your mother, who wouldn't hurt a fly. So...


GROSS: And if you were bullied, would you fight back? Did you know how to?

POLLOCK: Actually, I wasn't bullied in school. I never really had any problems with that. And yeah, I mean, I would fight back if I had to. But that situation, you know, didn't come about very much - probably, you know, just no more than any other normal kid, you know, might face that sort of thing. But yeah, I mean, I wasn't really interested in working on cars or farming or anything like that. I was more of a - I won't call myself a bookworm because we really didn't have that many books. But you know, I liked to read and watch old movies and draw and stuff like that.

And my dad just, you know, he's a very man. I mean, even today, you know, his idea of success is owning your own farm or starting your own business or something like that. And I know that he probably looks on what I'm doing now as a pretty useless way to spend your life - you know, trying to write books.

GROSS: Would you describe what the town of Knockemstiff was like when you were growing up?

POLLOCK: Well, when I was growing up there, it was, you know...

GROSS: First locate it for us.

POLLOCK: OK. Well, Knockemstiff is about 13 miles west of Chillicothe, Ohio, which is, you know, southern Ohio. It was its own little place, you know? There wasn't much else around there, but it was a community. There were three small general stores and a bar and a church and probably 450, 500 people. You know, I probably was related to at least half those people.

GROSS: So did you find this nurturing being in a town where half the people in it were related to you or incredibly claustrophobic?

POLLOCK: I think when I was a kid - when I was a kid, it was claustrophobic for me. You know, I was one of those kids - I was always unsatisfied. I always wanted to be somebody else and somewhere else. And so from a very early age, you know, I was thinking about escaping from the holler. I just thought that I'd rather be somewhere else.

GROSS: Well, you are somewhere else, but where you are is in Chillicothe, which is...

POLLOCK: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...About 13 miles away. So, like, you got out, but you didn't go very far.

POLLOCK: I really didn't get out. I mean, that's the weird contradiction to that whole thing. You know, I wanted to escape. And then when I finally got my chance or whatever, I chose to stay. I'm out at Knockemstiff at least once a week even today.

GROSS: Doing what? Are your parents still there?

POLLOCK: I go to visit my parents, yeah. They're both still alive. You know, I have a brother and two sisters, and they all live fairly close to there. And so I think, though, as far as escape goes, what happened with me was I quit high school when I was 17, and I went to work in a meatpacking plant, much like Willard worked in. And then when I was 18, I moved to Florida. You know, that was going to be - I was going to get away, you know, by moving to Florida. And I was down here working a job in a nursery, and I wasn't making much money or anything. And I'd only been there a few months, and my dad called and said, hey, I can get you a job with the paper mill if you come back up here. So I chose to come back. You know, the paper mill was calling. It was, you know, union job and great benefits. And I knew, you know, for a high school dropout, that was probably going to be the best job I ever got.

GROSS: You had that job for a long time. How many years did you work at the paper mill?

POLLOCK: I was there 32 years.

GROSS: And you didn't start writing until you were around 50? Or is that - is 50...

POLLOCK: Well, I'm 56 now. And I started writing when I was 45.

GROSS: OK. So how come it took so long? Did you know - when you weren't writing, did you know that you had that in you?

POLLOCK: Well, you know, I'd always been a big reader, as I said. And I loved books. And I think maybe in the back of my mind, you know, I always thought writing would be a great way to get by in the world. And, you know, of course I was very naive about it. The principal reasons for me, you know, as far as being a writer were, one, you were your own boss. Two, you could do it anywhere. And three, you made lots of money.



POLLOCK: And so it wasn't until I actually began writing that I found out that that wasn't really true. But I think, you know, I was sort of, like, maybe a fantasy that, you know, was in the back of my mind for a long time. I had a problem with drinking and - for a number of years. And, you know, it was one of those fantasies that, you know, when you got half-loaded and, you know, you started daydreaming or whatever, it was one of those things that you thought about - or I thought about. But it wasn't really - you know, I went to school when I was in my 30s. I went to college. I went to Ohio University, and I ended up with a degree in English. And, you know, even while I was there, though, I wasn't thinking about being a writer. I never took any writing workshops or anything like that.

But then finally, when I was 45, my dad retired from the paper mill. And there was just something about watching him retire and go home. And, you know, that was, you know, pretty much the end of his career. And it really bothered me, and I just decided I had to try something else, you know, some other way to spend the rest of my life.

BIANCULLI: Author Donald Ray Pollock speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with author Donald Ray Pollock. His novel, "The Devil All The Time," has been adapted into a movie that starts streaming next week on Netflix.


GROSS: So when you decided you wanted to learn how to write, what did that mean?

POLLOCK: You know, I didn't know any writers or anything. And for a while, I just sort of scribbled and struggled. And then I read an interview with a writer, and I can't recall her name now. I know it was a lady. But she talked about typing out other people's stories as a means of maybe getting closer to them or just learning how to put a story together. And so I started doing that.

GROSS: Whose stories did you type out?

POLLOCK: I typed out a lot of different stories I was typing out a story at least once a week. And that went on for about a year and a half. So John Cheever, Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Yates, Denis Johnson - you know, the list just goes on and on. If it was a story that I really liked and it wasn't overly long, I'd type it out. And then I'd carry it around with me for a week and, you know, look it over and, you know, jot notes on it and stuff like that. And then I'd throw it away and do another one. Typing a story out just was a much better way for me to see how, you know, a person puts dialogue together or, you know, moves from one scene to the next, that sort of thing.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to find your subject matter as a writer?

POLLOCK: Well, when I first started trying to learn how to write, you know, as I said, like, maybe I would copy out a John Cheever story. So then I would try to write my own story about some East Coast suburbanite, you know, having an affair or something like that. Or maybe I'd write about a - you know, I'd read a Andre Dubus story, and then I'd write about a Catholic priest. And so I did that for maybe two years or so, and it just wasn't working at all for me.

And then finally, maybe at about two and a half years, I wrote a story that's included in the book "Knockemstiff" called "Bactine." And it's a very short story, and it's about these two losers sitting in a donut shop. And that was the first thing that I had written that I thought wasn't too bad. And so then I increasingly just started focusing on, you know, the people that I knew about instead of nurses, lawyers, that sort of thing, that I had absolutely no idea how to write about.

GROSS: There's a passage in your new novel that's about a bus driver, and the bus driver's father had once gotten a certificate from the railroad for not missing a single day of work in 20 years. And the bus driver's mother always held this up as like what you could do if you really, you know, were a striver and tried to accomplish something. And when the bus driver's father died, the bus driver hoped that that certificate would be buried with his father so he didn't have to look at it anymore. But instead, his mother just, like, put it on the wall to display it in the living room.


GROSS: And then the bus driver thinks, it wore on you after a while, other people's accomplishments.



GROSS: I love that sentence. Did you ever feel that way? I mean, and the acknowledgment here seems so relatively small. Like, a good attendance record, not to knock that, but for that to be like, you know, the zenith of somebody's life is...


GROSS: Yeah. But did you feel that way, that it wore on you, other people's accomplishments?

POLLOCK: I don't think that I paid so much attention to other people's successes or whatever, but I know that I was aware. You know, by the time I was 32 or so and I'd been working at the mill for about 14 years, and I knew that all the guys that I had come in with, you know, got hired about the same time as me or guys even much later than that, you know, they owned their own home, and maybe they owned a boat and they had two or three vehicles and they were married and had kids and on and on and on.

You know, in contrast to them, I'd been divorced twice, I'd filed bankruptcy. When I got sober, I was living in this little, very small apartment above this garage. It was about the size of a motel room, and I'd been living there for about four or five years. I owned a black-and-white TV that my sister had given me, and I had this old '76 Chevy that had the whole side of it smashed in. And that was it. You know, for 14 years of working there, that's what I had.

And so, you know, there was that sense, I guess, of me just being a failure. It wasn't really that - I wasn't jealous of those people or anything like that. I mean, I had enough sense to know that, you know, where I'd ended up was my own fault. But there was always that idea in the back of my head that I could've done more. You know, I could have maybe went to college or something. You know, I'm sure, you know, if I'd wanted to go to school when I was 18, my dad would have tried to help me. And, you know, that's not the route that I chose, though.

GROSS: How has your life changed now as a published writer? You have a collection of short stories. You have a new novel. You got a $35,000 cash prize, the PEN/Robert Bingham Award.

POLLOCK: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: So, like, what's different about your life?

POLLOCK: Well, I have a lot more time to just sit on the porch and, you know, smoke and...

GROSS: Daydream and think it's a legitimate part of your work?

POLLOCK: Yeah, pretty much.

GROSS: (Laughter).

POLLOCK: Yeah. Well, at least that's what I tell my wife, anyway.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

POLLOCK: But my life hasn't really changed that much. I mean, I get a lot more e-mails now, you know, that sort of thing. But, you know, I still live in the same house. I still pretty much - you know, my daily routine is - I really can't say that it's changed that much. It's a good life. And I'm thrilled that, you know, I've got a publisher and, you know, had a least a little bit of success. You know, I know a lot of writers out there - a lot of writers out there - who are much better than I am and would probably give their left arm to be sitting, you know, where I'm sitting today.

GROSS: Well, Donald Ray Pollock, thank you so much for talking with us.

POLLOCK: Hey, Terry, I appreciate it. You've made my day.

BIANCULLI: Donald Ray Pollock speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. "The Devil All The Time," a new movie based on his novel of the same name, premieres next Wednesday on Netflix. After a break, we'll hear from Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the co-creators and co-stars of the comedy series "PEN15," which begins a new season next week on Hulu. And film critic Justin Chang reviews "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things," the new movie from writer-director Charlie Kaufman. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Last year, the Hulu streaming service premiered a very unusual, very daring and very funny comedy series. It was called "PEN15," was set at a middle school in the year 2000 and starred the show's creators, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. They play seventh graders who are navigating everything from romantic crushes and puberty to peer pressure and the general awkwardness of adolescence. A second season of "PEN15" begins next Friday on Hulu.

What makes the show so distinctive and often so intentionally uncomfortable is that Erskine and Konkle are in their early 30s, yet play young teen versions of themselves opposite young actors who are the age of their middle school characters. It's a tricky illusion to pull off, but "PEN15" does it with a surprising amount of tenderness and intimacy. Many of the stories in the series come from Erskine and Konkle's real tribulations in middle school.

A heads-up to parents - this interview includes a couple of brief, non-explicit mentions about how they dealt with those kinds of sexual situations when they were in their teens. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger last year when "PEN15" first premiered. 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 first boyfriend, Brendan. But it wasn't how she imagined it would be. Maya asks her about it.


MAYA ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) And then, like, were your lips close together when you guys were standing close together?

ANNA KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Yeah, they touched.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) They did? That's, like, romantic.

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) No, it wasn't. It literally wasn't at all.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Why?

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) He put his lips, like, all the way around mine...

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Ew.

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) ...And, like, sucked.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters, laughing).

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) It's not funny.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Wait. And then what? Was that it? Like, he just sucked?

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) 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 Ishii-Peters) Like, what was it like? What did he do with it?

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Like this.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Ew. Ew. Stop.

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Yeah. I can't. I wish I could.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) What did you do with your tongue? Did you do it back or did it just like...

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) It was pinned back like it was in trouble, you know?

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) That's crazy.

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) I know. It was awful.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) I'm sorry. Well, at least you've, like, had your first kiss, you know?

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) I wish that I hadn't.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Don't say that.

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) I really do. Everything's just different. I don't know. I just have to break up with him, so...

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) Really?

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) Yeah. He's not the Brendan that bought us snacks at the bowling alley, you know? He is like the Brendan that drilled the back of my throat with his tongue.

ERSKINE: (As Maya Ishii-Peters) So?

KONKLE: (As Anna Kone) It's up to you to get the next boyfriend.


SAM BRIGER: That's a scene from the Hulu show "PEN15" created and co-starring my guests, Maya Erkine and Anna Konkle. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

ERSKINE: Thanks.

KONKLE: Thank you.

ERSKINE: 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 in adulthood, but you have minds that are probably not ready to handle that yet. And you're having to cope with these more adult situations. And the thing that makes it so worse is that your emotions are just so intense. 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.

BRIGER: Right.

KONKLE: It's like, in real life, Anna - me - 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." So when the real version happened, which was just this weird tongue...


KONKLE: ...Like, just drilling me, 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.


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: Outright bullies, yeah.


KONKLE: 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. 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 till I graduated high school.

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 are 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. Oh, 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 I took that in as a kid and in my heart of, oh, no one likes me for me.

BRIGER: Well, you addressed 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? So...



BRIGER: 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 girls are 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 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 till 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 is so sweet.

KONKLE: No. I'm - don't make...

ERSKINE: Sorry (laughter).

KONKLE: Sorry (laughter). Yeah, it's not fair.

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 friend say, you're right. I don't know what it's like to be like you...

KONKLE: Right.

BRIGER: Right.

ERSKINE: ...And I'm sorry.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded last year with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, creators and stars of the comedy series "PEN15," which returns next Friday on Hulu. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded last year with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the creators and stars of the Hulu comedy series "PEN15," which returns with new episodes next Friday. In real life, Erskine and Konkle are in their early 30s. But in the show, they play middle school versions of themselves.


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 is a good and bad to it, you know?



ERSKINE: And I think for me, I was full of contradictions. I was incredibly insecure and then brazenly confident at moments...


ERSKINE: ...Delusionally so.

BRIGER: Let's talk about how you decided to actually play these characters yourselves. Like, why did you think that that 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 positions.

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.

ERSKINE: Exactly, yeah.

BRIGER: And it's even funny, like - Anna, like, you, like, tower over all of the seventh graders, too.


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.


KONKLE: It got very method because it starts, you know, scratching the inside of my mouth. And then, 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 in, you know, to the most pouchy, sausage way that it could go, which feels right.

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.

BRIGER: Right.

KONKLE: I was trying to hide it all the time.

ERSKINE: Yeah. And I think I was just so physically uncomfortable, like you were saying, because I had to wear a wig every day. And I had this retainer put in. We put mustache hairs and eyebrow hairs 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.

KONKLE: (Laughter) That's a whole other conversation.

ERSKINE: (Laughter) Yeah.

KONKLE: Let's go there.

ERSKINE: 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: 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 - 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, Anna Konkle, thanks so much for being here today.

KONKLE: Thank you for having us.

ERSKINE: Thank you so much.

BIANCULLI: Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the creators and stars of the Hulu comedy series "PEN15," spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger last year. Season 2 of "PEN15" begins next Friday.

After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie from writer-director Charlie Kaufman "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things." This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Five years after his animated feature "Anomalisa," the filmmaker Charlie Kaufman is having a busy year. In addition to publishing his first novel, "Antkind," he's written and directed a new, darkly comic thriller called "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things." It's now streaming on Netflix. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: One of the weirdest things about Charlie Kaufman's movies is how normal they can make weirdness seem. In his brilliantly deadpan scripts for "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," surfing your subconscious or someone else's feels like the most natural thing in the world. The two earlier movies he's directed, "Synecdoche, New York" and "Anomalisa," are just as conceptually out there, but they always start off feeling pretty grounded, tethered to mundane reality.

For all their twisted, dreamy logic, Kaufman's stories never veer too far from depressingly relatable subjects, like loneliness, failure and mortality. Those interior emotional states are very much at the melancholy heart of "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things," his third film as a director and a movie that you might fall in love with, as I did, or reject entirely, as many already have. It's based on a thriller by the Canadian novelist Iain Reid, which makes it Kaufman's first adaptation since, well, "Adaptation." And like that 2002 film, it's a reminder that he's incapable of tackling another writer's story in straightforward fashion.

It begins with a young couple played by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons driving through an Oklahoma blizzard. The boyfriend's name is Jake, but after a while, you realize you're not sure what the girlfriend's name is. It could be Lucy (ph) or Louisa (ph) or something else entirely. She's billed as the young woman in the credits. This seems odd at first, since she is the movie's narrator and appears to dominate the story's perspective. I say appears to because in a Charlie Kaufman movie, where false fronts and psychological switcharoos (ph) abound, you never really know.

As they drive through the wind and snow, the young woman carries on a lively conversation with herself. She's the one who's thinking of ending things, not in the suicidal sense, but in the we should break up sense. They're on their way to visit Jake's parents, which suggests that he's more committed to their relationship than she is. And whenever Jake opens his mouth, which is pretty often, we start to understand why. He's a moderately nicer version of the schlubby, socially maladroit artists and intellectuals that Kaufman has always liked putting front and center. Jake, in his quiet droning way, likes to dominate a conversation, which in this case means making elaborate references to William Wordsworth, Leo Tolstoy and the history of the Broadway musical.

Once they arrive at his family's farmhouse, Jake talks less and starts retreating into himself. That's around the time we meet his almost unclassifiably eccentric parents, played by David Thewlis and Toni Collette.


DAVID THEWLIS: (As Father) Here they come.

TONI COLLETTE: (As Mother) Oh (laughter).

THEWLIS: (As Father) Was the drive OK?

JESSE PLEMONS: (As Jake) Yeah, fine.

COLLETTE: (As Mother) So glad to meet you, Louisa. Jake has told us so much about you.

JESSIE BUCKLEY: (As Young Woman) Oh. He's told me so much about both of you, too.

COLLETTE: (As Mother) Oh. And you came anyway? (Laughter).

CHANG: The dinner table conversation that follows is one of the most bizarre sequences in a movie that consists almost entirely of bizarre sequences. Inconsistencies keep popping up in the dialogue, most of them having to do with Buckley's character. If her name is a mystery, so is her occupation. Is she a painter, a waitress or a quantum physicist? But it's not just the storylines that keeps shifting every few seconds. Pay attention to the clothes the characters are wearing and the color of their hair. Kaufman delights in planting little visual clues in the frame, forcing you to watch as well as listen closely. He uses tight shots and frequent close-ups that add to the sense of claustrophobia. And he nudges the story into almost, but not quite horror territory, complete with a weird dog and a creepy basement.

In the story's second half, our couple head back out into the blizzard and continue to talk up a storm of their own. The young woman has her own truckload of cultural references this time. There's a priceless bit in which she starts quoting whole chunks of Pauline Kael's review of the John Cassavetes classic, "A Woman Under The Influence." Maybe that's the kind of gag only a film critic could love or hate. But the more Kaufman's characters run their mouths, the more their back-and-forth seems to express something desperately sad about heterosexual relationships, specifically about some men's compulsion to control what women think and say.

Whether we need another movie that picks at the gnawing insecurities of the male ego is a fair question, but "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things" is too wildly inventive to be reduced to just another movie. There's so much going on beneath its restless surface, and so much of it is connected to the two lead performances. Buckley, so good in dramas like "Beast" and "Wild Rose," is astoundingly versatile here. She keeps adapting to the script's embellishments and nailing everyone. And Plemons, often casts for his flat, comically morose affect, finds aching depths in a character you want to dismiss but can't. Their relationship may not be long for this world, but as movie couples go, they're awfully hard to get out of your mind.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for the L.A. Times.

On Monday's show, we speak with novelist, playwright and actor Ayad Akhtar. His play "Disgraced" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2013. He grew up in the Midwest, the son of Pakistani immigrants. His new novel "Homeland Elegies" draws on elements of his own life and explores the experience of Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 world. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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