Featured Image: Anna Kone (Anna Konkle), Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine), and Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), shown. (Photo by: Lara Solanki/Hulu)
There are few great equalizers in America. Especially in the politically fraught world we currently live in, there aren’t many experiences shared between people of all ages, social classes, and ethnic backgrounds. However, if there’s one thing that pretty much everyone over the age of eleven can agree on, it’s that middle school sucks.
Even the idea of it sounds scary. Seventh graders are starting to feel all of the quote-unquote “real” feelings all at once, with no warning or practice in dealing with them. They lash out, break down, connect in strange ways, and obsess over the minutiae of everyday life. Inside every twelve-year-old is a tidal wave of emotion, and to multiply that by two dozen and pack all of that angst into a tiny room for hours on end with only one teacher expected to keep it all together? That’s a recipe for more potently bone-chilling terror than a Stephen King book.
PEN15, the Lonely Island-produced cringe comedy, understands the inherent horrors of middle school. The Hulu series’ last season and a half has explored nascent sexuality, drugs, romance, and failing marriages, all through the eyes of the least cool girls in seventh grade. The main conceit of the series is simple yet uniquely hilarious: Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, both creators and writers in their thirties, play fictionalized versions of their thirteen-year-old selves. The two best friends navigate every crush and lunchroom fiasco with metal-filled smiles, surrounded by a cast of actual tweens and teens.
One of the teens that brings a special amount of drama in the first half of PEN15’s second season is Maura, an overly eager girl with not a lot of friends but plans to make some. Anna and Maya’s pair becomes a trio, and the friend group suffers some serious growing pains along the way.
TV Wasteland had the pleasure of sitting down with actress Ashlee Grubbs, who portrays Maura, to discuss toxic friendships, the realities of middle school, and why all teens should be watching PEN15.
As a child, Grubbs always loved to play pretend, and she got into acting because she figured that was the same thing, “and lo and behold, I was right.” She began doing theater in her early elementary school years, and it was her exploration of the stage in her formative years that really made her fall in love with acting. “For instance, I did a number of plays with this man named Troy Heard.” Ashlee described Heard’s plays as “off-kilter and kind of gritty or spooky at times,” which are all terms that would definitely describe Titus Andronicus Jr., her main collaboration with the director.
If you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s original Titus Andronicus, you’ll know that it’s a strange production to adapt for children with its graphic depictions of bloody revenge. Heard’s adaptation goes on a bit of a meta route, shifting the focus to a recently divorced theater teacher who decides to put on a production of Andronicus with his elementary school class. “It’s kind of a black comedy, and the teacher spirals into insanity as the play goes on.” While the show’s violent nature would seem to be a lot for many children to handle, Ashlee found the production to be a lot of fun, specifically recalling the mint-flavored fake blood. “I tend to really like off-kilter weird things now, and I think that happy memory might be part of why that is.”
Grubbs’ journey with PEN15 actually began years before season two’s production even began. She had auditioned for a role in the first season and wasn’t cast, but having obviously impressed the producers, she was contacted by them and specifically invited to audition for the part of Maura. To prepare for the chemistry read, “I actually watched PEN15… but it’s rated R, so I hadn’t watched it beforehand.” While she did admit to being made uncomfortable by a couple episodes (as is the show’s intention), she absolutely loved it. “I got to do a chemistry read with Maya, and right off the bat, her energy was just so perfect, and it was great to bounce off of her.” When she was told that she had gotten the part, she was “in a state of utter shock… I still kind of am.”
After doing so much theater, “I’ve been used to being the baby of the cast for a really long time, so I’m really used to working with adults. As a matter of fact, it was almost more of a surprise to be working with other kids.” Grubbs had nothing but praise for Erskine and Konkle’s acting abilities, highlighting how the whole process was made even easier because “they portray thirteen-year-olds so well that I often forgot they were adults completely. They straight up felt like my friends from school.” She even admitted to slipping up and swearing out of character on set once because of how naturally comfortable she became around her two co-stars. “And hey, Maura’s quite the trash mouth, so I was kind of in the potty mouth mode.”
And it’s true, Maura’s more wild-child antics end up getting Maya and Anna into some serious trouble as her influence on them begins to grow. However, like with all children, those actions aren’t without explanation, and diving into such a complex mindset can’t be easy for any actor, but Ashlee was able to draw from her own memories to build upon Maura’s scenes. “I was never a Maura. I knew a lot of Mauras… Growing up, I’ve always been super super friendly, and unfortunately sometimes that can get you into a lot of toxic friendships because if you’re always ready to make friends with anyone you meet, chances are you’re going to meet some friends who really don’t quite know how to carry a friendship properly.” She was able to identify the kind of person Maura was, and knowing the way those kinds of people had made her feel in the past, she was able to tap into those scenes on a much deeper level.
Anna and Maya, while not without their arguments and fights, have a really special bond and know how to sustain that relationship. Maura has never had that. “Being in a toxic friendship is incredibly lonely, and you don’t know why, because you feel like they’re your friends, but something’s wrong.” Maura hasn’t really found her own self yet, because she has this idea that “she can’t be herself because nobody’s going to like her for herself.” Her kitchen and closet are always stocked with the most popular snacks and the hottest new clothes because of this belief that people will like the front she’s putting on more than the person she actually is. “That kind of spirals into her being very very desperate for connection, to the point that she’ll try absolutely anything to keep friends, and unfortunately that makes her play all of these mind games.” You can’t trust anything she says, and you’re never quite sure how she’s going to react to anything you do or say. Grubbs thought it was so fun to portray her because even while reading the script, “Maura scared me.” Viewers being scared of her as well just tells Ashlee that she’s doing something right. “It is a plus that I really like creeping people out.”
“PEN15 just portrayed what toxic friendships are like so perfectly… I got to look at it from the other side. I realized that there’s a lot of similarities between the manipulator and the person being manipulated.”
One of Ashlee’s favorite days on set came with the sleepover episode. Fans will recall a drawn-out awkward scene where Maya emerges from a duffle bag in an attempt to be funny (that doesn’t land at all with the other girls). However, even though the characters were supposed to find it weird, “there were quite a few takes where we all just died laughing.” Maya’s emergence interrupted a conversation between Maura and some other friends, and to add an extra layer of comedy to the scene, Konkle asked Grubbs to make the background conversation about something very weird. “Something that is very ironic about me playing Maura is that I used to be terrified of Bloody Mary.” She recalled her childhood being petrified of the supernatural story (one that would play a larger part later in the episode), so she decided that Maura would tell the tale to Becca during Maya’s big moment. “I really liked that, because it was kind of an insight into the real Maura without all of the layers she’s put up. She’s kind of this weird kid who wants a friend (and also loves messing with people).” At the end of the day, no matter how misguided she is in her attempts, she really does want a good friendship and connection that she can rely on.
Ashlee also got the opportunity to examine the set of Maura’s room before filming her scenes there, and that also gave even more insights into the character and the world she inhabited when she was alone. All of the details, down to the stickers and trophies (and especially the porcelain dolls), were able to tell her so much about who Maura was, and she gives all of the credit for that to the production team. “The artistic design on the sets is absolutely amazing. I am in love with the attention to detail that these sets have.” Physically putting herself into Maura’s personal space was almost like the final brick in bridging her character’s mind to her own. “It was really really interesting and kind of surreal, since I was almost getting vivid memories that were Maura’s, not mine.”
While it may seem strange that projects about the year 2000 can now be considered period pieces, there were many time-specific things that many viewers wouldn’t even notice but would become essential to preserving the integrity of the setting. There was one scene where Ashlee improvised a “Yas queen!” before being reminded that that wasn’t something teenagers said back then. Grubbs loved the costume design, highlighting how the costume designer Melissa Walker showcased the fashion of the time, even in such character-specific ways. “Maura is always mismatching different brands in a way that isn’t always quite fashionable. But she’s wearing all of the cool brands,” just trying to show off. Though Ashlee did jokingly admit that she “wouldn’t be caught dead” in most of the things her character wore (she respects all of the fits but emphasized that they are not her style). The only exception was the shoes, a vintage kind of Skechers that she did get for herself after filming ended.
“This show hits the head on what being an adolescent is like.” Grubbs found that there was something to relate to in nearly every character, including Anna’s people-pleasing tendencies and Gina’s ambivertedness, just proving the accuracy of the show’s writing in representing realistic and layered teens. “Everything just feels so much bigger and so much more horrible than it is… With being a teenager, you’re in this really awkward state between being a child and an adult, where nobody wants to deal with you because you’re grumpy and hormonal. But also you’re just a kid, and you don’t really know anything.”
There’s been a lot of discourse on whether or not PEN15 is appropriate for actual middle schoolers. On one hand, it’s an extremely relatable look at middle school life, but the content is also very R-rated. Should young teens be watching this show? To Grubbs, the answer is unequivocally yes. While she acknowledges that many of the conversations in the show are explicit, she recognizes that “we hear it all already… It’s not like we don’t know. It’s not like we’re not aware of these things. We deal with it every day. What do people think they’re hiding from us?”
However, Ashlee thinks that the most basic reason middle schoolers should be watching PEN15 is that it humanizes and validates everything that they’re going through. “It’s an odd place, and everybody who’s a teenager is at some point scared, sad, or angry.” There’s often a lack of understanding for the difficulty of that age, but the writers of the series have laid out this show to say: “Hey. I get it… We all did embarrassing things. We all made mistakes as teenagers, and it doesn’t make you a bad person.” Grubbs thinks that PEN15 can simply make every young person feel less alone.
If Grubbs has one big piece of advice for other young actors hoping to break big in the industry, it’s to prepare for rejection. “It’s just part of the process,” so try not to overthink anything. If you forget about it as soon as you walk out of the room, the call that you booked the part will be a pleasant surprise. Instead of thinking about how to show the camera everything you’re feeling, really put yourself in the mind of that character, especially in examining their motivation, and that emotion will shine through in a natural way.
In the near future, she will be starring in a short vampire horror film called Symphony of Screams, which will soon be making a festival run. In the long run, she would love to play even more twisted and spooky roles, especially in the theater world (as soon as it’s safe for that medium to return). Ashlee had filmed her episodes before COVID-19 shut down television production across the world, and as the second half of PEN15 season two waits for a safe way to return for its next batch of episodes, Maura’s return is left unclear. However, we cannot wait for Grubbs to hopefully continue her role in future episodes, in whatever capacity that may be.
The first half of PEN15 season two is available to stream exclusively on Hulu now.