Maya Erskine is quickly learning that simply starring in a summer rom-com means that people will unload their wedding nightmares on you at every turn. She’s talked about embarrassing toasts and cringeworthy vows plenty while promoting her Tribeca darling, Plus One, which signs her and co-star Jack Quaid up for a dozen or so happy nuptials during that dreaded season of love as they make a pact to be each other’s dates for all of them. Erskine plays Alice, an openly brash, side-splittingly funny woman disillusioned with love. Her best friend, Ben (Quaid), on the other hand, attends every ceremony with the hope of finding the ever elusive “one.”
You can probably predict where they end up, but you won’t be able to map out how they get there — it involves frank discussions about the relationship between cuddling and involuntary boners plus some painful-looking graveyard sex. Erskine is so used to chatting about weddings that she doesn’t mind listening to me rehash a particularly traumatic personal story – a maid of honor speech fueled by edibles and too much tequila that earned nowhere near the number of laughs her film, which lands June 14, will. She’s also up for sharing mortifying stories of her own, as she’s proven with her breakout show on Hulu, PEN15, in which Erskine plays a 13-year-old version of herself in a semi-autobiographical turn. She is, like her best characters, unapologetically and hilariously real. We spoke with her about reshaping the rom-com for Asian heroines and the second season of her hit comedy series.
Have you suffered through a wedding season as Alice does in Plus One yet?
It’s just starting for me. I feel lucky, but I also was jealous of all my friends who were going to these weddings. I’m sure I’ll eat my words in a bit, but I love the idea of being a plus one. I romanticized it. I thought it would just be so fun. I didn’t realize the amount of money that you’re spending, the amount of time that you’re spending, the energy. It’s absolutely insane.
Are you more cynical about the idea of marriage, like Alice is, or are you a romantic?
[Growing up] I was watching Disney movies, I was watching romantic comedies, so, of course, that is what fed my brain of what a relationship looked like. I think, now, I’m more like Alice in the sense that, I understand that relationships are two separate people coming together. They have two different perspectives, two different backgrounds, baggage — there’s no way that you’re going to find your perfect harmonious soulmate. You’re going to find someone that you really love spending time with and that you love and respect, but you’re going to have conflict. That’s what I love about this movie is that these two characters, you get to meet them as people, not as a relationship. You get to meet them as two separate people and then you see them fall in love.
Alice is a bit of a mess, but totally relatable, which not many rom-com leading ladies are. Was it a big deal for you to play a character like this?
The romantic comedies you see, if they’re described as messy, it’s because they’re clumsy but it’s cute, you know? And it’s always in some male gaze view of being attractive. I mean, she doesn’t fart, you know? She just trips, but she looks cute when she falls. It’s like, dude, I fart sometimes, and I’m also going to swear like a sailor, but I’m still lovable. That’s what was so lovely about Alice is that she was a bunch of contradictions and that’s what people are. She was the funniest character I’ve ever read in a script I got the chance to audition for. That says so much about where we are as a society, but I couldn’t believe that this was a female character. I was like, “Are you sure this is right? Was this a mistake?” Because she was incredibly outspoken, and funny, and dumb sometimes, but then also really smart.
You definitely don’t see many Asian heroines in movies like this either.
I never thought I’d get that opportunity, because I didn’t see that growing up, and I think what was brave was that it wasn’t written for an Asian character, it was just a woman. So, me playing it, I wasn’t fitting into some box of what an Asian woman would be in a romantic comedy. It was important to me because a lot of the characters I’ve auditioned for would fall into a box of what an Asian female looks like. It’s either going to be a smart nerd, or a dry, sardonic, witty bitch. You don’t get to see the many shades that the person is, which is damaging. That’s why I’m passionate about this, and why I want it to be seen because you’re getting to see an Asian female be a person. Like a full person. That is really rare.
You’ve done some embarrassing scenes on PEN15, but this might be the first time I’ve watched a rom-com where the couple has sex in a cemetery. Was that a real graveyard?
Unfortunately. I mean, how do you not get creeped out? It was awful. I felt so ashamed. I was like, “I’m so sorry sir. I don’t mean to be doing this by your gravesite.” But it did happen to one of the directors. I’m not going to name which one. That’s what I loved about the sex scene though because it didn’t have to be sexy.
Hulu’s picked up PEN15 for a second season. What’s the plan for Maya and Anna?
Middle school stories are endless. Talk to any friend, they all have a million stories. Some are the same, and then some are just, like, “What did you do when you were that age? That’s absolutely batshit.” I want the show to constantly keep growing and not just stay in the same place, even though the characters are going to be in seventh grade the whole time. That’s what we’re thinking for now at least. They will evolve as people though. The end of season one, their innocence is lost a bit, like they smoke that cigarette together at the end. To me, that’s like this beautifully sad moment where you’re seeing these two kids start to grow up. Anna just witnessed her parents divorcing, and you’re cracking a lot of your childhood dreams in that moment, and Maya has gotten her period and that has changed her in significant ways. So, we’re going to pick up where we left off, most likely. We’re going to see them go into other groups and explore different identities.
Do you think this time around you won’t be intimidated by the real-life teens you work with on the show?
I don’t think I’ll feel as intimidated, hopefully. But if we get new kid actors, I’m always going to be like, “Do they like me?” You revert instantly back to being thirteen when you’re around them. Even as the boss on the show, I’m still like, “But, I’m good, right? Like, I’m cool?”
Your mom plays Yuki, your mom on the show. What’s it like filming some of the more awkward scenes with her there?
I’m very close with my mom and I’m an oversharer, but when we were filming that, I kept telling her, “This is obviously not real, mom. Like, this didn’t happen, we’re just doing this for the comedy.” But, yeah, we want to explore the other characters more, maybe have a standalone Yuki and a standalone Kathy episode to see things from their perspective. I struggled a lot with my mom. I went through a bratty phase and I want to know what her perspective was at that time. What she was going through and how emotional she might have felt.
‘Plus One’ arrives in limited theaters and on-demand on June 14.