Maya Erskine Is About to Be Hollywood’s Biggest Comedy Star
How Maya Erskine survived Gwyneth Paltrow’s middle school, Amsterdam diarrhea, and Anthony Scaramucci on her way to Hollywood stardom with ‘PEN15’ and the new rom-com ‘Plus One.’
When Maya Erskine and I meet, we start talking about weddings.
Your Instagram and Facebook feeds likely already alerted you to the fact that last weekend marked the unofficial start to wedding season, a time in which people in their late twenties and early thirties spend every other weekend traveling the country and bankrupting themselves in the name of attending the nuptials of friends, family, and former college roommates.
“I’m 31 but something must be wrong with my group of friends because I haven’t gone through that whole process yet,” Erskine says, laughing. “I grew up in L.A. and with my friends it’s just now starting, so I’m starting to feel sympathetic to people who complained for years about how they can’t spend any more money on this.”
She remembers when one of her first close friends got married and she was supposed to work that weekend and had to miss it. In her mind, it wasn’t a big deal. It turns out that, to her friend, it was a massive deal. “People take it so seriously,” she says. “It’s also nice to go to a lot of weddings before you have yours. So you can go, I’m not doing that. I know what I want.”
“In my mind right now, I think I’ll just do it in my backyard,” she says of her own future hypothetical wedding plans. “But I’m sure when the day comes, I’ll be like, alright everyone, we’re going to Japan. I’ll be that asshole.”
Her empathy—or, in some cases, lack thereof—for the wedding season rigmarole is colored by her experience making the movie we’re meeting to talk about.
The night before we meet for coffee at The Standard, High Line, she celebrated the premiere of Plus One at the Tribeca Film Festival. In the simultaneously sweet and tart romantic comedy, she plays Alice, a recently single girl who makes a pact with her bachelor best friend to attend every wedding each has together for the entire season—10 in total.
Structured around out-of-context moments from each of the weddings—awkward speeches, drunken post-reception shuttle rides back to the hotel—the film exposes the ridiculousness of the wedding pomp and circumstance. But it finds its beating heart in the chemistry between Alice and Ben, played by Jack Quaid, who fall in love over the course of the summer in spite of it all.
The movie is a major showcase for Erskine, whose penchant for broad, ribald comedy is complemented here with a vulnerability and heartbreaking desire to feel loved and valued. Think Reese Witherspoon by way of Anna Faris.
Its Tribeca Film Festival debut comes just two months after Erskine scored rave notices for her work in the Hulu comedy PEN15, which she co-created and co-starred in, and one month before she’ll appear alongside Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Maya Rudolph in Netflix’s hotly anticipated Wine Country. Plus One will be released officially on June 14.
As a half-Japanese actress who grew up watching When Harry Met Sally on repeat and dreaming to one day be in a romantic comedy, but acutely aware that the genre never put girls who looked like her in the Cinderella slippers, the significance of her first leading role in a movie being the protagonist of a rom-com isn’t lost on Erskine.
After the premiere screening of Plus One ended on Sunday night, she burst into tears in the car back to the hotel with her mom.
“This was something that I couldn’t have dreamed possible as a kid,” she says. “As a kid, I didn’t see myself reflected back to me, so I didn’t see this as a possibility. So if this movie makes it out there and other people see it, I do hope that a young girl who is like me can look at it and be like, ‘Oh, I can be that woman.’”
Erskine grew up in Los Angeles. Her father, Peter Erskine, was a jazz drummer (Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan are among the artists he played with). Her mother, who was born just outside of Tokyo, would eventually make her own acting debut playing the mother of Maya’s character on PEN15.
She attended middle school at the notorious Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, which counts Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson as alumni. It’s the kind of school where her brother came home one day reporting that a fist fight had broken out between two boys arguing over their fathers’ respective box-office returns. (It turns out that Erskine’s Plus One co-star Jack Quaid, who is the son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, also went to Crossroads.)
Struggling to fit in amongst her Hollywood classmates, Erskine was drawn to theater. She’d eventually attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she’d have her most formative experience while studying abroad at an experimental theater program in Amsterdam: meeting Anna Konkle.
The two became fast friends after bonding over anxiety and... IBS. Before an assignment that required them to perform in the style of Bertolt Brecht, they encountered each other in the bathroom, nervous and suffering from respective cases of diarrhea. The rest is history.
When they returned to New York, the now-best friends tried to pursue theater opportunities, with Erskine eventually moving back to Los Angeles when a career on the boards never took off. She landed an agent after impressing in an all-Asian production of Crimes of the Heart. Soon, Konkle would join her in California.
The idea for PEN15 was born after the two attended a party with Erskine’s former Crossroads classmates and felt as insecure as they did back in middle school. It would take six years to develop before the men of Lonely Island—Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone—attached their production company to it. Eventually, Hulu came on board.
The gimmick was that the two actresses, both now 31, would play themselves as middle schoolers, surrounded by a cast in which everyone else was actually 13 years old. The result was hilarious, but also startlingly poignant. It ranks among the best-reviewed new comedies of the year.
Erskine’s screen presence is undeniable. Her comedic timing is borderline confrontational, a conflagration of such high-octane emotions that it’s almost as if her punchlines invade your personal space, making you squirm with discomfort but also laugh in the relief of being drawn out of your own shell. She’s able to use that same skill to tap into a well of emotions that, in the more serious scenes, showcases her to be a gifted dramatic actress in addition to a scene-stealing comedienne.
The combination, especially as on display in leading roles in PEN15 and Plus One, makes her characters refreshingly familiar and recognizable.
After she and Konkle made PEN15, they received a near-constant deluge of messages from girls who felt seen and validated for the first time because of their performances in the series. Alice in Plus One, who drinks too much and takes the piss out of her best friend but still looks gorgeous in a cocktail dress and is the biggest catch at any singles table, may be one of the first rom-com leading ladies to actually feel real.
“I love that Alice is able to be very strong, very brash, incredibly foul-mouthed but also smart and messy and disgusting,” she says. “Up until this point, the roles I’ve encountered have always been a friend of the main character. And the friend is always in this box of one shade of character of like, very smart or very shy or stereotypical Asian friend.”
This was the first time she’s gotten to play a role that wasn’t written for an Asian American. “So when I get to play it, I get to play all the shades of human being that I am. It doesn’t matter what my race is.”
Erskine cringes remembering this—and almost doesn’t reveal it, because she’s not sure if she’s allowed to say—but this whole breakout moment was almost thwarted by Anthony Scaramucci.
The former White House Director of Communications-turned-media whore was the project’s original financier for a version of the script that was in development several years ago. “Then he decided to leave to fund Trump’s campaign, and it fell apart,” Erskine says.
When the project was eventually revived, directors Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer, who had met Erskine at NYU, asked her if she wanted to audition. They had worked together on a series of short films in which she played a character named Alicia, who is drunk on New Year’s Eve and wreaks havoc on her friends.
Jeff Chan and Rhymer had the Plus One cast watch Silver Linings Playbook—David O. Russell’s 2012 romantic comedy that won Jennifer Lawrence an Oscar—before filming in order to get a sense of the tone they were aiming for. They had heard that Russell would film two takes of most scenes—one that was big, crazy, and over the top, and one that was toned down—and that he would use a mix of the two. They employed the same practice for Plus One.
The result is a movie with scenes that are as swoon-inducing as the best romantic comedies, but also a raucous sex scene that takes place in a graveyard.
“I got spooked out by it!” Erskine laughs. “We didn’t do it on any actual graves, but we were close to them. Someone’s grandfather is like underneath his butt, and I’m just grinding on top.” She doubles over and cackles. “Really turned me on.”