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Who Play the Moms in Pen15 Season 2? Melora Walters and Mutsuko Erskine Discuss Motherhood
During my Zoom call with Melora Walters and Mutsuko Erskine, the powerhouse actresses who portray Kathy Kone and Yuki Ishii-Peters on Hulu’s Pen15, Erskine’s phone lights up with a FaceTime call. It’s her daughter, Maya Erskine, the co-creator and star of Pen15, who portrays a lightly fictionalized version of her adolescent self—and the TV daughter to her real-life mother. Erskine turns the phone to the computer screen, allowing her daughter to greet Walters and I, before quipping, “Why are you calling me?”
Pen15 has always been a show about girlhood and the bittersweetness of becoming, with Maya Erskine and her costar Anna Konkle bringing heart and hilarity to the indignities of adolescence, yet in the first half of the show’s second season, launching on Hulu this week, the girls’ mothers come into sharper view than ever before. After all, who shapes a tweenage girl more than her mother, who can be at once her chief adversary and her closest confidante? As Kathy, a loving but insecure woman undergoing a contentious divorce, Walters is an incandescent flame of loneliness and need, struggling to save face in front of her increasingly rebellious daughter. Meanwhile, as Yuki, a Japanese woman raising a daughter who wants nothing more than to fit into their American suburb, Erskine captures the difficulty of straddling two cultures.
In the first half of the second season, Kathy and Yuki team up to protect their daughters from the negative influence of Maura, a trash-talking classmate who worms her way into the girls’ friendship. In one memorable episode, Yuki and Kathy take the girls on an ill-fated shopping trip, which ends with Yuki publicly spanking a shrieking Maya, while Kathy and Anna devolve into cold rage after Anna levies an unutterable word at her mother. In these seven stellar episodes, Pen15 captures the depth and breadth of the mother / daughter bond, in good times and in comically terrible times. Erskine and Walters were kind enough to Zoom with Esquire about the second season, sounding off on everything from the role of clothes as a battleground to the impossibility of being a mom.
Esquire: One thing I loved about this season was the increased conflict between the girls and their mothers. Pen15 so accurately captures that flash point in a teenage girl’s life when her mom feels like her biggest adversary and her worst enemy. When you were teenagers, did you experience that antagonism with your own mothers? Was that a familiar feeling to you?
Melora Walters: I went to boarding school around fifteen, so I didn’t have the same experience. However, I have kids who are now grown. When they were that age, it was hard. I’m not going to lie.
Mutsuko Erskine: I grew up in Japan. In Japan, I never had that with my mother. I’d always say, “Yes, Mom. Yes, Mom.” If I didn’t, she would really be awful. It was better not to talk back to my mom. Eventually, when I turned 24, I acted like a teenager. I was fighting with my mom all the time, just like how Maya fights with her mother over everything. You have to do that one time in your life to get out of your daughter spell; that’s how you become a person or a woman.
ESQ: I love the episode where the girls and their mothers go to the clothing store, because clothes and makeup are such a battleground for mothers and daughters during the teen years. We really see that play out this season. What is it about clothes and the way we visually present ourselves to the world that becomes such fraught territory for mothers and daughters?
MW: Definitely going to the store and trying on clothes is filled with tension. I want to continue what Mutsuko was saying in that I feel there’s an element of teenagers needing to individuate. They need this safe boundary to rebel against. I think that this show really captures that.
ME: I experienced a lot of friction there. When I took Maya shopping, she wanted to buy all the things that she was expecting to buy. I was thinking about how she would be perceived wearing certain clothes, what I had in the budget to spend… all these factors. All she wanted to do was to look like everybody else or look like the pictures in the magazines. There was always a huge conflict. Maya and I had a lot of conflicts over shopping, shoes, and clothes.
ESQ: In that same episode, Kathy and Yuki both recognize that Maura is bad news. Is that mom intuition or sixth sense a real thing, in your experience?
ME: Yes. I had a sixth sense about some friends who were bad influences or could possibly be mean to my daughter. Sometimes, I spoke out about it. She used to get really upset. “You’re so mean to my friends,” she would say. But I could sense it. Really, it was all the years that we’ve lived. We can tell. We see so many people.
MW: As a mother, you definitely have this sense that something is wrong here and things could go terribly wrong. I feel as a parent, you also walk the fine line where they do need to find out for themselves at a certain point. Where do you step in and say no? It’s interesting.
ESQ: I enjoyed seeing Yuki and Kathy call each other up to share their concerns about Maura and about her negative influence on the girls. They really stick up for one another in that scene in the clothing store. What was it like for the two of you to team up and further develop their friendship and allyship in this season?
MW: I really enjoyed it. I felt like we did make a connection; we were watching it and reliving our own things. It’s such an ancient archetype, the mother and daughter thing, and it’s wonderful that there was such a nice connection between the mothers. You’re not alone in this battle. I feel it started in Season One, when Yuki and Kathy were shaving the girls’ legs. We were together. I feel it was unspoken and unscripted. I really liked the connection.
ME: Me, too. I wish that we had more scenes together.
MW: I do too!
Ashlee Grubbs as Maura, Anna Konkle as Anna, and Maya Erskine as Maya.
Courtesy of Hulu
ESQ: That scene in the clothing store really juxtaposes Yuki and Kathy’s different parenting styles. When their daughters act out, they both react in very different ways. How would you describe their respective styles of parenting?
MW: Kathy, I think, is a little jealous, because what Yuki does is what she’d like to do—to yell, “Stop, no, stop!” But carrying over my character from Season One, she herself is so miserable. I think she’s still acting out, which you see with her mothering—it becomes this very strange projection on both of them, full of guilt and discomfort. I don’t think Kathy can handle it. She becomes a time bomb, and that just makes everything worse.
ME: As for me, it was always the dilemma of me carrying on what I knew and how I was brought up—not talking back, not saying bad words—but also trying to be more like American moms, who are more understanding. I never had a clear idea of, “This is how I’m going to raise you.” Sometimes, probably when I was going through menopause, I would lose my temper. Other times, I could just sit and talk to her like a friend. It was never a straight idea of, “This is how I’m raising you.” It’s so hard to be a mom.
MW: I think that’s exactly the point. It’s so hard to be a mom. No matter how you were raised or what you experienced, you have this ideal notion: “We can talk through this.” But you can’t. I think the show really captures that. There’s just no talking through it, specifically in this scene.
ESQ: Mutsuko, you mention trying to be more like an American mom. Did you feel pressure to adopt a more American style of parenting, whether from within your family or without?
ME: I did. We are surrounded by American moms; they’re so understanding and so accommodating, whereas where I grew up, moms are not very accommodating. You just follow. You do what you’re told to do. I knew that wasn’t going to work for me, although I never actually sat down and thought it through. I just winged it. Sometimes, I can be very understanding. Other times, my emotions and my temper flare up.
Mutsuko Erskine as Yuki, Maya Erskine as Maya, and Dallas Liu as Shuji.
ESQ: In this season, we watch the girls be incredibly cruel to their mothers. How did you go inside those moments and inhabit that terrible hurt of the person you care most about being so cruel?
MW: As a performer, you’re saying these lines; you are of course inhabiting a character. You want to make it as real as possible, but there’s a detachment. Although, there were scenes where afterwards, I was like, “Anna, I’m having flashbacks. I’m having post-traumatic stress disorder.”
ME: Those are the lines. Some were lines of dialogue that I have spoken in real life. It’s difficult. After filming that scene, I got really depressed. I said, “Oh my God, I was really awful, acting like that.” For me, because I’m not a natural actress, sometimes I struggle going between the past and the actual dialogue. Sometimes there’s no line. I get really emotionally involved in the scene. Afterwards, I get so exhausted.
Kathy gives Anna a home massage.
ESQ: This hits on something I wanted to ask you about, Mutsuko, which is the difficulty of playing the TV mom to your actual daughter. How do you maintain some semblance of distance between your TV characters and your actual selves?
[Erskine’s phone rings. It’s a FaceTime call. From Maya.]
ME: Sorry! This is Maya.
Maya Erskine: Hi!
ME: Can you turn it off?
Maya Erskine: Turn what off?
ME: Why are you calling me? [Maya hangs up] Sorry about that!
ESQ: Not a problem at all!
ME: I informed everybody that I’m doing an interview right now. For her, it’s okay to invade my time or my privacy 24/7. If I called her in a similar situation, she would have a fit. Anyway, as soon as I started working with Maya, I saw Maya not just as my daughter, but as another actor in a working situation. I came to a newfound respect for her. Wow! She’s really maturing. Then, we come home and she’s back to being my spoiled and sometimes immature daughter. It was interesting. I had to get used to going on the set, being an actress and a TV mom, then I’d come home and look at my daughter with amazement. Wow. She could still act like this? But the whole experience has been really rewarding and exciting. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my daughter.
ESQ: In one episode, Yuki and Maya share a bath together, where they have a touching heart to heart. Was that actually a family tradition for you?
ME: Yes. In Japan, we take baths as a family, or we go to the hot springs and everybody takes a bath. At home, we have a big bathtub. When they were kids, we used to take baths together. Our friends were concerned that it might bring a social worker over, but Maya and I loved to take a bath every night. We loved to just kind of sit together, no matter what happened during the day. We’d just sit. She would spit it out all the things that had happened during the day. That’s where I learned how she was being treated at school or what her worries were. We did that for a real long time. Even when she was really rebellious towards me, the bath kind of made it okay. We could be ourselves, and we could be mom and daughter.
ESQ: Melora, I want to ask you about the final moment of episode seven. I found that to be one of the most stunning scenes in this half of the season—that moment of reconciliation between Anna and Kathy, where Anna sees her mother as a sad and mistreated person. The divorce of Anna’s parents is a throughline in the show, but most of the time, we experience it through Anna’s perspective. The fighting happens behind closed doors or off the page. How do you work through Kathy’s loneliness and sadness when so much of what’s going on with her happens off-screen?
MW: As an actor, I feel it’s my responsibility to hold that, no matter what. In every scene, I have to hold what she’s going through in terms of the divorce and other things. It was very important for me as an actor to embody that, no matter what. No matter what’s going on in the scene, I have to be true to my character. The way Anna and Maya wrote all of those scenes… it’s really explicitly written, so you can give yourself to the words. Then, you just let the feelings emerge. It’s magic. Anna and I had a lot of discussions about her mother and what she dealt with growing up. It was just a matter of allowing myself to be very real, always.
Anna and Kathy in the final episode of the season’s first half.
Courtesy of Hulu
ESQ: I thought that scene was so stunning—even just the framing of Kathy as we go out of the scene, sitting all alone in a booth at the pizza parlor. You want to sit down next to her and wrap your arms around her.
MW: That was brutal. That was the first brutal moment where I think it also hits Kathy. You’ve been fighting for a divorce and you’ve been miserable. Look at your future. I just gave myself to the writing and to what Anna wanted.
ESQ: I’m sure you can tell us very little about the next seven episodes, but what can we expect when the back half of the season arrives in January?
MW: You can prepare to see more Maya and Anna brilliance. More range, more of that combination of comedy and the horror of being alive. When I describe to people what the show is about, if they haven’t seen it, they tend to go, “I don’t think I’d like it.” But you’ve got to watch it, because magic happens. I don’t know how they do it. It’s magic.
ME: It is magic. It’s beautiful. I get really emotionally involved. I can see myself as a TV mom. It’s a beautiful, beautiful story.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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