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Pioneering Pictures: Unconventional casting provides charismatic authenticity in ‘PEN15’

By Billie Chang

Nov. 19, 2021 10:05 p.m.

This post was updated Nov. 21 at 10:55 p.m.

Hollywood has often relied on convention, with an emphasis on the three-act structure, which is a model often used to break up a narrative into three parts: setup, confrontation and resolution. As such, blockbuster films and television shows have achieved popularity with traditional narratives. However, there are exceptions. Certain filmmakers have attempted to create content that goes against the grain, including everything from editing to dialogue. In “Pioneering Pictures,” columnist Billie Chang investigates the unconventional with media that strays from structure to find success.

Sometimes, well-cast television shows are often the most unconventional.

With a deliberate process that works to enhance a narrative, entertainment projects often derive their success from casting. From professionalism to performance, casting directors are responsible for considering a myriad of factors when determining a fit for a particular role, said casting director and former lecturer Michael Donovan. As time has progressed, Donovan said more diverse and inclusive casting choices are being made – changing the fabric of the entertainment business.

“Directing is 90% casting,” Donovan said. “(A) cast can really change (a) product in … a very positive way. This is a very healthy time right now. We’re breaking some of those molds, which is great.”

Shows like Hulu’s “PEN15” exemplify this new age of entertainment, whereby unconventionality is observed in bold and deliberate casting choices. The series follows seventh-graders Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) and Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) as they navigate the unfiltered tribulations of middle school. Set in 2000, “PEN15” leans into millennial nostalgia. From gel pens to butterfly hair clips, the best friends find themselves experiencing a world influenced by the budding internet, AIM chat rooms and tweenage drama.

[Related: Pioneering Pictures: Slice-of-life films create more engagement, authentic reflections of reality]

Though the characters of Maya and Anna are undoubtedly middle schoolers, both Konkle and Erskine are in their early 30s and act alongside age-accurate teenage co-stars. Through this, the Emmy-nominated series makes a statement with its casting to readily craft a storyline devoted to sharing the provocative parts of tween life, exploring everything from masturbation to menstruation, said former screenwriting and producing professor and alumnus Neil Landau.

“They navigate (the show) on the razor’s edge,” Landau said. “It’s awkward, but it feels authentic. The reason (for that) is (because) they go for the emotional truth, as opposed to the joke. … From an adult perspective, they have great sensitivity and pathos for what it’s like to be that age.”

Though the show’s narrative avoids explicitly explaining the casting choice, alumnus Shayna Freedman said it’s not jarring because of Konkle’s and Erskine’s honest and raw performances. The show avoids parodying the girls, she said, in a conscious decision that instead prioritizes a genuine representation of Anna and Maya’s friendship.

“It’s nice to see the (preteen) age group represented, and show more coming-of-age stories for different women … in a more realistic way,” Freedman said. “It’s nice to see yourself (reflected) in these weird stages (of life) that are usually seen as gross or alienating.”

[Related: Pioneering Pictures: Films with nonlinear plotlines can be difficult but rewarding to navigate]

Facilitated by the show’s unconventional casting, Landau said “PEN15” also leans upon moments of heightened realism to make a point. In season two’s episode “Opening Night,” Maya gets the lead role in her school’s play, in which she portrays a married woman navigating a tumultuous relationship with her husband. Complete with a drag of a cigarette, Landau said Erskine deftly performs her scenes like a mature and sophisticated adult would in order to demonstrate how Maya believes she’s performing within her own head. Thus, in instances such as these, “PEN15” deliberately goes against realism in an effort to expand the narrative storytelling, he said.

When analyzing the show’s perception, it’s important to keep in mind that audiences of “PEN15” are not elementary and middle school students, Landau said. Instead, the show targets adults, and thus, without Konkle and Erskine’s involvement, there would have been no marketable audience. Even so, there’s an inherent risk of the show being perceived as one big joke, Landau said, because Konkle and Erskine are the only adult actors in the middle school environment. The fact that it isn’t a joke, however, is due to the writing’s depth and nuanced focus on not only the pair’s friendship and respective families, but also on the other characters starring alongside them.

Another untraditional casting choice is actress Mutsuko Erskine, who plays Maya’s mother on “PEN15” and is actually Erskine’s mother in real life. The natural relationship the two share creates an authentic mother-daughter dynamic, Landau said. In particular, he said the casting works especially well in one emotional scene, in which Maya and her mother share a bath together.

“(In the scene), her mother radiates so much warmth and is so nurturing,” Landau said. “Sometimes, (a) real (relationship) is best.”

When casting, Donovan said chemistry is a factor that’s very important to the process and likens the term to falling in love. Chemistry is a very unscientific thing to explain, he said, in that one gauges successful chemistry by whether a changed pairing simply feels right.

This chemistry is similarly exhibited between Erskine and Konkle, who Landau said are best friends in real life. Organically truthful performances are important in casting, and Donovan said actors must connect with the audience to tell a story. As an audience member, Freedman said Anna and Maya remind her of herself and her best friend in middle school – when they were always together and causing mischief.

“(The show is) so sincere,” Freedman said. “I (see) parts of my friends and I (when we were) growing up. … That’s why the show is so important. It makes it less alienating – these experiences we all went through.”

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