It’s always a treat when a batch of our 11 Questions lines up perfectly with an interview subject—in this case, The A.V. Club looked forward to posing queries about reliving moments from your past and casting someone to do so to Pen15 co-creator and co-star Maya Erskine. The actor-writer-producer turned in a fearless and uproarious performance as her younger self in that Hulu series (recently renewed for a second season), and as one of the leads in the winning rom-com Plus One, Erskine is tackling another awkward phase: that of the perpetual wedding guest.
In addition to embarrassing moments from youth, we talked to the Casual and Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later alum about The Spice Girls, The Purge, and why John Cho should star in everything.
Maya Erskine: Ooh! Right now, I mean, it changes but it’s Taco Bell Nacho Fries. It’s a tie between that and the fiery hardshell taco.
The A.V. Club: I like that you didn’t hesitate, because sometimes people get hung up on fast food being bad—
ME: Oh, I have no shame. NO shame. [laughs] Taco Bell is up there for me. It’s number one, yeah. I love it.
ME: I don’t want to relive any moment! Let me think about that. If I could relive any moment… you know, if I could relive a moment where I had something embarrassing happen to me when I was younger, with my mindset now, I think that’s what I would want to do.
So, with the disclaimer that I definitely would not want to experience the pain that went along with it again, it’s when my pad flew out on stage when I was in middle school.
ME: Yeah, I would want to relive that moment, but own it better, if that makes sense.
AVC: Well, you’re actually the ideal person to ask about this, because you created a whole show, Pen15, about reliving parts of your adolescence. I don’t know how much of it’s based on your life, though.
ME: A lot of it is, actually.
AVC: There are so many moments that are so funny and ring so true, so that makes sense.
ME: [laughs] Well, thank you. Yeah, I’ve already chosen to relive every moment, so I think I’ve already accomplished that. Just write a show!
ME: I loved Ursula from The Little Mermaid. I don’t know why, but I really loved her. She felt so familiar to me—she felt like an aunt or something. Just all of her quirks and her physicality. I felt like I knew her.
Also, I would say Queen Margaret [of Anjou] from the Henry VI plays.
AVC: What makes Queen Margaret a great villain?
ME: Well, I got to play her in a show when I was in college, or right after college. She just was so rooted in her power. Her son was killed and she had to grieve that, but the way she would talk to the men around her—she just could hold her own. In a way, she had more power than them. I don’t think that I had been able to experience that, as a woman, in a lot of the plays that I had done. So I think I fell in love with her, even if it was for her malicious intent. It was delicious to play into that.
ME: There’s a line from Speed… I don’t know if I’ve worked it into my vocabulary, exactly. But my brother and I will always repeat the line, where it’s like “Stop the bus! Shut up!” [laughs] We’ve done a dub smash of it a million times. It’s not an amazing line or anything, but it kills us every time. So we recreate that.
Basically, it’s one of the bus passengers who has a gun. Keanu Reeves is like, “All right, man, you gotta put the gun down.” And the other guy is just shouting, “No! Stop the bus! Shut up!” And it’s just the rhythm of that, and how he says it that kills me.
ME: Ooh! Hmm, I wish my mom could play me in the movie of my life because I would want her to play the older version of me. Because I think that I will become her, so I feel like that would be a really easy transition. But as far as an actor, I need to think about that. Maybe Hong Chau? That’s the first name that’s popping up for me right now, but I know there are others. Let me think on that. But for now, I’ll say my mom.
AVC: It’s interesting that you immediately thought of who would play the older version of yourself. Would the movie of your life be primarily set in the future then?
ME: Yeah. Oh, there’s no need to make a movie about my life right now. There’s nothing interesting about my life right now. [Laughs.] I think it’d have to be about something tragic happening later, you know—not my life as a woman in my 20s and 30s trying to figure it all out. We don’t need to see that!
ME: There’s a lot of those for me, it’s not really just one. I don’t want to just say the obvious ones, but The Big Lebowski, Splendor In The Grass, Hannah And Her Sisters, and sometimes, Along Came Polly. I’ll just stumble upon that and think, “I’m going to keep watching.” I’ve seen it many times.
AVC: That last one is, shall we say, not as obvious a pick as the first few. What is it about Along Came Polly? Is it the Ben Stiller dancing, or Philip Seymour Hoffman riffing on The Breakfast Club?
ME: It’s just very pleasant to me. It’s obviously not Big Lebowski, but I don’t have to think when I’m watching it. I can just enjoy it. It gives me comfort. So if it’s on, I’ll just keep it on. There’s a lot of great moments in it.
ME: I have this Gudetama pillow creature that is really big and it’s not aesthetically pleasing to have it sitting in my house, but I cannot put that in the trash. I cannot give that away. Do you know that Sanrio character? It’s like this lazy egg character? It’s basically a big stuffed animal. I know that’s kind of a silly answer to that.
AVC: Well, we place sentimental value on all kinds of things, why not a big egg pillow?
ME: Yeah, someone won it for me in Japan, and we carried it back to the States, so it definitely has some meaning. But it’s also just so damn comfortable.
ME: I think I would be the most unhelpful person in the post-apocalyptic society. I’ve talked about this a lot, actually. Because I get very scared in stressful situations. I just would probably be running around screaming, and people would probably want to shoot me because I wouldn’t be adding anything to society.
But, no, I would probably be a good mediator. I think that’s what I could do. If there any issues between people, I could help them work it out.
AVC: I think any future society will need that. We need people like that now, right?
ME: Let me think about that… I don’t know if he’s underrated because I think people get that he’s great, but I think John Cho should be a bigger movie star. He should be a lead in a lot more movies than he is currently, you know what I mean? He is such an obvious answer to that question, and I feel he just deserves more.
ME: Right, yeah! I remember that—it was kind of started in response to movies that have placed white actors in roles that were meant for Asians or Asian-Americans.
AVC: You still don’t see many Asians or Asian-Americans leading thrillers, so Searching was a step forward, right? There’s also been some movement on the romantic comedy end, with Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe. You’re also leading your own really charming rom-com, Plus One.
ME: Thank you. Yeah, it’s important to me—as a kid, I never thought I would get that opportunity, so for that to happen and it not be a one-dimensional character was really thrilling. So I’m lucky that that happened.
AVC: Do you think there’s real momentum now?
ME: I do feel like we’re having a moment. It seems that’s how Hollywood works. It’ll be gone for many years, but as soon as one movie can show great box office numbers, it makes every studio and producer go, “That’s it, that’s the formula. I guess you can just plop a bunch of Asians in a movie and it’ll work.” And it’s unfortunate that it takes that to happen, but I’ve noticed a huge shift in even just meetings that have come out and more projects that are being green-lit because of Crazy Rich Asians. So, it was such a massive, important event to happen to create room for more opportunities. It changes how people look at movies and what’s viable, and what people need to see. It’s unfortunate that it’s happening slowly, but it’s happening, so I’m grateful that it’s happening while I’m still working.
ME: They’re obvious answers, but The Beatles and The Spice Girls.
AVC: Which Beatle would you be?
ME: Probably John Lennon.
AVC: Does anyone ever really envision themselves as the Ringo Starr?
ME: I mean, I’d probably be Ringo, if we’re being honest. But I want to be John Lennon.
AVC: That’s most people’s thinking, I bet.
ME: [laughs] Yeah.
AVC: I have to admit, I was anticipating the Spice Girls as your answer to this question, because they factor into an episode of Pen15 that’s really just one of the best things I saw on TV this year.
ME: Oh, wow, thank you. Yeah, that was an important episode for us, and a hard one.
ME: I haven’t seen any of those movies, but I do know what the premise is. I would be one of the people hiding, I think. I would maybe loot, but I would be too scared of getting shot. So I think I’d have to bury myself under a bed. Basically, I’d hide.
Bonus 12th question, from actor-writer-director Lake Bell: When was the last time you called your mother?
ME: This morning. I pretty much talk to her every day.
AVC: Did you call her with something specific in mind, or was it just a general “hi, how are you?” kind of call?
ME: I call her pretty regularly, but it’s not to just chat. It’s usually a question, where I’m asking her, “can you help me with this?” I still have that kind of relationship with her, where I revert to being a kid and I’m asking her for help. I’m sure that’s probably not great, but yeah, I call her for help because I think she’s really wise and has great advice.
AVC: What question would you like to ask the next person we talk to?
ME: I am always curious what the one vice is that someone wouldn’t give up. What vice wouldn’t you want to give up? It’s different for a lot of people. For some people, it’s smoking; others, it’s drinking.
AVC: What would be your answer?
ME: Smoking. I love it, and it’s time to quit.