Maya Erskine and I maybe ruined an essential part of a kid's childhood. After searching for stocking stuffers for our little ones at a gift shop in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Beverly Glen in mid-December, we took turns bragging about our parents' abilities to make Santa appear real when we were young. "You couldn't tell me he didn't leave those toys!" I say, swiping my credit card to pay for a few chocolate caramel candy bars for my daughter. "And that he didn't take bites out of the cookies!" the actress chimes in while playing with the wheel of a toy train she's bought for her son. "Our parents were on it," she adds. "I want to be like that."
Then it happens. A woman leans in and whispers, "My son is listening to you." "What?!" we both ask loudly, startled as she seemed to come out of nowhere. The woman whispers louder, clearly annoyed, "My son is listening to you." She glances over her shoulder toward her child, who is staring at us from a nearby aisle. Our eyes widen as we repeatedly apologize and rush out of the store and into the parking lot. As soon as the coast is clear, we burst out laughing and comfort each other for being clueless moms who should know better than to blab about the lies we tell our kids in public. "It was probably time," says Erskine mid-chuckle of shattering the kid's Christmas illusions. "He looked a little too old to still believe in Santa anyway."
It was a classic Erskine remark, as she often says the things we're not supposed to say out loud. She never means any harm, though. She's too nice for that. "I'm just trying to be honest," she'll say after serving a blunt take, which she became known for in her Emmy-nominated comedy Pen15, which she co-wrote and starred in. The most effective humor, she tells me—earlier that afternoon, before our shopping fumble—is in "trying to play it as honest as possible and not going for the laugh." When put that way, our Santa reveal hit the mark, as did Erskine's knack for identifying the off-beat humor in problematic situations.
The trait makes the 36-year-old perfect for the role of Jane Smith in the Prime Video series Mr. & Mrs. Smith, premiering February 2. The show, co-created by writer-producer Francesca Sloane, and Atlanta's Donald Glover, who stars opposite Erskine as John Smith, reimagines the 2005 spy movie that features Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Yes, it's action-packed and sexy. However, it disrupts the typically glamorous spy movie vibe, making it funnier by inserting the actors' quirky wit, and more relatable due to raw moments, like a reveal of a gnarly blister on Jane's foot after sprinting city blocks in heels. In this reimagining, instead of the married undercover duo discovering their job is to kill each other, Erskine and Glover play strangers who land gigs requiring them to assume fresh identities within an arranged marriage. After tackling a few missions, they start to fall for each other.
In August 2021, Glover called Erskine to talk about acting in Mr. & Mrs. Smith after Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who had initially signed on for the role, left because of creative differences. Erskine didn't know she was being offered the lead. "I thought I would play a character with three lines," she says. "I had no idea what I was in store for." But Glover knew Erskine was the right fit for Jane. He'd been impressed with her performance on Pen15 and felt her sense of humor aligned with his due to her ability to navigate between silly, sad, dark, and scary moments. "She's dynamic," says Glover. "She's not afraid. She's one of the funniest people I know. She's reluctantly funny, which I think makes her even funnier. She definitely made me step up my game. I was like, 'Oh fuck, I really have to act.’"
By the time Erskine received the call, the hype around the Glover-Waller-Bridge mashup had swelled so much that she couldn't help but feel nervous when she discovered she was being asked to play Jane. "I felt pressure because of the pressure I put on myself," she says. "And I respect Phoebe Waller-Bridge immensely. But I had to look at it as this is a different version. If I tried to meet some expectations that I made up, that wouldn't be the right way to approach it. I had to tell myself that however she was going to do it, it's going to be different, and that's okay." Glover incentivized her to make the role her own and ensured he'd tailor the show to her. "I'm like, 'Pressure is good,'" Glover remembers telling Erskine. "'It makes diamonds. But it's not about that. People are going to come with their idea of what Mr. & Mrs. Smith is and what they want it to be. So, it's important that you do it the way you want to because you're going to do it well.'"
Once Erskine joined the crew, she was also encouraged by Glover and Sloane to add her creative spin to the script. "[Donald is] of the mindset that the best idea wins," says Erskine, who adds that when it came to collaborating, "They treated me like an actor who's a writer, so they welcomed it. I never felt like I had to fight or push for something. They were so open, so generous with me having a voice." Says Glover, "Maya's a real writer. She would fix and flip things on the fly. It's not easy to find people who can do that."
Erskine welcomed the encouragement, especially since hyping herself up isn't one of her best skills. "I grew up with a Japanese mother. I apologize for myself a lot," she says. "I don't take up space. Being able to demand or ask for what [I] want, not apologize for it, and step into my power more and recognize my worth—I'm learning how to do that as a woman in this world, in this business." Embodying Jane is helping tap into that fierceness. "This is a woman that doesn't apologize for taking up space," Erskine says of her character. "She's incredibly smart, super strong, and that was so liberating to be able to play someone like that."
Raised in Los Angeles by her jazz musician father and language interpreter mother, Erskine began acting as a preteen. While in junior high, she knew that some popular girls were joining an after-school theater program. "I followed them and fell head over heels and became a theater kid from that point on," she says. From there, she attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts before studying experimental theater at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Her time at NYU involved creating her own work and training to be an actor. "I never thought that would follow me into my actual career," she says of learning the ins and outs of creating TV. But it did.
While in college, she met Anna Konkle, with whom she co-created, co-wrote, and co-starred in Pen15, partially based on their lives as middle schoolers. The two began writing the show in their 20s. In their 30s, they played convincing teenagers navigating awkward, embarrassing, and hilarious experiences, like messy French kisses and wearing that first thong. The show cemented Erskine's status as a dynamic multi-hyphenate in Hollywood and reminded us that, as people of color, we must often create our opportunities.
"When I first started working or auditioning, the roles I would audition for were one-line characters referred to as 'Asian waitress' or 'Chinese girl,'" says Erskine. "That was also the beginning of my career, to be fair, but there weren't a lot of roles I had access to. When you see Asian characters that are the nerd friend, or the hot Asian girl at the club, or whatever the stereotypes are, it's hard to break out of that. That was the impetus to make work for myself." With Pen15, adds Erskine, "I got to show what it's like to grow up with an immigrant mom and a white dad. That's a very specific kind of family that I didn't ever see on TV growing up. I felt like we did that well. That's something I'm proud of."
With her role in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Erskine is pushing the boundaries of what she’s capable of once again. "She's so much more than just a comedy actor," says Sloane. "Maya has this ability to connect with whatever the most vulnerable thing that that character is feeling and show it just through the look of her eyes. She does these micro-movements that can make your heart break. And she's not afraid to drastically humiliate herself to get to the raw underbelly of what makes people the beautiful monsters they are so you can love them harder. The range that she shows as this character is incredible."
To prepare to play Jane, Erskine watched a Glover-and-Sloane recommended list of references, from the Ingmar Bergman- and Oscar Isaac-starring HBO series Scenes From a Marriage to the Netflix reality show Terrace House. "Having a multitude of references was helpful," she says, adding she also rewatched 2005's Mr. & Mrs. Smith. "What was good for me to see is that I will never be able to be that. I'm not Angelina. I'm not even close. They're superhuman beauties and movie stars, and Donald and I are just Donald and I." That's no shade, she clarifies. With their version, "People can watch and say, 'Oh, I look like that,'" she says. "To see yourself reflected, that's always a draw for me."
Equally intriguing for Erskine were the intricacies of Mr. and Mrs. Smith's relationship. The show's calmer moments, like when she and Glover's Jane and John trade sharp, flirtatious quips while sitting at a restaurant or when nursing wounds, made the project especially appealing to the actress. "What this show really is about," explains Erskine, between bites of her BLT as we’re sitting down at lunch, "is two lonely people coming together and being married. It's examining the nuances and real moments—the trajectory of a relationship. The first time they meet, kiss, have sex, say I love you, fart in front of each other, get jealous. It's what we all relate to in a relationship."
Erskine adds that the show also asks, Why should we get married? Of which Erskine has thoughts: "I think it's that at the end of the day, life is fucking hard, and it's nice to have someone you can rely on," she says, adding she feels "really fortunate" to have that kind of support at home with her husband, actor Michael Angarano. The two got married last summer and share a 2-year-old son.
While shooting Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Erskine says her husband was her rock. When the whole family needed to relocate from Los Angeles to New York so she could film the show, he was all about it. "There's got to be a push and pull," she says of her marriage's inner workings. "I'm going to do that for him." In another instance, when she doubted her ability to deliver a killer performance, Angarano lifted her spirits by telling her she was wrong to get down on herself. "We're each other's biggest fans," she says. "We support each other's dreams."
Regardless of the type of role, Erskine’s creative goals are fueled by the desire to forge a path for more representation and authenticity in Hollywood. "I feel it when people talk to me about their experiences, that they've never seen themselves represented in that way," she says of comments she gets from fans about Pen15. "I hope that helps cause change and open the door or possibility in their mind of, 'I'm going to write my story and tell it this way.' I want to see more people of color knowing they're capable of writing, directing, acting. Having a wide array of different stories that are authentic to people is what's going to move the needle, but there has to be space for it."
For Erskine, gaining ground is also in demanding to be paid what she's worth. When asked if she feels women are in better positions to do so these days, Erskine says we're getting there. "When I'm looking for new projects or getting in negotiations, it's not always equal pay for women and men. There are always reasons of, 'Oh, they get more eyeballs because they've been in international movies’ and things like that. It makes sense, but at the end of the day, I want to show my worth and get what I deserve." She brings up names like Greta Gerwig, Margot Robbie, and Natalie Portman. To Erskine, these women have put themselves in positions to call the shots and work on passion projects. It's the kind of power she wants.
"We should be able to produce and make the things we want to make and work with who we want," says Erskine, who is doing just that on the HBO series The Perfect Nanny (based on a novel of the same name) which is in development. "My friend approached me saying, 'I think you should adapt [the book],'" says Erskine, who is writing and starring in the show alongside Nicole Kidman, who said yes to the project after Erskine personally pitched it to her. "I was scared of [the book] because I was pregnant, and it is about a nanny who kills two kids. But it's about more than that. It's about the dynamics between two women—the nanny is a white older woman, and the mother is a minority—and the roles are reversed. Now that I'm a mother, I'm finding so much to attach to and really enjoy writing it."
Erskine's still determining if she'll be as immersed in every stage of The Perfect Nanny as she was with Pen15, which aired for two seasons between 2019 and 2021. "I was so burnt out," she says of creating the comedy. "It was several years back-to-back of writing, filming, then we'd be in post." She adds of working on Mr. & Mrs. Smith, "It was nice to not have all of the pressure on me."
But motherhood has led her to prioritize balance in her life. "Once you're making something, it's like go, go, go. Burn into the ground and then break. My goal for everyone in film is to find a way where we can work in a sustainable fashion. Since having a kid, it has made it clear what to say yes or no to and what projects to do. It makes you pickier. I want to do things that take three months out of the year, and then the rest of the time, be at home with my kids, pick them up from school, and work on homework with them. I don't know how that's possible, but I want both."
It’s part of what makes the timing of the Mr. & Mrs. Smith role so important, says Erskine. "At this moment, I feel like I am stepping into womanhood in a different way, in my life, in my career, and it's about owning that,” she says. “It's exciting to see how your career turns into something you might not have imagined. It's better."
Photographer: Damien Fry | Stylist: Ashley Furnival | Hair: Eddie Cook | Makeup: Melanie Inglessis | Manicurist: Jolene Brodeur | Cinematography: Amusement Productions
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