Maya Erskine on graveyard sex, drunk self-love, and winning our hearts in Plus One
The perils of wedding season (sweating through an inconveniently outdoor ceremony in 90-degree July heat, forcing small talk with others at the singles table, etc.) are a familiar, collectively insufferable, cross-generational summer tradition, and it’s a winding path best navigated with a trusted friend for moral support. In the new, Ben Stiller-produced comedy Plus One, PEN15 creator-star Maya Erskine — in her first leading role in a feature film —makes a fabulous case for herself as the ideal wedding wingman who has your best romantic interests at heart (if you like drunk shenanigans and graveyard sex, that is).
In the film, Erskine plays Alice, one half of a duo of college buddies (Jack Quaid portrays the other) who agree to scope out attractive singles for each other across dozens of summer nuptial ceremonies. In typical romantic comedy fashion, the tables turn when the couple catches feelings for each other, but things don’t play out how you’d expect them to in a standard Hollywood rom-com, and delightfully simmers in its leads’ sardonic chemistry.
“At its core, it’s a movie about friendship [and] she’s able to be her ugliest self. She’s able to fart, curse, and show every facet of herself and still be looked at as a beautiful woman, and to me that’s what sets it aside from other romantic comedies,” Erskine tells EW. “Their friendship feels like a buddy comedy. But when you first watch it, you truly think they shouldn’t be together! Negging is always a sign of flirting. I respect nothing about you [therefore] I respect everything about you.”
Plus One is now playing in select theaters and is also available now on VOD and digital. Read on for EW’s full Q&A with Erskine.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Alice and Ben are such unconventional rom-com characters, playing into but also subverting genre tropes. What do you think separates them from other rom-com leads?
MAYA ERSKINE: With Alice, you see her at her lowest point, but she transforms from a place of complete pain and loneliness to getting her s— together and being a woman who wants to fall in love. At its core, it’s a movie about friendship [and] she’s able to be her ugliest self. She’s able to fart, curse, and show every facet of herself and still be looked at as a beautiful woman, and to me that’s what sets it aside from other romantic comedies. Their friendship feels like a buddy comedy. But when you first watch it, you truly think they shouldn’t be together!
At the beginning, all they do is talk about what’s wrong with each other, to each other!
Negging is always a sign of flirting. I respect nothing about you [therefore] I respect everything about you. They’re both so comfortable being themselves in front of each other.
There’s an interesting connection between Plus One and PEN15 in that sense, as the act of negging carries from generation to generation, because we see Maya and Sam doing that on PEN15. Why does that endure across generations?
We don’t leave that age, in many ways. When I encounter love, I’m still a fool! I don’t know how to be complimentary. I’m like, “I hate you and I’m never going to look at you and I hope you understand that means I want your babies! I’m just ever going to talk to or look at you.” [Laughs]. Why is that attractive? There’s a lightness to it, in the teasing. I’m close with my family, and when they make fun of me, it doesn’t hurt my feelings because I know they truly love me. When it comes from someone you feel safe around and has respect for you underneath it, it’s hot!
With our generation, we can relate to the anxieties of marriage season Ben and Alice go through. There’s pressure to fulfill the traditions of marriage — both attending weddings and also to get married. Finn Wittrock has a hilarious line in this film, where his character says he’s trying to get married soon, but you ask him who he’s dating, and he says he’s single.
I’m just entering the phase where friends are getting married. For my directors, Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer, this film was pulled directly from their experiences. They felt like they were being deserted by all of their friends. You go from college, where you’re all partying together, and, as soon as one couple starts doing it, it feels like it’s a train and all those couples follow. If you’re not even close to that place, it makes you look at yourself and go, “Oh my God, what’s wrong with me?” When nothing is, but in that moment you’re projecting all of your worries and anxieties onto one wedding. I always thought our generation was just not going to get married…. We might just find partners or be polyamorous or single. It felt like it wouldn’t go this traditional route, but I’m starting to see a trend of people getting married with big weddings. There’s beauty in the ceremony…. but I’m feeling anxiety about buying plane tickets and the presents. It’s so much money. And what if I never get married? Do I not get that registry? You should be able to have a huge party where you’re like, “Alright, bitch! It’s my turn!”
Has falling in love with these characters changed your perspective on dating?
I have a lot of anxiety thinking about that, because I do have a lot of close male friends who I love dearly and have a similar relationship with, but I just put my foot down. This group, it’s pretty incestuous. A lot of people have dated each other and I want to expand out of my group of friends, as much as I love them. It makes it weird! Some of the best relationship come out of friendship and that solid foundation, but I also don’t want to lose these friends. When you break up with people, you can go from being so close, and then it’s nothing. To me, I’d rather keep good friendships for the rest of my life.
What were your contributions to character? Did you change her from page to screen?
Jack and I had two weeks of rehearsal and we just did improv with scenarios around weddings, to find our characters and our dynamic with each other. The second week, we went into the script and rehearse the scenes and break them down. It was a lot of Jack and I infusing ourselves into the characters, with Jeff and Andrew rewriting scenes so, on the day of shooting, we didn’t have to do too much improv because we’d already done it.
It sounds a little bit like dating, you and Jack getting to know your chemistry before the movie!
It was! The first time we all hung out, we did a magic wizard escape room and chowed down on huge buckets of shrimp. We bonded. It was very easy.
It’s like a first date: It’s awkward meeting your scene partner! What moment during preparation did you realize you had good chemistry with Jack?
I think this was once we were actually breaking down the script and doing the scene where Alice and Ben are walking together right before the cemetery sex scene.
I don’t want to spoil how or why or with whom, but what were your first impressions of learning you were going to perform a sex scene in a graveyard?
Any time there’s juxtaposition of sex and dead bodies… [Laughs] I’m sure we didn’t do it on any grave. I think I asked to not do it on a grave. I didn’t want to be haunted for the rest of my life. Sex scenes are always so awkward, but luckily I’m wearing a dress and we got to make it messy and sloppy and funny, so it basically felt like kids playing around in the dirt. Then, I had to do some humping. It feels so revealing to show that to your friends. Like, I guess this is how I do it? [But] that scene was the moment [I knew I had chemistry with Jack] is because he just was making me laugh so much and I felt so comfortable around him. There was a natural lightness with the way we interacted with each other. He feels so familiar to me.
There are so many images in this film that stand out to me, like the graveyard and the one towards beginning where you’re blackout drunk, crying, eating french fries, and watching porn on a hotel bed. That feeling captures the low of ending a relationship so well.
I’ve definitely been in that position. I do that anytime I’m drunk, really. I go home and lay down and eat s—. But not in a dress, I’m just stark naked, hunched over with ketchup rolling down my boob.
I also adore the scene you have with Anna Konkle [from PEN15]. Was this filmed before that show?
It was! We’d already sold the script to Hulu, but we weren’t starting the writers room until after we wrapped Plus One. Everyone you see in that film is a friend of ours. All of the wedding speakers, Finn is a friend, the crew, every person who makes a cameo… We’re a big friend group! That’s Anna’s real boyfriend [playing her character’s boyfriend], too! It was fun having Anna. It’s a fun callback to see her, as if this was Maya and Anna as adults after they’ve lost touch.
It has to be so comforting tackling your first lead role in a film with family there.
I’m never going to beat that experience. I’ve always wanted to be in a romantic comedy and have a dance scene with someone or breakup scene. I’ve always dreamed of those things, and to do that with a great script and my friends who are all so talented, it was a dream.