Maya Erskine’s parents inspired her hit series ‘PEN15’
Maya Erskine based much of her dramedy series PEN15 on dynamics in her real family with parents Mutsuko and Peter Erskine.
The pair met in Japan, got married and moved to California, where their daughter Maya would eventually work as an actress. Five years before Maya was born, the couple welcomed a son, Taichi Erskine, who works in Hollywood just like his sister.
Although moments in Maya’s childhood were tough, as shown in the brutally honest series she co-created with Anna Konkle, the actress wanted to use PEN15 to honor her family's relationships. There are many connections between the show and her real life— both her fictional and real father are drummers, and Maya went as far as casting her own mom to play alongside the fictional Maya, a comical version of her younger self.
“Now that I’m an adult, I’m trying to ... see my mother as a full person. And when I was filming, I was seeing her become a full person in front of my very eyes,” the Mr. and Mrs. Smith star told Elle in 2021. “She would even say, ‘stop calling me mom’ on set.”
The actress also told The Guardian in 2024 that although it was scary to show her parents the semi-autobiographical events from her childhood depicted on-screen, their response was positive.
“I ended up having conversations with my parents after [the series] came out and I was surprised because their response was very loving and sympathetic,” she said.
Here’s everything to know about Maya Erskine’s parents, Mutsuko and Peter Erskine.
Peter is an award-winning drummer
Peter was born in Somers Point, New Jersey, but quickly started traveling the world when he began his career as a jazz drummer. Over the years, Maya’s dad has played for Joni Mitchell, Weather Report and Steely Dan, among others, and has amassed 700 credits on movie scores, including Babylon and La La Land.
He is the director of drumset studies at the University of Southern California Thornton and has written a book called The Musician’s Lifeline. Peter’s lengthy career has earned him two Grammys and a special issue of Modern Drummer magazine dedicated to his life’s work.
Mutsuko grew up in Japan
Maya’s mom grew up in a town outside of Tokyo “right after the war.” Because of the post-World War II atmosphere, Mutsuko has said her childhood was a lot different than Maya’s.
“I remember our family had one egg every other day or something. I remember fighting with my mom, saying, ‘I want another egg!’ Dessert was bread with sugar,” she recounted to Great Jones.
In 1966, when she was in high school, Mutsuko took part in an exchange program that placed her in upstate New York and then Missouri. Eventually, Mutsuko returned to Japan where she would meet her future husband.
They met in Japan
Maya told The Guardian that she has memories of being on a tour bus with her dad when he was working with Weather Report and Steely Dan. Years before, when Peter was traveling the world with the same bands, he landed in Japan and crossed paths with Mutsuko, who was working as a interpreter.
Soon after, they started dating, got married and eventually settled in California, where they welcomed Taichi and Maya in the 1980s.
They share two children
Maya and her brother Taichi started out making short films together, and now both work in show business. In addition to editing 10 episodes of his sister’s series PEN15, Taichi has also edited for The Resort, Angelyne and Miracle Workers.
Although he was ultimately happy to be involved with Maya’s show, Taichi said the plot lines based on Maya’s childhood were occasionally hard to watch.
“I mean, it was super weird,” he told IndieWire. “There’s no way around it. I think I was always prepared for the possibility of Maya making it as an actress, but I never imagined that it would be through this show that is semi-autobiographical.”
While talking to Elle, Maya reflected on her childhood with Taichi. “I don’t think my brother had this many issues in middle school, right mom?” she asked Mutsuko.
"Oh he did, but that’s a different story,” Mutsuko replied. “He was rebellious, so I had to be very strict. We’d fight, but not to the extent of you and me.”
They inspired her show PEN15
Maya and Konkle took a lot of inspiration from their childhoods for their breakout Hulu series PEN15. The show, which had two seasons from 2019 to 2021, traversed the cringe-filled, devastating moments of middle school with a particular focus in season 2 on the relationships both characters have outside of their best friendship.
One episode, entitled simply “Yuki,” followed a day in the life of Maya’s mom and humanized the character, who was almost always in a feud with her teenage daughter.
“I initially thought the episode was a love letter to my mom, but I really realize it’s a love letter to my whole family,” Maya told Elle. This was due in part to the team effort the episode represented. Maya’s brother, Taichi, edited the episode and her dad Peter contributed music.
“It’s really about the love that binds our family. It’s worth all the things that we went through,” Maya added.
Mutsuko acted alongside Maya in PEN15
Maya’s mom acted in almost every episode of her daughter’s show despite never having worked in the industry before. She even took center stage in the season 2 episode “Yuki,” which she said was possible because of Maya’s support.
“She was really great,” Mutsuko told Elle of her daughter, who also directed the episode. “I’m not an actress by profession — this just happened to me. Most of the time I’m okay, but when I was having a hard time, she would explain what’s going through my mind and act in front of me."
In a 2019 interview with Vulture, Mutsuko reflected on the realities of playing pretend with her real daughter on-screen. “I only had déjà vu when I was acting with Maya alone, but the whole environment was different,” she said.
Maya’s brother also got involved in “Yuki,” putting his film editing skills to use for the intimate story.
“Part of me almost didn’t want to edit that episode just because it was so uncomfortable,” Taichi told IndieWire. “But I realized once I was cutting, ‘Nah, it really has to be me.’ ”
Maya added, “He was so concerned about making our mom look good. It’s hard when you’re connected to this person.”
Maya is very close with her mom
In their interview with Elle, Maya and Mutsuko shared about the healing power of working on-screen together in PEN15. “I would sleep in my mom’s bed. I considered her to be my best friend. Then, as soon as I hit the sweet age of 13, I really began to lash out,” Maya said.
Mutsuko added that the series allowed the two to reconcile with their past fighting and build a better relationship moving forward. “I really felt fortunate and acknowledged,” she said of working on PEN15. “I still get in fights with Maya all the time; she makes me upset — because she’s so controlling and I’m so controlling — but this erases it.”
Beyond working together, Maya has said that she and Mutsuko have a very close relationship.
“My mom doesn’t like me living up in the Hills. But I’m going over to their house tomorrow to sleep over,” Maya added.
Mutsuko encouraged Maya to be proud of her Japanese heritage
Growing up with a Japanese mom and White dad wasn’t easy for Maya, a theme that was thoughtfully interrogated in PEN15. In real life, Mutsuko helped Maya have pride in her heritage.
“My mom would craft these beautiful bento box lunches ... but I just wanted to be like everyone else,” Maya told Elle. “I was ashamed of my Japanese side and obviously have come to now celebrate it, but it’s been a long journey.”
A big part of this acceptance was Mutsuko’s insistence on continuing to make Japanese food and educating her children on Japanese traditions. “Being able to learn more about my mother through the culture is really enriching for me as an adult,” Maya said.
“I hope I can be as good of a mother to him as my mom was to me,” Maya told Elle. “She’s already given him my childhood Japanese books for him to read — he’s a little young to understand that, but we are surrounding him with all of that.”
They are very supportive of Maya’s career
Both Peter and Mutsuko are very proud of their daughter and the work she has done.
Mutsuko has also spoken about her excitement for her daughter’s rising star. “I was really hopeful for their success,” Mutusko told Vulture of Maya and Konkle’s dreams for PEN15. “They were trying so hard. I’d like to help them out whatever I could.”
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