Seventh grade is tough — even more so for young girls, who must navigate new social hierarchies, body changes and the disbelief of adults around them.
This is the exact adolescent phase that “Pen15” — a Hulu dramedy created by Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle — focuses on, giving us an unflinching look at a demographic that rarely gets screen time.
And what’s a nightmare middle school experience without an older brother to help you along? They get guidance from Maya’s cool older brother, Shuji, played by 19-year-old Dallas Liu.
The second season of Pen15, which comes to Hulu on Friday, digs even deeper into these themes.
The show also shines a particular light on Asian American coming-of-age, as Maya navigates her peer’s exotification of her Japanese American heritage. Shuji is with her every step of the way—delivering tough love, words of wisdom, and advice about dealing with microaggressions.
Erskine and Konkle, both in their 30s, star as their adolescent selves, navigating normally taboo subjects like first kisses, getting their periods, and masturbation.
Liu talked to NBC Asian America about finding character inspiration in his relationship with his own little brother, as well as his dream future roles.
NBC Asian America: How have you been holding up? Are you currently navigating going back to school? Or are you doing school from home?
Dallas Liu: I’m doing everything from home — all schooling in California is online. It’s tough. I just started school … I will say taking a math class on Zoom probably wasn’t the best, but you just got to work with what you’ve got.
NBC Asian America: I’m really excited to talk to you about “Pen15” —what drew you to the role of Shuji, and what led you to audition in the first place?
Liu: It was actually a fact that I could just connect with Shuji’s character on such a personal level. I also am an older brother, and the age difference between Shuji and Maya is very similar to the one I have with my brother. And just the sort of love-hate relationship in the dynamic they have. It’s just so personal and so similar to what I have in real life.
I was just acting like myself when it came time to shoot, because I’m still really close with my brother, we pretty much go through everything together.
NBC Asian America: I really appreciate Shuji’s willingness to call out Maya when she’s being a little brat, this season, and then being able to bounce back by the end in a really nice, older brotherly way. That felt authentic.
Liu: That’s actually another thing that I drew from my personal life, because I’ve had to give those talks to my brother on multiple occasions. So that that one was natural for me.
NBC Asian America: How old is your little brother?
Liu: He’s 16.
NBC Asian America: Given you’ve drawn from your personal life, I’m curious about how much you’ve been able to actively shape your character.
Liu: If I have some input—maybe a different line, or how he should be standing—it happens on set while we’re shooting. As far as what goes into the actual script, the writing itself, I’m not very involved with that. But honestly, in all the scenes that we shoot, we tend to do a little improv, just to kind of shake things up. And sometimes they make the cut and sometimes they don’t. Maya [Erskine] and Anna [Konkle] are great actors. So getting to work with them is just so fun.
NBC Asian America: Are there any favorite moments you’ve improvised on?
Liu: I think the one that made it was when I pulled out my middle finger out of my pocket. That was just for giggles you know, just having fun.
NBC Asian America: The show also gets pretty real—I remember in season one, your character basically teaches Maya about racism. Were those moments particularly hard to shoot?
Liu: It wasn’t hard to shoot, but it was just very real for us.
NBC Asian America: So did you grow up taking acting classes? Or is this a pivot for you?
Liu: Before I got into acting, I was doing karate—my manager actually found me through some YouTube videos. She contacted my instructor, who has experience in the industry. When I sent her my first self tape audition she told me that I didn’t need acting classes, and that it would be better if I went to a private instructor for when I needed auditions, or I wanted to get some coaching. I’ve been to acting classes before but I prefer that one-on-one type of situation.
NBC Asian America: Was it nerve-wracking walking onto the “Pen15” set for the first time?
Liu: Oh, no, honestly, I was having a blast. I was so excited. I mean, any opportunity that comes my way I’m gonna give it my everything, do my homework, and look over everything. So when I was on the Pen15 set I was prepared. I was ready for whatever they had coming my way.
NBC Asian America: Is it weird playing an older brother to someone who’s technically older than you? (Maya and Anna are both in their 30s.)
Liu: When I first went in for the callback, that’s where I met Maya. It was unusual to me at first, I was like, “Huh, I wonder how this is gonna play out in the show.” But once I got on set, and they were in wardrobe with the bowl cut and the braces, I knew it was going to be fun.
I also think the fact that they surrounded themselves with actual 13-year-olds is extremely funny. A lot of people, when they watch the first episode will be like, “Oh, the age difference.” But the more you get into it, you really start to understand the comedy.
NBC Asian America: Are there any plotlines you’re hoping for Shuji or any particular scenes you’d like to do in the future?
Liu: I think it’d be fun to dive into Shumji’s personal life and how he goes about being a teenager in middle school, you know? I feel like we get glimpses of him.
NBC Asian America: That would be nice. Especially in Hollywood, where the cool older brother archetype is rarely Asian American. Does it feel nice defying those stereotypes?
Liu: It might be uncommon for some people to see on TV, but I mean, we’re such a diverse country. Asians are something like, half of the population on this earth? It’s good to see it on screen. It feels good.
NBC Asian America: What dream roles would you like to do in the future?
Liu: I really want to do a superhero one. I think that would be fun just because I did martial arts for such a long time that it has really become part of who I am and how I handle things. I think getting to do my own stunts and own fight choreography would be super cool.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.