Maya Erskine Leaves Kid’s Stuff Behind To Play A Spy And A Samurai In ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ And ‘Blue Eye Samurai’

Though she struggled with a sense of identity in her youth, Maya Erskine is now right where she belongs, starring in two hit shows. From playing a fierce undercover spy in Prime Video’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, to a roving warrior on a quest for vengeance in Netflix’s Blue Eye Samurai, Erskine’s career goes from strong to stronger. Initially known for breakout cringe comedy PEN15, Erskine left behind her portrayal of the charmingly crude adolescence of a seventh-grade girl for the dangerous worlds of espionage and Edo Japan. Here, the actor opens up about identity, vulnerability and playing complicated women on television.

DEADLINE: I read that you didn’t do a chemistry read for Mr. & Mrs. Smith. What was the process of being cast on the show? 

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MAYA ERSKINE: It started with phone calls from Donald [Glover]. Carmen Cuba, the casting director said, “Can I give your number to Donald?” And everything was so esoteric. We just FaceTimed a couple times and towards the end of the FaceTime, he was like, “I’m working on this project,” and he described the pilot and tone but didn’t say what my involvement would be. I really didn’t know until the third call that I was potentially being asked to play Jane.

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DEADLINE: Was there a key physicality that helped you unlock your portrayal that differed from the film adaptation of Mr. & Mrs. Smith starring Angelina Jolie?

ERSKINE: It was a couple things. One, I had just had a baby, so I had to get strong. My body was a total wreck, and I didn’t feel like I was in my body after birth. It took a long time to come back from that. So that was the foundation of becoming this character. I was like, “OK, get strong in the gym.” So that was step number one, and that made a huge difference. And then I think in terms of how Jane was different from the others, I think she holds herself up. There’s just a little bit more closed-offness in her. And so, in the physicality that’s represented, she’s not loose, she’s not in the moment. She’s very controlled. So that was a big part of my physicality that I feel like might have been different. And also, that she’s just completely a mess in a lot of ways too. She’s not a perfect spy. So, there was no pressure to get to Angelina Jolie’s status, because they’re not that. They’re just these people who happen to sign up for this job and get it.

Donald Glover and Maya Erskine in <em>Mr. & Mrs. Smith</em>.
Donald Glover and Maya Erskine in Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

DEADLINE: Also, something different is the discussion of culture and race in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which also bleeds into Blue Eye Samurai. Both shows center around biracial Japanese protagonists. How did your own perception of race play into your experience growing up and your acting career? 

ERSKINE: There’s such a clear connection for Blue Eye Samurai because the show is all about dealing with being mixed race, which I am. But what’s interesting is that it subverts what you normally see. Because it’s usually a mixed-race person trying to hide their Asian part. I would be trying to hide my Japanese part, but she’s trying to hide the white part of her. And that’s something we don’t see all the time. Growing up in the States, I felt like I didn’t have anyone I could look at as “Oh you’re me, we look like each other.” I didn’t have that touchstone. And then when I would go to Japan, I wouldn’t be Japanese enough. So, there was no place for me to exist as just a person.

In terms of how it affects roles, I’ve always just felt like an outsider. So that’s how I’m drawn to roles and characters. Anytime someone doesn’t feel like they fully fit into the mold of society that’s my way in, that’s what I’m drawn to in stories. I do feel in Mr. & Mrs. Smith when they do talk about race, they’re also talking about how they don’t fit in in general. They’re not the perfect mold for these spies. In Jane’s life, I don’t think she ever had a sense of what her identity was. So, the whole show is her searching for that and finding her place in the world.

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DEADLINE: The couples therapy episode is quite a turning point for Jane and John’s relationship. It really encapsulates how different the two are. John is the far more emotionally vulnerable one, and Jane, while well meaning, is quite cold. What is your take on their dynamic?

ERSKINE: I think their dynamic is interesting because they are both triggers for each other’s insecurities, but they are also good mirrors for each other to really show what the other person is like. And it’s this weird, arranged marriage where if they met on the street, they would never probably date each other. But because they are in this situation, they do end up getting to know each other. And they may not be perfect for each other on paper, but they do form a bond where they build real trust, even though they’re lying to each other a lot, in the beginning. But they have to form trust because they’re putting their lives in each other’s hands. So, there’s real trust there. And in terms of their dynamic, I think that Jane isn’t good at showing her vulnerability. So, her guard is up a lot, and part of that guard maybe comes across as emasculating the other person, so that she can feel like she’s in control. And that’s obviously a big trigger for him.

It’s interesting that they’re a couple that work together. That can be great. But there are so many dynamics that come up when you’re working with your partner; your pride, your ego, all of those things you have to wrestle with. In this version, Jane ends up being the one who is more successful, getting promoted on the side, while John cares less about that. Their dynamic mirrors relationships that are happening all the time without all the spy stuff. It’s done in such a great way, the way they wrote it against the spy backdrop, it makes the stakes weirdly relatable even though these are life and death stakes.

Maya Erskine interview
Erskine as Mizu in Blue Eye Samurai.

DEADLINE: Speaking of Blue Eye Samurai, that also has some pretty high stakes. What’s so interesting though, out of all the other voicework you’ve done, this one certainly looks kid friendly, but it actually isn’t at all. It’s got violence, nudity, swearing, spying. What drew you to it?

ERSKINE: I love that this project was going to be me playing a character where I could really change my voice. That was an exciting challenge for me because I knew I couldn’t just sound like myself. I’d have to actually do work to make my voice deeper so that they wouldn’t try to change it in post. I was excited about the writing by Michael Green and Amber Noizumi and the idea of the show because I’d never seen animation done like that. I almost wish I could play this in person, because it’s so rich, but it was perfect for how it was made. I really think that was the right choice to make it animated.

Mizu is this character who is grappling with so many obstacles in her way, and that felt like it was going to be fun to play. She has to seek revenge, but she’s not allowed to as a woman, so she has to do it as a man. So, she has to hide as a man, and then she also has to hide that she’s part white and that she’s going after her white father. There’s just so much to it, so it felt really rich.

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DEADLINE: Both you and Donald come from this quirky comedy background, but you’re both showing a different side of yourselves in  Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Especially in your portrayal of Jane, who is very guarded. Was it vulnerable for you to step into this more serious space to portray her? 

ERSKINE: It was vulnerable for me to try a role that felt so different from what I was so used to. I was in PEN15 for so long, and once you do that for a while, you start to really get comfortable in that space, and you want to live in that character forever. And then this is such a departure and such a different character and that, of course, is scary to jump into.

I’m quite the opposite of Jane in terms of that she holds so much in, and I’m someone who overshares and I need to be so close with people that it’s almost unhealthy. But with her, there’s this other unhealthy extreme of just keeping everything so locked up that it’s an uncomfortable spot to be in for a long time. And so that was hard for me to really hold a lot in and still have a lot going on underneath it all.

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DEADLINE: Mr. & Mrs. Smith’s ending is so ambiguous. What was your take on it?

ERSKINE: I knew from the moment we started filming the pilot what was going to happen, we knew how it was going to end. That they would do the truth serum. That the final shot would be the three gunshots, all of that. I loved it because I always love an ending that’s a cliffhanger where the audience can make their own conclusion. [Co-creator] Fran [Sloane] says, “Depending on how you view life, if you’re a glass half-full, glass half- empty, that’s going to probably point you towards what you think happens with John and Jane.” And I love that. Donald directed that episode, I loved filming it, his actual mom plays his mom in it, and I got to have a scene with her.

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I’ve got to say it was terrifying to film that truth serum scene because it was trying to figure out what does truth serum do to your body? Is it like MDMA? Euphoria? So, trying to come up with that and playing it as truthfully as you could, and it was such a release and so cathartic to finally, as this character, just say everything that she was holding in, because I knew all of that inside, but I couldn’t say it.

DEADLINE: Where would you like to see Season 2 of Mr. & Mrs. Smith go? 

ERSKINE: Trick question because I can’t say if it includes our John and Jane. But I will say that I would want to see how their relationship evolves and what other challenges would come up against a couple in their situation. Do they have kids? Do they not have kids? Do those issues come up? If it is a new couple, and we are not in it, I would want to see just a different kind of Mr. & Mrs. Smith again, just have it completely different and explore a whole new set of relationships. That would be exciting.

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