How Maya Erskine’s ‘Plus One’ Character Subverts The Perky Rom-Com Leading Lady Stereotype
When we first meet Maya Erskine's character Alice in the new romantic comedy Plus One, which opens in select theaters and on digital and VOD on June 14, she's drunk and insulting the man standing in front of her. Her friend Ben (Jack Quaid) is practicing his Best Man speech before a wedding, and Alice can't help but nag him while he does it. In fact, for the first few scenes of the movie, Alice is in various stages of drunkenness, ranging from slightly buzzed to almost blacked out. Highlighting one of her least charming aspects is an interesting and surprising way to be introduced to a rom-com heroine, but Erskine likes that Plus One doesn't play it safe.
"I think it was a risky, risky way to start a story," the actor says over the phone in late May of Alice's drunken introduction. "Because you just might not like these two characters. A lot of people, at first aren't sure if they liked Alice, because she's just drunk and giving this guy sh*t."
Erskine, who co-created and co-stars in the Hulu comedy PEN15, in which she plays a version of her 13-year-old self, plays someone much closer to her own age in Plus One. The movie tells the story of two college friends, Alice and Ben, who decide to be each other's plus one dates at the multitude of wedding they have to attend over the course of one spring and summer. The story hits on the emotional roller coaster that is the quarter-life crisis of watching your formerly irresponsible friends begin settling down, seemingly leaving their youth behind and getting over relationship hangups from their college years. Plus One focuses on two characters who still feel caught up in their own baggage, but they manage to find their way to each other in typical rom-com fashion anyway.
"They're just instantly at odds with one another, and you're thinking these two shouldn't be together at all and [then] you're watching them develop as flawed human beings before they fall in love," Erskine says. "That was really alluring to me as I read the script. I loved that we got to see Alice at her messiest state right in the beginning and then develop into a more together woman." She calls Plus One "subversive" because it doesn't depict a fairy tale coupling, but a relationship with problems that aren't insignificant. "But you're still rooting for them, because you got to see them be separate beings," she adds. "You got to see them be friends, and then fall in love."
Starting with that sloppy introduction of its female lead, Erskine says, Plus One allows Alice to evolve over the course of the film. She starts out the movie having just been dumped. She's a heartbroken, intoxicated, sarcastic mess, yet she locates her happiness again.
"Playing drunk is one of the scariest things to do because it can easily be over the top, and you're trying to catch something that's different for every person," the actor says, adding that she focused on Alice's emotional state over her physical one. "Not every person slurs, not every person moves around all over the place. I had to find a specific place to be with her and find an arc. But this isn't just who she is as a person, it's just one facet of many dimensions."
Alice is allowed as much time as she needs to lash out, drink, and have one-night-stands before moving on completely from her breakup. And she's never punished or demonized for her "bad" behavior. She's a part of an encouraging sea change we're seeing on film and TV, including Erskine's own series, which involves rectifying the existing double standard for male and female characters. And she's enthusiastic about the progress that's been made.
"Thank god," Erskine says when we talk about the trend of" "unlikable" women we're seeing on screen lately. "I hope I always embrace characters that are more than just a one-dimensional prop."
And Alice is definitely not that. We all experience lows when we're not that pleasant to be around, but Plus One shows that those moments don't have to be the ones that define you, or make you unlovable.