“What would happen if James Bond had a blister?” Maya Erskine wondered recently.
Erskine, 36, an actor and writer, has been thinking of hypotheticals like these ever since Donald Glover (“Atlanta,” “Swarm”) approached her about starring in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” the reboot of the 2005 action comedy.
That film, which starred Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, was a stylized, sexed-up spy story, in which newlyweds discover that each is an operative assigned to assassinate the other. This eight-episode series, created by Glover and the writer Francesca Sloane, arrives on Amazon Prime Video on Feb. 2. It trades some of that sex for a more faithful approach to marriage and espionage.
The new John and Jane Smith, played by Glover and Erskine, are spies hired by a shadowy organization to pose as a married couple. (Phoebe Waller-Bridge was initially announced as Glover’s co-star, but she left in 2021, citing creative differences.) While completing high-risk missions and racking up casualties, John and Jane are also achieving various relationship milestones — first date, first kiss, first vacation. Blisters and other minor injuries abound, as well as conversations about annoying eating habits and gas.
Erskine, best known as a creator of the Hulu comedy “PEN15,” in which she starred as a heightened version her seventh-grade self, was grateful or this less glamorous version. “It’s easier for me to not have to try to be attractive, because then I don’t fail,” she said. Then again, having spent three seasons in a bowl cut, almost any role would have felt chic by comparison. She also said that she thought that she and Glover were only average-looking, which was sweet.
During a video call from her sunlit Los Angeles home, Erskine, snacking on saltines, discussed acting, espionage and how the show, which begins and ends with multiple homicides, is essentially marriage propaganda. (The couple that slays together stays together?)
“It feels almost like this perfect marriage, because it’s partners having to really trust this other person, with life-or-death stakes,” she said. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you get involved with “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”?
The casting director Carmen Cuba reached out to my husband [the actor Michael Angarano], asking if she could give my number to Donald Glover. We talked a couple times before I really understood what he was asking of me. He was describing the tone of the show and what the show would be, how it would be different from the movie. I was like, “Great! Am I going to be a part of it? Like, what do you want from me in this? I’ll do it because I love you and I love the idea you’re proposing.” So I was really shocked when he told me that it would be to play Mrs. Smith.
When the show was first announced, Phoebe Waller-Bridge was set to play Jane. How did it feel to inherit the part?
I felt really nervous, because I admire her so much. I thought I was going to get to work with her. I was so excited! I still hope I can work with her one day. I’m just a different version of this. Donald and I are relatable in the sense that we look like you and your friends. There is a groundedness to these characters. They’re not perfect spies. I am someone who is drawn to the rejects, because I feel like one. My Jane is a reject in a lot of ways and very weird. There’s a good marriage between me and this character.
Who is Jane?
Jane is a really lonely person who is looking for connection but is scared to take the steps to find it. She’s been abandoned and she doesn’t really trust a lot of people. I like comparing her to a cat. She’s very independent. She’s very intelligent. She likes to have affection, but is quick to put her walls up. Any time there’s a chance to be vulnerable, it really scares her.
What is it like to play a character that closed off?
It’s hard, because I’m such an oversharer. That’s my tendency. Playing someone with so many guards up, you just want to release all the feelings that you’re bottling. There were some scenes where I got to and I just relished those, because for so long it felt like I was hiding stuff.
Did you ever worry that in playing someone so guarded you would come across as blank?
God, I hope not! That’s really one of my biggest fears. I never read the comments, but there was one comment on the trailer that was facing me at the top that was like, “Oh, does she just have one expression for this whole trailer?” I called Fran after. I was like, “Do you promise I have more expressions?”
I trained as an actor and so much of that training was about observing people, observing human behavior. Which felt a lot like spying. Would you make a good spy?
Actors and writers are spies. I mean, you have to be. I love people watching. That’s how I come up with characters. So I do think actors make good spies. And you’d better be a good actor as a spy, be able to convincingly lie and play other characters.
It’s good to know that if this actor-writer thing doesn’t work out, you have another option. Did this show teach you anything about spying?
It taught me about how to hold guns, how to shoot. I’m terrified of guns. I felt proud for not wincing every time I shot the gun. It taught me how to fight a little, or fake it at least. And it taught me how to lie better. I’m a really horrible liar.
John and Jane have never met until they’re forced to behave as a couple. Is that a little like acting? You’re complete strangers and then suddenly you’re on set kissing?
Yeah, it definitely mirrors acting. For us, it worked really well, because we filmed in order, at least in the beginning. Donald and I were getting to know each other off camera, trust was building. It really informed the chemistry, the tension that’s between us onscreen. But yeah, acting is so weird. It’s a lot of forced intimacy right away.
How do you not catch feelings in those circumstances?
Intimacy scenes on set are never intimate. I have such strong boundaries. I’m in love with my person, that’s that. When it happens for other people, because I know it does sometimes, there’s probably a lot of extenuating circumstances happening behind the scenes. It doesn’t feel like a huge temptation to me, because it’s so clear that it’s just acting. It’s easy to get swept up in the moment. But then when you let it go, you’re like, oh yeah, this is real life.
Didn’t you meet your husband through work?
Yes, we did meet through work, but not through working on set together. He offered me a movie and I accepted it, then we stayed friends until finally we just couldn’t stay friends anymore. We ended up falling in love, having a kid, getting married. Then we just this past year made the movie.
What do you think “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is saying about marriage?
It has a very hopeful and positive outlook on marriage. This show is saying: Life is really hard, and it’s really nice to have someone to go through it with. We’re rooting for these two characters to be those people for each other, because they’re just really lonely people who need to find their person to get through life with.