In a star making role, Maya Erskine plays the titular character Jane Smith, opposite Donald Glover in Amazon Prime’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” reimagining of the 2005 film that created the “Brangelina” pop culture phenomenon. In this fresh take created by Francesca Sloane and Donald Glover, we see a very different portrayal of John and Jane as the eight-episode season takes audiences on a journey from their first meeting after accepting their somewhat ambiguous professional assignments to a cliffhanger conclusion that leaves their survival and fate as a couple unknown.

The new series takes audiences through the ups and downs of developing and maintaining a relationship despite differing personal and professional ambitions. Shot mostly in New York and Italy, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” carries a glamorous aesthetic befitting of a world of espionage that is pumped up by several guest appearances by actors such as Paul Dano, John Turturro, Sarah Paulson, Michaela Cole, Parker Posey and Ron Perlman. Yet it’s Maya who shines in a role that combines her comedic gifts with her great dedication to mastering the nuances and physicality of the characters she plays.

Maya was previously best known for her work on “Pen15”, a comedy series that aired for two seasons on Hulu that she co-created, wrote and starred in. She has several other cinema and television credits to her name including several roles as a voice actor for such shows as the recent critically acclaimed hit “Blue Eye Samurai” in which she voices the part of Mizu.

Maya recently spoke with Awards Focus on several topics including how she was able to create on-camera chemistry with co-star Donald Glover, a perhaps surprising reference she drew from and what being cast for the role of Jane means to her and the inspiration she hopes it brings others.

Awards Focus: Since you were most known to audiences for your comedic writing and acting in “Pen15”, many were surprised when you were cast in the role of Jane Smith in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. How did you end up getting cast in the role of Jane? Did you have to audition?

Maya: No. I didn’t know anyone except for Hiro [Murai]. We had met before to discuss if maybe we should work together as we were like both fans of each other. But no, it was actually Carmen Cuba, the casting director, that texted me and asked “Can I give your number to Donald [Glover]?” And she didn’t specify what it was for what it was. I was assuming Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but I really thought, oh, maybe they want me to play like a small role. And from what I’ve heard Donald, Francesca [Sloane] and Hiro all kind of came to that decision separately when they were thinking of recasting. And so it all just came together and that’s how it happened. No audition or anything. 

Awards Focus: That is super interesting, especially since this show doesn’t work unless there’s amazing chemistry between the Smiths, right? How did you all know there would be chemistry between you and Donald?

Maya: I think it’s always sort of a risk. And I did ask if we’re really not doing a chemistry read, because what if we don’t have chemistry? I think that’s why it started off with just conversations between me and Donald. Donald was probably just trying to get a sense of who I was as a person and what I was going to be like to work with? Because we didn’t know each other, it was a risk.

But I remember when we did our first read through, just Hiro, Fran, Donald and I, and afterwards, they kind of looked at each other and they’re like, okay, I think this is going to work. And then, it felt like we had five of those moments after filming the first day. You know, it was kind of lucky we did. We could have easily not had chemistry and it could have been a massive problem and they would have had to probably recast. 

Awards Focus: Reflecting on the chemistry between you and Donald, was there a particular scene that, when you saw it on screen, made you feel that you had truly nailed it?

Maya: I never have that feeling of yes, we nailed it because I just can’t ever feel that way. But, what I love about this show is that there’s different aspects of our chemistry. It’s not just they get along well or they have a sexual chemistry. It feels like there’s so many colors to our chemistry in this show, which is part of why I love it. In the beginning, it’s a very specific kind of chemistry of two strangers getting to know each other, but there’s something still there that’s brewing, and then it evolves and all of a sudden, he’s making fun of me farting. And that chemistry is really an exciting chemistry. There are so many different levels of it. I love our chemistry fighting. I think the fight scene in the woods in the therapy episode (Episode 6: Couples Therapy) is one of my favorite moments of chemistry because I feel we come at each other and get under each other’s skin in a such a unique way.

Awards Focus: Were any scenes improvised? Do you have a favorite example?

Maya: Yes, that fart scene in Episode 3 was. I mean, it was written that it was going to happen but Fran had it written that Donald would be the one who farted. But I asked, “Can I please be the one who does it and he has the reaction?”  So, she re-wrote it but he still improvised all of that reaction – making fun of me was all ad-libbing by him. That’s very Donald. It’s a great scene because to see someone who’s so held together and keeps everything contained, and then she farts. What does she do in that situation? It’s just a nice way to show her vulnerability and also show that he still loves her. 

Awards Focus: Given the history of other actresses playing Jane in previous cinematic versions of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, most famously Angelina Jolie, what did you want to bring unique to your portrayal of the titular character? 

Maya: I try not to compare. I was just focusing on this as its own singular story. Even though it is a remake, I think there was such a clear intention with this way of telling the show that it felt like a very clear character to me – a very clear tone, a very specific point of view. I think for me, I always just try to approach characters with authenticity. So, it was what is the most truthful way to be this person. And what are all the specifics that I can get into to make it deeper and more nuanced? That’s just always how I like to approach characters. 

Awards Focus: Was there any influence or inspiration outside of the Smiths world? 

Maya: Yeah, I watched a lot. I watched “The Conversation”. I watched Gene Hackman in “The French Connection”. I watched “Scenes from a Marriage.” and “Annie Hall”. I like all these movies. 

A big one for me that I always reference is Sigourney Weaver in “Alien”. There’s something about her performance because Jane is someone who also has to contain a lot in the beginning and doesn’t express all of her emotions. She doesn’t express the truth. She’s constantly playing the scene in different ways. I felt really inspired by Sigourney Weaver and how she has so much fear underneath the containment and the calmness. That’s something that I was really interested in. 

Award Focus: The character of Jane is a very physically challenging role. How did you prepare? What was that like for you? 

Maya: I had just given birth when they approached me about it and my body was a total wreck as it was my first time having a baby. They were like, are you sure you want to do this? So, I had to definitely get into training and learn how to handle guns and all that. And I actually learned to love the strength training and now still continue with it because I loved it so much. It actually made my life better but I was definitely opposed to it at first since I’m not a gym rat. But to get to play someone like Jane, realistically, I knew I had to get to a place of strength. I have to be able to do push-ups. I can’t just lay on the floor like I want to. 

Awards Focus: Was there a scene or episode that was particularly demanding?

Maya: I guess it was the final episode. We had the most movement – hand-to-hand combat, a lot of running, such as the running on the High Line. There were just so many different choreographed fights. So that was probably the most physically demanding, but also the most fun for me to do. I loved it. 

Awards Focus: Do you think you’ll do more action in the future?

Maya: Maybe. We’ll see. Weirdly, I found that aspect of this show really exciting and exhilarating because I am such a physical actor. I love movement. It was so freeing and liberating. It was great!

Awards Focus: What did it mean to you to play a role like this as an actress who is half Japanese?

Maya: It’s amazing. I loved that I wasn’t picked because I was Asian. That didn’t factor into it. I was just being looked at as an actor and as a person. And that was so big for me. And then to be able to play such an iconic role as Jane. Angelina Jolie played it in the movie! I would never, ever have thought I could play Jane one day. I just wouldn’t even think of it. So, it’s exciting to me that I can say I just did this and that maybe someone else that looks like me might say I could do that too. Wow. I didn’t have that as a kid, you know? 

Awards Focus: There are a lot of great guest actors in this series. Was there one you enjoyed working with or learning from the most?

Maya: It was just great to work with all of them. I love all of these actors. I think what was surprising was that I was so intimidated before, but then once I was on set, it just felt like we had all worked together before. It felt so easy. 

I really loved how Parker [Posey] in between takes had an ability to keep the energy up. It was just so engaging and contagious. That is not my usual so it was really cool to see and maybe I could use that, but I don’t know. 

Awards Focus: Season 1 ends on a cliffhanger where it’s unclear whether Jane or John survive. And of course, we learn during the season that there are other Smiths operating so it’s set up that future seasons could conceivably feature different actors playing the role of Jane and John. So big question, will we see you in Season 2? 

Maya: So the way I have to talk about it and I have to be careful is just that it’s a cliffhanger for a reason. That’s the fun of it. We just want to keep it ambiguous and we’re not going to say either way because it’s no fun. It’s like opening presents before, Christmas. That’s kind of how Fran puts it, which I thought was a great analogy because, yeah, why would we spoil it now? 

Awards Focus: What other projects are on your horizon besides baby number two? 

Maya: Right now, I’m writing the show “The Perfect Nanny”, a drama for HBO that would star myself and Nicole Kidman if it goes. But that feels like a long way away. I’m still writing that and just writing a couple other things and we’ll see where things are after I have the baby. I’d like to work with fun filmmakers that I love, write more and maybe even direct. I don’t know, we’ll see.