Me, a TV star? Never Have I Ever

In Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever, actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays Indian-American teen Devi who has a serious crush on high school classmate Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet).
In Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever, actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays Indian-American teen Devi who has a serious crush on high school classmate Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet).

At only 18 years old, Never Have I Ever star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan has become known around the world thanks to Netflix, but the Canadian teenager isn't letting any of the early success of the show go to her head.

"I think I'll always just be a girl from Mississauga," Ramakrishnan says when asked if she feels like a "superstar" after the show shot to No. 1 on Netflix when it recently dropped on the global streaming service. "No matter what, I think that'll always be my roots."

Ramakrishnan has been quarantining at home with her family in Canada instead of walking the red carpet in New York or Los Angeles to celebrate the coming-of-age comedy from co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher.

Kaling, the star of the US version of The Office, previously collaborated with Fisher on the comedy series The Mindy Project and Never Have I Ever is inspired by Kaling's early life as an Indian-American girl growing up in the US.

Ramakrishnan is still relishing in the excitement around the new show, which centres on her character Devi Vishwakumar, a first-generation Indian-American teen growing up in Southern California. Devi is a nerdy, hot-headed overachiever who desperately wants to be cool. And in addition to the ultra-relatable high school drama about fitting in, searching for love and trying to figure out who you are, Devi is also dealing with the sudden death of her father.

This is my first job ever. I never had a job before this. Mindy [Kaling] is my first boss.

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan

"It's awesome because I'm seeing so many people saying, 'Oh my God, I can relate to this so much'," Ramakrishnan says. "Whether it's something as simple as one of the arm hair jokes - because let's be real, even though I'm 100 per cent confident with my arm hair, there are days where I go up to my father and I say, 'Why did you do this to me? Why can't you give me anything else?' Or somebody saying, 'Thank you, this made me really realise I have some unpacking to do with the loss of a family member'. That's all I wanted from this show. Emmys for the cast, Emmys for the direction, a Nobel Peace Prize - I'm not opposed - but, in all seriousness, this is all I wanted from the show."

It's been a whirlwind since Ramakrishnan's first audition (recorded with her best friend at her local community centre) and beating 15,000 other actors to become the breakout star in a Mindy Kaling show: "This is my first job ever. I never had a job before this. Mindy is my first boss."

"Honestly, I don't think on set I ever felt like the star because my drama teacher always taught me if you're a star [or] if you're the lead of the show, that means s---. You do not matter that much. You are just the same as everyone else," she recalls.

"That was my mindset coming to set. I didn't think I was anything crazy special. One thing I won't forget is just having everybody be so kind to teach me everything that I asked. I asked so many questions. I wanted to learn everything - between hair and makeup to lighting and sound. My fellow actors, I love them so much because they're the ones that gave me the confidence to do the performance. I couldn't have done that just purely out of high school. A part of that process was my cast members being such great homies and supporting me."

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays Indian-American teen Devi in Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever.

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays Indian-American teen Devi in Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever.

Since Never Have I Ever landed on Netflix in late April, Ramakrishnan has been inundated with messages from fans who have fallen in love with the series and its diverse representation, especially given the fact that her character leads the series as a South Asian young woman.

"For a lot of people of color and the South Asian community - I can speak for myself here when I say that we're so used to being sidekicks, we're so used to being comedic relief," she explains.

"And sure, there's nothing wrong with being a sidekick or being funny or the comedic relief ... but it isn't OK when it's offensive and when that's all you get. Suddenly, all you're doing is you're seeing yourself as a sidekick, as not as important. And when you do relate to a character, they're usually Caucasian and then you realise you're living your life in the shadows as a person of colour and you're only able to see yourself through white characters, which is not totally OK either."

The show also promotes cultural sensitivity, which is especially important to the young Tamil-Canadian actor. "That active effort for Devi's name 'Vishwakumar' - to get that right, it's important because that's her name," she says. "You deserve to be called the way you want to be called, no matter what.

"Obviously Tamil names are super long. My entire full name - Maitreyi Ramakrishnan - I have 20 letters, but I do have my friends at school that just call me Ramakrishnan and they pronounce it correctly. I think names are so important.

"I think one of the greatest disrespects you can do to a person is not put the effort into somebody's name. Personally for me, I used to anglicise my name ... in high school. And then when I landed in LA, they were like, 'How do you say your name? Sorry, I don't want to mix it up.' And I'm like, 'Oh my God, this is my chance to reclaim my name' because I love my name. Why would I change it?"

As for a second season of the show, Ramakrishnan says she doesn't know anything yet, but she has dreams for Devi's future: "Three main things: understanding that she needs to be more appreciative of her family and her friends because her friends do a lot for her. Her friends really are her day ones. And also understanding where her mother's coming from. That is something that we'll be able to have a lot of audiences relate to, understanding where our parents are coming from even though they might not go about doing certain things the best way possible."

"Then also the idea of approaching that grief - confronting it, having that battle, even though it's something uncomfortable to think about, [but] actually just running toward it and facing it, dealing with it head on. And then number three, of course, embracing her culture because that is so important in a world where identity is everything. It's how you portray yourself. It's how you show yourself to the world and how everybody will view you, but also how you accept yourself. And I think if Devi does those magic three, she might be a little bit more at peace with herself."

Never Have I Ever

Netflix

This story Me, a TV star? Never Have I Ever first appeared on The Canberra Times.