Never Have I Ever's Maitreyi Ramakrishnan on hit Netflix show, working with Mindy Kaling, and diversity in Hollywood

18-year-old Maitreyi Ramakrishnan has found instant stardom with her breakout role in the Netflix show Never Have I Ever. 'I think identity is a conversation that happens irrespective of age, at 15, at 40 and 50,' she tells Udit Jhunjhunwala in an interview with Firstpost.

Udita Jhunjhunwala May 08, 2020 09:10:16 IST
Never Have I Ever's Maitreyi Ramakrishnan on hit Netflix show, working with Mindy Kaling, and diversity in Hollywood

At 18 years, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan has found instant stardom with her breakout role in the Netflix show Never Have I Ever. In self-quarantine with her family at home in Mississauga, Canada, the Sri Lankan origin teen is enjoying the reviews and reactions virtually.

Maitreyi plays the show’s central character, 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar, an Indian American nerd with rage issues, who is experiencing the growing pains associated with high school as well as the trauma of losing a parent prematurely and suddenly.

Landing the lead role in the show created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher meant that Maitreyi had to push back her plans for going to university. While she’s non-committal about plans for season 2 of the romcom, she’s hopeful that the streaming service will greenlight a second round so she can revisit the angry brown girl story once again while exploring varied roles that continue to champion South Asian representation in Hollywood.

Excerpts from an interview:

Never Have I Evers Maitreyi Ramakrishnan on hit Netflix show working with Mindy Kaling and diversity in Hollywood

'I think identity is a conversation that happens irrespective of age, at 15, at 40 and 50,' says Never Have I Ever star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Photo courtesy Vinsia Maharajah

Are you enjoying the response to the show and to your work?

Yes, there has been so much positive feedback and it’s amazing how many people are feeling seen through this show. Such as a girl saying, ‘Yo, that arm hair joke was hilarious because I feel insecure about my arm hair’. As much as we want to be confident about that kind of thing, some of us have those days when we think, ‘Damn, I wish it had just gone’. Also people from other backgrounds being able to relate to Devi’s grief, or others reaching out to other characters like Eleanor, Fabiola, Paxton or Ben — it’s cool that there’s something relatable.

There has been criticism as well. Were you prepared for the negative as well as the positive?

Whatever you do there will always be some haters out there. That’s life. Nothing you do can please every person out there. If we truly did create a show that pleases every person, it would just be fluff and would not be able to dive deep into anything.

What was it like auditioning for the part in Los Angeles? Was it terrifying?

My best friend sent me the information and said we should both try for it. We obviously auditioned wanting to do the role, but we didn’t actually think anything would come out of it because we are just in high school. In the end she didn’t get a part but she helped me through my whole audition process. I remember thinking Mindy could think I am the un-funniest person in the world and that I am a terrible actress, but it wouldn’t matter because I just had the best time of my life! So yes, honestly I was not really nervous or scared. It was a super exciting experience. I loved being on set. It was my version of Disney World.

Never Have I Evers Maitreyi Ramakrishnan on hit Netflix show working with Mindy Kaling and diversity in Hollywood

Stills from Never Have I Ever | Netflix

Never Have I Evers Maitreyi Ramakrishnan on hit Netflix show working with Mindy Kaling and diversity in Hollywood

The Vishwakumars are Tamil speaking. Do you speak Tamil?

My parents were born in Sri Lanka and eventually landed up in Canada where I was born. I don’t speak Tamil. I tried to learn in Tamil school but it didn’t really happen. So I understand it a little. My exposure was mainly whatever was at home or whatever cousins were watching or listening to. My favourite Tamil movie is Chandramukhi. As a kid I watched it on repeat. And I really like Nayanthara.

Which scenes are you most proud of?

I loved working with all the actors. They are such homies; just the best. Scene wise anything that had food in it made me so happy. I am not going to lie to you. But the scene I am most proud of comes at the end of episode 9 when Devi and [her] mom have a confrontation. That was really important because I think a lot of kids can relate to that tension with a parent, and it was a hard one to do because it was so real and raw. It’s the first scene we see where its 100 percent serious, no jokes added, which makes it very harsh.

And then there’s the John McEnroe voiceover and cameo. Did you know who he was when you got the part?

Honestly I didn’t. I had to Google him up! He was cool and chill, a normal dude.

I think he’s a really good choice for the narrator as he’s Devi’s dad’s favourite tennis player and it’s a shared experience between the father and Devi. But it’s also the closest thing she can have to having her dad in her head without fully confronting her feelings about his death.

We have seen an increasing number of South Asian/diaspora actors cast in significant roles such as in The Big Bang Theory, Silicon Valley, Quantico etc. What is your take on the discussion of representation?

We are used to seeing South Asian characters as sidekicks and we don’t dive into their culture or their experiences. We either shy away from it or put them as a side story, or a funny one-liner. I hope more people realise that they need to add realistic representation to their projects. What’s cool about our show is that the characters are not just at the centre but they are also messy, imperfect and have depth. I think identity is a conversation that happens irrespective of age, at 15, at 40 and 50. Some, like Devi, don’t really connect with their culture. This is something people go through, and it should be talked about.

What shows and movies do you like to watch?

The Office is my favourite. I also really like Brooklyn 99, Parks and Recreation and Community, on the one hand and on the other, I really like thrillers and docu-dramas. My favourites are When They See Us, Black Mirror and Get Out.

How realistic are you about opportunities in Hollywood?

Of course it is still hard to push for representation and find roles that are properly representative of South Asian characters, but we shouldn’t back off just because it’s hard. And the South Asian community isn’t known for backing down. We’ve gotten where we are because we are hustlers and we fight for what we want. So personally I am going to continue to do that in Hollywood to ensure I take up space. And I am not the only one. There are plenty of boys and girls from all over the world trying to get into this.

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