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‘Never Have I Ever’: Giving Teens a Heroine to Love in a World of Diversity and Warmth

Star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan wants to subvert audience expectations in Mindy Kaling's Netflix show.

Maitreyi Ramkrishnan, Richa Moorjani, Poorna Jagannathan

“Never Have I Ever”

Netflix

You always remember the teen series or movie that changed your life, the one that acted as a guidebook — whether true or untrue — for how high school and life was meant to be. The era of John Hughes has now segued into more high-octane teen programming like the salacious “Riverdale” or “Euphoria”, shows that don’t feel like relatable high school guidebooks but cautionary tales. It’s what’s makes watching the Mindy Kaling-created series “Never Have I Ever” so refreshing. In an era of peak teen programming, Kaling’s high schoolers are played by teens and, more importantly, showcase a world of diversity and warmth.

And that relatable quality is embodied in the series’ leading lady, 17-year-old newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who plays lead character Devi Vishwakumar. To speak to the Canadian actress is like talking to your best friend from high school. As series co-creator Lang Fisher tells IndieWire, this sentiment was what attracted her and Kaling to Ramakrishnan’s audition tape. “We both wanted to try to find the real deal [an actual teen]” Fisher said. The pair were seeking a female version of Jonah Hill’s character from the feature “Superbad” and Ramakrishnan “was so brash and had this raspy voice. [She] was just a tough little punk,” Fisher said.

But Ramakrishnan has a slightly different view of her discovery. She confesses that, in all honesty, she wasn’t initially drawn to answering Kaling’s worldwide casting call. “I wanted to hang out with my best friend,” Ramakrishnan told IndieWire. After Googling how to film their video audition — “Google is my friend,” the teen said — the pair used Ramakrishnan’s mother’s camera to make her audition video. “I read the script just as if I was auditioning for my drama teacher back in high school,” she said.

15,000 girls would similarly answer Kaling’s call with the “Office” actress and Fisher whittling down the number. Ramakrishnan would send two videos and after sending them “didn’t think anything would come out of it, whatsoever.” She presumed more experienced actresses would be considered. “A week after I sent the original video I got an email asking for more videos,” Ramakrishnan said. “When I got that [email] my reaction was ‘Oh, the bar must have been set low.'”

Humor is the story of her life when it comes to “Never Have I Ever” because when she was finally offered the role of Devi she missed the call, assuming it was spam. “I [eventually] get an email saying ‘you didn’t pick up your phone but wondering your availability to come out to L.A.,” she said. A week after Ramakrishnan’s arrival in L.A., she did a final “chemistry check” with everyone and was then signing contracts.

And now that the series is preparing to air the surreal nature of her situation hasn’t evaporated. “Having this interview….[that] this is my life is insane to me,” she said. And she hopes that audiences will see Devi as a new kind of nerdy heroine.

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Poorna Jagannathan, Richa Moorjani

“Never Have I Ever”

Netflix

For Ramakrishnan, she wants to subvert what audiences’ expect to see when they look at a nerd. “She’s [Devi] is a nerd but she’s not some weird loner who has no friends” she said. “Give the character a goddamn best friend!” She also appreciates the character’s cockiness and ability to say what she wants, specifically when it comes to her burgeoning relationship with school cutie Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet). “We’ve seen that story of the ordinary girl next door who hooks up with the hot guy…but in this story, in the first episode this girl says, ‘Hey, can we have sex?'” she said.

Outside of upending the Hughes-ian glimpse at high school, Ramakrishnan also wants to present an intelligent young woman of color. “How I relate to Devi the most is understanding where you fit in your culture,” she said. An entire episode devoted to the Hindu Ganesh Puja ceremony stands out as particularly unique, especially for Ramakrishnan who hadn’t seen any television shows present a teen girl in a half-sari before. “I never saw that when I grew up and now my little cousin –—she’s 10 years younger than me — is gonna see that and think, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ And I’m so proud to be able to say that’s my culture.” The young actress also wants to break barriers by getting into directing down the line. “I was originally going to university for acting, but now I’m focusing on directing…to learn more and more about the whole field of film,” she said.

When asked where she hopes the series will go with regards to Devi’s character, Ramakrishnan remains as bubbly and progressive as she’s been when discussing her culture. When asked which boy she would want Devi to end up with, she replied: “I want her to love herself,” she said. “A lot of people don’t love themselves and that’s heartbreaking because…you are stuck with yourself. So why wouldn’t you want to be your own best friend?”

“Never Have I Ever” premieres on Netflix on April 27.

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