In the trailer of “Never Have I Ever,” we see high school sophomore Devi attend a house party, clash with grown-ups and dream about having sex for the first time — the makings of a classic teen show.
The lead-up to getting this on screen, however, has been less than traditional. In April 2019, actor Mindy Kaling announced she would be holding an open casting call for the lead in her then-unnamed Netflix series. The lead would be a South Asian girl between the ages of 15 and 18 and the show would be loosely based on Kaling’s life. Over 15,000 people responded.
In July, Kaling announced she cast 18-year-old Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, a young Tamil Canadian actress, in her first on-screen role.
We paired up Ramakrishnan with Malavika Kannan, a 19-year-old author and community organizer. Both Ramakrishnan and Kannan’s families are Tamil, and both have experience being among the only South Asians in their fields.
They chatted about Ramakrishnan’s character, the names they went by in high school and the complexity of nerds. “Never Have I Ever” is available to stream on April 27.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Malavika Kannan: So I’m going to be honest: when I heard that [“Never Have I Ever”] was happening, the first thing I did was stalk you on Instagram. I fell in love with your Instagram bio: “Respect existence or expect resistance.” Why did you pick that?
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: First of all, it’s wordplay, so that’s pretty cool. But it’s talking about letting people be who they are and accepting them. And if you don’t, you’re going to have to expect resistance. You should stand up for who you are and identify however you want to in this world.
MK: Definitely. And lately we’ve been seeing a lot of resistance across the world from young people like us. What has that meant to you?
MR: Youth are seeing problems in the world and not wanting to just sit down and wait until we grow up to do something about it. We find our voice, we use our platforms — whether it’s social media or organizing rallies and marches — and we go out and do something about it. My parents were refugees from Sri Lanka. But my identity is being a first-generation Tamil Canadian, and realizing that I’m also a settler on Canadian soil, I need to make sure I give back. I’m fighting for the rights of all people and finding my voice.
MK: “Never Have I Ever” puts teenage girls front and center. What does that mean to you, to portray this complex 15-year-old girl named Devi?
MR: Well, I think it’s awesome, because it can break stereotypes about teenage girls. We’re not all about the glitz and glamour, but not all teenage girls are all angsty and rough. There’s not one textbook teenage girl, and people will realize that we’re just human.
MK: The show does grapple with a lot of very teenage topics. Like identity, sex, and her future.
MR: I got the role at the perfect age. I’m not so [far] from Devi’s age to not remember how it felt, but I’m not too young to be so naive about it. I’m just able to look back and reflect on my life, cringe on it, and bring that to Devi.
MK: What is that like, to bring yourself into Devi?
MR: Figuring out where I land in my culture, figuring out where I belong — that was something I could really relate with Devi. For me, figuring out what being Tamil means to me only really happened during high school.
MK: I felt that, too. For me, high school was when I came to terms with my Tamilness. I didn’t have a lot of other Tamil people in my high school. Did you? I really feel like our generation is creating this new model of what it means to be Tamil.
MR: I really like that: the new model of Tamil. You’re totally right, we’re forming a new model. I think that model, at its core, is whatever you feel it to be. It’s not if you know the language. It’s whatever it means to you.
MK: Still, when we think about how brown kids have been portrayed in the media, it’s been a lot of nerds and math gods. Mindy recently said in an interview that she’s “fighting for the evolution of the nerd,” permitting nerds to be complex and imperfect and obnoxious in their own right. I’m curious to know how you bring that into your role as Devi.
MR: I try to think I’m a pretty spunky, loud and confident person. But in high school I definitely had straight As. I wasn’t the stereotypical as-seen-on-TV nerd who’s introverted, unsocial and awkward. That’s the nerd that’s been portrayed for so long, especially when the nerd is of color. But realistically, nerds are some of the coolest freaking people. They’re going to rule the world. Like, we have the power of knowledge. Fight us.
MK: That’s true. In the show, there’s so much that Devi wants outside of getting As. She has complex desires. And with Devi, we can’t separate those desires from her brownness. After watching the show, what is something you wish more people knew about being a brown teenage girl?
MR: That it’s not a weird, totally mystical experience. It’s really similar to a lot of teenage girls. At its core, we are still awkward little human beings trying to find our way through high school.
MK: We are all so awkward! When I watched the trailer with my friends, we were laughing about Devi’s desire to get a boyfriend. That was absolutely hilarious, because for Indian girls, those kinds of desires are not things we’re allowed to voice aloud — but Devi does it anyway.
MR: I love that opening scene. Like you said, that’s the story for a lot of Desi girls out there. And I love the relationship Devi has with God. It’s casual, relaxed, and she doesn’t feel embarrassed to say these things.
MK: Still, there’s this huge taboo against brown girls having sexual agency and desire.
MR: Oh my god, yes. I love that Devi is the one out there pushing to confront her sexual desires. She’s out here, with her questions, and she’s ready to go, and I love that. In movies and films we always see the guy making his way through high school to get a girlfriend and lose his virginity — but the girl is just waiting there? Girls have the exact same thoughts. She’s questioning herself, figuring out her body and what she wants. That will be a huge point of relatability for viewers. Because it shouldn’t be taboo.
MK: There are so many taboos that we’re trying to break. But I have to ask: How did that all go down with your family? What was the reception from your community?
MR: My family, they’re all chill about it. My mom and dad were on set with me at different times when I was filming. There were no shockers there. But so many girls on social media are saying: Oh my god, this is the story of us. They’ll tag a friend and be like: “Is this us?” That makes me so happy. I’m like, “Yes! You deserve to see that! You have lived on this earth for longer than a year and you are, in fact, a human being! Welcome! This is long overdue!”
MK: You’re someone who went from being in high school to having a name that thousands of people know. I know for us, our names, and the resistance to demanding their pronunciations, is very important. I started my career as a writer because in high school, I wrote a piece about pronouncing my name that went viral.
MR: Go off, sis!
MK: Thank you. [laughs] I loved what you said in an interview: “If you can say the names of characters in Game of Thrones, you can say my name.”
MR: [It never] crossed my mind to change my name. I love my name. I think one of the biggest disrespects you can do to a person is to hear their name and not put the active effort into trying to pronounce it right. Obviously I’m not saying to get it perfect on the first try. But do somebody the justice of trying. I don’t know about you, but when I was younger, I used to tell people my name was My-TRAY.
MR: Yeah. But when all of this Hollywood stuff happened, and I landed in Los Angeles and I had all these directors asking me, “Well, how do you pronounce your name?” I had this moment. Like, oh my God, this is a reset. I can go back. When I was really young, I used to love my name. My friends from high school who grew up saying My-TRAY, now started putting the active effort in saying it properly. They’re the real homies.
MK: There’s this enormous gift and burden in being the first to represent your community. You get to set the tone and represent. But you feel like the sole spokesperson for your entire ethnic community. How have you been navigating that? Because I know it’s something I’m struggling with.
MR: At the end of the day, somebody’s gotta be the first, right? It’s time that we just take it into our own hands and say, screw it, we got this. I can’t represent all the South Asian community’s different stories because there’s no one story of the South Asian community. For you and me, nobody can invalidate our stories. Nobody can tell us that we’re wrong, because these are our stories.
MK: I think the need for representation feels so natural to those of us who haven’t had it. But I sometimes get backlash from white people, like: Why are you complaining? It’s not that big of a deal. How do you explain that to people?
MR: I explain to my white friends: You get a whole section of people from which you can choose what you’re going to be for Halloween. And I get … Jasmine.
MK: Were you ever Jasmine for Halloween?
MR: I was. I have to admit it.
MK: Me too. Twice.
MR: People who get representation take it for granted. But for us who aren’t represented, we get to relate to a character, but never fully. We have to relate to aspects of characters.
MK: Who are those characters you have felt seen by, even if only partly?
MR: Definitely Hermione Granger from Harry Potter. She’s the biggest one. I’m such a Potterhead.
MK: Now you’re starring in one of the first major Indian American TV shows. And that genre is inseparable from Mindy as an icon: from Kelly Kapoor to Mindy Lahiri. What has that been like, to become part of her vision?
MR: It’s such an honor. I’m fortunate to get this, but I didn’t just win the lottery, I worked for it. It’s like what we said about the weight of being a trailblazer. Mindy represented my mom’s generation, but I’m kind of the Mindy for Gen Z. It’s awesome, but it’s work. I worked hard for it, and I plan on giving the best representation possible. When “Never Have I ever” comes out, I hope it will inspire some random director or producer to think: maybe we should change-up our game. Maybe we should think about how we’re representing minorities on screen. I already know that “Never Have I Ever” is gonna be a hit: over 15,000 people auditioned for it, so over 15,000 people wanted this. Hopefully that will push Hollywood in a direction of better representation.
MK: In what ways have you been trying to make Devi realistic?
MR: The show is loosely based on Mindy’s life, but I put my own experiences into the show as well. I noticed as we were filming, even my language was incorporated. Like me saying “What’s popping?” in the trailer. That was never in the script, but Mindy noticed how I talked to other people, and she started putting in those small details.
MK: Let’s talk about your career. Indian women don’t have a lot of built-in connections in creative industries. I know Mindy is really intentional about opening the doors to newcomers, and that’s why she cast you via open call, letting the entries flow organically from our community. How have you handled it since then?
MR: I had a lot of strong mentors in high school through my teachers. My high school drama teacher was the one who encouraged me to audition for my first ever musical: I never learned acting outside of high school. I’m still trying to find my way through Hollywood. I feel like I’m balancing on one foot. I still haven’t put two feet down. But I hope one day I’ll be able to pass it forward, even if it’s just inspiring someone. It’s important to make space for yourself and others. It’s all about paying it forward.
MK: Okay, last question. This one is from my South Indian friend. She wants to know: what your thoughts are on daal? Do you still have to eat daal three times a day now that you’re in Hollywood?
MR: I love daal. I would eat it five times a day. No cap. That’s the true trick to Hollywood beauty, you know what I’m saying? Daal. Let the people know.