'Never Have I Ever': Mindy Kaling Introduces Us to Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Netflix's Newest Star (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
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Netflix's Never Have I Ever tells the coming-of-age story of a first-generation Indian American teenage girl, Devi, who, following the devastating death of her beloved father, begins to navigate uncharted waters as she enters sophomore year of high school in Southern California's San Fernando Valley. Along with her best friends, Fabiola and Eleanor, Devi makes a pact for the school year: This is the time to land her first boyfriend, school hottie and swim stud Paxton Hall-Yoshida.
But, life often doesn't go according to plan. As the 10-episode half-hour series unravels, so does Devi's relationship with her tough but loving mother, Nalini; her friendships; and her perfect plan to snag a lover boy. And we didn't even mention Devi's rivalry with her academic nemesis, Ben Gross, that gets more complicated as each episode streams. The underlying current to all of this is deeper than petty high school drama; Devi struggles to move on after her dad's death, suppressing her grief by making brash decisions and enacting insane plans that jeopardize her bonds with those who matter most in her life.
Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, Never Have I Ever is a fictional depiction of Kaling's own upbringing. The uber-producer sought out 18-year-old breakout star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, in her first Hollywood role, from a field of 15,000 in an open casting call to fill the coveted role of Devi. To change things up, ET asked Kaling and Ramakrishnan to interview each other -- and they took the assignment and ran with it. Here is their delightful sit-down conversation, where they reminisce about their first meeting, The Office and telling a story about "loud nerds" -- it's impossible not to fall in love with Ramakrishnan.
Mindy Kaling: Take me back to your first day on set. This was your Hollywood acting debut which I always forget 'cause you're so polished. What was that day like for you and what was your favorite part of being on set?
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: I remember speaking so fast that Lang took me aside and was like, "Just slow it down a bit. Just slow it down. It's OK." And I'm like, "Yeah, uh... got it! 100 percent! Ramona [Young, who plays Eleanor,] what's a marking rehearsal?" I was trying to really make sure I got everything under control and then I got really happy when I saw crafty. But I remember by the end of the day, I was like, "Yes. Let's do it again!"
Kaling: It's so funny you mention that 'cause I speak incredibly quickly and when I get nervous, I speak even faster and my voice gets higher, so then I sound like Minnie Mouse. You did a great job. I didn't notice that.
Ramakrishnan: Thanks. All right, question for you. You cast me in this role after finding me online. What was it about my audition that made you want me for this role?
Kaling: Wow, that's a great question. You know, you famously auditioned with 15,000 other young women who inquired about this part, which means we had to watch a lot of people. What stuck out about you was there's an authenticity about your performance that seems like, I don't know, a lot of people your age -- because they're so fresh to acting -- are copying a performance that they see on a TV show that they like and yours was just completely authentic. It just felt like this is so original, it's from her upbringing living with her family, and it wasn't trying to be something else. There was like a... you have, I don't know if it's 'cause of your voice, but there is an innocence but a smart-alecky energy to you too. So it's such an unusual set of qualities. And you came for your audition with your dad, I remember. I got to meet both of you and I don't know why I happened to get to meet your dad too but...
Ramakrishnan: Because I told you that my dad wanted a photo.
Kaling: That's right!
Ramakrishnan: And then you were actually chill with it and I was like [miming freaking out].
Kaling: That's right because you both like The Office and so when I met your dad and you, and I saw what a close bond you had, I really liked that. I'm a very family-oriented person. OK, be honest, what was it really like having me as your boss?
Ramakrishnan: I don't even know what to say to that.
Kaling: What an unfair thing to ask a teenager. What did you like about me as a boss?
Ramakrishnan: You're just so chill. This is not just me, this is all of the cast. We all love you and think you're so grounded. But, like, we know Mindy Kaling can write, she can act... she can do everything. And then you're just this chill person and you're just so awesome. Whenever you were on set, I never felt nervous, I was like, "Oh cool, she's on set today. Awesome."
Kaling: Oh good. I really liked it because being on set; I think it can be very daunting when you spend time practicing your lines and then you have somebody come in who just wants to throw you a new one but because you were so funny, as a writer, it made it really fun to come up with new stuff for you to say.
Ramakrishnan: Devi's story is inspired by your own life. But just how much of your personal life is reflected on this show? How much of what we see Devi go through did you actually experience yourself?
Kaling: Lang and I wanted to do a show about nerds but nerds as we knew them, which a lot of time in TV and film you'll see nerds and they're really quiet and demure, whereas I was a loud nerd that was also really ambitious. I think what you brought to the part -- 'cause once you cast someone in a role, they bring a whole other level to the character -- is you have an innate confidence that I definitely did not have as a kid. So that was really interesting writing for Devi with you playing the part because she has these huge insecurities, obviously about wanting to be grown up, wanting to have a better relationship with her mom. But she's also confident and she's bold and she wants to do TikToks. I was not a courageous kid, I was not a bold kid, but I think that you have that natural energy and I think you really brought that to the character. It's a mix of me and Lang's childhood but then a lot of what we were [writing was] really inspired by you. How much could you relate to the themes of the show? The teenage world is complex.
Ramakrishnan: A lot. The show is a really good depiction of what many kids go through, of figuring out your identity of you're too Indian but you're not Indian enough, I felt that. When I was in elementary school, a kid asked me, "So where are you from?" And I was like, "Canada. I was born here at Trillium Hospital." And they're like, "No. Where are you from from?" And I actually got upset and I started crying. I left the lunch room 'cause I was like, "I'm Canadian." I didn't understand. Yeah, my skin is brown, but I'm born here. That was really confusing and I know for a fact that's the story for so many people and that's Devi's. That's not even getting into the other characters.
Kaling: Right, it's interesting 'cause when you are a teenager, you're going through so much stuff, but when you're the child of immigrants, which you and I both are, there's a whole other set of things, which is I'm Indian but I sound like I was born and raised in the Valley. Sometimes you forget when you're just living your life that other people see you as different or other and it's not until you're 14, 15 years old where you feel like you have to explain it.
Ramakrishnan: Yeah, exactly. Or even to begin to learn about your culture. I didn't even get to do that until maybe high school, where I properly learned what it is to be Indian, right?
Kaling: Yeah, exactly.
Ramakrishnan: Now I have that sense of identity where I'm very comfortable in saying who I am but before that, no. I totally felt like Devi.
Kaling: When people think India, it's already so different for people -- even the different regional differences between Indian people. Like, you and I are both Tamil. I'm half Tamil and you're Tamil. It's kinda cool that in our show, we're really doing a spotlight on Tamil Indian people, whereas it's very different culturally than Punjabis...
Ramakrishnan: It's so diverse. There are so many different groups. And I remember also growing up, people saying, "Camel? You're a Camel?"
Kaling: Oh no. Oh no...
Ramakrishnan: The show works on so many levels for so many kids and I don't even think you know how many kids you're gonna touch.
Kaling: I hope so. You should go online and write all these nice comments about the show.
Ramakrishnan: I will! My pseudo fan accounts.
Kaling: You are about to skyrocket into superstardom. How happy are your friends and your family for you? Because this is a big deal.
Ramakrishnan: They're so hyped. They always make the jokes, "Ugh, she's too big for us now. Ohhh..." But they're so hyped and they're ready to hit me over the head if I ever do get an ego.
Kaling: Do you have an entourage now? Bodyguards, publicists, the whole deal.
Ramakrishnan: Exactly. The whole works. I don't even think I know how big this is gonna be, like when you called me and you told me I got the role, I literally said that's crazy. Because I didn't know what's gonna change, I didn't realize everything that's gonna happen, I didn't think I'd be sitting here doing an interview like this, right?
Kaling: Well, it's only just going to begin and hopefully, you'll continue to enjoy doing it.