Actor Darren Barnet reacts to the newfound adoration, incorporating his Japanese heritage and if Paxton has real feelings for Devi.
Warning: This story contains spoilers from the first season of Netflix's Never Have I Ever.
When Netflix's Never Have I Ever introduced the world to Paxton Hall-Yoshida, the hot jock with a heart of gold but who may be a little lacking in the smarts department, fans took immediate notice. For obvious reasons (ahem, just look at those abs).
On the breakout coming-of-age comedy, the high school swim stud is the object of main heroine Devi Vishwakumar's (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) affections after she makes the brash decision that she'll finally make Paxton her boyfriend -- after they have sex of course. While Paxton began as the archetypal "brooding popular guy," as the season progressed, he became much more complex, thanks in part to the introduction of his adopted sister, Rebecca, who has Down syndrome, and exploration into his realistic fears over his intelligence. The series also delves into deeper topics such as the sudden loss of a parent, sexual identity and how to move on from grief.
"I love that everyone's enjoying it. Obviously that was the goal, but it transcends that. What I mean by that is a lot of people are just like, 'I really have been in a slump, in a bummed-out mood lately, and it's just been very sad. I needed a laugh, and this was really there for me.' I love that," Paxton Hall-Yoshida's portrayer, Darren Barnet, tells ET. "One of the cast members was saying that her family member actually came out once she saw Fabiola's episode. That made me really emotional because that's why I got into the industry, is to affect people, and make an impact, and inspire people. The fact that the show has done that, even in the slightest form, is everything to me."
But playing the show's resident hottie has its pressures. Barnet admitted it was a real consideration when he took the part. The role, which was originally just named "Paxton Hall," incorporated Barnet's Japanese heritage after producers heard him speaking Japanese during a wardrobe meeting. And, as they say, the rest is history. ET hopped on the phone with the actor, who was in the mix for Riverdale's Jughead Jones and After's Trevor Matthews, to react to the flurry of attention surrounding Never Have I Ever, playing a half-white, half-Japanese teen heartthrob, what the finale ending means and his hopes for a potential season 2.
ET: First of all, how did you come to this role?
Darren Barnet: The first audition was honestly any other audition. I have been out for this kind of role many times, and I didn't even know Mindy Kaling was a producer when I read for it. I left the audition and was like, "OK, great, probably never going to hear anything because that's what I'm used to." And the next thing I know, I was in the room with Mindy Kaling. I, verbatim, walked into the room, and I saw her and was like, "Oh my god, it's Mindy Kaling." They all laughed, and I was like, "I'm kind of freaking out." They explained that he is the hot, aloof, heartthrob jock, but he also has a heart. And they wanted to see that, that I could not just be the "hot guy," but show a heart and a humanization to this guy. What was really cool was that it was such a collaborative effort. When I was in the wardrobe fitting, I was speaking in Japanese with our AD, Yuko [Ogata], and the wardrobe designer, Sal[vador Perez Jr.], told Mindy and Lang [Fisher]. They came to me and were like, "Hey, were you speaking in Japanese with Yuko?" I was like, "Yeah." They were like, "Are you part Japanese?" I was like, "Yeah, I am." And they were like, "Wow. Do you mind if we make your character part Japanese?" I was like, "Absolutely." The next thing I knew, Paxton Hall became Paxton Hall-Yoshida.
What did you bring to the character after they wrote in your Japanese heritage into Paxton's identity? Did you bring any stories or personal experiences that you wanted to incorporate?
There were things that I could really relate on. I know, first looking at me, a lot of people would never guess I was part Asian. So there's a part in the story where Eleanor is like, "You're a racist, Paxton Hall-Yoshida." And I'm like, "You know I'm part Japanese, right?" And then my buddy, my best friend [Trent], is like, "Whoa! You're part Japanese?!" The amount of times I've gotten that, it's no longer surprising to me. Some people can guess it. Some people can't. I have Asian friends that will be like, "Oh, you don't get it. You're white." And I'm like, "Kind of, but not really. It's too much to explain. Forget it." You know? The way my character brushes that off is something I've been through a million times.
Paxton could have easily fallen into the trope of the typical high school jock, but there are nuances to his personality that you start to see as the season goes on. Are there aspects to his personality or his backstory that you know about that we haven't seen yet? That you hope get a spotlight in season 2?
The writers haven't explained this to me, nor has Mindy or anybody, so this is just kind of a backstory I put into it. I personally don't feel like maybe my parents are around much, or at least my dad. I feel like I'm probably left to take care of my little sister a lot. This is all me talking. I can see me taking care of my sister [Rebecca] a lot and that's why I'm so protective of her. That's what has given me a heart through being the jock, and the one all the girls want. He has this core that's just very soft. I can see he spends a lot of time alone too, and a lot of people may not realize that because obviously he doesn't bring anybody over to his house because he's protective of his sister. So I would love an episode that's very maybe centered around Paxton, like they did for Ben. Just exploring his home life and his relationship with his parents and his sister, and all that. I think that'd be really fun.
Paxton's relationship with his sister, Rebecca, was something I didn't expect at the start of the show. Was that a pleasant surprise for you?
So much fun. It's honestly one of the things that made me dive into a little bit of research because I've had friends with Down syndrome; I've had friends with distant relatives that have had Down syndrome. I didn't understand the dynamic of growing up day-to-day your whole life with a sibling that had Down syndrome, so I called a friend whose brother has Down syndrome, just to pick their brain about it because I always see her being so sweet, and kind, and supportive, and encouraging, and understanding. But I was like, "Was there any time that you became resentful? Or mad, or angry?" And she was like, "Of course. I never showed that, but yeah." I wanted to really know what it felt like growing up day-to-day with a sibling having Down syndrome. That was really fun to dive into and really eye-opening to research.
Fitting that Rebecca's the only one in Paxton's life to tell him when he's screwing up.
I love it too because she's that kind of person, and I love that. It's a testimony more that it's his sister, and he knows she's not going to BS him, you know? But it's also something that friends of friends that have Down syndrome, they are many times the most brutally honest, no-filter kind of person. It's beautiful because what you see is what you get and what they say is what they feel, and that's how it is. So Paxton knows, when she comes out and says, "You're a douche." He's like, "Maybe I am being a douche. She's not going to lie to me."
There is pressure to play a character like Paxton because you're the "hot guy" on the show. Did you feel any of that internally, like, "Oh shoot, I have to live up to whatever that standard is"?
Oh, yeah. As soon as I heard how many times I was going to be shirtless, I was in the gym five, six days a week just getting after it. Trying to eat healthy. So that was a lot of pressure, but what took pressure off of it was when Mindy, Lang and all the creative team made me understand that there was so much more to this guy than just that. They wanted that shock value of, "Wow! He's a high school Adonis," but for me to deliver something that people would see past the abs, and the allure of "I'm the hot guy." That kind of took pressure off of me because I knew that's where my work and my craft would come in, and that's something I'm never not confident in.
For the record, Paxton Hall-Yoshida is a pretty iconic name. You can't not say the full name.
You can trust it. Paxton Hall-Yoshida? Or Paxton H.Y.? I love either of them. It's so fun, and I love how it steers away from, like, Jake Tucker. Those typical, very Caucasian names. All-American, blond hair, blue eyes... I love how they steered away from that.
At the end of the season, it seems like there are some real feelings involved between Devi and Paxton. Where do you think they stand?
This is something Paxton's never encountered, because every character in the show is dealing with some type of façade that they want to keep up. And one of them for Paxton is, "I'm cool. She's not. It won't work." Rebecca opens his eyes, but the fact is Paxton already knows inside that he has something for this girl. But he's trying to deny it. When it's brought to light, and Devi is such a firecracker and so bold, she is something unlike Paxton has ever seen. So I think he is starting to realize that he is falling for her. I don't know if Devi's really attached to Ben, or if it's just the circumstances of the moment [in the finale when they kiss in the car].
She's in a very vulnerable state. She's on the beach. Her dad, they just put him in the ocean. Then they kiss, and it's almost like, is it because it's Ben? Or would she have kissed anybody that was there because she's so vulnerable? What I would love to see is a role reversal, basically. Maybe Paxton is pining for Devi now, but in secret because maybe he heard about Ben kissing her and now he's too ashamed to say he likes her. But it's something Paxton's never dealt with before. Paxton has always been able to get any girl he wants and now he might not be able to. Lo and behold, it's a girl that a month ago, he thought he was out of her league.
I asked Lang Fisher this question and she didn't quite have an answer, so I'm wondering if you do. What do you think Paxton would've done had Devi actually answered the door?
I don't know if Paxton quite would've been able to get the words out. I think he just wanted to be around her, to really see if these feelings were correct. I think maybe he needed to see her and look her in the eyes, and realize if his feelings that he was feeling at that moment were real, or if he's caught in the heat of the moment, you know? I don't think he would've known until he looked her in the eyes when she opened the door.
Has the Team Paxton or Team Ben debate online surprised you at all? Or is it entertaining for you to follow?
It's hysterical because I can see arguments for both. Paxton has been there for Devi. He's saved her. He's been the knight in shining armor in a lot of ways and at certain times. But Ben is more like… A lot of people are like, "Oh, they're more compatible. They're both geniuses, and they're both into school." But it's funny because Ben, let's be honest, he has a girlfriend. So there's that whole issue to tackle. But it's funny, during shooting, I never understood how people would ever fight for Ben and Devi to be together because he's so terrible. He is so terrible to her in so many episodes. I was like, "I want to punch you in your face!" But you watch throughout the show, you get to know Ben and his backstory, and you fall in love with the guy. I'll say to everyone, I'm 75 to 80 percent Team Paxton, but the 20 percent that's still there, it's just because I love Jaren Lewison, and we have a bromance.
What are your hopes for season 2 and where Paxton's story goes?
One individual episode exploring Paxton's home life with his parents and with his sister, that'd be really cool. But also, I love this cat-and-mouse thing that Devi and Paxton have going on. Now, maybe it's going to be a totally different thing where Paxton is chasing Devi. And she doesn't know between Ben and Paxton. She's now the center of this love triangle. It's something Paxton's never had to deal with, so I want to see how his character handles not being able to get the girl immediately like he's so used to. It's always nice seeing a character out of their comfort zone, and I think that would be very much out of Paxton's wheelhouse.
There is so much to mine about what's going on with Paxton academically, like, what went so wrong where he has to retake that class again?
I would love to see that in a story of maybe his parents not being around. Maybe that's him trying to acquire their attention. That could be a totally different light shed upon it, right? It's not that he's dumb, it's just that he doesn't have his parents pushing him on to do his homework. So he's, "If they don't care, I don't care."
Never Have I Ever is now streaming on Netflix.
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