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Unknown High Schooler Shines as Star of Netflix Comedy ‘Never Have I Ever’

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan joins casting directors Collin Daniel and Brett Greenstein to reveal how a self-described “dork” delivered a breakout performance in Mindy Kaling’s semiautobiographical series

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s story is one of talent and preparation meeting opportunity.

The Tamil-Canadian actor is the first teenager of South Asian descent to star in an American comedy series, getting the part of Devi in Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” straight out of high school with no pro acting credits. Her work was praised by critics and viewers alike. 

In this episode of Netflix’s “Scene Stealers” series, Variety editor and host Jenelle Riley talks with Ramakrishnan and Artios award-winning casting directors Collin Daniel and Brett Greenstein about the positive response to the show (loosely based on Mindy Kaling’s own teen years), how the young actor made the cut, and how she was able to give such a convincing performance among a cast of more experienced actors. Plus crying on cue. 

Then just 17, Ramakrishnan was one of approximately 15,000 hopefuls answering an open casting call on Twitter from producer Kaling. While Ramakrishnan was wending her way through auditions, she was also getting ready to play Velma Kelly in her high school production of “Chicago.” She enlisted her best friend to read with her for her audition tape.

“I like how Mindy and Lang (Fisher), the whole writing team, created that character because it was very real. It was a realistic teenager,” says Ramakrishnan. 

“And a lot of it was my experiences when I was 15 and I like to think I had a sweet spot. I’m not too old to forget being 15 and cringey. You know, exactly 15, where I don’t realize it’s cringey, definitely cringey. Devi does a lot of cringey things, but when I was reading it with my friend, we could see myself in it but also some of my friends. It was really a good, realistic character that many could relate to,” she adds.

Out of all the thousands of tapes they viewed, says Greenstein, Ramakrishnan’s stood out— not just for her acting, though that was stellar, but for her preparation.

“It was one that really popped out to us,” recalls Greenstein. “She was just really so confident. She put her own spin on [the audition] and she had levels — and I believe she was off book; she had completely memorized the dialogue and we were just so impressed.” 

He adds: “It was just something like, ‘OK, this girl is special, we should show her to Mindy.’”

There were more audition tapes, more readings, then Ramakrishnan was flying from Canada to Los Angeles for a screen test, all while rehearsing Velma at home. She clinched the part when she did her only reading with the actor who would play Devi’s mom, Poorna Jagannathan.

“Poorna had just been cast and she read with a few finalists, and it was interesting to see the chemistry those two had right away, that first time in the room together. I remember we all kind of laughed and we went around the room saying, ‘Who do you guys think it is?’” says Daniel. “And I remember everyone saying, ‘Well, it’s clearly Maitreyi’s part.’ I mean, the chemistry between them is so fantastic.”

Daniel attributes much of this to the ease Ramakrishnan brings to her character.

Greenstein says, “Yeah, very believable between mother and daughter. … Watching them go toe-to-toe was really fun to watch.”

Adds Daniel, “It felt like a real mother/daughter relationship and it didn’t feel like a stereotypical teen actor, because everything she was doing was so natural. It was the perfect part for the perfect person. It just makes sense.“

In “Never Have I Ever,” 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (Ramakrishnan) is a high school sophomore, navigating the angst of the teen years while also trying to not confront the untimely death of her father (Sendhil Ramamurthy). 

Instead of going through a grieving period, Devi chooses to quickly move on and focus all of her energy on getting good grades in order to be eligible for an Ivy League university (her dermatologist mother’s fervent ambition for her) and a newfound crush on the high school dreamboat, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet).

The actor says her biggest challenge didn’t come until near the end of the season, where she had a very emotional scene with Jagannathan that required crying on cue in episode nine. 

“It was really intense, but one thing I was really nervous about in the whole series was crying. That’s one thing I never had to do in high school theater. That was probably my biggest jump, because this is what differentiates real actors to just normal people,” she says. 

However, her castmates had her back and helped her find the confidence to nail the performance.  

“I was really proud of how [the scene] came out, but it was still challenging,” Ramakrishnan says.

The series has been a success with audiences and critics alike.  

 “It’s wild. I’m used to people seeing my acting in my high school lecture hall and it’s just a community. It’s just, like, my best friend’s parents cheering me on and I’m like, ‘Hell, yeah,’ but now it’s like, the world?” says Ramakrishnan.

“Are you sure you like me? You like my acting? So I am still getting used to that — people giving me praise for acting, because it’s just so new to me,” she continues.

“And on the other hand, I feel like I’m the same dork before all this.”

To watch more Netflix “Scene Stealers,” go to FYSEETV.com.