The story of how newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan landed the lead role on Mindy Kaling’s new Netflix comedy “Never Have I Ever” is the kind of fairy tale that normally comes from the mind of a TV writer.
In April 2019, Kaling posted an announcement on social media seeking South Asian women to audition for her and co-creator Lang Fisher’s then-untitled coming of age comedy.
Enter Ramakrishnan, who was one of more than 15,000 aspiring actors to audition. But the young Canadian actor tells Variety that the whole process started by chance.
“My best friend was the one who actually saw the tweet and she screenshotted it and sent it to me,” Ramakrishnan recalls. “I’m lying on my couch, ready to take a nice afternoon nap. … I remember feeling exhausted, but I was like, ‘Okay, let’s do it,’ just because I honestly only wanted to hang out with my best friend.”
It took the pair an hour to figure out how to work the camera, Ramakrishnan remembers.
“We literally went to our library community center, booked a room,” she continued, laughing. “And then it went on from there. It’s still so surreal to me. It’s crazy to think like so many people around the world wanted to be a part of this. And it’s a nice feeling to know that.”
Now just over a year later, Ramakrishnan makes her professional acting debut on the series, which is now streaming on Netflix. The newcomer plays Devi Vishwakumar, a young Indian American girl growing up in Southern California and navigating life as a nerdy high school sophomore alongside her best friends Eleanor (played by Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez).
“Devi’s just a spunky, sassy and witty South Asian girl who’s trying to figure out where she belongs in her high school, but also balancing her family dynamic and then her friends as well, trying to be there for everyone even though she might not go about it in the best way,” Ramakrishnan said. “She truly is like the anti-hero of ‘Never Have I Ever.’ You’re rooting for her, but you’re also like, ‘Man, get it together.”
And equally important for Ramakrishnan to landing her first starring role is the chance to take a major step forward in small-screen representation by presenting a teenage South Asian girl in a lead role, especially since she identifies Kaling as one of the only South Asian women she saw on screen growing up.
“A lot of girls, boys of color are actually raised in the western world … when their family’s from somewhere else. So, it makes you sort of feel in the middle,” Ramakrishnan said.
“That was the case for me personally,” she continues. “I’m Tamil. My parents are born in Sri Lanka. They came to Canada in their 20s, and I was born in Canada and raised my whole life in Mississauga. So, it’s confusing when you’re trying to figure out who [you are]; sometimes you feel like you’re an outsider, but you’re on the inside. So that’s a story a lot of people can relate to.”
Loosely based on her own experience growing up as a first-generation Indian American girl, Kaling underlined the importance of the representation that the series promotes at event in February.
“We see a certain kind of Indian actor all the time in auditions… Our show is about a Tamil Indian girl, and typically they’re South Indians and they’re dark-skinned,” she said. “I felt lucky to be able to do a show about an Indian nerd who’s also badly behaved, to show that because I’m deeply familiar with it.” (Or as Devi explains to her friends during the pilot episode, “We are glamorous women of color who deserve a sexy high school life.”)
The actors felt equally lucky to work with “The Office” alum and “The Mindy Project” creator on the series, praising Kaling for letting them have their “own process” in finding their characters.
“Obviously she had a hand in writing some episodes and executive producing, but she was so supportive on set,” Young said. “She was so witty, but also, she gave us our own space to do stuff. Whereas sometimes I was like, ‘Am I even doing this right?’ But she would just give you the space. She would treat you like an adult.”
Ramakrishnan admits, “It was really nice, especially for somebody who’s never done this before. It was nice to have like an honest mentor who just let you bring yourself to the role.”
Adds Rodriguez, “She really let us [know] that she chose us for a reason; that it wasn’t just luck. These roles were meant for us.”