SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Never Have I Ever,” on Netflix.
In Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” Darren Barnet stars as Paxton Hall-Yoshida, the popular swimmer who Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) propositions in an effort to boost her reputation in high school. The teen heartthrob character was originally named “Paxton Hall” until creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher learned of Barnet’s own Japanese heritage and decided to incorporate his mixed background into the role, hence “Yoshida.”
The Orlando native tells Variety why he was initially nervous about incorporating his multiethnic background, how his high school experience had little in common with Paxton’s and why he is also Team Devi.
Where are you self-isolating right now and how is that going?
I’m in L.A., day fifty-something of being totally alone. So, it’s been quite the inner journey, having me, myself and I. I try to stick to a routine as much as possible but certain days, sleeping in until 1 in the afternoon. Doing publicity is one of the only things keeping me with a schedule. It’s nice to just have some things to do every day and get me up. I’m trying to work out and be ready at any point to take my shirt off ‘cause people keep asking me that [laughs]. I wouldn’t say I’m in as great of shape as I was on-camera but, thankfully, if I have to get ready for something, it’s a pretty quick process for me to get it back.
You’ve pretty much cemented your status as a “teen heartthrob.” How does that feel?
I did not expect it. I did not expect my character to be such a focal point. So, that’s been some pressure, but I’m blown away because a lot of people are saying, “You went past being a heartthrob, and you did things with the character that I think only you could do.” And that was making him human, making him likable. I’m honored that they feel I accomplished that.
But you’ve been up for heartthrob roles in the past?
It has been the number one thing I’ve seen on breakdowns for auditions since I started this career. It got to the point where I got so close and so close and so close and just kept being denied denied denied, I was like, “I guess I’m just not hitting the mark on this one.”
So, getting this one was cool. Mindy [Kaling] and all of them, I’m sure they saw people better looking than me, in better shape than me, all that, but they took us all aside, saying, “We chose you for this role because of you and what you bring as a person.” That was an honor to know because they wanted Paxton to be more than just abs.
Much has been made about including your own mixed heritage in “Never Have I Ever.”
Love it, yeah.
Have you been surprised that people have resonated with this so much?
Yeah. I was honestly very stressed about it at first because when Mindy [and the producers] had asked me if they could include my heritage, I was down but I was also like, I really hope I don’t piss people off because I know looking at me, that’s not the first thing you see. I was just really scared that a lot of people that are of mixed Asian American heritage were going to be like, “Wow, they went with this guy when they could have picked a lot more ‘Asian’ of a person.” I was kind of worried about that, but there’s been zero flack. There’s a lot of people like me around the world that you can’t tell what they are up front. I’ve been guessed for every ethnicity on the planet. So, I think that is an identity of its own, where you look at someone, and you can’t tell, and you guess and usually get it wrong.
It’s interesting, too, because there’s another Darren – Darren Criss – who has also dealt with that. Both of you are on shows on Netflix right now (Criss stars in “Hollywood”), where your heritages are organically incorporated into the roles. Have you connected with him at all?
I would, honestly, love to. I’ve been compared to him a lot by casting directors I’ve met and some of my agents, like, “I see a bit of a Darren Criss vibe in you, maybe with a bit of an edge.” I’ve always really respected Darren Criss’s work. I was watching “Hollywood” the other day, and I had no idea that he is, in the show, an Asian American that’s passing. Because in real life, he’s part Asian, isn’t he?
He is. He’s half-Filipino. His mom is Filipino.
So cool. That’s so cool. I think he might look even look a little more Caucasian than I do, so I’m sure he’s struggled with that, too, like, “You’re a white guy.” “No, I’m actually part Asian.” I’d love to chat about that with him. Tell Darren Criss to get at me. Let’s do an Instagram live.
It’s so nice to see the response of people knowing my ethnicity because I am so proud of it. And the fact that people are taking it so well, I would love to incorporate it as much as possible now.
Unpack Paxton a little bit. Why do you think he has feelings for Devi?
I think, at face value, it’s someone he’d never thought he’d go for. Her boldness. In a way, she does have a facade but is also just very comfortable with being herself. How she’s willing to go for whatever she wants to go for is a turn-on for him. The fact that she can pull herself up by her bootstraps and just go for it is probably one of the sexiest things Paxton has ever seen. I think that really catches his interest, and he doesn’t understand why. And it’s something he tries to deny until he can’t anymore.
Maitreyi told us that she wasn’t Team Paxton or Team Ben, but Team Devi. How do you feel about that?
I love that because there are so many arguments for both but at the end of the day, I think Devi could get whoever she wanted. Ben has been so awful to her the entire time and, at the end, he still has a girlfriend. Paxton’s always turned a blind eye to her and thinks he’s better than her and cooler than her, so there’s something there where maybe Paxton doesn’t deserve her. Being Team Devi – she doesn’t need a guy to define her or make her better or fulfill her.
High school was a little while back for you. What was high school Darren like?
High school Darren was a kid from across town, [a town] known for a really bad school that had a gang riot the first day it opened. My mom, a single parent who, at the time, was very low-income said I had to go to a better school. I took a test to get into a school across town and was admitted into a magnet program. I had to take three college classes a semester. I had to keep a 3.5 GPA to stay.
I never went to one party, never had a sip of alcohol. Honestly, I had no life outside of academia and sports because my mom told me, “We can’t afford college, but you have to go. So, wherever you go, you have to get a full ride.” So, that was the pressure on me.
If you could tell your high school self one thing, what would it be?
Honestly [laughs], this too shall pass. I was so stressed out in high school because for me it was, I had no back-up plan, no money to fall back on, no family business. So, every test, every quiz was like, “If I get a C+ or a B, there goes my scholarship to Georgetown. There goes this, there goes that.” Not that I had these scholarships, but that was the dream. Everyone would tell me, “You think you’re stressed out now, wait ‘til real life.” Now I’m in real life and in a career that’s unpredictable and in the most competitive industry in the world and there has not been one day that I have been more stressed out than I was in high school.
I’d probably tell my high school self, “Hey, don’t stress out too much about the quiz because you’re going to be an actor anyways.”
Hypothetically, if there is a Season 2, where would you like Devi’s and Paxton’s relationship to go? Where would you like to see Paxton?
I would love to have like Ben’s episode, where you see Paxton’s parents, his home life. I would also like to see some kind of a role reversal between Devi and Paxton in the sense of she’s been chasing him the entire first season and, now, maybe he’s too late. Maybe her and Ben do have a fling and Paxton is put in this position where he’s been able to get any girl he wants but this time, it may not happen. Seeing that vulnerability and self-doubt in Paxton, like, “Maybe she’s too good for me” would be very interesting. The cat-and-mouse game just completely switched over.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.