One of my favorite things about Netflix’s Never Have I Ever is that the show breaks the norm, adds layers, gives you characters that you fall in love with, and much like Devi, the audience can easily fall for the charm of Paxton. Darren Barnet does a fantastic job of starting off as this mysterious high school jock, much like Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles, but takes the character to a deeper place. There is a mystery to the way Barnet plays Paxton that gives you more empathy for the character, and shows you layers mixed with some genuinely funny moments.
During our conversation, Barnet talked about finally landing one of those heartthrob roles, and being glad it was in a project that allowed him explore a deeper side of this type of guy. Darren also brought his culture to this project as the character was not initially written as part Japanese, and he talked about how this element of the story made him proud to share a piece of himself within the series.
Darren does a great job of playing guarded, but in the shows his vulnerability as Paxton, and that helps the audience connect with him more than the typical romantic comedy leading man. Check out my conversation with him below.
Awards Daily: Paxton resembles a Jake Ryan-level heartthrob. What was it like to play this idyllic romantic interest in Never Have I Ever?
Darren Barnet: It was fun man. It’s a role I have gone out for for a long time. This is one of the first ones where I was playing the typical heartthrob, but they gave me layers to work with and as an actor you always want that. I am grateful this was that role I landed, and I got to play Paxton with a lot of layers. At first you are not sure who this guy is, and even if he is a good guy, but I knew who he was and I got to play those layers up front. The cool thing about this role was Paxton had a secret, and it’s up to you to unravel the secret. They wanted a slow burn with him and to let his story unfold on screen, and it was awesome to get to have this experience where he was not fully that typical guy in the romantic comedy.
AD: The big secret involves his sister, and he wants to protect her. Paxton’s sister is also a big part of guiding his heart. Paxton is also very guarded because of this, but also wants to let go a bit. How did you balance this for your character?
DB: I think Paxton is that type of person where, when people approach him, he can predict what the conversation will look like. I wanted to relay his guarded nature when Devi approaches. He has an intuition for what people are looking for from him. When he says yes to sex with Devi, it was a bit of a flip. I know what she wanted to go in that direction, so me saying yes was something different for Paxton, and surprising to Devi.
Paxton has to play it safe for himself and his sister. He wants to make sure nothing hurts him, and in the end nothing hurts his sister. You see this during the moment when Devi accidentally meets her. I think it all changes when Paxton came to her door and apologized, his look back at the end was revealing. This girl is different from what I am used to and I think I like her, and this is when he switched and realized he could maybe let his guard down.
AD: Mindy Kailing is an expert at rom-coms. You get to see this in her work like her own series; she puts a lot of love and care into everything she does. What was it like to work with her in this genre?
DB: It was a dream man. Comedy is not something I envisioned myself going into. I always wanted to make more deep-rooted dramatic films. What I realized about working with Mindy is that comedies are much deeper than people realize. There is much more to comedies than making people laugh, and Mindy brings so much life and depth to comedies.
The show itself goes deeper, and through comedy, especially with Mindy you see real life. You see the funny moments that involve the layers of someone’s identity, and this gives the show so much life. There is humor in the experiences of life, and Mindy tells a compelling story and makes you laugh. This was such a valuable lesson and has taught me a lot about what comedy can bring to the table.
AD: One interesting tidbit I read was that your name was just initially Paxton Hall but Mindy Kailing and Lang Fisher learned about your Japanese heritage and added that to the character. What did bringing your heritage to this role mean to you?
DB: It meant a lot to bring my heritage to the show. It was not something I was trying to do. Every time I meet someone who speaks Japanese, I try to speak with them in Japanese. It’s a way for me to practice a second language and connect with that part of me. Our wardrobe designer, Sal, told them I was speaking Japanese on set, and they approached me to ask me if they could add this element to my character. I said yes and was very excited. I was looking forward to sharing my heritage with the show.
I also eventually became nervous when these elements of the series started to come into play. People do guess that I am part Asian a lot, but most of those people who say this are either Asian or part Asian too. I was scared because Japanese Americans watching the show may look at me as not being Japanese enough.
In the end, it was an honor because I was representing a piece of this culture. There are times when I often feel like I am either not Japanese or White enough. There are people who say I am too ambiguous, or times when people will say I am not Asian enough or say, ‘You are just white.’ It was truly an honor to bring this representation to the screen. I am proud to represent this group of people who are part Asian.
AD: Portraying the awkwardness of high school is tough. What was your high school experience like and how did you bring this to the character of Paxton?
DB: It was somewhat connected. I was different from Paxton in many ways. I did play sports and had straight As, but I only had one best friend. I came from a low income background, and most of the kids in the school did not. I traveled to high school, and many of them live close by and had money.
Where I related the most was that I was more on the shy side. A lot of people would have realizations when they met me and say things like ‘Wow I did not realize you were smart’ or ‘[I did not know you took college classes’ or ‘I can’t believe you are so nice.’ Many of those hidden things are things I used to connect with Paxton
AD: What was your favorite scene from the season?
DB: My favorite scene was when Devi and Paxton kissed for the first time. I learned a lot about how they played car scenes, but in general it was just a fantastic scene for the series and meant a lot to me and the way it was written and filmed. They were actually playing “Fire For You” by Cannon while we filmed, which is the song playing in the scene. I do not think people thought that was going to happen in that moment in the show, and it made that scene special for me.
AD: What direction do you think the Paxton/Devi/Ben triangle will take?
DB: I think it would go very against the show if she immediately dropped Ben for me. The show is about powerful women, and if Devi found out I liked her and ditched Ben for me, I think it would betray the theme of the show.
I think it would be more interesting to see Paxton not getting his way and having to struggle in the girls department for once in his life. Seeing Paxton have to work at something and try to win over Devi would be an interesting story line.
AD: Anything you hope you get to explore next season?
DB: What is Paxton doing with his life? Next year he will be a senior, and he will be at a crossroad in his life. Is he going to try to swim somewhere? Is he going to go to college somewhere? Is he going to coach the swim team to stay in that world? At this point I do not think he has thought of it, and I want to get to explore that, and see where he takes his life.
Never Have I Ever is currently streaming on Netflix.