In a conversation with Awards Daily, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan discusses her breakout year starring in the Netflix sensation Never Have I Ever as well as what it was like developing a friendship with mentor and Mindy Kaling who co-created the coming of age comedy loosely based on her own teenage years.
Hollywood is Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s Disneyland. The one of a kind experiences. The intricate sets. Talented performers to learn from. Craft services. From the moment she stepped down into Los Angeles for the first time the young actress treated Hollywood like her own amusement park taking advantage of every moment, big or small, to learn everything she could about an industry she had only ever dreamed of. This time last year the then aspiring actress stood out over 15,000 other applicants and was cast as the lead of the Netflix breakout comedy Never Have I Ever turning the then unknown name into one of the most buzzed about newcomers of 2020.
Speaking with Awards Daily, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan discusses her exciting whirlwind of a year from landing the lead role of Devi Vishwakumar all the way to watching Never Have I Ever become a breakout sensation, all from behind a smart phone screen as she and the rest of the world self-isolate. But how does a newcomer like Ramakrishnan navigate a surreal experience like this? The answer lies in Never Have I Ever co-creator and writer Mindy Kaling who has mentored the actress over the past year.
Awards Daily: I remember when Mindy posted that first open casting call for the role of Devi as well as when it was revealed that there were over 15,000 submissions from all over the world. What was that audition process like for you?
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan: It was crazy! It all started because my best friend sent me a screenshot of Mindy’s original casting call tweet. We started out doing it as a reason to hangout with each other and then it turned out the way that it did. They called me and asked me to fly to LA for a screentest; I had never been to LA before. That was wild. I remember walking out of that first screen test audition thinking ‘I might have totally messed that up, and I don’t even care.’ The experience in and of itself was awesome.
AD: Was it a long audition process?
MR: All of it happened in the span of a month. Six self-tapes and two trips to LA.
AD: In past interviews you’ve celebrated what the show means in terms of representation for South Asian teenagers. Now that the show has been out for a couple of months what has the reaction been like for you from fans?
MR: It’s amazing! I’ve seen so many and comments from people and this kind of representation is long overdue for us to finally feel seen and have our culture normalized; not just portrayed as a side element to someone else’s story. Devi’s story in Never Have I Ever is just one story and I’m hopeful and excited to see how it will pave the way for others as well.
AD: What has it been like to see your show become such a big phenomenon?
MR: I’m used to people seeing my acting in the local high school play but all of a sudden the entire world can see my acting and that’s wild. On the other side of that I pretty much feel the same and I think that’s because of quarantine. I haven’t gone out at all besides gardening in my backyard. Because of that the typical breakout moment that you hear about hasn’t really happened yet. It’s going to be weird for everything to go back to normal and walk down the street and interact with strangers who might recognize me from the show.
AD: What was it like working with Mindy Kaling? As someone new to the entertainment industry did she give you any advice?
MR: She helped me throughout the entire process managing Hollywood, and she still continuously does. I can always hit her up for advice, and I never feel like I’m bothering her. I think that’s the same feeling throughout the entire cast. We all know that Mindy has our backs.
The best advice she has given me is that she told me to stay myself. There are a lot of people trying to be this idea of what they think others are interested in. If you just be yourself, it’s all you need. People are impressed by authenticity. That is what is at the heart of Never Have I Ever, this raw authenticity.
AD: Mindy is notorious for her love of classic rom-coms and coming of age stories. Did she give you any homework in preparation for Never Have I Ever?
MR: She didn’t give me a watchlist or anything but you are totally right, Mindy loves her rom-coms. It’s funny, we get along really well but we are polar opposites. I love dark thrillers and true crime docudramas. I don’t mind a rom-com but it’s not my go-to.
It was really cool to be a part of the Mindy-verse. You know how there’s the Marvel-verse? Well, in the Mindy-verse everything is colorful, romantic, featured this quick comedy, and everything works out in the end.
AD: What was it like walking on set for the first time? What was the most surprising thing about shooting?
MR: Walking onto set for the first time was my Disney World. It was the coolest thing ever. There are so many people. I always knew it took a lot of people to make a show but I didn’t know it took that many. I mean there’s a guy who manages just the tree. That is wild. Learning every possible thing I could was definitely the best part. Everyone was super friendly. Both Mindy and Lang [co-creator & writer] create a crew of friendly, kind people. I could walk up to the camera department and eat lunch with them and they’d totally be OK with that. They would show me how to use the camera and the hair & makeup girls would show me all of their tips and tricks. It was an amazing experience all throughout.
AD: Looking back on the first season, what scene did you have the most fun shooting?
MR: Any scene with food in it, I was quite happy. Looking back, I realized it was never scripted that Devi snacks as much as she does. I realized I added that in, even with small things like the bake sale and you just see Devi cross the screen for half a second because she’s putting a brownie in her mouth. I didn’t have to do that; I chose to do that. Or when I was watching her get ready for the sleepover and she grabs a handful of chips. I thought to myself “damn, I chose to do that!”
AD: As a huge fan of Niecy Nash some of my favorite scenes were when Devi was in therapy. I found them very interesting because mental health is still a taboo subject in media, especially for teens. What was it like working with Niecy creating that dynamic and what was it like depicting that subject matter?
MR: Working with Niecy was amazing. Fun fact, we actually shot all of our scenes together in one day. So me and Niecy were stuck in that tiny room together all day long. I could talk about her forever. She had maybe a day to memorize all of her lines and she nailed it. She’s an amazing scene partner.
Those scenes are done in such a natural way and that is so important. There is no weight or stigma on the fact that Devi goes to therapy. It doesn’t make her lame and it’s not this incredibly serious thing, it’s just a tool that helps her get through her life. I think that’s important for teens to see because as much as we try to say that seeking help is OK a lot of people aren’t ready to say that to themselves as they are ready to say it to the people they love.
AD: What direction would you like to see Devi’s journey go in the second season?
MR: These are my three hopes, like the pillars of her character arc that I most want to see while also being #teamdevi because self-love! I really want Devi to realize how she is treating her family as well as how she is treating her friends. She has some work to do there to learn how to be there for the people that love and support her. Second, she has to understand that she has more work to do in terms of confronting her grief about her father. Yes, she has a breakthrough when she dumps the ashes but that is just the start.
The third and biggest one for me is finding a way for Devi to realize that she needs to start loving herself. As an actor I try to figure out how she views everything and she sees the world in such a way that makes her feel so badly about herself. It’s honestly upsetting because I know so many people who feel the same way about themselves, and I don’t mean just teenagers. Not enough people love themselves.
AD: As you continue to explore Devi in Never Have I Ever do you have any other goals for your career over the next couple of years?
MR: I’ve been trying to personally figure that out. I love a lot of genres; I love comedy as much as I love my dark watches. In the future I see myself being a part of projects that when you walk away from them you have a different outlook on life and you’re thinking differently about something that you thought you knew. That’s what I want to be a part of because those are the projects that resonate with me.