Never Have I Ever star Richa Moorjani on her breakout role, the focus she put into ensuring that Kamala was more than just a Hollywood caricature, and what it was like working with Mindy Kaling.
Nearly a year later, audiences still can’t get enough of Never Have I Ever – the breakout coming-of-age comedy that became one of the most buzzed about new shows of the year. Now critics are making room for the first season and its breakout ensemble as some of the year’s very best, including newcomer Richa Moorjani.
In her breakout role, Moorjani plays Kamala who moves to the Valley by way of India to live with her aunt and cousin as she pursues her PhD at Caltech. It was a role that, in the wrong hands, could have easily played into Hollywood’s history of otherizing or stereotyping people with accents. Instead, Moorjani prioritized bringing Kamala to breathtaking life.
In conversation with Awards Daily, Richa Moorjani discussed what it was like embodying Kamala in an industry that historically otherizes anyone with an accent, playing it up for laughs. The actress details how she prioritized making sure it was never the punchline and how she even modeled Kamala’s voice after her own family members. In addition, she discusses what it was like tackling her first series regular role as well as what it’s like to work with Mindy Kaling.
Awards Daily: 2020 was not a normal year to say the least, but what has it been like to watch Never Have I Ever reach a global audience and have the opportunity to interact with fans?
Richa Moorjani: It has definitely been weird. This is my first time as the lead on a show, so this entire experience has been new. With all that being said, it has honestly been amazing! Despite the fact that we haven’t been able to go out in the world and talk about the show, the response has still been incredible. I know the rest of the cast as well as myself have received endless messages of support and love from fans, from the industry, and from people all over the world.
That shocked me. I knew the show was special but I wasn’t expecting the worldwide reaction. Being on Netflix, the show was able to be seen by a global audience immediately. This is a show that resonates with so many different people. Even though it’s about a South Asian family, the themes are universal. It’s a relatable story, and I know people of all ages who loved it. That’s something that is really special.
AD: Going back to when you first read the pilot, what immediately jumped out to you about Kamala that made you want to play her?
RM: I first found out about the project through the social media casting call that Mindy Kaling put out. It wasn’t very descriptive; literally all I knew was that she was in her 20s, studying for her PhD, and was the cousin of the lead. Still I knew this was an incredible opportunity because it’s a show by Mindy Kaling, someone I really look up to and am inspired by. It was also a show with not just one but three South Asian leads. That was exciting.
I remember loving the writing. It felt natural to me, besides the accent obviously. I understood Kamala. I fell in love with her quickly.
AD: Speaking of Kamala’s accent, I remember when the show first premiered there were a lot of conversations about her accent and Hollywood’s history of using accents as comedic relief. There are a lot of people who are apprehensive when they see characters with accents used for laughs. Is that something that you considered at all while developing Kamala’s voice and what made you realize this would be different?
RM: I 100% agree and I am one of those people that gets very nervous when I see characters with accents portrayed in television. It’s something that for the South Asian community and for myself that is a sensitive thing. Rightfully so, there is a lot of scrutiny and criticism when it happens.
So it was very important that I put all of my effort into making it as authentic as possible. It’s not something that I assumed that I could automatically do because I am Indian. I understand that there are many different accents. Specifically for Kamala she comes from South India, she is educated, she is getting her PhD. So I interpreted that as Kamala being someone who has spent many years studying across India as well as abroad. I didn’t want her accent to sound to regional, but I wanted to make sure it made sense.
I have a lot of family members with a very similar background, so I used people from my own life as inspiration. I also worked with a dialect coach and watched hours of YouTube videos to immerse myself. So yes, it was definitely something I was nervous about because I knew how much pressure there was and is to get the accent “right.”
I was conscious of the conversations about accents when the show premiered, and it was interesting to read the different perspectives. Some found it accurate and they loved it while others hated it. I knew that would happen, and there is no real way to avoid that. I know I tried my best to be authentic.
Something that Poorna [Jagannathan] says is that what she loves about these characters is that ‘they’re not the punchline, they’re the plotline.’ I love that, and it’s something that I totally saw when I read the script. Usually when we see South Asian characters, or anyone with an accent really, that accent is the thing we’re supposed to be laughing at. I did not see that at all with Kamala. It is who she is, just like millions of other people do. It isn’t the thing that makes her funny.
AD: This is the second time you’ve worked with Mindy Kaling after also working on a much smaller role on The Mindy Project. What is it like working with her?
RM: The first time I worked with her, it was my first onscreen speaking credit. I had looked up to her for many years even before I moved to LA because, obviously, we have so few Indian and South Asian people in the entertainment industry.
When I had the opportunity to work with her for the first time, it was so exciting. I was so grateful for the opportunity. I was so amazed by how hardworking she is. She wears so many hats and is constantly working while simultaneously being so down to earth. Despite her accomplishments, she is able to have a normal conversation with anyone. I was inspired by that.
Working with her on Never Have I Ever has been incredible. She’s a great boss who cares about the cast, who cares about the crew, who cares about the production. She is always there to listen and support. She’s even inspired me in my own career to get into other aspects of the business whether that be writing or producing.
AD: Is there a scene or moment from the first season that was your favorite?
RM: There are so many, but it would have to be the scene on the beach in the finale. The three of us are there spreading the ashes. It was technically a hard scene to shoot, but it was such a fulfilling moment and amazing experience. The three of us [Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Poorna Jagannathan) felt so connected; we were crying throughout the entire moment, and we reminisce on that moment still!
The first season of Never Have I Ever is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.