Before taking the lead in Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s Netflix comedy, Never Have I Ever, the now 18-year-old Maitreyi Ramakrishnan had done absolutely no television work at all, or even much acting of any kind. And yet she’s taken viewers by storm with her portrayal of Devi, a confident-but-dorky, extrovert-but-cerebral teen dealing with her father’s death, a strained relationship with her mother, and a burning crush on the hottest boy in school.
Ramakrishnan was rehearsing her high school theatre production of Chicago at home in Mississauga, Ontario, when she saw Kaling’s open call audition on Twitter, and decided to go for it.
DEADLINE: Devi is wonderfully different to all the sort of nerdy, stereotypical characters we see in high school comedies. Unfortunately, most of the time, we see Asian kids represented as shy and nerdy, but Devi has this refreshing confidence. What did you think when you first read the script?
MAITRYI RAMAKRISHNAN: I thought it was awesome. Like you said, it’s usually depicted that Asian characters are shy, unconfident, and have this crazy amount of insecurities and that’s their biggest personality trait. But on top of it, usually the Asian characters are sidekicks, we’re side pieces to somebody else’s story. So, it’s of course amazing to see that the South Asian girl is the focus, and it’s refreshing to see really. But also, I think my favorite thing about the character is that she knows she’s smart and she doesn’t dumb herself down, which is the case with a lot of female characters, especially in young adult movies and TV. There’s always this idea that the girl had to dumb herself down for a guy, but Devi is super smart and she knows she’s smart. And she likes to be smart, which I think is great.
DEADLINE: As a complete newcomer, what was the audition experience like?
RAMAKRISHNAN: For the first part of it, you had to make a self-tape. My best friend and I actually went to our community center library, because neither of us have a blank wall in our house, and we live with a lot of people. So, we wouldn’t get a quiet space. So, we figured, let’s go to the library, rent out a little room, and film it there. A week later, they asked me to send in some more self-tapes. I honestly thought that it didn’t really mean anything. I was like, “Oh, okay. It’s probably standard, I guess.” But I didn’t know any different.
And after I sent in four more self-tapes, so now six in total, they asked me to go to LA to do a screen test. At that point I was like, “Whoa, wait. Hold on. I’ve never even been to LA before. Hold on.” That was when we met Mindy, and it was the first time I was ever seeing a celebrity. I was like, “Wait, whoa, I’ve seen her on TV before.” But instantly I got it together. I was like, “Don’t be weird. She’s a person. She probably wants to live a normal life. Don’t be weird about it.” I got myself together instantly, to make sure I could do the best possible job I could.
DEADLINE: What do you think made them choose you? Have they told you?
RAMAKRISHNAN: Yeah, it’s very odd. I had to ask them. You’ve got to know why you’re picked out of all of these people from around the world.
DEADLINE: Do you know how many people it was total?
RAMAKRISHNAN: Over 15,000 apparently.
DEADLINE: What did they say?
RAMAKRISHNAN: What they said was that I didn’t try to act like I’ve seen other actors act as teenagers on TV. I didn’t try to impersonate somebody else’s style or what has already been done. I brought a little bit of myself to the role while also staying true to the character without totally changing Devi. And there’s that sense of authenticity. I know Lang and Mindy think I have a really unique voice. I don’t know what they hear in it, but okay. They said I brought my own swagger and spunk to it, and I was like, “Okay, I guess I’m cool.”
DEADLINE: Did you bring other personal quirks to the role?
RAMAKRISHNAN: Yeah. This is loosely based off of Mindy’s childhood, but she wasn’t a kid in the modern day, like how it is now with cellphones in classrooms and all the slang that we have. So, there’s a little bit of a gap there, of course. When it came to slang, Mindy and Lang always let me try new things. If I felt like, “Oh, I don’t think kids would really say that,” they would never get offended. They’d be like, “Yeah, well, what do you think should go there?” That went for me and the rest of the cast. And we were always able to take a bunch of takes, trying new things, really exploring and seeing what works best. And on top of it, while filming, when I was just talking to the other cast members and saying my own slang, as I normally do, they started picking up on those words and asking what they meant and started writing them into the script, which was really cool. When Devi says “What’s popping?” that is just me. I always say “What’s popping?” I would say that all the time to my cast members, and slowly, I would see it more and more in the script. Also things like “slapped”. Teaching them what that means. Like you got slapped. But it’s not a negative word. It actually means, “That’s cool.” Like, “That slaps.”
DEADLINE: I loved that TikTok scene that opened one episode. Tell me about shooting that.
RAMAKRISHNAN: Oh my God. That was so hard. I love to dance, but am I the most skilled dancer in the world? Probably not. No, definitely not. We were learning that dance in the span of a couple of hours. And me, Lee [Rodriguez], and Ramona [Young] would practice whenever we could. And then when it came to the actual dance, it was so interesting to see how it was filmed. It was probably one of my favorite scenes to film. The crew, the lighting guys, the sound guys, everybody got really into it. They would be dancing on the front porch of Devi’s house, having dance-offs.
DEADLINE: Were any particular scenes emotionally difficult for you?
RAMAKRISHNAN: Yeah, one scene, and actually I would say probably my favorite scene out of the whole series, just because it took a lot of effort and I really worked hard at it, and I’m super proud of how it came out. It’s the scene at the end of Episode 9 and Devi’s telling her mom, “I wish you were the one that died. I know you didn’t like me anyway.” I remember filming that scene, and the camera crew—a bunch of guys that are old enough to be my dad—they’re all crying. And I’m like, “Oh my god, guys. No, don’t cry.” Everybody was crying that day. I was there in that moment. I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking about while I did that there. It’s such an important scene too, because I know a lot of kids can feel that way in life. When they’re dealing with their parents, whether they have lost a parent or they haven’t, no matter what race.
DEADLINE: What would you like to see happen if there’s a Season 2?
RAMAKRISHNAN: I would love to see Devi love herself. I think that’s an important message that not just high school teenage girls could learn. Just the idea of loving yourself is something I think a lot of people need to hear. I don’t think we do that enough. I don’t think we value ourselves as much as we should. People tend to take care of other people, but they tend to neglect their own emotions, their own well-being, their own mental health. Devi’s a prime example of that. She only just started at the end of the series to confront her grief for her father. We can’t go to Season 2 and pretend Devi’s all better now. That doesn’t make sense. That’s not how it works.