Never has Maitreyi Ramakrishnan ever acted on screen.
Well, that was once true, until the 18-year-old Canadian newcomer was plucked from an audition pool of 15,000 actors vying to star in Mindy Kaling’s inaugural Netflix series. “Never Have I Ever,” which is loosely based on the comedian’s own adolescence, arrived on the streaming service Monday and for Ramakrishnan it’s the breakout role she never expected to come.
The series, co-created by Kaling and “Mindy Project” alum Lang Fisher, follows Devi Vishwakumar, a sophomore high schooler who just wants to fit in after an unquestionably terrible year: She lost the ability to walk after her father’s tragic death. “Never Have I Ever” checks a lot of the teen rom-com boxes ― there’s unrequited love, a jock with a heart of gold and a cadre of quirky BFFs. But it’s also a quietly revolutionary story that finally puts a first-generation Indian American teen at the forefront.
Ramakrishnan has always felt a kinship with Kaling ― the rare face in mainstream media she could actually recognise herself in ― but she never expected to outperform actors gunning for their big break when responding to an open casting call.
“I just didn’t think it would ever happen. This is my first job. Not even just my first acting job, but my first job period and Mindy Kaling is my boss,” Ramakrishnan told HuffPost in a phone interview.
In what is clearly the exception to the never-meet-your-heroes rule, she added that Kaling “has really become my mentor. I’m blessed to say that.”
Ramakrishnan’s character isn’t just any girl. She’s big-hearted, brash, full of contradictions, prone to mistakes and, perhaps most importantly, not just one thing.
“I brought my own experiences into this and staying true to that helped create a really authentic, fleshed-out character,” she said. “I just didn’t grow up really seeing anybody that looked like me who wasn’t the butt-end of the joke or the sidekick. Like a lot of people from underrepresented communities, I started to see myself instead in the characters that are portrayed, who are usually just white and straight.”
“That becomes dangerous because when you’re not seeing yourself, you start living your own life in the shadows,” she said.
Kaling, however, was always a beacon for Ramakrishnan, a self-identifying huge fan of “The Office” who recalled being struck by episodes that explored Kelly Kapoor’s life and identity outside of work.
“It was a such a nice first step,” Ramakrishnan said of the sitcom’s classic “Diwali” episode. “We can criticise it because it’s not a perfect in-depth representation of the culture, but it made a mark at the time and it was really cool what Mindy did with the space that she had. She’s constantly growing and pushing forward.”
In fact, when Ramakrishnan was flown to Los Angeles to audition for the lead role, she fought the all-too-relatable urge to spout off references to the workplace sitcom in Kaling’s presence.
“I was like, ‘What am I going to lose?’” she recalled thinking during the audition. “I need to just say this right now because I will never see her again. Yeah, joke’s on me.”
Despite lacking any formal training, her skills proved mighty enough to immediately impress everyone in the room.
“A lot of times we would say to each other, we are looking for the Indian teen girl version of Jonah Hill,” showrunner Lang Fisher told HuffPost. “We can teach them to act, but you can’t really teach someone to be funny.”
“Maitreyi really stood out because she’s just naturally very funny,” Fisher continued, recalling how the newcomer tends to “dab” after most takes. “We knew we were just taking a chance on a 17-year-old who has only done high school plays, but that’s the thing that was special about her.”
If this all sounds like a dream scenario, know that diving headfirst into Hollywood wasn’t without its challenges, as Ramakrishnan had to quiet the voices in her head questioning her right to be there in the first place.
“In the beginning, there was definitely a sense of why me?” she admitted. “I was like, ‘When is it going to go wrong? When is the bad thing going to happen?’”
“But then it hit me while filming. Mindy could’ve picked so many other people, but she didn’t. She picked me,” the actor continued. “I didn’t just buy a ticket and win the lottery. ... I worked really hard for this and understanding that difference really helped me gain my self-confidence back.”
“Other people would’ve have crumbled under that pressure, but she rose to the occasion,” Fisher said, recalling how Ramakrishnan worked overtime with an acting coach on the weekends. “I really am so proud of her. She truly turned into a professional working actress by the end.”
Apart from a second season, Ramakrishnan said she hopes that “Never Have I Ever” helps anyone who’s experienced being the “other” feel like they belong. After all, there are still those 14,999 other young South Asian actors who auditioned for the role, and that’s a triumph in itself.
“There’s like so much more to do,” she said. “This isn’t the limit of the South Asian representation. There is this pressure to navigate representation and make sure it’s realistic, but it needs to happen. So why not do it, make a mark in the best possible way, keep striving for more and why not me?”