Never Have I Ever, Mindy Kaling's new coming-of-age comedy on Netflix, required a specific kind of lead. Kaling needed someone who could carry the weight of a multi-generational culture clash, the unending grief of losing a father too young, and the turmoils of suburban high school, all while playing the series as a whip smart comedy. But after auditioning plenty of Hollywood/Bollywood-ready actors for a series loosely based on her teenage years, Kaling and her team played a wildcard to find a truly undeniable first-generation voice. They posted an open casting call on Instagram and discovered Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, a Tamil-Canadian high school graduate who, despite having no professional acting experience, won the role of Devi Vishwakumar.
"Honestly, the original plan was to go to university to study acting," said Ramakrishnan in conversation with TV Guide. "I always thought, OK, maybe one day I'll be like an extra on a set. That'd be cool!" But thanks to the urging of her best friend, who forwarded Kaling's Instagram post, Ramakrishnan blew through her 10-year plan to slowly work her way up the ranks in the entertainment industry. Instead, Ramakrishnan beat out roughly 15,000 other actors and hopped straight onto Hollywood's fast track with a breakout performance in this year's most touching teen comedy.
Even through a socially distant phone call, it's obvious that like Devi, Ramakrishnan can't help but be herself. "Honestly, I don't really think I was nervous when I was auditioning," she said. "When I went to L.A., I just had fun with it because in my head I was thinking, 'OK, I am not going to see Mindy Kaling again.'" Ramakrishnan's finish line was simply getting in the room with the most prolific writer from her favorite show, The Office; she didn't give much thought to what might happen if she was invited back.
But getting the callback was, in hindsight, inevitable. Ramakrishnan's audition sides (scenes written specifically for auditions that would not be used in the show) included a verbal chess match between Devi and her mother that turned a sleepover request into a strategic battle of Cold War proportions. Ramakrishnan connected immediately with the nuances of the desi teenager on the page, but what won her the role was an instinctual understanding of how to make Devi her own. "I never really took it as, I'm portraying young Mindy," said Ramakrishnan. "I took it more like, OK, I'm just going to portray this first-gen girl who's 15 years old being raised in the Western world."
Never Have I Ever was already set in 2020, but Ramakrishnan's performance truly modernizes the series with Gen Z details that an older writers' room would otherwise miss -- even when pulling experiences from similar diasporic subcultures. "They always made for an open environment for me to be able to say, 'Hey, I don't think this makes sense,'" said Ramakrishnan. "Even though I was the only one without any experience of being on a set, I never felt like I couldn't ask a question, or bring up my own ideas, which I'm truly blessed to say."
But Ramakrishnan didn't breeze through every challenge on set. Despite showing up on time, overprepared, with lines memorized every day ("So I wouldn't cause trouble to anybody else"), she still worked overtime to catch up to shooting speed. Ramakrishnan spent her first week just trying to learn set lingo, often consulting with her costars between takes to refine her mental flashcards. "I'm a perfectionist. I need to understand how every single thing worked on set. If I know that then I'll feel more confident," said Ramakrishnan. "I was constantly trying to learn," she continued, describing everyday crew interactions like film school classes.
According to Ramakrishnan, it was an education she needed, because all her previous acting experience came from her high school's theater program. Senior year, she starred as Velma Kelly in Chicago. Ramakrishnan knew how to play it big, especially for laughs, and she noted how feeding off of the crowd's energy pushed her performance. Losing the live audience forced Ramakrishnan to explore a much more intimate approach to acting while shooting Never Have I Ever. "Learning how to cry. Getting into that headspace. That was something I was nervous about, and I put a lot of my intention into figuring out how to get that right," Ramakrishnan said.
Ramakrishnan's hard work came to fruition in the penultimate episode of Never Have I Ever, when the simmering tension between Devi and her mother, Nalini (played by the incredible Poorna Jagannathan), boils over. In a reflection of many immigrant families, Devi spends the season feeling smothered by an overprotective mother, one who criticizes her every move despite the fact that she's on track for Princeton early admission. And Nalini, despite living in America for most of her adult life, fears losing her daughter to cultural values she doesn't quite understand. But no relationship in Never Have I Ever is superficial, and in Episode 9, the underlying fears exposed between Devi and Nalini are much darker than a generational divide.
After finding out Nalini wants to move the family back to India, Devi reveals she overheard her mother tell her father on the night he died that Devi is no daughter of hers. In a heartbreaking confrontation, Nalini admits that since Mohan's (Sendhil Ramamurthy) death, she has struggled to keep everything together and raise Devi. She needs a support system like the one she'd have in India. Devi tells her mom to go to India without her, because the reason Nalini is struggling -- has always struggled -- to parent Devi is because she doesn't like her own daughter. "I lost the only parent that actually cared about me," says Devi as tears silently roll down her face. "I wish you had been the one that died that night."
In direct contrast to the explosive blowout arguments Devi and Nalini had over the season, Ramakrishnan and Jagannathan played the scene in Episode 9 quietly. They offered up ugly truths in near stillness, creating an impossibly fragile moment. Without a book to throw through a window or a tirade to scream, reaching for that kind of deep anger pulled tears from Ramakrishnan's eyes. Holding back physically allowed her to let go emotionally, and Ramakrishnan delivered a gutting performance, the kind that marks her as an actor to watch.
"The camera crew, these guys old enough to be my dad, are crying while we're doing this scene. They're like, 'It reminds us of our daughters, man. I have a kid at home. I just want to go see her now. This would kill me if that happened to me,'" said Ramakrishnan. A 55-year-old white man who has been working union jobs for decades can be as moved by Devi as a desi teen bingeing the series with her cousins, Ramakrishnan noted. Her most difficult performance also became her favorite scene because of how deeply it affected everyone.
"South Asian families are totally normal. It's not anything bizarre," said Ramakrishnan. "Sometimes we just have this pressure of always wanting to be perfect within our own household. Especially for the big extended family, you always want to portray yourself to be perfect, because it's always like, 'What will they think?'" While the pressure to justify leaving the motherland for another country is a uniquely immigrant problem, Ramakrishnan added, "It's not just immigrant families caught up in that [mindset]. It's everybody. Everybody just gives too much of a sh-- about what other people think instead of what they think about themselves."
If that's not a universally relatable flaw, Ramakrishnan's not sure what is. "That pressure of repping the community, that is there, of course," she said. "In terms of acting, being the lead ain't sh--, everybody on set matters -- but in terms of the community watching, being the lead is the sh-- because we haven't had a South Asian teen lead, and that's where it does matter." But Ramakrishnan knew she could handle the pressure because the humanity of the characters came first. There's so much to Devi and her boisterous inner life that in the hyper-specificity of one angry, sweet, funny brown girl's journey, Ramakrishnan was certain there was something for everyone to connect to.
"That realistic portrayal of Devi and the South Asian community on screen, that is what actually makes me feel relaxed," said Ramakrishnan. "I have full faith in the show and I truly stand by it and believe in it."
There's no reason for Ramakrishnan to fret. Never Have I Ever serves up the most intimate portrait of a first-gen Indian-American teenager to date. The joyful, resilient, raucous series is undeniably a brown girl banger, soon to join the ranks of revered classics like Bend It Like Beckham. People will be talking about Ramakrishnan for a long time to come, but she's not looking quite that far ahead. For now her plans include a quarantine binge party with family and friends, during which she'll be flexing her greatest accomplishment.
"As my friends watch this, I'm going to say, 'Did you see me cry? Did you like it? That was me crying. Look at me cry. Look at me. Don't blink. Go look at me cry.' Yeah, little psychotic, but it's fine," said Ramakrishnan. "I am proud to say that every single tear that I shed on the show is real."
Never Have I Ever is now streaming on Netflix.