Just over a year ago, “Never Have I Ever” star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan was a total unknown, who landed her big break by booking lead role on a new Netflix YA comedy series after answering a casting call via Twitter from show co-creator Mindy Kaling. When the comedy debuted in April 2020, Ramakrishnan practically became a star overnight.
Netflix reported that 40 million households sampled the first season of the coming-of-age comedy within its first three months of streaming. The show follows Ramakrishnan’s Devi Vishwakumar, an Indian American girl battling battles all of the pitfalls (and pratfalls) of teenage life, including her hilariously desperate attempts to land her first boyfriend, all narrated by tennis great John McEnroe.
Thus, it has been a massive year for Ramakrishnan, going from a young girl who filmed her audition tape at the local library in her hometown of Mississauga, Canada, to posing in front of a billboard with her face on it in the middle of Times Square. And with that amount of success, Ramakrishnan admits she faced some nerves about replicating it for Season 2.
“It’s really awesome because, here we are able to still tell this amazing story, especially in COVID times, where that’s not the case for some shows,” Ramakrishnan tells Variety. “But there is a little bit of pressure because you want to deliver.”
With fans already on her social media accounts clamoring for third season of the show, the actor’s been feeling a mix of emotions — lots of excitement with that consistent reminder that there’s a lot of live up to.
Plus, fans want answers to the show’s biggest question — will Devi end up the super-hot jock Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) or her nemesis-turned-crush Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison)?
Social media battle lines were firmly drawn between Team Paxton and Team Ben after Season 1 ended with Devi and Ben sharing their first kiss, while Paxton showed up at her house unexpectedly to apologize for ghosting her after they’d finally kissed.
“I love seeing the debates that people have on Twitter,” Ramakrishnan says. But she reinforces the fact that she is “Team Devi” and says she’s always really careful with her words about the debate. “I don’t want people to think I’m swayed.”
When Devi decides to date both boys in Season 2, it’s quickly apparent that this love triangle won’t be coming to an end anytime soon. Complicating matters even more, is Sherman Oaks High School’s newest student, another young Indian American girl named Aneesa (Megan Suri). As for what Ramakrishnan thinks will finally draw this romantic roller-coaster to a close?
“Graduation,” she quips. “And then watch them all end up in the same college and then we’re screwed.”
In addition to the romantic rendezvous, the Netflix comedy’s second season also required Ramakrishnan to push herself as an actor, as Devi begins to really explore her grief after her father’s death (which kicked off much of the show’s plot). But it’s not all heavy; the show’s 10-episode run also includes Devi getting into typical teenage hijinks, like getting a nose ring, much to the delight of Ramakrishnan, who’s had her nose pierced for years.
Here, Ramakrishnan talks about Season 2 of “Never Have I Ever” and what she hopes to explore next with Devi.
What are you most excited for people to get a chance to see this season?
I feel like it ups the ante in pretty much almost every single way. All of the drama and love triangle stuff that everyone likes — boom. All the friends stuff between the girls in the UN — heightened. Family drama — jeez. All the Kamala [Devi’s cousin, played by Richa Moorjani] shenanigans — boom. It’s all heightened; everything is just taken to another notch, because we’re diving into those characters deeper, because we have new characters to push them deeper.
We have Nirmala coming in as Devi’s grandmother [new cast member Ranjita Chakravarty], which is actually one of my favorite plots, because [I have a] soft spot for the grandmas. And then we have Aneesa challenging Devi. We have Common as Dr. Jackson challenging Nalini [Devi’s mother, played by Poorna Jagannathan]. There’s so many different characters that I think will push it forward and make a nice show for people to see.
How did you push past that pressure and those nerves?
Honestly, I had a lot of anxiety, and that’s not an exaggeration. I expressed all of these anxieties to Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher [the show’s creators and executive producers] — and I love them so much, I don’t know how they deal with that — but they were like, “Hey, you got this, you’re good. You are meant to be here. And if you sucked, we would tell you.” [I realized] I’ve got to trust the people that I trusted equally in Season 1 when I had no idea what all the technical terms meant when it came to filming. I’ve just got to trust that people will be looking out for me, especially Mindy and Lang. They would never let me look dumb or do a bad job. I was also sick and tired of just being anxious. I wanted to just have fun, like I did with Season 1 — have fun with the cast and just live in the moment.
How have you seen yourself grow as an actor? What is the one thing that you are more confident in than you were the first season?
Oh my God, the crying. Just bam, all tears are real. All tears that you see, are just real sad boy tears. Just trusting my instincts when it comes to crying, but also my comedic instincts, when it’s physical comedy or just the line delivery. I trust those gut feelings, saying, “OK this is gonna be funny. Let’s actually try it, just go for it.”
This is an emotional season. You have a lot of laughs, but also explore more of Devi grief this time, where she’s really starting to unpack what has happened with her father Mohan’s death. What was it like diving into that part of Devi this time around?
It was really nice to see those extra layers to Devi, because she’s already a character with all the different emotions, thoughts and relationships that she has in her life that she’s juggling. But we’re going into this inward layer, talking about that mental health, that grief, because she’s not gonna just get over her father just because she cried at a beach. That’s not how that works. So, she’s doing a lot of inward thinking and realizations of herself and how she views herself, which I think is a really important story for people to see, of all ages.
Representation on screen has been a key point for this series, not just of race, gender and sexual orientation, but also topics like mental health. This season, you have Megan Suri joining as Aneesa — what was it like having another dark-skinned South Asian girl on the show this year?
I’m so glad that you also used the words “dark-skinned,” because that’s very important. It was so awesome. I remember one of the first few days of filming with Megan, just turning to her and saying, “I’m so happy you’re here, and don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m so happy that you’re dark-skinned and that you’re here as a character that’s going to be pushing Devi and rivaling her, because it’s important.” With Devi, she can only represent so many people that relate to her. With Aneesa, she can only represent so many people. Between the two of us, we cover some good ground, but we don’t cover it all. But it’s a nice step forward to getting more people to see people that look like them. Also, Devi shouldn’t be the only brown girl at Sherman Oaks High. That doesn’t make sense.
Speaking of Devi, she also goes through a bit of a physical transformation in this season, getting a nose ring, which you’ve had for a long time. How did that storyline come together?
Dude, I’m so thankful for that. I hate taking out my nose ring and putting the plastic plug in there, and then putting foundation over it. I know Mindy didn’t want Devi to have a nose ring in Season 1 because it looked a little too edgy for her. They wrote it in because they obviously know I have a nose ring. I used to say, “What if Kamala and Devi snuck out and she got a piercing?” And that was before Aneesa was even a person. I would joke about things like that. It’s actually done in like a pretty nice way, where it’s realistic that Devi would do that in competition with Ben, and it makes a nice wholesome moment with a Aneesa as well.
Aneesa explains to Devi’s mother Nalini that the nose ring is just Devi embracing her Indian roots. How has this show made you embrace your heritage even more?
“Never Have I Ever” really sparked conversation. I’m hearing about all these people’s different lives and upbringings, which is really nice and it makes me appreciate what we did. I’m the kind of person that tends to [shrug things off], like, “I got this achievement. Thanks, this is cool.” I’ve been told I need to sit back and just appreciate what I’ve done. And I think the same goes for “Never Have I Ever.” It’s such a big achievement for all of us, but it’s even bigger than I can fathom.
On top of making a difference, you’re also making business moves. Variety exclusively reported that you’re starring as Lizzie Bennet in “The Netherfield Girls,” a “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation. What are you looking forward to most about stepping into a updated Austen world?
I’m so excited. My introduction was as a child, because my mom loves Jane Austen. And I would see stacks of romance novels in the bathroom that she would read — because you know the best place to get away from your kids is bathroom. But I used to make fun of her because I’d be like, “Ew, romance. You’re weird.” And then, here we are. I’m now in two rom-coms.
It’s gonna be fun though. And I’m also excited about the fact that I was just the best girl for the role, not the best brown girl, because they didn’t cast Lizzie Bennet to be specifically South Asian, and that’s really cool.
Are you a “Pride and Prejudice” movie or miniseries fan? Have you checked any of those out in preparation for this role?
Admittedly, I actually haven’t watched any of the movies yet, so I have no opinions on that. My mom really likes the Colin Firth one. Sometimes when she talks about it, I like to just end the conversation there because she gets a little too intense about it.
Back to Devi — what is the one thing you want to see happen in Season 3?
I’d like to see her stand up for herself a little more and just speak her mind. Not the way that she does already where she’s doing it at the detriment of other people, but just, say how you feel when she’s not feeling OK.
We got a glimpse of that in Season 2 when she stands up to Paxton and says, “OK then this is not going to work out. I’m sorry.” That was a really nice beginning to something that could be really great, about her speaking her mind.
How important is it to you to send that kind of message about setting boundaries to young fans?
It’s so important. The whole dream scene with Mohan at the end, where he’s saying, “You’ve got to stand up for yourself, this isn’t you.” And she’s like, “Are you mad at me?” She doesn’t want people to be mad at her. That’s a thing. Especially young girls, we don’t to upset people, we don’t want people to be mad at us because we don’t want to hurt people. But that shouldn’t come at the expensive of bending our morals.
“Never Have I Ever” is streaming now on Netflix.