By Harmeet Kaur, CNN
(CNN) — Maitreyi Ramakrishnan was a high school student who had never acted professionally when in 2019, she responded to an open casting call from Mindy Kaling for a TV series about an Indian American teenager.
Ramakrishnan got a callback and then another one, ultimately beating out more than 15,000 people for the role of Devi Vishwakumar in the now-hit Netflix show “Never Have I Ever.”
Since then, Ramakrishnan, 21, has become a breakout star for her performance as the show’s smart and brazen protagonist. She voiced the character Priya Mangal in Pixar’s “Turning Red,” and is set to play Lizzie Bennet in the upcoming rom-com “The Netherfield Girls,” a contemporary take on “Pride and Prejudice.”
With the fourth and final season of “Never Have I Ever” now streaming, her turn as Devi is behind her. “It’s the end of an era,” she said.
CNN spoke to Ramakrishnan ahead of the Season 4 premiere about how it feels to be done with “Never Have I Ever,” what it was like to have Mindy Kaling as a first boss and what a show like this would have meant for her growing up.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Now that “Never Have I Ever” has come to an end, how does it feel for this to have been your first major acting role?
That’s one thing I don’t think I’ll ever comprehend: This was my first opportunity? This was my first job? I couldn’t ask for a better boss than Mindy Kaling. She has been there for me through thick and thin, and I love her to death – of course as someone who employs me, but also as someone who is there for me. I also lucked out with my cast members and my crew members. I got to grow with them through these four seasons.
And then the role of Devi itself. I lucked out with a very amazing role that some people could just dream of. In a world where we barely get token representation, let alone authentic representation, (I got to play) a character that has the ability to have so many emotions and be so multifaceted.
Right. Devi was refreshing not just because she was a South Asian American protagonist, but because she defied stereotypes of brown girls.
She’s a young woman who is both smart but also bold and loud and goes through so many character arcs, has so many different relationships in her life. We get to see her be a fully formed human being. That as an actor, in general, is the dream: Being able to play a character that you can sink your teeth into. Being able to play a brown girl as my first role is just the cherry on top. I’m spoiled. I’m so spoiled. Mindy Kaling screwed me over. She gave it to me too nice.
Did you realize how rare that was when you first took on the role?
In some ways, yes. In some ways, I didn’t.
On one of Utkarsh’s (Ambudkar, who plays Devi’s teacher Mr. Kulkarni) first days on set, he said, “Oh my god, I’ve never been on a set with this many brown people.” Then I realized this is my normal, but that hasn’t been the normal.
In the ways that I did know this was rare is in being an audience member. I haven’t seen a show like this that featured a brown girl that touched on the topics that it did – and definitely not on a mainstream platform like Netflix. But I always knew that the show would be a hit merely just for the fact that we haven’t seen anything like that. Unfortunately, people are so starved for representation. The bar was really low and let’s be honest, it’s not that high still.
What made “Never Have I Ever” so radical to you?
Number one: Therapy. That’s not even touched at the dinner table, let alone on TV. The fact that Nalini is down to get her daughter into therapy is amazing.
Just touching on Season 1 topics, Devi is in therapy, Devi’s going through grief. Her mom Nalini is processing the loss of the love of her life as a single mom. Kamala is going through a whole story arc about her not being okay with arranged marriage. Devi is actively seeking sex. We rarely see a female character do that. And that’s just all Season 1.
What would a show like “Never Have I Ever” have meant for you growing up?
For so long, all the pretty girls (onscreen) were all the White girls. The female hero was always typically White. If they were of color, they were very rarely a South Asian girlie.
I loved Harry Potter growing up. The Patil twins were obviously done so dirty. Their outfits? Awful. When Harry and Ron ditch the Patil twins (at the Yule Ball), I was so sad. I don’t think I realize how much that impacted me as a kid. But when I saw Hermione walking down the stairs to the Yule Ball with her awesome pink dress, I wanted to have that moment.
It doesn’t mean, of course, that South Asian women – women of color of all different backgrounds – aren’t just beautiful. It’s just that we’re not getting to see that in mainstream media. So in “Never Have I Ever,” it’s awesome to see the guys chase after the girl that looks like me or shares my face. It would have been a reminder that, “Hey, you’re attractive, kiddo. So don’t worry and don’t sweat the arm hair, the leg hair, the mustache. You’re beautiful.”
Who was the first person you saw yourself in on TV?
Personality-wise, I always related to Hermione Granger. Look-wise, It was kinda hard. The first Tamil person I knew on TV was Mindy (Kaling) in “The Mindy Project.” That was probably the first South Asian person I saw on TV. In general, though, growing up as a kid I related more to cartoons and animation. I had an easier time relating to a cartoon dog. I don’t think I need to say more.
Do you have any parting words for fans of “Never Have I Ever?”
Even though they might be sad that it’s over, I’m only hopeful that more shows like “Never Have I Ever” are coming soon. Shows are only getting better, and we’re gonna have more representation that’s even better than Devi. This is just the end of one chapter for audiences. New shows will come up, and better representation will come out. This will just be a fun show to look back on.
If you could be on any other show right now, what would it be?
“Money Heist” (“La casa de papel”). I can’t even speak Spanish, but I could be one of the hostages.
If I could do any voice acting role, “Bojack Horseman.” That’s a great show. Also “Black Mirror.”
What’s next for you?
Honestly, I don’t know, which I think is an OK thing to say. What I’ve learned is that actors feel pressure all the time to have something super exciting (lined up). I don’t have anything really concrete planned. What’s next for me is being excited about the unknown. Also being at home with my friends in Canada for the summer for the first time since 2018.
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