Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is not a morning person. “I mean, what even is a daily routine anymore, right? If you asked me a month ago, I would have said, wake up, go to set, film for 14 hours, come back, and repeat.” The 19-year-old is chatting to me virtually from her home in Ontario, Canada. It is late at night for me and afternoon for her. When I ask what her day has been like, she sheepishly proclaims that she hasn’t gotten much done. “Now that the season’s done filming and I’m back home, my routine consists of checking my calendar the night before to see what I have to wake up for first. And that’s how long I get to sleep in for,” she quips.
With her lightning-fast wit and natural comedic timing, Ramakrishnan has me in stitches for the near-entirety of our call. It’s easy to see why she was hand-picked by Mindy Kaling out of a line-up of 15,000 hopefuls for the lead role of Devi Vishwakumar in Netflix’s coming-of-age dramedy, Never Have I Ever, despite having had no prior professional acting experience at the time.
“I remember watching The Mindy Project, thinking that it’s just really cool that there’s a dark-skinned Tamil girl on TV”
“The whole thing happened because my friend saw Mindy Kaling’s tweet about an open casting call. She sent it to me saying, hey, this could be fun. So we thought, ok, anyone can audition, let’s do it!” Ramakrishnan ruminates. “We were up against people who had experience in film, which I didn’t have at all. But I told myself, let’s just give it the best shot we’ve got. No matter what happens, at least it’ll be a fun time.”
The rest, as they say, is history. At 17, Ramakrishnan was propelled into the limelight from the moment of the show’s casting announcement and then release, garnering praise and accolades for what has been described as a breakout performance. Since then, life has been a whirlwind. “If you told me before all this happened that I would be here, I would never have believed you. I would have laughed in your face and walked away. Now with the platform I have, all I think about is how I can use it wisely—making smart decisions, taking up space, being responsible. I’ve definitely had to grow up really fast from 17 to now.”
Representation, which serves as an undercurrent to many conversations about the show, is not something she takes lightly. She knows that for many young brown girls, watching her on their TV screens may be the first time they feel truly seen in the world. And in some way, life has come full circle—for Ramakrishnan, seeing Kaling on screen was a pivotal moment of her own. “I remember watching The Mindy Project, thinking that it’s just really cool that there’s this dark- skinned Tamil girl on TV. This woman, who was also on The Office and a writer on The Office. As a kid, I may not have been able to relate to Mindy Lahiri as a character—she was an adult—but just seeing her face was pretty cool.”
Ramakrishnan’s character, Devi, plays that same role for some part of Never Have I Ever’s audience. In Hollywood, South Asian characters are often typecast a certain way, with a set of stereotypes and tropes that can be expected to play out no matter the context. Representation itself tends to have a formula—either a minority character resents and struggles with their ethnic background, or they have no problem understanding the intricacies of their culture.
“Devi’s gotten even more relatable. But I’d give her the same advice I’d have given her in season one—she has to love herself more”
What she most loves about Never Have I Ever is that the show embraces the fact that the true minority experience isn’t simply good or bad—it’s complicated. “Devi’s culture isn’t always at the forefront of every conversation she has because that’s not how we actually live,” she observes. “And Devi doesn’t dislike her culture. She just doesn’t necessarily understand where she fits in. That’s such a common story with many folks from many cultures, not just South Asian culture—the nuance in your relationship with your heritage. Like when Devi went to Ganesh puja, she really thought that dance was cool. But she knows that deep down, she can’t do that dance, because that’s not her.”
She speaks of her character fondly, as if she’s talking about a younger sibling who is annoying and endearing at the same time. While some of this stems from her disapproval of some of Devi’s poorer decisions—“She really pissed me off when she picked Paxton over Eleanor and Fabiola that one time. I was like, dude, what are you doing?!”—it is also because on a certain level, she deeply relates to her character. “I remember in my own life, watching friends do Bharatanatyam dances at a Tamil event, and thinking—damn, I wish I could do that. But at the same time, I was doing other things. I was doing piano lessons, and working on art, and singing. So it’s the same story, just a girl trying to figure out where she fits in.”
Before she speaks about the hotly anticipated second season of the show, she pauses to think, making sure she isn’t letting any spoilers loose. “My relationship with Devi has grown from the time I first got to know her. Season one, I would think of her as a friend that I would have in school whom I’d tell that she was being a little obnoxious,” she laughs. “In season two, she’s gone from being a friend to more of a little sister. She’s gotten even more relatable. But I’d give her the same advice I’d have given her in season one—she has to love herself more.”
Fictional sibling aside, Ramakrishnan has an older brother. Her parents moved to Ontario from Sri Lanka as refugees during the civil war. Like most South Asian parents, the Ramakrishnans aren’t the type to loudly proclaim their pride in their children. Still, she knows how they feel about all she’s accomplished in the past two years. “If someone comes up to my mum and says—oh, your daughter has done so much, she’s wise beyond her years, my mum will say, ‘She’s a work in progress’. That’s her standard line,” Ramakrishnan laughs. With a soft smile, she adds: “But she’s definitely proud of me.”
“At the end of the day, Never Have I Ever is a very funny show. It’s not just that brown show. And I think that’s what people like most about it—it’s not just about this one thing”
While her role as Devi has been the break of a lifetime, fame has never been the ultimate goal. “I always said that as long as I’d be able to do the art of acting, whether it was on a community theatre level or a film level, I’ll be fine.” But apart from widespread recognition and an amazing launch pad (not to mention over a million followers on Instagram), what this role has given her is also a second family: her fellow cast and crew. “We’ve always been super close, but this season especially, when we were filming in a pandemic and a lot of people couldn’t go and see their families or friends because they couldn’t risk it, we have all been there for each other even more. I’m spoiled just being part of this team because they’re all such great people.”
Fans of Never Have I Ever may be especially happy to know that the love and chemistry between Devi and her two closest friends on the show, Eleanor and Fabiola, is anything but fictional. “ I absolutely adore Ramona [Young] and Lee [Rodriguez]. The three of us are best friends—and I’m not just saying that how people do. They are core parts of my life and I know I am the same for them,” Ramakrishnan says. “Whenever we have to build a scene where we fight, we laugh way too much. It’s actually really embarrassing, we constantly have to be like, guys, get it together.”
All in all, it sounds like a dream gig—one that Ramakrishnan is intensely grateful for. She is also certain that in an alternate universe where she wasn’t part of Never Have I Ever, she would very much still love the show. “At the end of the day, Never Have I Ever is a very funny show. It’s not just that brown show. And I think that’s what people like most about it—it’s not just about this one thing. It’s a great show that happens to have some amazing representation. Oh cool, Devi is talking about representation, which is much-needed. But she is also funny, and annoying and a mess. So we can enjoy her as a human being who isn’t defined by her culture, which I think is the ultimate goal.”
Season 2 of Never Have I Ever will be released on Netflix on 15 July
Photography Cully Wright
Fashion Direction Desmond Lim
Styling Joseph Cassell
Makeup Vivian Maxwell
Hair Rick Caroto
Production Adrian Rae, Art Department LA
Fashion assistance Juliana Vargas