Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is ordering me to breathe.
I’ve just issued a sharp exhale and she’s not happy: “Take that exhale back!” We’re into a debate as old as time (or at least 2005): which version of The Office is better, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original or Steve Carell’s US reboot?
As a Brit, I’m duty-bound to bat for the Slough office and Ramakrishnan is not happy. “Are you joking right now?” she yells. The breakout star of Mindy Kaling’s comedy-drama Never Have I Ever – back on Netflix last week for a third season and still inexplicably narrated by John McEnroe – watches a lot of The Office. In fact, it’s pretty much all she watches. On repeat. Over the years, Ramakrishnan has clearly seen, learnt, and mastered the art of comic timing. She is one of those naturally hilarious people that you instantly want to be your friend.
“We’ve all had diarrhoea at one point in our lives, right?” she declares, on the topic of being starstruck. “I think when you think about that fact that we’ve all sat on the toilet for a couple more minutes than normal at one point, it just sort of humanises us.” I offer up Beyoncé as someone who, probably, has had diarrhoea in her life. “Exactly!” Ramakrishnan says. “And she’s done a bunch of cool things too, but like, I think I’ve done a couple of cool things, you know?”
She has indeed done some cool things; she was cast as the lead in Kaling’s teen drama at just 17, beating out 15,000 other applicants, many of whom had far more experience than her CV of a few school theatre productions. Her audition tape was filmed in her community centre library in Ontario, Canada, and was more of a light-hearted throw of the dice than a serious thespian performance. “She dabbed a couple times,” the show’s co-creator Lang Fisher recently recalled of her audition. She was therefore surprised to be asked for a second tape a week later. “I thought their second-round standards were really low,” she jokes. Just a few weeks later, to her disbelief, she was handed the lead role in the Netflix drama. She plays Devi Vishwakumar – a loquacious, bookish high schooler with a rebellious streak and a soft spot for the captain of the swim team (Darren Barnet) and her fellow academic star (Jaren Lewison).
Speak to Ramakrishnan, who shares the same lovable snark as her character, and it’s hard to tell where Devi ends and she begins. So she tells me: “I’d like to think I was less of a jerk to my friends and family than Devi was.” Season two centred around a love triangle between Devi, Paxton (Barnet) and Ben (Lewison), and in season three Devi continues to find herself apologising to the people she loves. “I was the kind of person that liked one person all throughout high school,” Ramakrishnan says. “Versus Devi who – god damn – she’s all over the place.”
Season three also sees Devi faced with a choice: does she leave her home in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, her friends, and her mother who is still grieving the loss of Devi’s father, to accept a place at a prestigious school elsewhere, or does she stay? I posit that this might have mirrored her own decision to leave her home in Canada to chase the Hollywood dream while just a teenager. “Kinda!” she responds. “But I think because I love acting so much and I was so excited, that took over more than nerves.”
It’s a remarkably assured position to hold for a teenager but it is made less remarkable when watching Ramakrishnan on screen – this is clearly a role she was born to play. One of the most illuminating moments in our interview comes when she describes her final audition for the role. She was up against what Fisher described as “a very polished actress with a longer résumé”. The humour in her voice suddenly vanishes, revealing a driven young woman hidden beneath layer after layer of benign affability. “When I found out it was down to me and one other person, at that moment, my brain switched from before being like, ‘Oh, I’m just happy to be here,’ to: ‘OK. It’s game time.’ I locked in. Suddenly, I wasn’t this kid that was just happy to be here. I was this kid that’s gonna stay here.”
Does she think she had enough “normal” life before fame hit? Much has been made of the young stars of Stranger Things who were cast between the ages of 11-14 – their adult colleague David Harbour worried that childhood fame is “really hard for the psyche to reconcile with”. “I don’t think you can ever have enough time being normal before Hollywood hits you,” Ramakrishnan says. Her projects, Never Have I Ever and a voice role in Pixar’s Turning Red, have faced their fair share of criticism for “sexualisation of minors” and “tired ethnic stereotypes” among others. It’s a lot to weigh on a young actor’s mind, but Ramakrishnan is just happy that she got to be a “rugrat child” who “scarred her knees up” – a luxury not afforded to children whose knees have to be filmed by eight different cameras at a time. “I got 17 solid years of just being a regular suburban Canadian kid, which makes me happy.”
It’s been really awesome to see a South Asian character be the love interest
Seventeen years will have to be enough for Ramakrishnan, who is not letting fame go now. She’s part of a new generation of South Asian talent who are claiming parts that traditionally went to white actors for their own. She recently hung out with another forerunner, the British-Indian lead of Bridgerton’s second season, Simone Ashley, at the show’s premiere. It’s a subject Ramakrishnan is all too happy to talk about. “I could give a general statement like how I wish I had a show like this when I was younger… but it’s been really awesome to see a South Asian character be the love interest, specifically,” she says.
While Bridgerton serves one audience, Ramakrishnan is particularly happy that Never Have I Ever shows younger teens that “brown” girls are just as desirable as white girls. One of the show’s richest veins of humour is the near-absurd good looks of Barnet (who is actually 31), and Ramakrishnan picks out the fact that “having someone like Paxton want to be in a relationship with Devi, have a Valentine’s Day with her… that’s amazing!” She adds: “For the longest time you don’t get to see that. It’s always the white girl.”
Never Have I Ever is now at an end, for Ramakrishnan and the rest of the cast, at least. They just wrapped filming on their fourth and final season, which does not have a release date yet. The show has been Ramakrishnan’s life for the last three formative years of her adolescence. “I was in mad denial,” she says of the final shoot. It was only when she was called on to deliver a speech after Lang called cut for the last time that Ramakrishnan broke down. “As soon as I started talking, I started crying,” she says, “because I was putting it out there. I was accepting that it’s done.”
While Ramakrishnan has proven herself in the TV comedy arena, she admits that she “barely” watches any sitcoms in her spare time (besides The Office). “I’m a big thriller gal,” she reveals, pointing to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series as a project she would love to be involved in. Most of all, though, she wants her work to continue to have “impact”. “That character depth. That richness – that is what I want. I want to keep that standard up.”
When Elle spoke to Ramakrishnan’s co-stars for a recent cover story on the actor, Lewison, who has become best friends with Ramakrishnan through filming, told the publication: “I have no doubt that if there’s anyone in my life that can change the world through this business, I’ve really put my money on her.” After speaking to Ramakrishnan myself, I wouldn’t bet against her.
‘Never Have I Ever’ seasons 1-3 are available on Netflix