Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Wants to Change How You See TV and Film

“How can anyone think this kid is not cool when she pulls up to school like that?” Maitreyi Ramakrishnan asks adamantly during our Zoom call back in June. The star of Netflix’s dramedy Never Have I Ever has a bone to pick with the show’s creators. While the beloved BFF trio of Devi Vishwakumar, Fabiola Torres, and Eleanor Wong—affectionately referred to as the UN—are technically high school outcasts, their meticulously curated outfits paint a different picture entirely. One could argue Devi’s looks alone are a masterclass in mixed prints. “It’s the biggest plot hole,” Ramakrishnan laughs. She does have a good point. The show’s ensembles, curated by costume designer Salvador Pérez, continue to be a source of inspiration for many—the actress included. Minor wardrobe plot holes aside, there’s a reason Never Have I Ever, now entering its third season with a fourth on the way, continues to be a smash hit. It’s very relatable while being ridiculously funny. Watching Devi navigate a series of coming-of-age milestones, like throwing her first high school rager and getting caught in a major lie, is cringe inducing in the best way and wonderfully nostalgic. (We’ve all been there!) For Ramakrishnan—who auditioned on a whim at 17 years old and quickly caught the eye of show creator Mindy Kaling—there is no better first project. The huge impact of leading a hit Netflix comedy as a multifaceted young woman who happens to be South Asian is not lost on the actress. Neither is the fact that the show is an exemplary model for inclusive casting in Hollywood. A staunch advocate for gender and racial equality, the actress is part of a new generation of young Hollywood looking to change the way we see TV and film. This is something we can seriously get behind.   Ahead, we talk with the Ontario native about sharing favorite The Office memes with Kaling, the joys of playing Devi and doing right by the character, and the Never Have I Ever outfits with a surprising The Mindy Project twist. Let’s go back to the beginning of Never Have I Ever and the open casting call. How did you hear about it, and what prompted you to submit a tape?Well, it was my best friends. They were the ones that saw Mindy [Kaling]’s tweet. They sent it to me, and I almost said no. I was in my last year of high school, severely depressed, but something in me was like, “You know what? I haven’t seen my best friend in a while. Let’s do it.” It wasn’t because I was like, “Oh, I have a shot here, and this is something I can legitimately do and get.” It was more like, “Okay, this could be fun but fun because I’m with my best friend.” So that’s how it came [to be] and why I did it. There were 15,000 applications, and Mindy Kaling selected you for the lead role of Devi. Can you tell us about meeting Kaling for the first time?The first time I met her was during the first audition in person, because there were two rounds before that that were just sending in videos. So this was my first trip to L.A. ever, and Mindy is the first famous person I am really meeting. I remember saying to her, “Hey, I’m a big fan. I just wanted to let you know that my best friends in Canada told me not to make any Office references, so I’m just letting you know that I’m choosing not to do that, but I want you to know that I am a big fan of The Office. Please don’t think I’m not an Office fan because I really love it.” And she was just like, “Oh, okay.” And at the end of the audition, because I brought my dad with me to the casting office, I was like, “Hey, is it okay if my dad comes in and takes a picture with you?” She was like, “Sure, okay.” I mean, who cares? The worst she can say is no, and if that affected what they thought of me, alright, that’s fine. But my dad took vacation days to come with me on this trip. I don’t really have much to lose. And she was down for that. I had no idea what the story of Never Have I Ever was going to be about specifically and also that father-daughter relationship. So yeah, my dad came in, and we took a picture together. It was my first picture with Mindy. How has your relationship evolved with her now, four seasons in?I still make Office references all the time, but I often try to only send her Office GIFs when I text her as my response. I keep it real. So that really hasn’t changed. I’m really happy to have her in my life. I’m so grateful for her. I have not enough words to describe how amazing and meaningful she is in my life.So what is your favorite Office reference?There are so many good ones. It depends on the moment and situation, but my yearbook quote was, “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy, both. I want people to fear how much they love me.”Amazing! Okay, let’s talk about Devi. What do you enjoy most about coming back to this character each season? That she grows. She has so many emotions and so many characteristics and attributes to her that really cover the board, so I get to explore a lot. She covers a lot of ground. But after every season, she jumps a hurdle, so there’s always an evolution. There is always the same consistent heartbeat, but it’s a different state in her life. And I guess that’s high school. You grow so fast, and you go through so many things so fast. I would say that’s pretty awesome about her. And also, she does some crazy-ass stuff. You never know what the writers are going to put in there. Just yesterday, I did some crazy stunt, and that was pretty awesome. Devi is navigating her Indian culture and all of the trials and tribulations that come with adolescence, so we see her learn a lot of invaluable life lessons along the way. Have you seen this reflected in your own personal experiences?I think a big reason why a lot of people, not just high school students, love the show is because we are always coming of age in different ways. So I definitely can relate to it in my high school sense but also my now sense. The person who I was three years ago at the beginning of this journey of Never Have I Ever—two weeks out of high school on a film set—is completely different to the person I am now. But I’m still the same in a way. Again, the same heartbeat. But I definitely can relate to all of the growth and evolution and life lessons you learn along the way. I wouldn’t want that to stop in my life.  At the end of season two, we see Devi and Paxton coupled up. What can we expect from her and this relationship in this next season?Each season has a solid core. Season one is mainly about grief. That was all about Devi confronting her grief, right? And then in the following three seasons, including season four, [we’re] continuing that grief and processing that. So that never really goes away. I would say that’s the core of the show. But that was mainly season one, realizing, “Ah, I’m not okay.” Season two, I would say, was about how Devi felt like she was crazy. She was like, “I am insane. I’m a bad person. I mess up people’s lives.” That’s how that moment happened. With season three, what I really like about it, it’s very relatable. It’s all about learning about yourself and what you like and what you don’t like. When it comes to Devi and Paxton, she’ll learn a lot about that. Also, when it comes to her friends and her family, everyone really goes through that self-love journey. I would say the theme of season three is definitely that self-love journey. I like it. Can we talk about Devi’s style? It consists of a lot of mixed prints and cool layering. What were the initial conversations for her wardrobe, and how do you think it has evolved over the three seasons?The first person I actually ever spoke to on the show from the crew was the costume designer of seasons one and two, Salvador Pérez. He worked on all The Mindy Project seasons. He called me on Skype because this was pre-pandemic and nobody knew what Zoom was. I was in Canada, and he was getting to know me. I was telling everyone, like my parents, “Okay, quiet, this is a serious call.” We’re getting to know each other, and [Salvador] asked, “What kind of clothes do you like?” And I was like, “Hoodies are really cool. I have a lot of sweaters and stuff.” And then he asked, “What kind of colors do you like?” And I said, “Black is cool because it matches with everything, so I find I wear a lot of black and dark green or dark blue, just dark colors.” It was so difficult because he was trying to incorporate my own style, but he nailed it. Starting the show, I loved that Devi was very different from my personal style. But now, because of Devi [and] working with all of those prints and discovering all of these colors, I’ve been able to explore fashion more. Right now, I’m just actually in my dark-green hoodie and black sweatpants, but in my normal life, I’m not dressed like this. I’ve been able to dabble in more color and prints because I’ve gotten to experiment and try with Devi. Some of Devi’s stuff I can see is very influenced by Mindy’s outfits on The Mindy Project, which is really great. Fabric from season one—when Devi is doing the little fashion-show shoot for Paxton’s sister—is actually fabric that was used in The Mindy Project. Or there are these bangles that Devi is wearing in episode four of season one that were actually Mindy’s bangles yet again from The Mindy Project. I love Devi’s style. I think it’s so cool. How can anyone think this kid is not cool when she pulls up to school like that? It’s the biggest plot hole in Never Have I Ever. The UN of Eleanor, Fabiola, and Devi, that doesn’t make sense. They look too fly to be nerds. That’s a plot hole. I’m going to say it. I love Fabiola’s polos.  What has been one of the most rewarding aspects of being a part of this project?One? There’s a lot. One off the top of my head, if I’m taking a broad stroke here, is that it’s interesting as we are getting to the end of filming because it’s like, “Wow, this is done.” I had this moment where I was like, “Wait, Maitreyi, what did you think was going to happen? What did 19-, 18-, 17-year-old you think was going to happen? Do we just continue to do this show forever? God, talk about denial, bro.” Obviously, there has to be an end. But then I’m like, “Wow, no matter what projects come my way eventually or whatever, this will always be the first one.” And that’s always going to be special, no matter what I do. That’s the coolest thing in the world. This will always be the first one, and it’s so game-changing. The show has really shown the world so much about proper inclusive representation and diversity within casting. We’re not just that brown-girl show. We are just a funny show who happens to have a brown girl at the front. And I think that’s really awesome. The moment I found out people referenced Never Have I Ever in college essays, that’s crazy. This is truly a game changer that is way bigger than the character of Devi. Thinking ahead to what’s next for you, what are the projects or stories that really excite you?Honestly, projects that fall into that similar vein of “I’m going to make you feel something and change how you see film and TV,” [projects that] make you realize that characters who look like me can do more than just one thing. … One thing I’ve got to learn is how to take a vacation because it’s been a hot minute. But that aside, because of how impactful Devi is and how I was saying earlier that she covers a lot of ground in the character that she is, I only want to take characters that are like that, that are on par if not more. That’s only respectful to Devi, my homegirl. I can’t be taking on some tokenized character after that or being a part of a project that’s just surface level. And surface level doesn’t mean to say just a comedy that makes you laugh. It doesn’t have to be dark, scary, or sad. Never Have I Ever is a comedy, but we’ll still get you crying. So that’s the kind of project I want to move on to or things I want to be a part of.You are a big advocate for gender and racial equality and are an ambassador for Plan International Canada. Can you tell us how you got involved with the platform and the work you are doing with them? Yeah, I love talking about that! So Plan International. When I was a kid, I was always very interested in volunteering for them, especially because of their I’m a Girl campaign. I remember when I was a kid seeing the ads on TV. Good-old Canadian network TV talking about child marriages. Eight-year-old me was just so scared. But growing up, all throughout my life, my parents have definitely been the ones to raise my brother and I to speak out about what we believe in, educate ourselves to world issues that are beyond our little backyard, and be aware that there are other things happening in the world. So when Plan International reached out and was like, “Hey, would you like to work with us?” I was like, “Yes, please. I’d love to, but I’d like you guys to take me through all the different campaigns you guys are doing and teach me about each one.” I don’t want to just be there and be like, “Yay, I support.” No, I want to know. Give me the same lessons that you give your youth ambassadors when you teach them about all these different things. Give me that exact same training and lessons because I want to actually be fully equipped with the facts so I can properly speak to it. That’s when you get impactful change. Earlier this spring, you became a brand ambassador for American Eagle’s Members Always campaign, which is a club where everyone is welcome. What about the messaging of that campaign really appealed to you?So American Eagle reached out to do this campaign. I wanted to be a part of it because I loved the messaging. Everyone is included. Also, when I was growing up, I wore a lot of American Eagle jeans. They fit the best for my hips and waist—the least amount of jean gap. So it was pretty awesome to do that because I have genuinely worn their products. But also, I think the biggest reason—even more than the campaign messaging that made me want to do it—was actually because rarely do we ever see young South Asian girls in stores like American Eagle and stores that young women, young teens, shop at. I rarely ever get to see a South Asian woman on the billboard in the store or at the front of the store, so in my mind, I thought, “Hey, that would be pretty awesome if a South Asian girl was up at the front too.” Similar to Never Have I Ever, she’s at the front of the show, and that’s fine, and it gets to be put up on Netflix, and it’s just normal. This is another avenue of doing that. This is normal, people! And now, every time any of my friends pass by an American Eagle, they have to send me a photo. Never Have I Ever season 3 is now streaming on Netflix. 

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