In Netflix’s hit comedy “Never Have I Ever,” Maitreyi Ramakrishnan stars as Devi, an Indian-American teenager, who, in the midst of dealing with the death of her beloved father and a complicated relationship with her mother, is focused on one thing: falling in love.
Behind the camera, Ramakrishnan’s own life could be a television show. The 19-year-old was still in high school when she was handpicked by Mindy Kaling to star as the lead in her show “Never Have I Ever,” beating out 15,000 actors at a casting call and thrusting her into stardom. The show’s first season premiered last April in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, becoming a sleeper hit for those quarantined at home.
The show’s second season premiered Thursday and re-introduced viewers to both old and new characters dealing with an entirely new problem: Devi’s love triangle between her awkward ex-nemesis and longtime crush. The show focuses on Devi’s coming of age and just how complicated life can be for kids of color.
CBS News spoke with Ramakrishnan about South Asian representation, her dream of playing Rapunzel, and the show’s entertaining second season.
CBS News: You’ve said you’re Team Devi, versus siding with one of the guys competing in the love triangle. So what are your feelings toward season two?
I am so happy with season two because obviously, it’s really entertaining. I’m Team Devi but I am not blind to the idea that we do love a good bit of drama. Season two is all the drama of season one, but more.
Season one was just such a great foundation for Devi’s character and her family, but also all the friends. Now in season two, we get to properly dive into them, with having new characters that help us dive really deep into these plotlines and all the characters’ different stories.
What has changed in Devi’s life since we last saw her?
I think she’s growing and she’s realizing that she wants to be a good person. She wants to do right by people and that her actions have consequences. So, yeah, there’s a lot of things that she does in season two that she wouldn’t have done in season one, for the better.
What traits do you share with her?
Definitely competitiveness, just wanting to be the best you possibly can be and being this perfectionist kind of person that feels the need to be perfect in all aspects of their life, not just in school, but just trying to be the best friend possible and the best daughter and all these kind of things and having that pressure on yourself. Also, like everyone, I’ve had my meltdowns.
I’m reading these stories, reading Devi’s situations, and I’m putting myself in her shoes because we have been in those situations. A lot of us have. So it’s understanding and empathizing where she’s coming from and then rationalizing why she does things she does.
The season focuses heavily on the love triangle, but we’re also seeing Devi still come to terms with the loss of her father. How do you think Devi deals with that? She’s grieving but trying to learn how to love and mature.
I am very thankful that season two doesn’t just move on from [her father’s death] because that doesn’t make sense. Just because you cry at a beach doesn’t mean you’re now happy forever. You lost your father. That’s traumatizing. Now she’s realizing, OK, I am sad about this — this affected me. I really do miss him and it sucks. She’s holding on to things that are from him, like the voicemail, she’s hearing, OK, I have his voice. I can have this as something nice. He’s still a part of my life. Even though things can get complicated, he can still somehow help, even though he’s not physically here with me.
Is it important to you that the show takes a hard look at mental health while still managing to be silly in other ways?
Yes, 100%. Because with mental health, that is something that isn’t touched on a lot because it’s not really talked about a lot because of stigmas within cultures for a lot of different communities. So it is nice to see us talk about that and not just in a way of like, oh, it’s one little scene and that’s all you get. Dr. Ryan [Devi’s therapist], played by Niecy Nash, one of my favorite characters and also one of my favorite people, is just great because those scenes happen constantly throughout season one and now that’s in season two, too.
Has it been difficult for you to suddenly have a large platform?
Oh, yeah. I mean with social media, especially in COVID times, you’re glued to your phone more than ever. Sometimes social media is really awesome. You can post a cool picture of your makeup that you’re really proud of or a funny video or a cool meme. But then sometimes it’s like, oh, wow, I’m getting like a death threat.
And it really takes a toll on you. I didn’t think that was such a thing before, obviously making it here where I am in the public eye, you know. I thought for the longest time that it wasn’t like a big deal, or you just brush it off. But it gets to the point where it really makes you anxious and just nauseous.
How do you deal with that?
One day at a time? No, genuinely. Like, I don’t actually have, like, a method. I’m not going to say like, OK, do this and this and this, or go off social media and take the breaks, because as someone who used to, and I still do sometimes, go through the comments and I would go through all the comments, all the positive ones until I found a negative one, I would just keep going until I landed on a negative one. I realize now that was so stupid because I don’t take the time to read the positive ones. I’m just looking for a critique. But it’s truly one day at a time and I do rely a lot on my friends and family to just distract me and just remind me of who I am and what makes me happy.
Regardless of the comments, you’re this huge figure in terms of representation. What does it mean for you to be the South Asian lead that a lot of other brown kids didn’t get to see growing up?
Crazy. Lots of pressure. I mean, I understand, obviously, we have not had new mainstream representation for a hot minute at such a big level. Of course, there are some people who are in Hollywood — like Hasan Minaj, Mindy Kaling — but when you’re looking for South Asian females and then young South Asian females the number [gets smaller and smaller]. So there is a lot of pressure from that representation, but I’m very thankful and privileged to be in this position.
What would your dream next project look like?
You know what’d be really cool? I’ve been saying this and I’ve been seeing other people saying this. I think Rapunzel should be a South Asian girl. Because hear me out, no one knows what it feels like to be trapped in your room, not able to go out because your mother is telling you no, without giving you an actual proper reason like brown girls do. It’s true. That would be like a dream role for me.
What’s your favorite thing about “Never Have I Ever?”
Honestly, all the joy it brings to everyone, including the cast crew and the audience that sees the final product, like the amount of joy making this show brings, it’s immaculate.