Interview With 'Never Have I Ever' Star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now, the awkward, exhilarating and sometimes traumatic experiences of teens navigating high school have inspired many hit TV shows over the years - think "The Wonder Years," "Dawson's Creek" and "Gilmore Girls." There is a new entry to that list and from a fresh vantage point. It's called "Never have I Ever," and it's a Netflix show co-created by and loosely based on the teenaged years of the actress, comedian and writer Mindy Kaling.
It exploits all the cringe-worthy moments of high school life through the eyes of Devi Vishwakumar, a smart, funny and slightly nerdy 15-year-old Indian American girl. Not only is she trying to navigate high school, but she's also grieving the recent death of her father and a mysterious bout of paralysis. When we first meet Devi, a new school year is about to start, and she's in her bedroom praying to the Hindu gods.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEVER HAVE I EVER")
MAITREYI RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) I'd like to be invited to a party with alcohol and hard drugs. I'm not going to do them. I'd just like the opportunity to say, no cocaine for me, thanks. I'm good. Two, I'd love for my arm hair to thin out. I know it's an Indian thing, but my forearms look like the friggin' (ph) floor of a barber's shop.
And lastly, most importantly, I'd really, really like a boyfriend. But not some nerd from one of my AP classes - like, a guy from a sports team. He can be dumb. I don't care. I just want him to be a stone-cold hottie who could rock me all night long. Thanks for considering. I love you guys.
MARTIN: Well, she is only 15. Devi is played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. She is from Ontario, Canada, and she's with us now from her home.
Maitreyi, thanks so much for joining us.
RAMAKRISHNAN: No worries. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So I assume you're self-isolating...
MARTIN: ...Like most of the world.
MARTIN: What's keeping you busy?
RAMAKRISHNAN: As of right now, lots of video games and playing piano, violin - honestly, anything that will keep me from doing nothing because I can't stand doing nothing.
MARTIN: So let's get more into the show. And I want to play another clip. And this is a scene from the first episode. This is the first day of sophomore year. Devi's talking to her two best friends, Fabiola and Eleanor, and who are - well, there's a reason that they're friends. They're all three friends. Let's just put it that way. So I'm just going to play - Devi is kind of hoping for a slightly more interesting sophomore year, let's say, than her freshman year. And I'll just play this short clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEVER HAVE I EVER")
RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) This year, we're rebranding. We are glamorous women of color who deserve a sexy high school life. Fabiola, you are naturally snatch, but you dress like a helpful Honda guy.
LEE RODRIGUEZ: (As Fabiola) What are you talking about? The janitor said I reminded him of his nephew - favorite nephew.
RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) Eleanor, could you chill out on your spontaneous show tunes singing?
RAMONA YOUNG: (As Eleanor, singing) Not likely.
RAMAKRISHNAN: (As Devi) Well, if you refuse to change your personalities, I guess we'll just move on step two and get boyfriends.
RODRIGUEZ: (As Fabiola) Boyfriends.
YOUNG: (As Eleanor) Boyfriends.
MARTIN: Well, they are probably - how can we say? - they're glamorous women of color in training. Let's put it this way.
MARTIN: But tell us a little bit more about Devi. Like, what makes her tick? Like, what's she interested in?
RAMAKRISHNAN: Well, Devi is a confident girl. Sometimes she's too confident, but sometimes she's also not confident at all. And she's out here just trying to win at life, you know - figure out what makes her truly happy.
And, you know, as we watch the series, we find out that Devi sometimes doesn't go about things in the best ways. And sometimes she fails, falls flat on her face. But she gets up, she tries again and messes up the exact same way. So Devi's a complicated, messy character that is definitely far from perfect. But I think that's what makes her great because she's so human.
MARTIN: I think one of the things that people are appreciating about the series is that it's rare to see South Asian characters in lead roles as the center of the story and just have the facts of their life be just the facts of their life as opposed to something kind of different and out of the box. Does that make sense?
RAMAKRISHNAN: Yeah, for sure, because usually South Asian characters are seen as sidekicks. Or, you know, our stories are being portrayed as, like, a side story. And that makes us feel that we have to live in the shadows and that we don't get to be in the spotlight. And, you know, sure, Devi is one story of the South Asian community. But it's definitely a step forward to bring South Asian stories to light, which I think is awesome.
MARTIN: And I was going to ask you, how does that feel to you? Because I can see where it feels awesome, but I can also see where it might feel like a lot.
RAMAKRISHNAN: Yeah, it's a lot when, you know, you're expected to represent the entirety of the South Asian community, which is impossible. You can't because the South Asian community is so vast and wide that you can't possibly represent the entire community within one story, within one girl, because there's so many stories to be told. And in that way, I still think it is awesome that I get to bring the story of Devi to life and have one story be told to hopefully pave way for more stories to be told.
MARTIN: And how important was Mindy Kaling to helping you kind of see this through? I mean, obviously, you know, Mindy Kaling is so many things. I mean, she's a wonderful writer and wonderful actress. And - but she's also a person who's been sometimes the only person in the room who looked like her. So do you remember - did you have any talks with Mindy Kaling about this character and how to approach it and her - just her experiences?
RAMAKRISHNAN: She definitely helped me find my character for Devi. And she honestly helped the rest of the cast as well, too. She's very hands-on in helping us all come into our own and being able to let us play and find our voices on set, which is amazing because, you know, here's my first experience on a film set, but I never once felt like I couldn't ask a question.
And I always had a bunch of respect for Mindy before this, but now it's, like, times a million because, you know, like you said, sometimes she's the only woman of color in the room, and now that's not as much of the case because slowly but surely, we're bringing in diversity. We still have ways to go. But just I think back, like, wow, Mindy. Like, you've really come far. And that's just such an amazing thing. And she has so much of my respect.
MARTIN: That is Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. She stars in Netflix's series "Never Have I Ever."
Maitreyi, thanks so much for talking to us.
RAMAKRISHNAN: Yeah, no worries. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.