Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Is About To Take Over Netflix With Mindy Kaling’s New Teen Show
She’d never been to L.A. or had a paid acting gig. She didn’t even have a headshot. But the 18-year-old from Ontario, Canada beat out 15,000 actors to land the lead in Mindy Kaling’s new show. Guess what? She’s ready.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is freakishly good at arcade games. About 15 minutes after entering The Rec Room in downtown Toronto, the 18-year-old is kicking my ass at Pac-Man and has already secured the top spot on the leaderboards of two other games. Dressed in Roots grey sweatpants, a black hoodie with bold letters down the arm, and black Timberland boots, Ramakrishnan seems like an average teen from the Greater Toronto Area — down to the way she yells the name of Raptors players every time she scores a basket in Pop-a-Shot. “Siakam! Ibaka!” The only thing that might hint that she’s about to star in one of the year’s most anticipated TV shows — Never Have I Ever, Mindy Kaling’s first Netflix Original — is her full face of makeup, complete with bright pink eyeshadow.
We’ve just come from the set of Ramakrishnan’s first major photoshoot, where, for Refinery29, she swapped her sweats for designer lewks, each one brighter than the last. Ramakrishnan was pleasantly shocked every time she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror in between takes. “Who is she?” she joked waving at her own reflection while wearing a magenta mini skirt and cropped jacket by Canadian designer Sid Neigum. “When I see my face on things, it feels like some other brown chick. I’m like, Oh, good for you! brown girl, represent!”
Ramakrishnan is going to have to get used to seeing her face and her name on things other than mirrors and arcade leaderboards once Never Have I Ever drops its 10-episode first season on Netflix in April. The coming-of-age half-hour comedy is loosely based on Kaling’s own adolescence growing up as an Indian-American teen with immigrant parents. Ramakrishnan plays the lead, Devi, a smart-mouthed, stubborn, authority-adverse 15-year-old who’s obsessed with getting into Princeton University, popularity, and losing her virginity. She’s also got a short fuse. Think Tracy Flick meets Ferris Bueller meets Mindy Lahiri. After an unexpected tragedy leaves her a social outcast in denial about her grief, Devi navigates friendships, romance, extracurricular activities, and all the typical problems a regular teenage girl faces, but with Niecy Nash as her therapist.
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Aside from the therapy and the Californian backdrop, Ramakrishnan and Devi had similar upbringings. Ramakrishnan was born and raised in Mississauga, ON, a self-described “emo kid,” listening to Panic! At The Disco and hanging out with her cousins at the arcade. (She started acting in school productions in Grade 10, thanks to the encouragement of her drama teacher.) Her parents fled Sri Lanka during its civil war and came to Canada before she and her older brother, Vishwaa, were born.
It’s the episodes where Devi struggles with her identity that Ramakrishnan relates to most as a Tamil-Canadian. In the episode, “Never Have I Ever… Felt Super Indian,” which is written by Kaling, Devi tries to reconcile her embarrassment over attending a religious event with her family with feeling confident in and respectful of her culture. “The experience of having immigrant parents but then being born and growing up here in the Western world and figuring out your own identity and your faith, that’s something I went through when I was Devi’s age,” says Ramakrishnan.
It’s an experience that Ramakrishnan shares with so many other South Asian kids, but it’s rarely depicted on North American television. Girls who look like her don’t typically get to be the leads with love interests and their own nuanced lives. This show, about the desires and teenage discomfort of an Indian girl, is radical because Devi is so normal and relatable.
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The story of how Ramakrishnan landed the role of Devi is anything but normal — it’s a plucked-from-obscurity Hollywood fairytale, in which she beat out 15,000 hopefuls after Kaling posted an open call on social media last April. Ramakrishnan was 17 and completing her last year of high school at the time, and while she had starred in many of Meadowvale Secondary’s productions, including Footloose and Chicago, and was planning to attend York University’s drama program, she’d never had a paid acting gig. Her best friend, Shaharah, convinced her to send in an audition tape.
“I didn’t even know what a self-tape was,” Ramakrishnan laughs, recalling the process of sending in multiple videos of her reading lines before Kaling and her producing partner, Lang Fisher, asked her to audition in person in Los Angeles. Ramakrishnan’s parents, Kiruthiha Kulendiren and Ram Selvarajah, were sceptical. “They were like, ‘Is this a scam?’”
Shooting for Never Have I Ever began in July, and Ramakrishnan is grateful she got to go to prom and graduate high school like a normal kid before heading to L.A. (She’s deferred her acceptance to York for now.) It happened so fast Ramakrishnan didn’t have time to take proper headshots before the announcement was made; she used her prom photo. “It’s so embarrassing that’s what went on my Deadline article,” she says. “But I think that’ll be funny when I’m an actress in my 30s — I’ll look back and laugh, hopefully.”
After an hour, Ramakrishnan has bested me in just about every game at The Rec Room and seems bored of teaching me how to rack up kills in Halo, so we sit down for some food. I can tell she’s told the story of how she landed one of the most coveted gigs in television many times, but she’s relishing the chance to tell it again.
She and her dad flew to L.A. in April (Ramakrishnan says she was the only actor accompanied by an adult). It was her first time in L.A. and her first professional audition, but she wasn’t nervous until she spotted Kaling from the waiting room. “My soul left my body,” she says. She gave herself a pep talk to calm down before entering the audition and announcing to Kaling and the rest of the room, “Yo, your palm trees are crazy.”
Ramakrishnan, who turned 18 in December, possesses an uncanny ability to be herself in every situation and exude the kind of confidence most adults dream of. “I heard after that a lot of people came into the audition trying to be somebody that they’re not, but this was me genuinely being excited about L.A.’s palm trees,” she says between bites of fries. “I remember leaving the audition room feeling happy as shit. I had just met one of the best writers from The Office, my favourite TV show. I got flown out to a whole new place. I literally did not care if I didn’t get it because I was just proud of myself.”
Kaling and Fisher wanted to surprise Ramakrishnan when they offered her the part, so they set up a call under the ruse that it was another step in the audition process. But Ramakrishnan doesn’t faze easily. “They’re like, ‘Congratulations!’ And I think I just dead-ass said, ‘Y’all, that’s brazy.’” As a millennial, I live in constant fear of seeming old, but I ask her to clarify what she means anyway. “Brazy is better than crazy. Duh,” she says. “Take notes.”
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Ramakrishnan — who uses “bro” as a genderless term of endearment and wishes out loud that Billie Eilish was her best friend — has a self-assuredness, unwavering positivity, and blunt sense of humour that are incredibly refreshing. Her mum, Kiruthiha Kulendiren, says her daughter’s comedic timing revealed itself in high school. She remembers watching her perform at a school production of the play Nooses Off when she was 16. “She had everyone in the audience in stitches,” Kulendiren writes in an email. “She inherently knew how to make you laugh and cry and all the in-between complexity of human emotions.” Ramakrishnan says her parents have been “totally supportive” of her career. “For the fire to burn bright, it needs air, so as a family we chose to lift her,” explains her mum.
Ramakrishnan’s on-screen mum is just as effusive. “Maitreyi is this character — smart, unaffected, and ridiculously funny without meaning to be,” actress Poorna Jagannathan told Refinery29 in July. “She literally dabbed after every take — I love her.” Ramakrishnan says it wasn’t every take, but when she did the dance move, they were “anxiety dabs.” That sounds like something high-achieving and uber-awkward Devi would do. Ramakrishnan swears she was never as “boy crazy” as Devi, who is as focused on her college admissions as she is on losing her virginity to Paxton, the most popular (and often shirtless) guy in school. “When I was 15 like Devi, I wasn’t actively trying to seek that out,” she says, though she did date. “As much as Devi is trying to have sex, I love that she’s a girl who is open about it, which we don’t normally get to see. For some reason, it’s taboo to think about sex when you’re a girl.”
There’s a hilarious scene where Devi’s best friends, Eleanor and Fabiola (Ramona Young and Lee Rodriguez), try to figure out how to actually have sex, instead of just talk about it. Devi’s love interest, Paxton, is played Darren Barnet, whose jawline and six-pack were made for playing a hot jock with a heart of gold. Expect Noah Centineo–level Internet thirst when the show drops. Ramakrishnan describes working with her first onscreen love interest as “chill” since the two “got along instantly.” “When we would do the more romantic, intimate scenes, we got through it with laughter and just genuine trust,” she says.
Ramakrishnan, Barnet, and the rest of the cast built their bond with frequent bowling trips, beach hangs, and rounds of karaoke. Ramakrishnan was the youngest on set and the only one with a parental chaperone. She was also the only Canadian. “I used to joke on set that every good cast has one Canadian, so you’re welcome.” Ramakrishnan is very proud of her nationality and hopes to rep her home country every chance she can. (“Like Ryan Reynolds,” she says.) As the “baby,” she looked to Kaling as a mentor. “She helped me to put my own spunk into the character and to tap into the more serious moments of the show.”
Ramakrishnan is rarely serious, but her tone changes when discussing the weight of being the first Tamil-Canadian to headline a Hollywood series of this magnitude. “I’m making history breaking into Hollywood,” she says fidgeting in her seat for the first time in our conversation. “That pressure is there — I’m not saying I don’t like the pressure. Reality is, I want to do people justice the best way I possibly can.” The people Ramakrishnan wants to represent aren’t just Tamil-Canadians. “I’m going to keep trying to get more roles that truly represent the South Asian community, women in general, and kids my age. Because sometimes we're just depicted as brats, and we're not just brats, you know?”
If there’s a more positive stereotype that Gen Z gets, it’s that they are going to save the world. Aside from being opposed to shopping at Zara (“I don’t do disposable fashion — morally, bro!” she says), Ramakrishnan’s goals to change the future are focused on representation in film and television. “I always say if you see something wrong or you see something that you don’t like, go be that change; go fix it,” she says with a shrug. “That’s it. Somebody’s got to do it. So, I guess I will.”
A few days later, I speak to Ramakrishnan on the phone just after she’s arrived in L.A. for her first press junket. She tells me excitedly that she got recognised on her flight — which had never happened before. But in the moment, she met the woman’s compliments with suspicion. “I was like, Thanks? I was in sweats, my hair was all poofy, and my glasses were on. It was brazy.”
It is, in fact, brazy that Ramakrishnan is at once a regular 18-year-old living at home in Mississauga with her parents and a working actress who gets recognised on airplanes to Hollywood. I had wondered when we were at The Rec Room whether this might be the last time Ramakrishnan could walk through an arcade unnoticed, and I told her I worried her authenticity might dwindle as her fame grows. Ramakrishnan doesn’t.
“I know who I am. I wasn’t pushed to be a child actor; I was pushed to be a child, to play and discover and learn,” she said. “I’m not nervous about anything because I do have a strong family and friend group that I know I can always lean on.” I joked that she is the walking embodiment of the Protect [insert celeb] At All Costs meme. She laughed.
“I know I’ll be okay. I will protect myself at all costs.”