Mindy Kaling, the TV star and Indian-American icon, put out the call on Instagram: Who wants to star in a Netflix series called Never Have I Ever, playing a character loosely based on her and her co-writer, Lang Fisher? Fifteen thousand girls sent in video auditions. One got the gig, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, a Tamil-Canadian from Mississauga, freshly graduated from Meadowvale Secondary School. (Her first name is pronounced My-trey-ee, and her series drops April 27.) Ramakrishnan, now 18, is a straight-up kind of girl, so she straight-up asked Kaling, “Why me?”
“Mindy said, ‘You’re cool, we love your sassiness, we want you to make it you,’” Ramakrishnan said in an interview this week. She sounds cool even over the phone, sheltering at home with her parents and older brother – bubbly, quick-witted, self-assured and just a little potty-mouthed. “I learned to swear early,” she says. “I have a lot of older cousins.”
“Make it you” was no small ask, since Ramakrishnan’s character, Devi, is a singular creation – a 15-year-old, 21st-century Valley Girl who’s entering her sophomore year at Sherman Oaks High with a lot of baggage. Not only is she first-generation American (her parents fled Sri Lanka in 2001), with all the cross-cultural complications that entails, but her beloved father dropped dead at a school concert the year before, and Devi hasn’t figured out how to mourn him.
Plus her mother (Poorna Jagannathan, Big Little Lies) is a stickler who makes her go to Ganesh puja instead of parties; the gorgeous cousin who lives with them is “too Indian;” and the hot swimmer she dreams of shagging treats her like a kid. On top of that, she’s a brainiac trying to navigate her “gently racist” school and a hothead who keeps letting down her two best friends. Oh, and the pissed-off, wised-up voice in her head is narrated, brilliantly, by none other than tennis legend John McEnroe.
But it turns out Ramakrishnan has three key things in common with Devi. First and foremost, she knows plenty about feeling “other.” Her parents – father Ram Selvarajah, an IT specialist, and her mother, Kiruthiha Kulendiren, who’s in marketing – weren’t overly strict; they raised her to “have fun and explore.” And in multicultural Mississauga, many of her friends’ parents had emigrated from somewhere else.
“But I still had to find my own identity and figure out what I personally feel comfortable with,” Ramakrishnan says. “There are stereotypes of what you should be if you’re Tamil or East Asian, and sometimes you don’t fit those convenient stereotypes that make it easier for other people. Finding for yourself where you fit in your own cultures – that’s an ongoing conversation you have through your whole life.”
But here’s the second thing Ramakrishnan has in common with Devi: She a fighter. Back in elementary school, some girls were picking on one of her friends, “who always came to school wearing traditional South Asian clothing, the typical braid, oil in her hair,” Ramakrishnan recalls. “I just told them, ‘Shut up, you’re stupid and annoying.’ Oh yeah, definitely a sassy, confident child here.”
So Devi’s habit of crushing jerks with withering sarcasm, or throwing textbooks through her bedroom window in frustration, or smashing a beaker in science lab when her rival scores a 99 to her 98 – Ramakrishnan can relate. “That scene where Devi breaks the beaker, that was so much fun,” she says. “I had to practice with plastic before they gave me the prop glass one. I actually broke the plastic beaker.”
A TV series centred on an angry girl is just as rare as one centred on a brown one. When I ask Ramakrishnan why that is, her answer is immediate: “Besides years of blatant sexism?” she says. “I feel like we’re scared to see girls being mad, because all society wants from us is to be perfect. Even when it’s, ‘Be badass, be powerful, be amazing!’ People are constantly telling girls, ‘You’re being overdramatic, you’re making a big deal over nothing.’ We internalize that, and then those voices in our heads make us simmer down, push down our anger, sadness, whatever emotion we’re having. But we’re human, and we’re allowed to be a mess.”
Now for the third place Devi and Ramakrishnan intersect: They are nerds, but like no nerds you’ve seen onscreen before. Sure, Ramakrishnan was a smart kid, always did her homework “because I would feel anxious if I didn’t.” Her hero was Hermione Granger. She joined as many clubs as she could and played piano in the jazz band. When I confess that I was in the marching band, she replies, in all sincerity, “You had uniforms, that’s cool.” Beginning in Grade 10, she did plays after school (her first role was Urleen, the comic relief in Footloose; her last, Velma Kelly in Chicago) and fell in love with acting.
Never Have I Ever is her first onscreen gig, and being on set was “my version of Disney World,” Ramakrishnan says. “Honestly, it was the best thing ever, to see behind the scenes. So much is fake! A fake street, that’s crazy!” While she waits to hear if there will be a Season 2 (bet everything on yes), she’s “reading scripts, living my best life,” and feeling strangely calm. “It takes a lot to faze me,” she says.
Ramakrishnan and Kaling often discussed “how, yeah, Devi is a nerd, but she’s not shy or awkward,” Ramakrishnan says. “She’s super intelligent, very confident and she knows what she wants. And she has friends! What is with that idea of nerds being loners? Nerds have friends.” And fans. I predict legions of them.
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