TORONTO — About a year ago, budding actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan was getting ready to graduate high school in Mississauga, Ont., when she saw a social media post that would change her life.
It was an open casting call from comedy star Mindy Kaling to find South Asian leads for an upcoming Netflix series about an Indian-American teen.
Ramakrishnan, who is Tamil-Canadian, decided to try out for the role of the protagonist for the fun of it and went off to the library with her best friend to film an audition video.
She didn’t know anything about the process of shooting a self-tape, and it took her “a good solid hour” to figure out how to affix her mom’s Canon camera to a tripod and record a video.
But Ramakrishnan made an impact and beat out some 15,000 auditioners for the lead role in the coming-of-age comedy “Never Have I Ever,” debuting Monday on Netflix.
“I always ask myself, ‘What would I want my little cousin to look up to?'” the 18-year-old said in a recent phone interview, when asked about the idea that she’s now a role model for young viewers.
“And I don’t mean keeping it PG or keeping it Disney-friendly. Artificial stuff like swearing, that is not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is being a strong, authentic role model for girls. That’s what matters.
“And if I portray myself in the way I want to for my little cousin who’s 10 years younger than me, then hopefully that will be all right for all girls around the world.”
Strong and authentic are apt descriptions of her 15-year-old character, Devi Vishwakumar, a first-generation Indian-American who deals with the death of her father and the hormone-fuelled challenges of adolescence with confidence and determination.
Helping her along the way are her friends, fellow school nerds played by Ramona Young and Lee Rodriguez.
Other cast members include Jaren Lewison as Devi’s wealthy school nemesis; Darren Barnet as her high-school crush; Poorna Jagannathan as her mother; and tennis star John McEnroe as the series narrator.
Kaling is the show’s creator and executive producer. Lang Fisher is also an executive producer, showrunner and writer.
Ramakrishnan said she thinks Kaling “is a comedic genius that will forever be underrated,” and counts the American star’s comedy series “The Office” as her “favourite show of all time.”
“I’m currently rewatching it during quarantine for the 17th time and that’s not an exaggeration,” she said.
When Ramakrishnan told her friends she was going to Los Angeles for an in-person screen test for the series, they told her to keep her Kaling fandom to a minimum.
“My friend said, ‘Maitreyi, please don’t make ‘Office’ references. For the love of God, don’t do it.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I won’t, I promise,'” she recalled.
“And then when I went into the room, I had to tell Mindy that my friends told me not to. I was like, ‘I just want you to know, I would be (making “Office” references) right now, but I’m choosing not to. But if you want me to, I can.’ She thought that was hilarious.”
Kaling loosely based the series on her own childhood and that of Fisher’s, but allowed Ramakrishnan to bring herself to the character.
Fisher asked her: “Bring your swagger to it. Use your slang and have fun with it.'”
“In the teaser, the 30-second clip, Devi says, ‘Hey God, it’s Devi. What’s a poppin’?’ And I always say, ‘What’s a poppin.’ That wasn’t in the original script,” Ramakrishnan said.
“But then I slowly started noticing it pop up throughout … the script ever so casually. And I noticed, ‘Oh my God, they’re just listening to everything I’m saying. They’re basically the FBI.’ That was really cool.”
Ramakrishnan was able to relate to show’s theme of “figuring out where you sit within your own culture” when “you’re born in the Western world.”
“It’s a complicated conversation that you have to have with yourself, and it’s also an ongoing one you’ll have throughout your life,” Ramakrishnan said.
She also related to Devi’s overachiever tendencies, “cringy awkward high school experiences” and “general badass vibe.”
Ramakrishnan had to defer her acceptance to York University’s theatre program for a year in order to shoot the show in L.A. If it gets a second season, she may have to defer for another year but is determined to get her university degree eventually.
Growing up, Ramakrishnan said she didn’t see herself represented much onscreen beyond Kaling, who is older.
With “Never Have I Ever,” she’s excited to bring “realistic representation rather than token representation” for young viewers.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s a big responsibility,’ but I’d rather take on the responsibility than have it not happen,” Ramakrishnan said.
“And I’d rather have it be done right, than still being the butt end of the joke or just being the sidekick character and being underrepresented.”
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press