When Mindy Kaling first posted the open casting call for her new show, Never Have I Ever, on Twitter and Instagram, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan had no plans to try out. It was only with some cajoling from her best friend that the Ontario-raised teen decided to take part. “I said, ‘OK, sure, why not?’ because I thought it would be fun to hang out with my best friend,” Ramakrishnan tells TIME in a recent interview.
And Ramakrishnan got the part, her first-ever acting credit—over 15,000 other hopefuls.
The comedy, which premieres with 10 episodes on Netflix today, follows the turbulent teenage life of Ramakrishnan’s character Devi Vishwakumar. Devi, a fiery, overachieving first-generation Indian American growing up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, is dealing with the recent loss of her father, a difficult-to-impress mother, friend troubles and an overwhelming crush on the school heartthrob, all while worrying about her prospects of getting into her dream university. Inspired by Kaling’s own childhood, the show takes viewers through the challenges, both mundane and weighty, that come with being a young girl of color in high school today. It’s also narrated by former tennis champion John McEnroe (seems random, yes—but more on that below).
Though the series has every ingredient for a typical teen drama—sex (or, in Devi’s case, aspirations to have sex), “no-parents parties,” a hunky jock love interest—it is anything but. The movies and shows that predominantly make up the genre, from ’80s John Hughes classics like The Breakfast Club to hit shows like Gossip Girl and Gilmore Girls, are overwhelmingly white. And the few roles given to actors of color often reduce characters to a tired, stereotypical representation of their race. The character Long Duk Dong, played by Gedde Watanabe in the 1984 Hughes film Sixteen Candles, for example, is an especially memorable example of the trope of the socially inept, sexually undesirable Asian man.
But Devi’s character offers a far more nuanced depiction of what it means to be a young girl of color than audiences are accustomed to seeing onscreen. She’s at the top of her class, with hopes of attending Princeton University, but also boy crazy. She’s in the school orchestra, but sneaks out to go to parties. She attends the Hindu festival Ganesh Puja, but regularly gets called into the principal’s office at school. Her character doesn’t just break the stereotype of the rule-abiding Indian girl, it also breaks the stereotypes of the brainless, boy-crazed valley girl, the undesirable nerd and more.
The show manages all this without erasing Devi’s Indian heritage. She has an Indian name (which becomes a point of ridicule when her nemesis insists on calling her “David”), prays to Hindu gods and eats dosas with her family. (Though somewhat disappointingly not mentioned in the show, Ramakrishnan tells me that she loved Maggi noodles, a staple in many Indian kids’ diets as a reliable after-school snack.)
Ramakrishnan, now 18, first started acting at 15, when she performed in a school production of Footloose. “From then on, I honestly auditioned for every single play or musical that I could in my high school,” she says. To the young actor, Kaling was an early idol. “I remember when Mindy was on TV as Kelly Kapoor. That was the first time I ever saw her, but I really became a fan of her when I found out that she wrote so many of the episodes and jokes,” Ramakrishnan says of Kaling’s time on The Office, which ran from 2005 to 2013. “I thought that was so cool to see somebody that has the same skin color and background as me.”
The show also explores a common aspect of the first-generation struggle: being too assimilated to fit in with the Indian community, but too Indian to fit in elsewhere. Devi is told she doesn’t stand a good chance of getting into a top school because she’s just “another Indian try-hard,” but she also doesn’t feel like herself wearing traditional Indian clothes and taking part in the traditions that some of the other Indian kids embrace. “I wish I had a show like this growing up,” says Ramakrishnan. “You’re figuring out where you fit within your own culture, and identity is so important, whether it’s your culture, your sexuality, anything. It’s not only how you show yourself to the rest of the world, but also how you accept yourself.”
Ramakrishnan was told that she was chosen for the role in part because of her sassiness, and Kaling and co-creator Lang Fisher told her to make the role her own. In the show, we see Devi speak up against the microaggressions commonly experienced by people of color. “I don’t need some washed-up white dude, who leases a Tesla, telling me what makes me special!” she says to the college counselor who tried to lump her in with the other Indian kids. And she responds with a blasé “no, thanks” to a mom asking if she’ll take a photo with her daughter because she looks “so cultural” (though she ends up giving in, just so the interaction will end).
Much like her character’s penchant for addressing injustices, Ramakrishnan believes that her generation plays a crucial role in advocating for change when it comes to pressing social issues today. When she was a senior in high school, she led a student walkout with 400 other students to stand up against cuts to public education. When there’s a problem, according to Ramakrishnan, Gen-Z doesn’t waste time pointing fingers. “We don’t care to put the blame on anybody or any other generation….we just recognize there’s a problem and that we need to fix it.”
And though she shares Devi’s fire and fighting spirit, she says she’s very different from her character in at least one way: the boy obsession. In the series, we see Devi agonize, obsess and even lose friends over her desire to impress Paxton (played by Darren Barnet), who McEnroe explains is “the hottest guy at Sherman Oaks High.” But in her own high school life, Ramakrishnan “did not care nearly as much when it came to boys.” Whenever she had to play a boy-crazed Devi, she drew from the experiences of her friends.
The quirky choice of McEnroe as a narrator may not make sense at first to much of the show’s Gen-Z audience (“I had to Google him,” Ramakrishnan confesses), but the reasoning becomes clear through an emotional scene in which Devi and a vision she has of her late father watch the tennis star on TV in the first episode. The parallels between the tennis star’s confrontational, volatile on-court personality and Devi’s explosive temperament become obvious throughout the show. (Kaling also likely drew from the fact that her own parents were big fans of the sport.)
When asked about what’s next for her, Ramakrishnan says she’s up for anything: comedy, thrillers or true crime, so long as the characters have depth and the material is rich. Her dream cast for any project: Steve Carrell, her favorite actor of all time, in any role, along with Tom Hanks as her white grandfather, Emma Watson as her best friend and Morgan Freeman as narrator, directed by Jordan Peele. “Maybe I should keep these projects separate,” she quickly adds, laughing.
Never Have I Ever paints a novel portrait of the nerd and the first-generation teenager, one that refuses to reduce her into just one or two defining traits. It fights, with its very existence, the stark narrative scarcity that South Asians have faced in teen dramas and on television in general. And where Kaling offered a model for Ramakrishnan to look up to, it’s heartening for her to know that kids might see her in a similar way. “It makes me really happy to know that my little cousin, she’s like 10 years younger than me, is going to have a show like this,” she says. “I’m really glad it’s happening now rather than never.”