TORONTO — “Never Have I Ever” star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is on Zoom from her family home in Mississauga, Ont., talking about plans to visit a billboard for her Netflix series that evening.
The downtown Toronto trip she later posted on Instagram marked a milestone moment for the 19-year-old Tamil-Canadian, who previously hadn’t seen a billboard of herself in person during the pandemic lockdown.
“Last season, I saw all the billboards just via social media,” she says in an interview ahead of Thursday’s season 2 premiere.
“I always joke: my face has been in Times Square but I’ve never been to Times Square. I’ve never, in person, seen a billboard of me, a photo of me, that big. I can’t fathom my face being that big.”
In some ways, she hasn’t fully been able to fathom how big her career is, either.
“Never Have I Ever” premiered as COVID-19 spread globally in April 2020 and Ramakrishnan couldn’t be out and about to see the full impact of her character, Devi Vishwakumar, a first-generation Indian-American dealing with high-school drama and the death of her father.
Ramakrishnan, a virtual unknown before beating out 15,000 actors for the role, says she’s proud of glowing reviews for the show and her performance but has also found pandemic-era stardom to be “a weird experience, because everything, for the most part, has been in online digital spaces.”
“When it came to the actual show releasing, that was a little difficult for me, because my friends here in Canada, they’ve never done such a thing before. They’re not in the public eye. So they didn’t know what all of this newfound attention felt like,” says Ramakrishnan, who was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in January and made Time magazine’s 100 Next list in March.
Other cast members include Ramona Young and Lee Rodriguez as Devi’s best friends, Poorna Jagannathan as her mother and Richa Moorjani as her cousin.
“Looking back, I wish I was with my fellow cast members in physical proximity to be like, ‘Hey Ramona, do you want to come over and play Mario Kart or something?’ That would have been nice,” says Ramakrishnan.
“But everything happens how it happens. I don’t want to be all sad about it or angry about it, because it is what it is. And there are a lot of pros.”
Those pros include being able to enjoy her higher profile on home soil, surrounded by family, and not feeling like the attention was “too stark,” she says.
Still, Ramakrishnan admits she feels she’s “grown up a little fast” and has discussed this with show creator and comedy star Mindy Kaling.
“I’ll be honest and just say: childhood cut short,” she says. “It’s just the reality. It’s not something that I’m like, ‘Damn, give it back,’” she says.
“It’s a part of the package. And I’m proud of myself for growing up and maturing as well as I have in the past year. I’m still, though, just a 19-year-old twerp, very capable of making mistakes as much as the next guy.”
Devi has also grown up in the past year.
Season 2, which was shot under pandemic protocols on the Universal Studios Lot in Los Angeles, finds Devi caught up in a love triangle and doing a lot of kissing — something Ramakrishnan’s grandmother had reservations about.
“It’s not that my grandma has an issue with me kissing. She’s like, ‘Yeah, go for it,’” she says with a laugh. “She’s just like, ‘No COVID. I don’t want my granddaughter to have COVID.’”
Ramakrishnan is next set to play protagonist Elizabeth Bennet in Netflix’s upcoming modern feature adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” called “The Netherfield Girls.” It’s in pre-production, with Rebecca Gleason as writer-director.
“One reason why I really liked the character, for me, personally, is just that I wasn’t the best brown girl for the role; I just happened to be the best girl for the role,’” says Ramakrishnan.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, you’re the best out of all the South Asian women that we have thought of.’ No, it’s just, ‘You can do this, you encompass this character as her true form.’”
With her schedule full, Ramakrishnan says she’s deferring her acceptance into York University for a second time. She’s also switched her degree from theatre to human rights and equity studies, something she’s clearly passionate about, given the causes she posts about on social media. She’s also an ambassador for Plan International Canada, which is dedicated to advancing children’s rights and equality for girls.
“When it comes to activism and all that, that’s something I had before fame,” says Ramakrishnan, whose parents fled civil war in Sri Lanka and moved to Canada as refugees.
“My parents always raised me (to believe): ‘If you see an injustice, speak up. Don’t be a bystander when you see someone facing injustice, or you are complicit.’ So with that mentality, that’s what I still just live and lead by.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 12, 2021.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press