maitreyi ramakrishn­an rocks


- Words Giselle Au-nhien Nguyen

Maitreyi Ramakrishn­an’s first dream job – what she wanted to be when she grew up – was a unicorn. “I’m still working on that,” she deadpans over Zoom. Instead, the 19-year-old Tamil Canadian became an actress. And, just casually, she made her profession­al debut in Mindy Kaling’s 2020 Netflix comedy-drama series Never

Have I Ever as Devi Vishwakuma­r, a precocious teenager dealing with the unexpected death of her dad, as well as all the usual angsty teenage things.

Maitreyi landed the role over 15,000 hopefuls after she responded to an open callout on Twitter with an audition tape she filmed at her local library. (Some people might say that’s even more magical than being a unicorn.) She had a little acting experience under her belt – namely a year-10 production of Footloose in Mississaug­a, Ontario, where she was born and raised – and secured the lead part on Never

Have I Ever right before she graduated. “Two weeks after graduation, I was on a plane,” she says. “I did not have my hot girl summer. There was no transition from high school to university – it was just Netflix.” The actress learnt on the job, shooting the first season over four months in 2019. She quickly realised that acting is about doing away with perfection­ism. “You get better as you go, but what's done is done – you don’t get to go back to that scene,” she says. “From the first episode to the tenth episode, of course I did get better. I wasn’t nervous or scared because there was no point – I just had to buckle down, centre myself and learn as much as possible, and just come to work every day alert and ready to go.”

The show, which returns for its second season this year, has been praised for its portrayal of teenagehoo­d, as well as its representa­tion of Indian-american life. For Maitreyi, it was a big deal to play a character who wasn’t solely defined by her ethnic background. “You constantly get sent scripts about South Asian girls being the

quirky best friend, who for some reason always want to lose their virginity like crazy, and that’s their only personalit­y trait,” she says.

“Never Have I Ever is not just some quirky Asian show. It’s funny, heartwarmi­ng and wholesome, and there are so many character stories that people can relate to.”

Unsurprisi­ngly, praise has flooded in from around the world, with folks reaching out to rave about all the things they love about the series. Though Maitreyi initially felt pressure to represent everyone on screen, she says that’s just not authentic. “One South Asian role can’t possibly represent all South Asians. All I can do is speak truthfully from the heart and my own experience­s, and hey, if you’re a brown girl who can relate to that, great. If you’re a white man who can relate to that, great.” She’s developed a strong bond with her character, too – a brainy, vaguely self-involved but charming high-schooler with a habit of getting herself into tricky situations. “Before I was like, OK, you’re like that annoying friend, but now the relationsh­ip I have with Devi is like a little sister – like, ‘You’re a hot mess, but I do love you, kid,’” she says.

You’d think this sudden fame would go to someone’s head, but Maitreyi is adamant she’s still a regular teenager. The fact the show premiered in the middle of a global pandemic probably has a bit to do with that. “It still baffles me that 40 million households around the world are watching my face, but minus that aspect and my following on social media, I feel pretty normal, man – I’m just here vibing,” she says. “The show came out while I was literally sitting at home on the couch in my basement. As the clock ticked down I expected fireworks, but no, it’s just on TV now. That’s all that happened. We didn’t have a premiere party or a red carpet. I just sat on my couch, and it came out, and my family started watching and my friends started Netflix Partying. I’m still very much me.”

Glamorous parties or not, one upside of her new following is that Maitreyi has a significan­t platform to use for good, speaking up about issues she cares about (she’s an ambassador for Plan Internatio­nal Canada, for instance – an organisati­on dedicated to advancing children’s rights and equality for girls). “Even before fame, I truly just wanted to speak out about things I believed in,” she says. “That was something my parents have always raised my brother and I to do with injustice – you see it, you call it out and you try to do what you can. I can’t speak out about everything because I can’t possibly know everything that’s going on – I don’t think anyone can – but what I can do is educate myself first and foremost, then educate others on the things I do know.”

The actress has deferred university for now, but she’s planning to do a degree in human rights and equity studies someday. “Human rights is such a no-brainer to me,” she says. “It’s just embarrassi­ng if you’re sexist, racist or homophobic.” Her focus for the moment is on building her acting career, with the hope of getting into producing and directing in the future. Her dream role? “I don’t want to be a superhero and I don’t want to be a villain,” she says. “I’d love to be an antihero – a little chaotic-neutral kind of thing. A part of me wants to be in a really, really messed-up psychologi­cal thriller because that’s my favourite genre – that would be sick. And then another part of me is like, ‘Oh, but what if you were a princess?’ We still only have Jasmine, who’s from a made-up land.”

Ultimately, Maitreyi just wants to make a difference. “I want to be part of projects where you leave feeling something, whether you’re mad or sad or really happy,” she says. “There aren’t many young South Asian actors, so I feel a sense of responsibi­lity to take on characters with depth. I want to show that we can carry a story, because wow – we’re human.”

i just want to speak out about things i believe in

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