Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
For a hormone-fueled 27: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays a thirsty Indian-American teenager dealing with sex, the social order, and other high-school traumas in the coming-of-age comedy series, Never Have I Ever. (The 10-episode season dropped on Netflix on April 27, 2020.)
Never Have I Ever
Every now and then a new series arrives that fittingly encapsulates a version of the modern-day high-school experience — with all its beauty, teen angst and anxiety-fueled adventure. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless and Superbad quickly come to mind.
But unlike those, none have taken a stab at capturing high school from the Indian-American perspective — and none, zero, zilch have had this experience narrated by tennis legend John McEnroe, whose comedic commentary adds a Wonder Years-like element to rather genius effect.
From co-creators Lang Fisher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project and The Office), Never Have I Ever was inspired by Kaling’s high-school experience as an Indian-American teenager; the writing staff also includes a collective of younger Indian-American women who bring their own perspectives to the writing room. The honor of bringing the story to life goes to Hollywood newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who plays the overachieving, deeply unpopular daughter of Indian immigrants, Devi Vishwakumar.
Devi, at first glance, seems like a “normal” social-media-obsessed teenager until we realize that she’s had it harder than most. Her freshman year at Sherman Oaks High (really Taft High, my alma mater, which you notice almost immediately if you’ve ever graced those halls) is fraught with drama. First, her sweet, ever-smiley dad drops dead at the winter concert as she plays the harp. Then, without explanation, her legs stop working, relinquishing her to a wheelchair for three months — until a boy brings her to her feet.
But, this is a comedy at the end of the day — so with these dramas in the rearview, she tells her friend squad that sophomore year will be “our year, I can feel it.” To that end, she concocts a plan so they can all win attention from certain guys Devi has selected — “attainable, status-enhancing people” — as part of their “rebranding” as sophomores.
These escapades lead her to do things that fly in the face of reason (especially given her traditional Indian upbringing) — like casually propositioning swim-team hottie Paxton (“I was wondering if you’d ever consider having sex with me?”) to getting drunk and cornering a coyote at a party that she truly believes is her dead father — but it then goes on to maul her in a video that makes her internet famous amongst her peers.
The talented Ramakrishnan is such a central part of this show that it could easily fall flat with a less talented teen actress occupying the lead role. But Ramakrishnan pulls off Devi with a sweet authenticity that’s destined to bring the turbulent teen years up again for viewers. She’s also surrounded by wickedly talented supporting cast — from her overprotective mom who’s stuck in tradition (Poorna Jagannathan from HBO’s Big Little Lies) to her quirky father (Sendhil Ramamurthy from Heroes) who re-emerges from time to time throughout the show to tug at our heartstrings — rather adeptly, I may add.
Overall, Ramakrishnan nails what it’s like to be a thirsty teenager as she brings Devi’s frustrating pursuit to be “normal” to life. Unfortunately, that’s not what her mom in the show wants her to be. “Normal teenagers end up in prison — or worse, working at Jersey Mike’s,” says mom. Just one reason Devi is aspiring to overachieve in almost every way.
In perhaps the shortest “career” section ever for this column, it should be said that Never Have I Ever isn’t just Ramakrishnan’s first starring role, but her first acting credit. Period.
As she explains in this TIME interview, the 18-year-old Canadian was coaxed into attending an open audition for the role by her friend. After being told by the co-creators to make it her own during her audition, she ended up being selected from over 15,000 hopefuls who went out for it, defying serious odds to land the role of Devi.
Ramakrishnan had only done school theater prior to that, starring in a production of Footloose at age 15. “From then on, I honestly auditioned for every single play or musical that I could in my high school,” reveals the actress in the same TIME interview.
She also admits to being in awe of Kaling’s ability to act and write early on — especially as it pertained to her portrayal of Kelly Kapoor during the run of The Office. “I thought that was so cool to see somebody that has the same skin color and background as me.”
As for other performances? Ramakrishnan confesses to leading a student walkout with 400 other students to protest budget cuts to public education as a senior in high school.
Not Hollywood per se, but a lead role nonetheless.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.