Maitreyi Ramakrishnan says her initial exposure to Pride and Prejudice author Jane Austen was the stacks of novels her mom kept around the house. “Amma loves Jane Austen,” says the Never Have I Ever star. “I’d make fun of her like, ‘Eww, you like romance. That’s gross.’ Well, joke’s on me.”
We’re discussing Austen because Ramakrishnan will be following up her role as Devi Vishwakumar on Never Have I Ever by taking on Lizzie Bennet, the lead in a new Pride And Prejudice movie – one that won’t require corsets. Ramakrishnan says the movie, The Netherfield Girls, is a modern, Easy A-style rom-com take on Austen.
“I just find it so funny that I’m in a rom-com TV show and a rom-com movie,” says Ramakrishnan, who adds that she’s not really into the world of rom-coms. Her favourite is probably Ali Wong’s Always Be My Maybe. “My love life is dead. This is who I am.”
I’m speaking to Ramakrishnan as we drive from Toronto to her neighbourhood in Mississauga. We’ve been shooting all day, visiting different spots in Toronto that made an impact on Ramakrishnan’s life before she became world famous with two incredibly popular seasons of the Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever. You could watch those videos here.
What became pretty apparent during this shoot is that you can’t take Ramakrishnan anywhere without drawing a crowd. She spent the majority of her COVID-fame either on secure sets in Los Angeles or in lockdown in Mississauga, with the occasional fan interaction at the mall when someone recognized her behind her mask. Now, even on a Monday when people are generally working or at least limiting outdoor interactions due to the pandemic, crowds gathered. And we really should have seen that coming given the lines of fans that circled New York City blocks during Ramakrishnan’s promotional tour for Never Have I Ever season two.
Most fans are gracious. And the actor, only 19, handles them like an affectionate and grateful champ. But sometimes fans encroach on personal space or display a certain entitlement, as if Ramakrishnan exists strictly for their selfie needs. We had to cut our time in Kensington Market short because we couldn’t complete a shot without interference. And while we were taking a break at Nathan Phillips Square, hiding from the scorching sun in the shadow of the Toronto sign’s big T, one fan snuck up, coming within mere inches from Ramakrishnan’s face without a mask. “Are you Devi,” the fan asked, conflating the actor with her character. “I’m Maitreyi,” Ramakrishnan responded.
In previous interviews, Ramakrishnan discussed the mounting pressure and anxiety of delivering a solid season two, especially given fan expectations. “For the most part, people liked season two better,” says Ramakrishnan, expressing some relief. But she’s been dealing with different pressures, particularly online, where it’s harder to hide from the public’s expectations, opinions and entitlement. And that pressure will only mount as a third season, her starring role in the Pride And Prejudice adaptation and more exciting projects in the pipeline increase her exposure.
“For my own mental health, I’ve learned from my mistakes during season one,” Ramakrishnan explains. “I used to go through all the positive comments until I landed on a negative one. I don’t even mean negative critiques of the show. It’s more like, ‘Just go die.’”
Ramakrishnan gets that comments come with the territory for anyone in the public eye. Trolls nitpicking and body shaming are unfortunately unavoidable. And Ramakrishnan has been figuring out ways to unplug. She also occasionally goes on Twitter to set boundaries or offer up her thoughts on your thoughts about her.
Days before this conversation, Ramakrishnan went on Twitter to rally women with body hair. “Say it with me everybody,” she wrote, “hairlessness ≠ femininity.”
“I just got mad,” says Ramakrishnan, adding that she wasn’t even responding to anyone in particular, but rather the comments she could predict at this point. “It was me just staring at my arms for a little too long and then recognizing the fact that if I do shave my arms, purely because I want to, people will always have an opinion. ‘She’s a sellout.’ ‘She’s white-washed.’ ‘She doesn’t like her hair anymore.’ ‘I liked her better when she was younger.’ ‘Hollywood changed her.’ But then if I keep [the arm hair], I get the typical, ‘You’re a monkey,’ and I’m like, ‘Thanks bruv. You’re a racist.’ I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”
Another perennial debate Ramakrishnan deals with has to do with her name, which, as she points out, shouldn’t be up for debate. It’s Maitreyi, pronounced my-tray-ee. But some folks beg to differ, debating the name’s Sanskrit origins, arguing that Ramakrishnan, who they claim is “white-washed,” can’t even say her own name right. That’s right, the public can feel entitled to her name, too.
“If you speak Sanskrit fluently, good for you,” says Ramakrishnan. “I’m incredibly impressed. Don’t tell me how to say my name. I’m not going to tell you how to say yours. How you say it yourself is the right way.”
Ramakrishnan extends that policy to people who shorten their names, whether for preference or convenience.
More and more people from various backgrounds are claiming their ancestral names and pronunciations, shedding whatever shortened or “anglicized” versions they adopted or were put upon them. While that’s great, Ramakrishnan is wary of those who judge or shame others who don’t do that. “I don’t like it when people clown those who have changed their name. Who am I to tell you that you made a bad choice? Who am I to tell you, Radheyan, how dare you go with Rad? I don’t think you’re a sellout, white-washed or whatever because of that.”
“My thing is, just leave me alone,” says Ramakrishnan. “Let me have my own name. Let me have my own goddamn body hair. Let me just have this for myself.”
A Jane Austen heroine
She may sound frustrated, but Ramakrishnan’s actually incredibly relaxed, even goofy. I’ve never seen a 19-year-old more confident and self-aware, understanding her own boundaries and being assertive about the space that she needs. She’s grown fast in the last couple of years, which is obvious when you see her much more confident performance in Never Have I Ever season two. And while shooting our little tour through the city, she took control when needed, correcting my positioning for the camera or being mindful during our walk-and-talk on the street scenes to make sure the cameraman was safe. She has it in her to be a director one day.
I don’t feel like it’s a stretch to say all this makes her upcoming role as Lizzie Bennet – a Jane Austen heroine who knows her own mind and stands her ground on matters of class and femininity – a perfect fit. Ramakrishnan, who also serves as a Plan International Canada ambassador advocating to educate women across the world, doesn’t disagree.
“I of course wanted to take on a substantial character,” says Ramakrishnan of her followup to Never Have I Ever. “Mindy [Kaling] and Lang [Fisher] gave me this great opportunity. And everyone on the cast and crew kept empowering me. So why would I want to take that and then just settle for less as I move forward?
“This character in particular, she’s just a really strong woman, which I think is dope. It’s just all about playing those powerful characters that I can see myself in and I can root for and be like yeah, we’re gonna do this.”
I point out how in many ways, even Devi can come off as an Austen character.
“Devi is a hot mess,” says Ramakrishnan, who again, is not disagreeing. She talks about enjoying Twitter edits, where people create condensed montages of all of Devi’s most extreme expressions, whether she’s happy, sad or mischievous. “She’s not necessarily the most confident girl. She’s very confident in her intelligence or book-smart intelligence; maybe not when it comes to her own value. But she’s very strong emotionally. Like [Niecey Nash’s Dr. Jamie Ryan] says, she feels a lot. That’s what makes her a beautiful character.”