Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is groaning as I get sentimental about this moment.
The Tamil-Canadian star — who I’d argue is responsible for bringing the term “Tamil-Canadian” into pop culture — is on Zoom with me from Los Angeles. We’re a few days away from the purple carpet premiere for Never Have I Ever‘s fourth and final season, where the actor will wrap a bow around her comic star-making role as temperamental Sherman Oaks teen Devi Vishwakumar.
I, as a fellow Tamil-Canadian, can’t help but get choked up about what a moving and groundbreaking four years it has been watching Ramakrishnan make strides representing our community on a popular Netflix sitcom while growing as a creative voice and advocate. “You’re so lame, bro,” the 21-year-old laughs in response, squirming when I get mushy.
“If you were anyone else, I would be like, ‘Ohhhhhhh, thank youuu, thank you sooo much,'” she says, parodically elongating those vowels and feigning an ear-to-ear grin, with her voice pitched soft and Princess Peach-like to entertain mawkish sentiment. She then drops a few octaves to tell me how she really feels.
Ramakrishnan is often candid with me. This is far from our first rodeo. We’ve had several hangs and convos over the years since Ramakrishnan and her family let me publish her very first tone-setting interview in 2019.
On that occasion — nearly a year before Never Have I Ever premiered — we discussed Ramakrishnan’s Tamil-Canadian heritage and what it means to be the first to represent a community that is largely rebuilding their identity and sense of home. Tamil-Canadians escaped a civil war in Sri Lanka that ended in human rights violations against our people and attempted systemic erasure of our culture. Establishing an identity here on Native land has been a sensitive and evolving conversation that Ramakrishnan wasn’t coy about when we talked.
Ramakrishnan will be spending the next few days on carpets and in fancy suites, sporting elegant ball gowns and cocktail dresses as she talks up the show’s final season. But for this first leg of interviews, she’s in a short-term rental in LA with her family, dressed down in a black graphic tee and laying back against a giant white pillow, her gold-rimmed frames matching her nose ring.
We both agree that this feels like the “zero fucks given” edition of Never Have I Ever, and Ramakrishnan adds that this final season reminds her of the attitude they had going into the first season when it comes to their willingness to go the distance on the emotional threads and snappy gags. Once again, her character Devi is navigating big emotions, her colourful family and friends, and the high school social order in a series that juggles Saved By The Bell goofiness, 90210 horniness, and extremely online Gen Z social politics.
The season kicks off with Devi having just lost her virginity to Jaren Lewison’s Ben Gross. She rates the experience in a confab with her girls afterwards, measuring it against “Euphoria sex.” That’s a loaded gag when you think about Never Have I Ever‘s place in this pop culture moment: the show has been carving out its own space somewhere in between more popular entertainment’s “sexless” puritanical streak (here’s looking at you, Marvel) and the leeriness in Sam Levinson’s shows like Euphoria and The Idol, where sex, violence and addiction are turned into titillating or trauma-heavy spectacles.
“I feel like we approach a lot of different real emotions and thoughts about sex,” says Ramakrishnan, contemplating the surprisingly healthy and authentic ways Never Have I Ever handles intimacy. Consider that opening scene for the new season, where Devi and Ben both get lost in their post-coital insecurities because the sex was awkward. Or think back to the third season moment where Devi freezes up while in bed with her crush Paxton (played by Darren Barnet).
“Paxton was like, ‘Hey, we don’t have to do this,'” says Ramakrishnan, revisiting that moment. “He didn’t need a verbal cue. He can see physical cues. And physical cues are just as real as verbal cues.”
So, yeah — Euphoria would never.
“We see a lot of different situations and they’re all very valid,” Ramakrishnan continues. “They’re all very real raw emotions.”
Another thing Ramakrishnan says has evolved over the years is her relationship to her culture, which started to be a focal point when she became the first Tamil-Canadian to break into Hollywood. “It’s definitely made me rep my culture harder than I would have as a teenager,” she says.
Representing comes with a lot of pressure. When the first season premiered, Maitreyi would hear from South Asian girls online, disappointed that Devi didn’t reflect their specific experiences. It was as if Ramakrishnan’s character had to represent the entire South Asian diaspora in all their diversity, which was an impossible burden. All she could do was lean into the specificity of her own identity and experience while waiting on more Gen Z South Asian representation to come via gal pals Iman Vellani (Ms. Marvel) and Simone Ashley (Bridgerton).
“The show definitely helped me face what being Tamil meant to me,” says Ramakrishnan, explaining that she learned to appreciate and proudly showcase everything from the food to the fashion in ways that could be as specific and authentic to her experience as possible. “On set, I’m advocating and saying, ‘Let’s not do samosas — let’s do idli and sambar.'”
That specificity also shaped a joyous moment in the final season, when Ramakrishnan and Richa Moorjani (who plays Devi’s older cousin Nirmala) bust some Bharatnatyam and Kollywood moves. The scene is basically a re-up; two years ago Ramakrishnan and Moorjani dropped a sensational Bollywood dance cover to the song “Sheila Ki Jawani” online, which Moorjani choreographed for Ramakrishan’s birthday. After the video went viral, the Never Have I Ever writers’ room finally granted Moorjani’s wish of having a dance number in the show. But instead of a Bollywood number, Devi and Nirmala dance to the Tamil version of “Saami Saami” from the movie Pushpa.
“Language is such a powerful thing,” says Ramakrishnan. “I can’t speak Tamil fluently — you know this. I can understand bare bones. But if I can’t say [the words] out of my own mouth, I could at least put it out in a dope song. We’re highlighting and celebrating the language.”
It’s one of many full-circle moments in the final season. In a scene from Season 1, Devi gives major self-hating energy when she mocks a troupe of Indian girls performing a cultural dance at the Hindu cultural event Ganesh Pooja; Joya Kazi, the lead dancer in that scene, returns in Season 4 as the choreographer behind Devi’s proud Tamil dance number. Another callback comes in Devi’s prom dress, which is meant to be an homage to Molly Ringwald’s pink dress in Sixteen Candles but is reminiscent of the dress Ramakrishnan wore to her own prom. A photo taken at her prom almost exactly four years ago was included in the press release announcing her casting in Never Have I Ever.
“A chapter is closing, for real,” says Ramakrishnan, still groaning at more of my sentimental “end of an era” proclamations. “I don’t know what’s going to happen now. That’s kind of nerve-wracking. But it’s exciting.”
A few days after our interview, Ramakrishnan posts a photo from the Season 4 premiere day to her 4.6 million Instagram followers. She’s wearing a gown that’s giving Disney Belle of the ball energy, ready to work the carpet but first posing with a cake.
“Devi’s done,” says the inscription, bidding farewell in the least mawkish terms. “Maitreyi is just getting started.”