“Never Have I Ever” star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan had been quarantining for more than a month in her Mississauga home when her face started popping up all over the internet.
Netflix dropped the coming-of-age series from Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher on April 27, and social media was abuzz with praise for Ramakrishnan’s debut performance and what the Tamil-Canadian’s role meant for more diverse representation onscreen.
But her new-found fame came as the world was blowing up with a pandemic and a powerful social justice movement. And so, rather than more behind-the-scenes Instagram stories from the set in Hollywood, Ramakrishnan turned her focus to something that’s always been a large part of who she is: activism.
Her followers got an education in police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the U.S. and Canada as she regularly posted everything from calls to action and solidarity, to education resources, to donation and petition links for her one million followers.
“When I was in Grade 12 and there were cuts to public education all over Ontario, I was a part of those groups of students who walked out (in protest). And that was who I was well before Mindy even put out a tweet that an audition is going to happen,” said Ramakrishnan. “I don’t think I’m ever going to lose that part of myself. I hope I don’t.
“Now especially more than ever for me, with a platform and everything that’s going on in the world, you have to use your voice, you have to inform people,” she added. “Who cares about an esthetic or whatever kind of look or brand when your brand doesn’t matter if you’re not educating and you’re not being aware of the world.”
Ramakrishnan shot to fame well into the COVID-19 lockdown with her leading role as Devi Vishwakumar, a high-achieving and feisty high school sophomore set on revamping her image while dealing with her strict immigrant mom and grappling with her dad’s sudden, traumatic death.
Though her acting resumé included only school plays, Ramakrishnan was hand-picked out of 15,000 hopefuls by Kaling after sending in the audition tape she filmed after school with a friend at the Meadowvale Library.
“It was weird because I’m used to (people) seeing my acting just in the Meadowvale area in high school, but now it’s like the world can see my acting, which is wild,” the 18-year-old said in an interview. “But, at the same time, I feel the same still. I feel like I’m still regular old me. And I don’t know if that’s a result of quarantine.”
While she may be stuck at home instead of enjoying the glitz and glamour of stardom, it also feels like a blessing in disguise.
“I’m glad I’m at home during this whole time because … I can make sure that I take the time to myself amongst all the chaos and hype of ‘Never Have I Ever.’ I really get to make sure that I’m taking care of myself,” said Ramakrishnan, who lives with her parents, grandparents and brother.
That involves staying up late (“That’s not really taking care of myself”), playing video games and hanging out with her dog, Melody.
“Just being able to be with my family and just have that company while also not worrying entirely about like, ‘I have to go here, I have to go there,’” she said.
Ramakrishnan is still working from home, though, reading scripts, joining meetings and doing interviews.
“I still feel on the job, but I feel more at home still because this is where my roots are. This is all I’ve known when it comes to properly living somewhere,” she said of Mississauga, where she’s lived her whole life.
Ramakrishnan, who has expressed a healthy dose of local pride on social media, said the GTA will always be home. She hopes to one day live in the heart of downtown Toronto, close to favourite spots like Kenzo Ramen and Kensington Market.
“It’s just the pride of knowing where I’ve grown up,” Ramakrishnan said. “Just the community of Mississauga where I grew up with all my friends.”
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She credits her parents with encouraging whatever creative interests she has held, as well as her high school drama teacher, who gave her a solid foundation to build on.
“My high school wasn’t an art school. I was just in regular public education and I owe so much to my teachers,” she said.
Before heading to Hollywood, Ramakrishnan had planned to attend York University to study theatre. Those plans are on hold as she takes stock of what she wants to do next, and considers learning more about directing and producing (though acting remains the goal for now). Netflix hasn’t officially announced Season 2 of “Never Have I Ever,” though Hollywood has been allowed to resume filming.
Her biggest plans for the summer are also on hold, thanks to COVID-19: hanging out with her friends after a year apart while filming. Mississauga friends she’s known since she was five have wrapped up their first year of post-secondary school and Ramakrishnan was looking forward to catching up at their favourite Mississauga hangout, the Square One mall.
“It’s true, we all do just live there,” she said. “We 100 per cent accept that stereotype.”
When it comes to young, diverse talents who hail from Mississauga, Ramakrishnan is in good company.
Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu, who will play Marvel superhero Shang-Chi, was raised in the Erin Mills area. Shay Mitchell, who played one of the few non-white characters on “Pretty Little Liars,” was born in Mississauga. Musician PartyNextDoor, born to Jamaican and Trinidadian parents, is also a local.
“Mississauga itself as a city is quite diverse. There’s all sorts of backgrounds and ethnicities here, which is amazing,” Ramakrishnan said. “It’s really the same as any other suburb city. Everybody is doing their own thing, but we’re not getting caught up in the glitz and the glamour. We’re truly doing what we love.”
That’s the advice she’d give to other young artists in the city wanting to follow in her footsteps.
“Focus on the craft it is that they want to pursue … and keep practising because most of the job is practising to get better,” she said. “If you truly have a passion for it, you will stick to it and you will fall into your own success in your own time.”