Maitreyi Ramakrishnan of 'Never Have I Ever' loves Van Gogh

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Maitreyi Ramakrishnan of 'Never Have I Ever' loves Van Gogh
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the star of the Netflix teen comedy, “Never Have I Ever,” while visiting the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit in Lower Manhattan on July 19, 2021. Sabrina Santiago/The New York Times.

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Cobalt and ultramarine blue swirled on the floors and walls. A moon appeared. Then stars. And the tangled branches of cypress trees. “‘Starry Night,’” Maitreyi Ramakrishnan murmured on a sultry July morning. “This is like the headliner act.”

Ramakrishnan, 19, star of the celebrated Netflix teen comedy “Never Have I Ever,” had arrived in New York City a few days earlier. Between downpours (“This amount of thunderstorm is not normal, right?” she said), she and her castmates had appeared at meet-and-greets for thousands of young fans.

Because the first season premiered in April 2020, in the first flush of lockdown, and the second had landed only this July, Ramakrishnan had never really met her fans in person.

“I was like, oh, this show is really popular,” she said.

As this was her first time in the city, Ramakrishnan, who grew up in a suburb of Toronto, had made time for pizza from Patsy’s in midtown Manhattan (“Like, truly the best pizza,” she said) and the Museum of Modern Art, where she had seen the actual “Starry Night” (“Like, low-key in a corner”).

She had yet to make good on her main tourist goal, to see “an NYC street rat.” But on this sticky Monday morning, she and her family had come to “Immersive Van Gogh,” an interactive art exhibit at the Pier 36 warehouse on the Lower East Side that animates Vincent van Gogh’s greatest hits and a few obscurities. She had fallen for the painter as a younger teenager, admiring his use of color and the way the paintings seemed to invite a personal connection. On her 16th birthday, she and her family made a cake inspired by “Starry Night.”

Ramakrishnan emerged from a black SUV in a vibrant wrap dress by Stine Goya, patterned with peonies. Her high-heeled sandals and swingy shoulder bag matched her orange face mask. Eye shadow, the purple of van Gogh’s irises, clashed cheerfully; a gold ring glinted in her nostril.

As her parents hovered nearby, she and her 22-year-old brother, Vishwaa, a rising senior at McGill University, made their way into the dark interior, past informational placards and a snack bar that sold mocktails and lollipops printed with van Gogh’s face.

Further inside, Ramakrishnan faced a mirrored sculpture plopped into the middle of the room. “I don’t know if I’m experiencing it right,” she said, squaring up against her own reflection. “I’d do really bad in a mirror maze.”

And yet she didn’t seem especially confused or clumsy. Even in her heeled sandals, she walked with poise, critiquing the show with a teenager’s devastating deadpan.

“Now the art rave begins,” she said, as the music morphed from Edith Piaf to an EDM track. A staff member handed her a plastic sunflower and a branded floor cushion. She accepted both with grace.

On “Never Have I Ever,” Ramakrishnan portrays Devi, an Indian American high school student who navigates adolescence more awkwardly. Volatile, impulsive, book smart and heart dumb, Devi often lets her teenage rage get the better of her.

“I’m not as actively angry,” Ramakrishnan said. But she empathizes with Devi and trusts that the character will evolve into a better, happier person. When fans ask her which of her boy crushes Devi should choose — if she is Team Paxton or Team Ben — she has a practiced answer: Team Devi.

“Devi needs to really actually start loving herself,” she said.

Ramakrishnan is evolving, too. When she was cast on “Never Have I Ever,” she deferred her place in the theater program at York University in Toronto. She recently deferred again, switching her major to human rights and equity studies.

In the spring, when India was ravaged by the pandemic, she organized a benefit table reading of “Never Have I Ever,” which raised more than $100,000. She is proud to play a character of South Asian descent and is outspoken about the need for more such characters and stories.

“It’s not fair to make a whole community have to settle for Devi,” she said.

Gradually, she and her brother made their way to the exhibition’s main room, where a 35-minute movie that animates van Gogh’s greatest hits was projected on every available surface. Flowers bloomed, a train chugged by, fields slid past. The animation lingered on an image of a skeleton smoking a cigarette.

“Make it make sense, philosophy major,” Ramakrishnan said, referring to her brother’s college study.

“I think it’s just, like, unappreciated genius,” he said.

After some marsh lilies and town squares and a line drawing of a bedroom in Arles (“Pictionary!” she shouted), the movie ended. She and her brother stayed for the credits, then followed exit signs that deposited them at a gift shop.

Ramakrishnan perused the abundance of merch with skepticism and pleasure. She examined a van Gogh-branded jigsaw puzzle, a photo book, a candle that said, “You’re a Magical Unicorn.” She wondered what van Gogh would think and whether he would want royalties.

“It’s so crazy how he was not appreciated in his time and now it’s like, wait, what?”

Through double doors, Ramakrishnan stepped back into the humid morning. No rat appeared, but she did get to see a garbage barge chug by.

“Nifty,” she said. Three young fans breathlessly approached her. Then a mother and two daughters. She posed for pictures with all of them.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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