Film & TV

Richa Moorjani on 'Never Have I Ever,' and Fitting in at High School

The star of Mindy Kaling’s new Netflix series opens up about self-esteem and trying to make it in Bollywood
Reading time 7 minutes
Photographed by Daniela Rangel

When Mindy Kaling put out an open casting call for three “desi ladies” to play the leads in Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, Richa Moorjani jumped at the opportunity.

Beating out around 15,000 applicants, Moorjani, who also had a small role in Kaling’s The Mindy Project, landed the role of Kamala, an ambitious 20-something who moves from India to Southern California to pursue a PhD from Caltech. “This is by far the most exciting project I’ve been a part of,” Moorjani says. “It’s something that has been kind of a dream project for me.”

The show centers around 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar, a straight-A student who vows to shed her nerd status during her sophomore year of high school. The easiest way to do that, she decides, is to find a boyfriend, so Devi sets her sights on the heartthrob of Sherman Oaks High School, Paxton Hall-Yoshida. The results are equally endearing and hilarious, while upending many a rom-com trope.

Kamala, who is living with Devi and her mom while she’s in school, is expected to follow through with an arranged marriage. Though she’s less than enthused about the idea, Kamala often finds it difficult to speak up. “She’s always wanting to please the people around her,” says Moorjani. “I can relate to that because I think I have the disease to please too.”

As a first-generation American who grew up in California, Moorjani can relate to Kamala’s story in more ways than one. We caught up with the actor on all things Never Have I Ever, her stint in Bollywood, and struggling to find her place in high school.

L'Officiel: Can you describe what the show’s success has felt like to you?

Richa Moorjani: When I booked the role I knew it was something unique and special and important, not just to me as a South Asian actor, but I knew it was going to be important to a lot of people. That being said, I had no way of knowing the level of response we’ve received would be on such a big scale. Before the show even came out, like when the trailer was released, we had so much of a response and people who were so excited about it. That was something I did not anticipate, and I’m super grateful that it’s been received well.

 

LO: Tell us a bit about your character Kamala.

RM: Kamala comes from India but she lives [in the US], and she’s also navigating her newly found American identity, and balancing the traditional values where she comes from with the modern values of where she’s living now. She’s brilliant, she’s getting her PhD, and even though she’s independent and strong and ambitious moving across the world to pursue something, she is, like many young women and South Asian women, someone who sometimes finds it hard to act on what she wants because she’s torn between that and wanting to meet the expectations of her family.

Image Courtesy of Moorjani's Instagram

LO: How did you get into acting?

RM: I basically have been involved in the arts my whole life. I started dancing when I was 5 and I come from a musical family, so I started doing plays in school. In college I minored in theatre and dance, and I moved to LA right after, which was 8 years ago. Since then I’ve been in LA and also went to Mumbai for a couple of years to pursue acting there.

 

LO: What was that like?

RM: It’s hard to describe. It was terrifying because I didn’t know anybody when I went there. It was just this burning desire and lifelong dream that I’ve always wanted to explore—to work in Indian cinema and Bollywood. I felt like I needed to do it even though I didn’t know anything about it, so I packed up my bags and put my stuff in LA in storage. I didn’t know how long I was going to spend there, I just had to go. When I got [to Mumbai] I took an acting course for a few months to help me make a network for myself, make friends, and learn about the audition process. 

They considered me an "NRI", which stands for non-resident Indian, and unfortunately as an NRI, we get stereotyped a lot. So it’s interesting, sometimes I feel like an outsider here [in the US] but also when I go to the country where I come from, I feel like an outsider there too.

 

LO: That’s similar to what Devi goes through in Never Have I Ever, being pulled between her family’s culture and the Western environment that she grew up in. Did you go through a similar experience when you were younger?

RM: Absolutely. I think everyone who is a bicultural person in this country feels that, whether you’re South Asian or not. Navigating the culture of your family and the American way of life can sometimes be a struggle, and I think media has a big role in shaping the way we see ourselves. Because there was virtually no representation [of my culture in mainstream media] when I was in high school, it was harder back then for someone like me to be able to navigate my cultural identity without having any point of reference in the media.

 

LO: What kinds of experiences did you have at the time where you maybe felt out of place?

RM: A lot of it had to do with my passion for acting and for dance. I was really insecure growing up. The main training I have is in Indian classical dance—it’s called Kathak—and because I was in a lot of different environments that included dance and acting I was made to feel like an outsider a lot of the time. 

I remember one time, in high school, I volunteered to choreograph some drama production that we had for our class. There was a girl who was a ballet dancer, and she was considered one of the best dancers at our school, and it got back to me that behind my back she said, ‘Indian dancing isn’t real dancing so I don’t know why they asked Richa to do it.’ Little things like that made such a profound impact on my confidence as an artist and as a person.

Image Courtesy of Moorjani's Instagram

LO: How do you think a show like Never Have I Ever would have affected you if it were around while you were growing up?

RM: I think it would have been really helpful for my self-esteem. Just having someone who I related to on a cultural level, and it being cool and being normalized, I think it would have made [me feel like] I wasn’t alone in my experiences.

That’s the kind of messages that I’ve been getting from people—whether they’re in high school, or my age, or older—telling me about how they’re reflecting on their high school experience while watching this show, and how it’s made them feel like their experiences weren’t isolated. I think that’s something we all want to feel, like we’re not alone.

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