Why Mindy Kaling Offered to Call USC for This ‘Never Have I Ever’ Star

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Netflix
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Netflix

Warning: This post contains spoilers for just about every part of Never Have I Ever Season 4, especially ’ship-related ones.

Partway through my conversation with Jaren Lewison, who plays the ambitious, at times acerbic Ben Gross in Netflix’s hit coming-of-age comedy Never Have I Ever, I was tempted to whisper, “Slow down.”

It’s not that he was talking particularly fast—although the speed at which this 22-year-old’s mind works does seem to match his character’s in the show. It was just a lingering, very “thirtysomething” question in my mind: How could one dude of 22 be an actor, University of Southern California graduate, and home baker and also, simultaneously, still conscious? (As we spoke, I remembered reading that he also does powerlifting—seriously, what the hell?)

Lewison’s life for the past few years has been, in a word, busy. When he decided to enroll in college while filming Never Have I Ever, series creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher apparently offered to call the school to vouch for him if and when the show interfered with school, should their chosen Ben Gross ever need it. He was pleased to report they never had to.

While I recovered from my achievement envy (and my nosy desire to warn against burnout), Lewison stopped himself mid-thought. We’d been talking about what it was like for him to earn a degree in psychology from USC while also filming Never Have I Ever, and he’d just said he felt lucky to be in that position. Then, he corrected: perhaps it’s better to say he was grateful that he’d set himself up to be in that position.

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“I get told all the time that I need to, like, appreciate my own hard work a little bit more than I do sometimes,” Lewison said. “So I’ll give myself a little bit of props for that. Otherwise, I think Maitreyi [Ramakrishnan, who plays Never Have I Ever protagonist Devi Vishwakumar] will read this interview and yell at me because I didn’t say that I was proud of myself.”

OK, he’s gonna be just fine.

For four seasons, Never Have I Ever has warmed our hearts and made us cry as Devi Vishwakumar, star student and recovering rageball, has learned to process her grief over the sudden death of her father. The show is easily one of Netflix’s best originals, and viewers have flocked to it because of its thoughtful writing, which emphasizes above all the importance of letting go. Since the beginning of the series, Ben has been Devi’s fiercest competitor and, at times, her truest ally. For Lewison, the role has been far more than an incredible career opportunity; Ben Gross has also become a helpful tool for self-reflection.

This season marks the Sherman Oaks High gang’s senior year—the time, as Lewison describes it, when everyone lays their cards out on the table. Between college applications, difficult goodbyes, and prom stress, it’s a period of great stress and greater potential. It’s also (finally) time for Devi to decide between her two dueling love interests—Ben and her dreamy ex, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnett). Sadly for the Daxton shippers, it turns out that it was Ben all along.

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Lewison recognizes that Ben and Devi haven’t always been perfect for one another (timing is everything), but as he observes, there does seem to be some kind of gravitational pull there. Need proof? Lewison has the receipts. “When there is adversity, when there are trials and tribulations, when they’re stressed, they find each other,” he said.

Consider the time Devi let Ben borrow her shirt when he got a stain on his own just before a Columbia interview. And when he was depressed in New York, who did he choose to call? “He tries to play cool and whatever, but he goes to the party at Princeton and literally gets punched in the face trying to defend her and make sure that she’s OK.”

There’s some irony to Devi’s choice, Lewison noted, given that in the Season 2 finale, Ben complained that Devi’s real pick had “always been” Paxton. Looking back on that exchange, Lewison let out a skeptical squeak as he said, “It’s like, eh, I don’t think so, man!”

The camaraderie that Devi and Ben share apparently extends behind the camera as well. Just as Ramakrishnan encourages Lewison to gas himself up in interviews, he seems to delight in describing his co-star’s talent—specifically, her natural gift as both a performer and a leader.

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“She commanded the set so well,” he said. “As the star of the show, there’s a lot that rests on your shoulders, and she did it with such elegance and grace. We all sort of followed her lead… I mean, when you see her in a scene, she’s dynamic. And I think that that’s why so many people love Devi so much.”

This season brings plenty of ups and downs for everyone in Devi’s orbit, but as a fellow perfectionist, Ben can relate to some of her struggles better than others. (He’s the only one that seems to understand that getting into college during regular admission rather than early admission is “for gen-pop.”)

We’ve seen the pressure Ben can put on himself throughout the series, but this season, he briefly finds another way to cope—one that made Lewison laugh instantly. Finally, at long last, the time has come for Ben’s stoner era—or at least, for him to get high with the school himbo,Trent.

Lewison and Benjamin Norris, who plays Trent, are close in real life, and as far as Lewison is concerned, Kaling and Lang could not have given them better material for one of their few shared scenes in the show. “I had a really freakin’ hard time not laughing and messing up takes, because he was so zenned out.”

For most of the series, Lewison added, he’s joked with Ramakrishnan that it would be funny if his character became a stoner. “Then I saw the scene, and I was like, oh my God.”

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Eventually, however, the fun had to come to an end. The last day on set was actually a big party, Lewison recalled, with an extended lunch period that included a DJ, food vendors, games, and a series-spanning blooper reel that one of the show’s editors had put together. “My cheeks hurt when I got home, I smiled so much,” Lewison recalled. The twinge of sadness hit later.

With USC and Never Have I Ever Behind him, Lewison must now join his character in figuring out what comes next. There are a number of directors he’d love to work with, like Greta Gerwig, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Mike White, or fellow Dallas native Cooper Raiff, but it’s all about finding the right match. And if Kaling and Fisher ever call again, he’ll be there no questions asked.

Looking back on playing double duty as a full-time student and also one of the leads of a mega-popular series, Lewison admitted that there was a lot to process. But from Day One until the end, “I was always filled with this childlike wonder, excitement, positivity.” As excited as he is to find out who he’ll play next, Lewison said he’s also just as eager to soak the experience up like a sponge.

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And as for what he’s learned from looking at Ben Gross in the mirror for a little while?

“Like I said, there is obviously dealing with that sort of imposter syndrome,” Lewison admitted, “where it’s like, I've worked so, so hard for this, I trained like years and years and years to be able to put myself in a position like this, and yet it is really hard to take a second and say, ‘Yes, I belong here. Yes, I worked really hard.’”

As a “bit of a planner,” there’s a part of Lewison that struggles with the industry’s unpredictability. Now that Never Have I Ever has gone out on a high note, he said he’s taking a beat to absorb what the moment means—the pride, the uncertainty, and the potential. “We’ll see what the next years hold for me, but I think that overwhelmingly I got a good feeling about it,” he said. “I really do.”

Yup—he’ll be just fine.

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