Poorna Jagannathan Decodes Never Have I Ever Season 2 And A Lot More
Never Have I Ever Season 2 is essentially the story of an Indian teenager trying to find her bearings in the midst of two different cultures, but what makes it different from the numerous American-born confused desi narrative is its focus on details. While Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) struggles to find her identity, her mother, Nalini Vishwakumar, played by the gorgeous Poorna Jagannathan, is right by her side. Letting go of the usual strict Indian NRI parent narrative, the show gives Poorna’s character a unique dimension and takes us into her own world—struggling with the loss of family, companionship and finding her identity.
Season 2 made a debut this week, and before you get caught up in Devi andNalini’s world, we got Poorna to give us a sneak-peek into her character, everything she loves about season 2 and more.
ELLE: We just finished watching Never Have I Ever 2 and loved your character’s growth. Were you as excited?
Poorna Jagannathan (PJ): There are multiple things going on for Nalini, which make Season 2 a real rollercoaster ride for her. There’s more Devi chaos, a mother-in-law who moves in, a very hot love interest, a deeper portrayal of grief… but most importantly, Nalini and Devi come even closer together. This season, Nalini does that heartbreaking thing that some immigrants do: they go back home only to find out that it isn’t home anymore. I was really excited about the Chennai episode and collaborated a lot with the team to make it seem as authentic as possible. You might pick up on small details that convey a very South Indian household: I use a “tumbler and Devara” set to drink coffee from, and the food and plate Nalini’s mother-in-law, Nirmala (played beautifully by Ranjita Chakravarty), serves her is extremely traditional. Salvador Perez, the show’s costume designer, dressed Nirmala in saris with a Madras check pattern—it’s what I remember my grandmother and all my athais and chittis in.
I loved that there is no explanation for anything that might be ‘foreign’ to some viewers—it’s just allowed to be, which can hopefully serve as both a way for some to see themselves within the show and others to learn or notice something new. It was also pretty epic to work with Common (he plays Dr Chris Jackson). He is literally one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met, and his character brought such added depth to Nalini’s journey this season.
ELLE: The representation in the series is widely talked about. What do you feel about that?
PJ: The representation on this show is one of the things I’m most proud of. It’s radically diverse. With season 2, we’ve added so many more actors of colour like Megan Suri, Ranjita Choudhury and Utkarsh Ambudkar. They all play these wildly complex, unexpected characters. Our show also stars two hugely talented transgender actors on the show: Alexandra Billings and Jasmine Davis. And it’s not only diversity in actors, but also diversity in the subject matter the show explores—mental health, sexuality, eating disorders, grief, different family structures, etc. You sometimes look at the length of individual episodes and wonder how they could fit so much in there, so seamlessly in 25 minutes.
I feel that this show is the gold standard in representation and provides a roadmap on how to do representation the right way. You can’t just have diversity in front of the camera; you need to build a diverse ecosystem, and that’s what co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher have consciously done. The writer’s room has incredible diversity—a majority were women of colour, including four South Asians. Most of our directors were women, and over half were POC. Our teams at Netflix are relentlessly diverse. All of this makes a huge difference in which stories get told and how they get told.
ELLE: How exciting was it to be part of a series that didn’t stereotype immigrant mothers and their relationship with their children?
PJ: Being an immigrant mom myself, it’s one of the greatest joys of my career to play this character. We immigrants are talked about a lot, but it’s very seldom that you hear directly from us. So when it’s our voice that’s out there, there’s something that shifts. Yes, you hear what we struggle with, but you also get a complete picture of us as humans. What makes us laugh, what keeps us up at night, how we love, how we hope. I think characters like Nalini, Mohan and Kamala create deep empathy, and I think that empathy can actually shift the needle on how immigrants are perceived.
ELLE: How similar are you to Nalini in real life?
PJ: The only character trait I share with Nalini is that I’m a compulsive gift giver. I inherited that trait from my mother. I certainly don’t parent like Nalini—I tell my teenager he’s the most talented human being I’ve ever met when he performs basic tasks like brushing his teeth or showering once in a while. But Nalini’s strictness is what I was raised around, and so it’s familiar to me. And playing her, with all her joy and loss and grief, gives me the utmost pleasure.
ELLE: What are some of your favourite moments from the show?
PJ: I have a few—there is a scene where Nalini apologises to Devi. First of all, a South Asian parent apologising to their kid is epic! Secondly, it’s a moment that really shows the fragility and love between mother and daughter and the realisation that moving forward is not just the same thing as moving on. They both miss Mohan so much and are simply trying to find a way in a world without him. It’s such a delicately written scene and was so emotional to shoot. My other favourite scene is when Nirmala stands up for Nalini. It’s an unexpected turn of events for the characters and shows a rarely seen narrative of the Asian mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships. If we can have a non-toxic, supportive relationship on TV, then I truly believe people can model new behaviour on that. And I can’t leave out my scenes with Dr Jackson—working with Common was a joy.
Photographer: Sambit Biswas
ELLE: All of your characters have always had a very distinct personality – you never blend in as just another character. Is that something you seek consciously? To ensure that you make a mark with whatever you do, no matter how big or small? How do you build your characters?
PJ: I seek out good writing. Good writing does all the work for you: it creates a distinct personality and a distinct rhythm for that character. In Never Have I Ever, Nalini knows everything—so she speaks fast. Because there is zero need for her to spend any time thinking about the stellar parenting advice she doles out. But in the 2019 movie Share, I played Kerri, a mom dealing with her daughter’s sexual assault. The writing had many broken sentences and ellipses because my character was never sure of what she was doing or if she was doing the right thing. So in playing her, you’ll see me struggling to find the right words a lot, or you’ll see me struggling to make sense of a world that’s falling apart.
I’ll also work really hard in making the characters as real and believable as possible. I spent a lot of time in Jackson Heights for The Night Of, hanging out with desi moms and their sons. My character, Safar, was a shopkeeper, so taking the time to see how something mundane like folding clothes was done was important. When I’m preparing for a role, I’ll people watch constantly and devour tons of documentaries. Being as ‘non-actor-y’ as possible is the goal.
ELLE: You’ve worked pretty steadily in Hollywood. What were some important turning points in your career?
PJ: The Night Of is a brilliantly crafted series. I’d probably say it’s one of the top 5 series created for TV for me. Being part of that was significant—I saw the trajectory of my career change. It also made me very aware of the impact art could have on shifting mindsets. Showing a brown, Muslim, immigrant family helped humanise a section of the population at a time when they were being villainised the most. It really gave me a sense of purpose. And then, frankly, Ramy was a turning point too, but for different reasons. It was the first time someone wrote a role just for me. Ramy Youssef and I had met a few years back and became friends, and one day, I got a text saying, ‘I have something for you’. And being on set, saying those character’s words, telling her story, it felt like… home. There’s no other way to describe it. I can have pretty crippling imposter syndrome sometimes, and it was nowhere to be found on that set. And I feel as at home on the Never Have I Ever set, too, and am proud to be representing an Indian immigrant experience.
Lead Image: Elisabeth Caren | Inside Images: Netflix