Meet Jaren Lewison – lifelong learner, star of Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, and an utterly charming human being.
To say Jaren Lewison doesn’t have a lot on his plate would be something of an understatement. Since starting his acting career on television & honing his skills through high school theatre, he now juggles college coursework on top of filming his hit Netflix show while maintaining relationships with his friends and family, and even indulging in a hobby he loved long before the pandemic: baking.
When speaking with Jaren, all of his answers feel like one long, run-on sentence in the best way; his words snowballing with passion about Never Have I Ever and how grateful he is to be a part of it as Ben Gross, an endearing smart aleck. An insane amount of humility, really, when you learn that the show won an AAFCA award and was nominated for several other awards, including a People’s Choice Award and an MTV Award (best kiss for – spoiler for the end of the first season – his character’s kiss with the show’s lead) and has been acclaimed by critics, like CNN, as “a watershed moment for the representation of South Asians in Hollywood … twist[ing] stereotypes within even that experience” Jaren’s passion is evident not only in how he feels about the show, but other areas of his life, such as how seriously he takes both his acting career and his education.
In conversation with 1883, Jaren talks about how important his education is to him, how he learned spontaneity off-the-cuff through onstage mishaps during his high school theatre days, and what fans can look forward to in Season 2 of Never Have I Ever.
It sounds like you filmed both seasons while you were a full-time college student! That’s insane! How on earth did you do that?
Yeah, I did! It was a little bit different during the second season because school was online, so I was able to watch zoom recordings, which was a bit easier because I didn’t have to teach myself after missing classes. It’s all about time management. I tell people that I’m the opposite of a procrastinator – I always get things done super early in advance because it allows for flexibility for my schedule. Also, I keep a very open communication with my professors; I try my best to let them know as early as I can if I do need to reschedule something. They know that I take my academics seriously and I want to do well in their class, so they oftentimes are a bit more accommodating to help me pursue my dreams when they see that I do genuinely care about my coursework as well.
I hear you’re a psychology student! How does a psychology major end up an actor?
I love psychology; I’ve always been fascinated with how people think. Even when I was a little kid, I wanted to people-watch. For an actor, I think that’s really important when you try to build a character – your job is to really understand the motivation behind those words on the script and bring it to life. To do that, I need to understand how people think, and that’s unique for every single character and their motivations behind why they are the way they are and how they interact with other characters. I want to be really specific in those choices and be able to bring an authentic portrayal of whatever character, so psychology helps me build that world for my character. Whether I’m auditioning or whether it’s Ben Gross for Never Have I Ever, I’m able to do that because I can understand what they’re thinking.
Have you seen any opportunities to apply what you’re learning in school to your acting or vice versa?
Yeah, absolutely. One of the best moments for me was Ben’s episode in Season 1, Episode 6: “Never Have I Ever Been the Loneliest Boy in the World.” I grew up in a really vibrant, loving home. My sister is my best friend, I’m super close to my parents, I’ve got a great family. For Ben, he was raised in a very absent household and didn’t get a lot of love and attention in the home and, thus, puts a lot of pressure on himself to be successful. That comes out in a bit of the not-so-nice banter he has with Devi where he’s insulting her and trying to get a rise out of her and pushing her buttons. I think it was important for me to understand why he’s doing that and to realize that when you have those kinds of parents, oftentimes kids act out in different ways.
I saw that Ben was really kind of crying for help and I think that you see his loneliness in Episode 6 and then – spoiler alert if you haven’t seen that first season; you need to – but when he goes to dinner at the Vishwakumar’s, you can see the loneliness in his eyes as he’s experiencing what it’s like to have a family dinner. To understand that loneliness, I really had to dive into his upbringing and into the effects of what years and years of a lack of attention can do for a young man and what that means for his personality and his behaviour.
I can see how your education and your acting career go hand-in-hand and help the other. Can you explain why it’s been important to you to pursue an education rather than just going straight into acting?
Education has always been something that I’ve just genuinely enjoyed. I loved feeling like my brain is absorbing new information like a sponge. I think that if I wasn’t in school, I would still want to learn in some way or another. So, for me, being able to have school spirit, a strong social support network, and so many activities that USC [University of Southern California] offers, as well as a rigorous academic course load – it gives me everything that I’ve ever wanted as I pursue my dream. School is always something that I knew that I wanted to do, and I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve been able to do that successfully, as well as film such an incredible show like Never Have I Ever.
That’s fantastic. Speaking of school, I hear you did theatre in high school! I’m a huge theatre nerd, so I have to ask you about that part of your life & what was it like?
I cannot sing or dance and my school generally did musicals. My first play was Peter Pan during my sophomore year, and I played one of the Lost Boys. I had no lines and I just did the dances – okay, I can dance enough to like be decent, right, but I would not call myself a dancer and I never had a singing role, so I never had a lead role. Finally, in my senior year, we ended up doing a play. Disney [Theatrical Productions] asked my school to do the pilot premiere of Shakespeare in Love and I was cast as William Shakespeare. We ended up not only going to the Texas State Competition for Theatre but also ended up going to the International Thespians Festival in Nebraska. We performed in front of two separate shows of three thousand each. I’d never done that before and to have the crowd be interactive with me as I’m on stage knowing that if things go wrong.
I remember we had a chair break. One of my costars was like 6’5 and it was this little, tiny, baby stool and he put all of his might into sitting down and it broke onstage during one of our performances. The audience was cackling and I knew I had to address it, so I pretty much just said in my Shakespeare voice, I said [Jaren adopts a flawless British accent] “You’re going to pay for that.” And the entire audience erupted with laughter. It really taught me a lot about spontaneity and how you have to change your scene work each time and I’ve carried that through for Never Have I Ever. I want to make sure that every take is different and has something unique, and I know that the writers help me do that. The directors also really allow me to give variety to my work.
I could talk forever about theatre because I’m so obsessed with it. I once tripped over a chair during a show I was in during a blackout.
It’s a challenge! One time, I had an actor completely skip over to, like, Act 2 and I danced around it and found my way back to what he was supposed to say, then gave him a cue line that wasn’t in the script to figure it out. It’s just a lot of fun. I love theatre – I would love to one day do a Broadway play. That would be really excellent.
That would be incredible. How did theatre prepare you for TV? You talked about being spontaneous – what else?
Yeah, I think that it just, again, made me realize the relationships are super important and that you can find something new every single time that you do the scene. In theatre, you’re running the same scene on different nights, but as you go along you find different jokes to try or you find different moments that you can really connect to. When I’m rehearsing and going over my scenes, I strive to find something new every time – I strive to really look at specific lines and think like when I was in theatre – how the audience would feel or think or do when I say things a certain way. I try to think of myself as an audience member. I want people to relate to my character, so putting myself in their shoes helps me accomplish that.
That’s so cool! So, for those who haven’t seen Never Have I Ever, can you tell me a bit about the show and your character specifically?
Yes! So, the show is created by Mindy Kaling, who is unbelievably hilarious, and Lang Fisher, who is also equally incredible, and it’s based on events from Mindy’s life. It follows a fictitious, fifteen-year-old South Asian Tamil girl named Devi Vishwakumar who’s played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and basically dives into her journey in Sherman Oaks High School and her struggle with her identity, grief, and finding herself. My character, without giving too much away, begins as her antagonist and her academic rival. You’ll see, if you watch the show that their relationship changes and evolves, just like high school relationships do, and what that entails for her. We have an incredible cast and crew that are so talented and funny and brilliant, and there really is something for everybody in our show. Regardless of what community you’re in or the identity you have, I think that you’ll be able to find something to relate to in our show that is representative of you or your culture or your identity.
I definitely agree – it’s an incredibly unique show. How different has it been to film this season amid the pandemic? What a crazy time to star in a Netflix series!
I know, it was wild! Universal and Netflix were excellent with COVID protocols. They made sure that we all felt really safe, and the cast and crew did a great job in maintaining a very healthy work environment. But I think that, if anything, it just drove us closer. I know that we were all so excited about being able to create this second season. The first season was a source of joy for a lot of people in a really dark time, which meant a lot to us because the pandemic was difficult for a lot of people’s mental health. We wanted to make sure that we got the second season out while safely working and to create something that’s gonna be equally incredible. I just can’t wait for people to see Season 2. I think it’s just brilliant. I know that people are gonna love it, and I can’t wait to be able to interact with some fans and to hear what they think.
I can’t wait to see it! I feel like just how good it is, is almost owed to the incredibly talented people associated with it! It was created by Mindy Kaling, your mom was played by Angela Kinsey, Andy Samberg narrated your episode, Common is in Season 2… What was it like working with so many greats and what have you learned from working with people like them?
I am known as “The Question Master” on set and I tend not to shut up because I just want to learn everything. Especially when you have such accomplished and… so kind human beings that are so willing to offer you advice and expertise because they’ve been in the business so long. They are so successful and brilliant, and they’re all so willing to answer all of my thousands of questions and to help me grow as an actor. Every time I do a scene with Angela, I learn something new about comedy. Every time I get the chance to speak with Mindy and to kind of hear from her perspective what she thinks about a certain scene, I hope that one day I can be on that level. Andy Samberg – getting to work alongside him would just be a dream come true; having him narrate your character’s thoughts is like… I mean, you just have to sit there and say to yourself, “Wow, this is my life. This is incredible.” I am so looking forward to getting to meet more incredible, talented human beings on our show, off our show, in future projects… I just want to learn more and more.
That’s so great. Your show is led by people of colour and you’re actually in the minority, which is a really amazing thing because you’re supporting Maitreyi and Darren [Barnet] and Lee [Rodriguez] and Ramona [Young]. Why was it important for you to be part of this series?
I think that representation is so important. This show gives a chance for people to celebrate their identities and I think that that’s really special. I play a Jewish character, and to talk about a bar mitzvah was something that I never really observed as a kid, you know? Like when Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song came on, that was huge for me because that was a big mention of my identity – which isn’t the entirety of my identity, right, it’s just a different facet of who I am – but I think that, for a lot of people, our show gives them a chance to see parts of themselves and their communities and to celebrate that. We take so much care in representing these different communities and cultures, and I feel so lucky to be a part of a show that is so authentic and honest and championed that representation. We need more of that! I’m proud to be a part of a show that is spearheading that, and I’m looking forward to seeing other shows that do the same thing with representation and also being a part of diverse projects and championing that.
I hope so! There’s a really, really, really good love triangle between Devi, your character, and Paxton that I’m absolutely loving. Why do you think it worked so well?
I know, like, in the early 2000s, it was this classic Twilight triangle. I think that it’s really interesting for us because Ben and Paxton are pretty different from each other and offer specific things that are enticing for Devi. And as she learns more about herself, she’s realizing what she does and doesn’t need. I think that’s pretty relatable. Devi’s going through what all of us go through, whether we’re adults or not – we learn more about ourselves, what we’re looking for, and what we like. [Ben and Paxton] are learning more about themselves as well. Devi challenges them in certain ways and I think that they challenge her. Obviously, I’m a bit biased, but I think Ben really fits Devi. I think that their connection is incredibly strong on a deeper level because they can have really complex, philosophical conversations about grief and loneliness, and also have a lot of fun with their witty banter where they can poke fun at each other and also compete academically. I’m not gonna compliment Paxton too much but I also think that he’s a great character; he’s really complex and offers Devi a different life as well. It’ll be really exciting as we continue to explore that. I think fans will be pleasantly surprised or absolutely in despair based on Season 2, so we’ll have to find out.
I know what team I’m on, so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. Speaking of, the trailer for Season 2 just came out – congratulations, it looks incredible – and it looks like it picks right off from where Season 1 ended. Do you have any insights into what we can look forward to in the next season?
Yeah, we do pick up right where we left off. I think that that’s really excellent for viewers because if you haven’t binged Season 1, you can go straight through to Season 2 and it’ll literally feel like you have not even left. Looking back, Season 1 was so deep and had so many layers to it, and you’re going to get that many and maybe even a little more in Season 2. You’re gonna go on such a journey and it’s different but it’s equally exciting and interesting and funny and heartwarming. The characters go through so much in such a short period that it is gonna be really exciting for viewers. I just… I really can’t wait.
Your character had such an incredibly juicy character arc in Season 1, so what’s next for him? Is there anything like that in Season 2?
Goodness. I don’t wanna say too much, but in terms of the “juice,” as you said, there will definitely be more of that in Season 2 for all of the characters. Everybody gets something in Season 2. There are some surprises, some difficult situations, some sticky situations, some steamy situations… There is a lot of drama – a lot of tea in Season 2 and it is excellent to watch. I just know that people are going to be really sucked in by all of the writing and the incredible performances that are in this next season.
I absolutely cannot wait. One last fun question: If you could manifest one thing this year, what would it be?
Ooh… I think career-wise, I love film and I definitely wanna be able to do that. I’ve been super busy, but I’m really looking forward to diving into a film. I think there’s so much that I can learn. On a personal note, I just want to, y’know, get back to school and enjoy every moment. I’m so excited to get back on campus and be back with my friends. I know that so many people are so excited to get back to their coursework and being in person as well. I just hope that we all stay safe and get out of this pandemic and be able to have some positive moments in this next upcoming year, so… speaking that into existence, fingers crossed.
Interview by Ashley Elliott
Header Photo by Nolwen Cifuentes
Editorial Photography by Yasara Gunawardena
Catch Season 2 of Never Have I Ever on Netflix on Friday July 16th.