Public Media Arts Hub

Poorna Jagannathan on her role in "Never Have I Ever" and diversity in Hollywood


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: The fourth and final season of Netflix's wildly popular series "Never Have I Ever" is leading the platform's streaming charts across the world.

I recently spoke with one of the series' lead actors, Poorna Jagannathan, about the show's success and how it's paving the way for more diversity in Hollywood, as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Poorna Jagannathan, welcome back to the "NewsHour." It's good to see you again. '

Poorna Jagannathan, Actor: Such a pleasure. I remember we did the release of season one. And it is such a pleasure to come full circle and be with you for season four.

Amna Nawaz: So, we are talking four seasons later now. The world is now watching the final episodes of what has become a multicultural phenomenon on television, "Never Have I Ever."

How are you feeling about it coming to an end?

Poorna Jagannathan: Well, as you're talking, it is really occurring to me it has gone from extraordinary thing in season one to an ordinary thing in season four, meaning, like, we -- the diversity was so unheard of, and now we're seeing so much more representation in streaming platforms, in the scripts I'm getting, in just everything.

So the beauty of it going from a complete one-off and complete explosion to being much more ordinary is actually the journey that we wanted always.

Amna Nawaz: Did the reaction over the last four seasons surprise you?

I mean, show creator Mindy Kaling shared recently this screen grab that seemed to show all of the number one shows across Netflix around the world. "Never Have I Ever" was number one across country after country after country. Did that surprise you?

Poorna Jagannathan: It really was very surprising for season one. We didn't expect -- we didn't know what we were making.

We just knew we were having an unbelievably intimate experience while making it. But we didn't know who would watch it, why people would watch it. It just -- it felt so radically diverse, and it felt like such a big risk. And even then, it was number one. We didn't expect that at all. We thought it'd be very niche.

Amna Nawaz: When we first spoke, you also talked about the connection you felt to this role. You play an immigrant mom, right, Nalini Vishwakumar. You, yourself, as you said, are an immigrant mom.

Does that in any way make it harder to say goodbye to this role right now because of that connection you felt?

Poorna Jagannathan: Well, the funny thing is, as the seasons progressed, it became closer and closer to who I am.

When I got this role, she was really funny. She parents in a different way from how I parent. She's super strict, no boundaries.


Poorna Jagannathan: But, for example, Pati getting married, that was my life. My mother got remarried at 64.

Or Devi getting ready for college, that happened this year. And my son's getting ready for college. So, for all of us, the show has really (INAUDIBLE) lives. And it's become very meta and therefore very weird and hard to let go of.

I do believe this is the role of a lifetime for me.

Amna Nawaz: There are -- something I wanted to ask you about, because there are so many detailed, culturally specific moments throughout the show, whether it comes to traditions or celebrations or even the terms of endearment that you use to refer to other people.

I wonder, did you and the writer say, OK, we have to explain this in some way to our audience? Or did you just think, we're going to do it and they will catch up?

Poorna Jagannathan: What I love about this show is that there are no footnotes. There's no you saying something and then someone translating.

There's an element of cultural specificity that is never explained. And I think that's what makes it so beautiful and so authentic. For example, the wedding jewelry that I wear is literally what I wear in my real life. It's not a character thing. It's what I wear. I'm South Indian.

Or there was a scene where we said goodbye to Sendhil's mom, and it was just written in as, we hug her. But Sendhil and I both, when we greet our parents and our grandparents, we do the namaskar. And we -- it's the bow. The props person would call me the day before and say, OK, we have a dinner scene. What are you thinking to eat? What do you want to eat?

And we would discuss, oh, (INAUDIBLE) today or (INAUDIBLE) today. And so it's one of the only sets I have been on where there's so much cultural specificity, that everyone wanted an authenticity. And they look to the actors to provide that.

Amna Nawaz: We have seen a number of both television shows, but also movies, animated film, even, in which Asian American characters and Asian American stories are not on the fringes. They are the centerpiece. They are the focus.

We saw that with "Everything Everywhere All at Once." We saw that on TV with "Ms. Marvel" and "Beef," even with animated films like "Turning Red." Why do you think we're seeing that now?

Poorna Jagannathan: I actually think it started from "Never Have I Ever."

I mean, I absolutely believe that what we are seeing now is because of shows that Mindy has created and Shonda has created, where people of color are the center of those stories. And they are doing so well. I mean, Netflix used "Never Have I Ever" as a -- as kind of a lighthouse example of what a show can do in terms of story, in terms of diversity of storylines, diversity of casting.

But I think once something's been green-lit and does well, floodgates open. And I believe "Never Have I Ever" was there because of "Crazy Rich Asians." I think it's a domino effect. And the dominoes have just grown. And it's so high-risk when you do something like this. And people are now willing to take the risk.

And there's an audience. I think audiences are demanding now to be seen. They're demanding to be reflected. And streaming services like Netflix are rising to meet them.

Amna Nawaz: You have got some more work coming up where you play very different characters in. You're going to play a bad guy in your upcoming Netflix film called "The Out-Laws."

Poorna Jagannathan: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: The scope of your career has been so fun and interesting to watch, because you have played all different kinds of characters.

And in an industry where women of color aren't necessarily granted all that kind of agency to make decisions about the roles they play, the older women get, you're not necessarily given that many roles, and here you are, a 50-year-old brown woman, setting new peaks. How do you do that?

Poorna Jagannathan: It's the industry.

I have said this a million times. I'm not a creator. I'm a performer. And I come to scripts. I don't create them. But there are women before me who are continuing to do the work. Men are dying to put a full stop on women's narratives in life. They're just, like, dying to write us out.

But there's women like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, Mindy Kaling, and Shonda who are like, but that's not going to happen. That (INAUDIBLE) is not going to go there. It's a comma, and the narrative continues.

And so I am walking in the shadows of these women. I fully know that my career and the trajectory I have is because of these women just opening doors with all their might right before I got there. And I am waltzing through those doors now.

Amna Nawaz: That is Poorna Jagannathan, one of the stars of "Never Have I Ever," which is ending now after four seasons.

Congratulations. We will be watching what you do next.

Poorna Jagannathan: Thank you for always supporting me and the show, and it's a pleasure to be back on with you.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.