Mild spoilers below for Never Have I Ever.
When Jaren Lewison and Darren Barnet first saw each other at a screen test for Never Have I Ever, they assumed they were competing for the same role. But in the Mindy Kaling-produced Netflix teen rom-com, the two actors instead play two ends of a love triangle: Barnet is Paxton Hall-Yoshida, the ab-muscled jock who’s the target of our hero Devi’s (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) affections from afar, and Lewison is Ben Gross, Devi’s academic nemesis turned romantic interest in the style of Mr. Darcy, if he spent too much time on Rick and Morty forums. “I saw Darren and I was like, Man, this guy kid looks way too attractive to play Ben,” Lewison said over a joint Zoom call with Barnet. “With a chiseled jawline and a tight shirt, he looks jacked.” Barnet, meanwhile, saw Lewison wearing a basketball jersey over his hoodie and assumed he might be trying to play the jock. “He’s sitting there, smiling, like, Who the hell does this kid think he is?”
Once they actually met at the show’s first table read — and realized they’d definitely auditioned for different roles — the two actors ended up bonding, along with the rest of the show’s young cast. They went bowling, stayed up late at Universal Studios Horror Nights, and of course spent time together while actually shooting the show. But even if they’re friends now, Lewison and Barnet remain staunch supporters of Team Ben and Team Paxton, respectively. We got the two actors together to discuss shooting the show, how their personalities bled into their characters, and whether they were more like Ben or Paxton in high school.
First and most importantly: Are you Team Ben or Team Paxton?
Jaren Lewison: Obviously I’ve gotta cheer for Team Ben. But I do like Paxton and I think he’s cool. I’ve gotta say, watching you, Darren, I’ve never wanted to punch someone in the face real hard.
Darren Barnet: That’s how I feel when I see you in real life! Until I got to know you in the show, and then I was like, “Oh, I like this guy.” I’d be like 25% Team Ben.
JL: I’ll give you 25 percent.
DB: I’ll give you 26! How about that?
What were your auditions like?
JL: We ended up seeing each other at our screen test. We both thought we were auditioning for each other’s roles. I saw Darren and I was like, “Man, this kid looks way too attractive to play Ben Gross.” With a chiseled jawline and a tight shirt, he looks jacked.
DB: I saw Jaren there! He came with a basketball jersey over this hoodie and these kicks on.
JL: I was a hypebeast!
DB: I’m the kind of guy who comes in and I keep to myself and I stare at the wall. I don’t say anything. I don’t smile at you. He’s just sitting there and smiling, and I’m like, “Who the hell does he think he is?”
JL: I was just happy to be there, man.
DB: I was kinda threatened by you! I thought you were gonna win over the whole room.
Did you have to do a chemistry read with Maitreyi?
JL: No! The first time I met Maitreyi was at the table read.
DB: I was one of the first people cast in the show, which blew my mind, because what if me and Maitreyi didn’t get along? But I guess Mindy and them had such a strong opinion on what they wanted that none of us had a chemistry read.
JL: I did end up messaging [Maitreyi] on Instagram when I received the news that I was cast and saw her name, because her and I had just finished graduating high school. I was like, “Hey, I’m Jaren. I wanted to say what’s up and try and create a friendship, because it’s scary, being around the same age and being new to LA.” Everybody met at the first table read, though I totally stalked everyone on Instagram.
Did they change your characters much after you got the parts?
DB: Definitely for me. The name of the role was Paxton Hall when I initially came in, and then Mindy and Lang overheard me talking in Japanese with our assistant director Yuko Ogata. My mom’s Japanese and my grandma spoke to me growing up a little bit, and I took it in school for two years, so if I get a chance to do it, I like to practice it. Lang and Mindy came up to me and were like, “Were you speaking Japanese with Yuko?” I was worried I was getting in trouble, because we went through this sensitivity training that was like, “You can’t do accents, you can’t do impersonations.” But they were like, “Do you mind if we make your character part-Japanese?” That’s how Paxton Hall-Yoshida was born.
JL: The writers wanted us to feel like the character was also part of us. It was a collaborative effort. They would come up to us and be like, “If this don’t feel right, tell us.”
DB: When I first read for the role, it was just an aloof jock, blah, blah, blah, Mr. Hot Guy. I think they wanted to add more depth to him. They have me speaking Japanese very briefly, which adds some layers. And Ben Norris [who plays Paxton’s friend Trent Harrison] and I really got to riff off each other. There’s a lot of ad libs in our interactions that they kept in there.
JL: I checked in with Trent a week or two ago!
DB: He has a picture of me and him holding each other at the wrap party on his bookshelf. His girlfriend gave it to him as a present!
It sounds like the cast was hanging out a lot.
DB: We bonded immediately! We went to the table read and then we had a three-hour gap. We tried to walk around the Universal lot. We couldn’t do that, so we were like, “Okay, do you all wanna go bowling?” We go bowling, I have everyone in my car, and we come back and they’re like, “What happened? Are you guys okay?” So that definitely brought us together.
JL: On the last day of shooting, we, the kids, went to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios, and we dressed up as the Scooby Doo gang. We ended up wandering around the backlot, which we probably weren’t supposed to do, but it was a very sentimental moment.
DB: It was all of our first journey. I’ve tested for so many roles at this point, thinking my life was gonna change and it didn’t. It’s like every role I hadn’t gotten could’ve prevented me from doing this one. This one is more special to me than any of the other ones could have been.
How much were you like Paxton or Ben in high school?
DB: I was an athlete. I was captain of the lacrosse team, which I know has a lot of negative connotations — you’d think rich preparatory school white kids. That’s not my scenario. I was zoned for a bad high school on the opposite side of town, I come from a lower-income neighborhood, and then took a test to go to a better school. My mom told me I had to do a sport no matter what. I was tired of basketball, picked up lacrosse, and ended up being pretty good at it. I was so focused on my studies, people may have thought I was a snob. I can relate to Paxton in that I was a book judged by my cover. I was quiet and I was reserved, and I had like one good friend. After high school, a lot of people would come up to me and be like, “Until I got to know you, I thought you were a real jerk.” That’s kind of Paxton before Devi gets to know him.
JL: There’s some parts of Ben I can definitely relate to, and a lot of parts I did not experience in my personal life. I can relate to his vulnerable side. I’m very protective and loyal and into always being there for my friends, and you see that towards the end of the season with Ben. In terms of Ben’s academic pursuit of excellence, I also love school. I’m a student at USC.
DB: I’m so proud of you, man!
JL: Thanks buddy. In terms of Ben’s rudeness, I would like to say I was not that guy in high school. He can definitely come off as crude and rude before you understand why he acts the way he does. Ben is also not very athletic, however in high school I was the captain of the varsity football team and I was a varsity powerlifter. I was really into sports.
DB: Because of the fear of God I have of my mother being a Japanese parent, I was a straight-A student. I was not a dummy! I could not have gotten away with that.
How did you both get into acting?
JL: I started when I was five. I was in some aftercare programs, because my mom’s a kindergarten teacher, and there was an improv group that came and they told my mom I was really into it. They gave my name to a local Dallas film and TV agent, and I wound up being on Barney as a kid and kept going from there.
DB: My dad took me to an agent when I was seven. It was for a very Nickelodeon-style thing and he was like, “You’re too shy.” I left it for years, but I always knew I wanted to do it. In college, I got back to it. I did plays. I started making film again and I really loved it. I had a potential job lined up, and I wanted to go into journalism — or moreso my mom did, but I wanted to move to LA and be an actor. She was like, “…okay, let’s do that.” But now she’s my biggest fan.
What was the hardest scene for each of you to film?
DB: Well, the countless hours in the gym leading up to taking off the shirt. I killed myself. Getting out of the pool and the dream sequence.
Is it weird to be objectified? The show’s so much from Devi’s perspective, you have to be this dream object.
DB: Thankfully, a week or two in the gym and I can have a pretty solid transformation. I’m not crying about it. Other than that, the kissing scene between Maitreyi and I. They wanted it to be like we both fell into it, rather than either of us engaging it, and that took a couple tries. I had back the car out, pull it back in, hit the mark exactly, and do the scene. That was, like, some stunt driving.
JL: My hardest scene was in episode eight when we’re in the movie theater and Ben tries to kiss Devi. It had to be a specific moment, where Devi comes across as cool about this, but also Ben’s embarrassment. We don’t see Ben embarrassed often, and he has to feel like he screwed everything up and lost his only friend. We also had to build enough chemistry in the scene, so it felt to Ben like he should go in for the kiss. Anu Valia, the director, was giving a lot of great notes.
DB: I was working with Anu too on our kissing scene. We did it I don’t know how many times, and then finally, on the last take, behind the monitor we heard Anu and Lang go, “Yes!”