As much as it’s a teen comedy, the heart of Netflix’s Never Have I Ever lies in the relationship between Devi and her father Mohan, who died suddenly just before the events of the series. Mohan, an optimistic guy and humongous tennis fan, lingers for Devi and her mom in flashbacks and memories of happier times, and also in the fact that the show is narrated by his idol, John McEnroe. Vulture caught up with actor Sendhil Ramamurthy, who turns out to be just as big of a tennis fan as Mohan, and has a McEnroe story of his own. Ramamurthy was also happy to weigh in on the Paxton/Ben debate, the surprising dad thirst for his character, and his bond with fellow Heroes actor turned dead TV dad Milo Ventimiglia.
I feel like you need to weigh in on Team Paxton versus Team Ben.
As Devi’s father, I’m team keep your damn hands off my daughter! They’re both lovely boys and I’m sure their mother and father loved them very much, but they can stay away from Devi.
Are you as big of a tennis fan as Mohan?
If possible, bigger. I’ve been playing tennis since I was about 5 years old. I traveled all over the country playing tennis tournaments. I still play three or four times a week in a league here in New York. Mindy knows I’m a huge tennis fan, too, so the chance to meet John McEnroe was a huge draw for me. She was like, “I know you’re a huge tennis nut. John McEnroe is going to be the narrator.” I thought, “Will I get to have a scene with him?” I didn’t, but I did get to be on set with him and talk with him.
What did you talk about?
We were talking about his tennis academy, because my kids play tennis at his academy here in New York. I actually ball boyed for him when I was 12 years old, so we talked about that match. I couldn’t remember who he was playing, but he smashed a racquet in that match. I got it and it was signed, and it’s here in my house. Mac and I go way back, we’re old pals. [Laughs.]
Did he remember your ball boy stint?
Sadly, no. I asked him and he was like, “Oh my God, who is this guy and where is security?”
You played Kelly’s pediatrician fiancé Ravi on The Office. Did Mindy approach you for this because you’d worked together?
Yeah, it was a red letter day in my career — I got offered a role on The Flash and four hours later got a call saying, “Can you play the father on Never Have I Ever?” It was one of those moments where you have to hold your breath and see if they can work out the scheduling so you can do both jobs. I spent a lot of last year flying between Vancouver and L.A. doing both shows. Shout-out to the line producers JP Finn and Leanne Moore for making it work out, because it definitely was not easy.
The show depends on a realistic family dynamic between you, Poorna, and Maitreyi. How did you all approach building that?
I didn’t know Poorna. I was a fan of her work, but I’d never met her before, and Maitreyi was brand-new out of high school. So, you know, we hung out. I met Maitreyi when we had some wardrobe fittings and had to take some old family photos. She exuded this confidence. As soon as I met her I was like, “Okay! The show will be okay.” Also, she looks like she could be my daughter, and I knew how Poorna looked, and automatically it felt like we looked like a family.
What’s it like taking a bunch of fake family photos?
You’re just standing there with a bunch of different shirts. Salvador Pérez did a great job with all of our wardrobe. We just moved around the Universal lot taking pictures.
Were there similarities between Devi’s life and your own that stood out to you?
Being made to do Puja before you travel on the plane! That’s just Indian-American 101. Even now, I go back to visit my parents, and before we leave for the airport, we have to do Puja. We were able to inject stuff of our own, too. My parents are always mispronouncing Hollywood star’s names — the Matthew “McConoughey” mispronunciation, I just threw that in there. It’s been pretty cool to see the reactions from other Indian Americans. My cousins and my sister and everybody chiming in, being like, “Oh my God, I remember that!”
This is the first time you’re playing a father on TV. Is it weird to adjust into that type of role?
It’s been weird for my kids more than anything. Especially for my daughter, who is 15. It’s just been slightly mortified reading some of the stuff.
Well, a lot of the reaction to Mohan has been about how he’s very hot. So you must feel weird being objectified as the dad.
That’s the mortifying thing for my daughter! Listen, obviously it’s super flattering. I really don’t know what to say, except that it really caught me by surprise. Look at Darren and Jaren, those are some really attractive, strapping young men. I really was not expecting any of that kind of attention. It is hilarious because I told my wife, “It looks like I’m moving into a new stage! Not sure how I feel about it, but we’ll see what happens.” Then, for the reaction to be this is quite frankly hilarious. The internet has a life of its own.
Heroes was a breakout show for you. Do people still come up to you wanting to talk about it?
All the time! Walking down the street in New York — well, when you used to be able to walk down the street in New York — every single day I get stopped. I think we all did. It’s been hilarious texting with Milo Ventimiglia with both of us playing dead dads now. I guess that’s the evolution of one’s career, isn’t it?
This Is Us has found a lot of ways to keep Milo around, even as the dead dad. Do you think you’ll still keep popping up on Never Have I Ever?
I actually didn’t know how much I was going to be able to do [this season], so every time I was popping up in flashbacks or dreams or whatever, I was like, “Oh, it’s actually pretty easy to bring the dad back. All right!”
So you’d come back for a second season?
Way above my pay grade, but if they wanted me back, I would.
Aside from the tennis, are you as big a fan of U2’s “Beautiful Day” as Mohan?
I love U2. I’ve always loved U2. It’s hilarious that was the song that was picked. We did a charity benefit in L.A. in 2009 or 2010, me and Jack Coleman and Zach Quinto sang “Beautiful Day.” I’ve had a soft spot for that song, ever since then. For it to come back now was really cool. I was like, “You guys got the rights for this?” The soundtrack for Never Have I Ever is an impressive thing. “Beautiful Day” is the epitome of what Mohan stands for and what his outlook on life was. Going through what we’re going through now, it’s really an uplighting way to look at things.