Younger generations are traditionally branded lazy by their elders. But in our experience, that label is both untrue and lazy in itself. In fact, Gen Zers have been some of the most engaged, conscientious and hard-working people we have interviewed on this site.
Those attributes are certainly true of Jaren Lewison, the star of hit Netflix comedy ‘Never Have I Ever.’ As well as playing Ben Gross in the series, which is set to drop its second season on July 15, he is also studying full-time at USC, a devoted sportsman and powerlifter, keen baker, and thoughtful citizen, hoping to use his new position in the spotlight to improve the lives of his young fans.
‘Never Have I Ever’ was one of Netflix’s biggest hits of last year, watched by almost 50 million people around the world and receiving a rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. The charming coming-of-age comedy follows the story of first-generation Indian American Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as she navigates life and, in particular, love at high school in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles. Ben, an overachieving lawyer’s son, and Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), the athletic class heartthrob, are Devi’s two romantic interests vying for her affections in a love triangle that has seen ‘Team Ben’ and ‘Team Paxton’ campaigns sweeping social media.
The show is created by ‘The Office’ star Mindy Kaling and inspired in part by her own childhood. And alongside the familiar themes of teen relationships and parental issues, it also examines grief, cultural differences and pressures, and other important topics with both humor and heart.
Here Jaren discusses the show, juggling his acting and studies as a psychology major, and keeping happy and healthy by pursuing his varied hobbies in the gym and the kitchen. He was a pleasure to speak to, and attacked our conversation with the enthusiasm you might expect from a young man with his already bulging resume.
There’s a huge, devoted fanbase for ‘Never Have I Ever.’ How have you felt the force of that? Have you been getting lots of messages from ‘Team Ben’?
It’s just absolutely mind-boggling to me that we have such a humongous fan base. There’s 48 million global viewers that have seen our show. And I think that no matter how old you are, or what community you come from, or identity that you share, there’s something in our show that you can relate to. And that’s so special and really meaningful as an actor, to be a part of something that can create so much joy for so many people around the world.
Social media has been mind-blowing. Before the show started, I had about 1500 followers and now I’m at over half a million. So I’ve been interacting with fans around the world and hearing how much they love our show and all the characters. I get to hear some of their favorite moments and I get to hear the most meaningful parts of our show for them, and they’re always so different and specific. I don’t know who’s more excited when I interact with fans, them or me!
How is Ben in particular connecting with people? He’s got an interesting character arc, starting off as the snarky and spoiled rich kid, but then you see another side to him as the first season progresses, and realize that just because he’s wealthy and smart, it doesn’t mean life is easy for him.
At the beginning of the season Ben is not a very likable guy. He’s a bit of a jerk. But then you really start to feel for him. You realize that underneath that loud, brash persona, he really is just a lonely kid who’s desperate for attention, and love, and all of those things. I think a lot of people can relate to that, acting out sometimes because you’ve wanted love and attention. We sometimes judge people when it seems like their life is awesome. But deep down they can be struggling and have some real hardships back home and underneath the surface.
One of the things I liked about the show was that it doesn’t patronize its young adult audience. Also, the humor is a little un-PC, which can be quite rare these days on this type of show, especially when dealing with issues of social differences. It’s good to deal with these important issues through the lens of comedy.
Yeah, I agree. We strived to bring authenticity and honesty to our storytelling. We’re not afraid to tackle some really difficult issues. Everyone has their own identity and upbringing. And when you have the representation that our show does, we’re not afraid to celebrate who we are and celebrate our identities as specific and unique.
How was working with Mindy Kaling?
I think that she’s the world’s best boss. She treats everybody with such kindness and respect. And it just creates this environment of positivity and fun and collaboration in the workplace. The expectation is high because we all want to do well, and we all know that it’s such a special show and we’re dealing with such complex issues. And Mindy gives us the freedom to feel confident as actors in our characters and in our relationships. I know it’s a cliche, but it doesn’t feel like work. Every time I drive through the gates at Universal Studios, I still can’t believe that this is my life, and that I get to work with such unbelievably talented people every day.
So what can fans look forward to in season two?
I think season two is brilliant. It’s so heartwarming, so witty, so genuine and real. I think that you fell in love with these characters in season one, and then in season two, you just really dive into the complexities of their identities. And you watch them go through ups and downs, just like real life. We don’t stay away from difficult topics, you’re gonna see characters hurt, and you’re gonna see characters on top of the world. I think that people are really going to relate to that in a humorous and heartwarming way. I’m really excited for everybody to see it, and I know that it’s going to mean a lot for a lot of people.
We’re intrigued by the fact you were a full-time student at USC while shooting this show. How was it to juggle those commitments?
Education has always been so important to me. I’ve always been a huge learner. I was never the kid that wanted to skip school, I always wanted to go to school, even if I was sick. I knew that I wanted to go to college and audition at the same time, and then I wound up booking ‘Never Have I Ever’ before my freshman year started, and everybody told me I wasn’t going to be able to do school and have a full-time job. But I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to try and I’m going to do my best.’ And as it turns out I’ve been able to do this show and also achieve my academic goals.
My schedule is pretty packed but I thrive off of being busy, I don’t really enjoy sitting around. A lot of it was about time management, and I think that’s a really important skill that sometimes college students, and everyone, can struggle with. Sometimes you’ve got to sit down, prioritize, and get things done early to allow yourself to have that free time later. So that’s really the way that I’ve achieved it. And also keeping communication open and being honest with my professors, letting them know what I do, but also showing them through my actions how passionate I am about my academics, and that I’m going to do well in their class. And I’ve had a pretty great response from them for the most part.
I missed about 40% of my first semester for season one, maybe more, but I worked out ways I could catch up on the material. And then for season two, we were shooting during the pandemic so college was online, and that was a lot easier for me. The Zooms are recorded and I was able to watch the recorded lectures, so I wasn’t having to teach myself like I was my freshman year.
So you’re majoring in psychology, right? How is that and how does it marry with your acting and creative pursuits?
I’ve always been super fascinated by how people think. I think that’s one of the things that drew me to becoming an actor, because I get to step into this world, and I become that character, and I’m thinking a different way, or behaving a different way. I think that psychology really helps me to understand the way that different people think and behave. The motivations and objectives behind our behavior, and the relationships that we end up surrounding ourselves with, are all a result of psychology. So it really helps me when I’m deciding how to build a character and learning about their life and how they think.
I’ve also got minors in forensics and criminality, which is a concentration in abnormal psychology and criminal deviancy. So if I wasn’t an actor, I would want to become a forensic psychologist that studies the genetic components of different mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and how that relates to crime. But also, it does help for acting. Hopefully, one day, I can get to portray a villain or some kind of ugly, dark role like Heath Ledger’s Joker.
So why did you decide to stick with your studies? Was it to have a ‘Plan B’ or more that you just had a passion for learning?
It’s a little bit of both. My parents have always been passionate about academics, my mom was a kindergarten teacher for a long time. But I’ve always been just really intrinsically motivated and it was just something that I wanted to do since I was a kid. I wanted to go to have that college experience. And it has really helped me grow and understand the real world, and be able to look at things a little bit differently, not only in my acting, but in my real life as well.
I hear that you’re a keen sportsman and powerlifter too. Are these activities also important to keeping yourself happy and healthy?
Mental health is really important for me, and the way that I go about making sure that my mental health is maintained is through exercise and sports. I’ve been learning how to skate because I want to play hockey in an adult league. So I set my mind to that. I’ve recently picked up tennis in the last year, and I’ve been playing about three times a week. And then I also go to the gym six days a week to lift. I was a powerlifter in high school, and it just became a source of joy, and I love the feeling that I get from getting stronger and achieving those goals. I think it helps clear my mind when I am lifting and I’m at the gym.
That’s interesting. We’ve written about bodybuilding on our site before, and how it can get a bad rap for coming from a place of ego, but for a lot of people it’s a really positive form of escape and brings a huge sense of achievement.
Yeah, absolutely. It started in high school when I was a football player, and my coach was one of the powerlifting coaches, and he asked me if I would be willing to do it. In my sophomore year, I was able to go from a max of 225lbs to 325lbs. Then in my junior year, I wound up hitting 405lbs for a one rep max and squat. And it was really exciting for me to accomplish those goals and be able to push my body to those limits, as well as my mind, because powerlifting is both a mental and physical sport. I’m not a big guy, so I never thought that I could be that strong or that I would be able to lift that much weight. And to this day, it still brings me tremendous pride every time that I hit a new PR or something like that, because it shows that no matter how small you are, you can still be strong physically and mentally.
I’m certainly not a powerlifter. But we do share another hobby in common, and that’s baking!
I love to eat! And that’s one of the reasons I workout, so I can eat more! Baking started out as something that I learned from my grandmother, who is the baking master in my mind. And then it kind of took off in high school. And there’s always a couple of baking fails every once in a while, but you learn as you go, and then you get to eat a creation, which is the best. And often I share that with some of my fans, where I do a series on Instagram Stories called Jaren’s Bake Shop. And it’s a little fun thing that I do and it brings me a lot of joy.
One of your first movie roles was in ‘Men, Women and Children’ as Adam Sandler’s son back in 2014. How was that experience?
He’s one of my biggest inspirations and role models. He was so nice. Afterwards he went over to my mom and told her that I was really talented, and I don’t know if he would remember me now, but I’ll never forget that moment and how genuine and kind he was. It really inspired me to continue with acting after he said that. That was eight years ago, and I still vividly remember him talking to us.
That’s an interesting point. Him just taking that little bit of time, it was a few minutes of his day, but it made a huge difference to you and your life. I see on your Instagram every post has the hashtag #rememberthefeeling. What does that mean?
‘Remember the feeling’ is my life motto. It was passed down from my grandfather, to my father, to me, and hopefully to my kids one day. And it just encapsulates the idea that you should appreciate everything that you have, even the little moments and especially the big ones. And you should just stop, remember the feeling and just really relish those moments. It shows you that life can really be so amazing, whether it’s seeing an awesome movie with your friends, or filming a Netflix show. I really appreciate everything that I have. So I always use that hashtag, so that maybe some of my fans will understand that as well, and use it in their daily life to look at the world in a different way.
It’s an appropriate message for social media, because as its best, that is what social media is doing, helping us to remember a feeling, but sometimes it can do the opposite, because it takes us out of the moment to take that picture or write that post.
Absolutely. And also, it’s a motto that isn’t just about the good things. Sometimes if you go through a hardship, but then you come out on the other side, it’s like, ‘Alright, remember the feeling.’ That was really tough, but it was adversity that you conquered. And you know what to do now and you’re a better person because of it. So I now hope that motto can help others remember the feeling and grow from it.