If you haven’t heard the name Darren Barnet before, boy are you in for an incredible surprise when you watch the new Netflix series Never Have I Ever (from co-creators and co-writers Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher and loosely based on Kaling’s early upbringing). Barnet may look familiar to some viewers from his memorable stint as a young Jack on This is Us, (and he does bear a striking resemblance to Milo Ventimiglia), though Paxton Hall-Yoshida is a character that many will now associate him with as his portrayal is deeply personal.
The Japanese/Cherokee/Swedish/German Barnet, who writes, raps and has a strong musical background, was really lovely to speak with on the phone just over a month ago, and I personally can’t wait to see him become one of the breakout stars of Never Have I Ever.
The following is a condensed and edited version of my extremely engaging chat with your next crush, the introspective Darren Barnet of Never Have I Ever.
*UPDATE*: May 27- This interview has now been updated with a previously embargoed portion about Darren’s role on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.! The majority of the following article was originally published on April 27, 2020.
Brief Take: Hi Darren! How are you doing?
Darren Barnet: Good! This isn’t far from my normal routine. Unless I’m on set, I’m usually in my apartment writing. It’s interesting because everyone seems to be more like me right now. I watched This Is The End last night with everyone playing versions of themselves in the apocalypse. A little too fitting for right now, but it was good.
BT: Let’s start from the beginning on Never Have I Ever. How did you get attached to the project?
DB: I had just recently switched over to Buchwald and I got the audition…I’ve been doing this for awhile so I’d been getting a lot of auditions at the time and one was listed as for The Untitled Mindy Kaling Project. I obviously knew who Mindy Kaling was, but at the time the name didn’t instantly register for me. So I went to the casting office, did the audition, just like any other day, left, completely forgot about it as I’ve trained myself to do. Once you leave the room, just let it go, don’t dwell on it. Then the next thing I knew, I was testing in front of Mindy Kaling. I remember I walked into the room and I looked right at Mindy Kaling and said, “Wow. Mindy Kaling! I’m low key freaking out right now”. That broke the ice, everyone started laughing, and yeah! I tested and before I knew it, I was booked, and about a month later started shooting. It was very quick. A lot of people go through the ringer and have to test multiple times, but I fortunately did not.
BT: Did you have to do any chemistry reads?
DB: Nope, no chemistry reads. As far as I remember, I think I was one of the first people cast on the show. I found it interesting that they weren’t doing chemistry reads because I’ve never experienced that. But I mean Mindy and Lang and the whole team knew what they were doing because the ensemble was amazing on set. You would have definitely thought we chemistry read, that’s how well everyone got along. They definitely knew what they were doing.
BT: Let’s talk about Paxton and your portrayal of him. There’s a lot of layers to him that the audience, through Devi’s eyes, don’t necessarily know about him in the beginning of the show. But then as the show progresses, we learn about his love for his sister and his willingness to open himself up to others. Tell me about crafting Paxton and what sort of discussions you had with the directing team as well as Lang & Mindy about the character?
DB: It was funny with Lang and Mindy because Lang did something that I really appreciated. Her and our director for the first few episodes and some of the last, Tristram Shapeero, sat us all down at Universal Studios and said “we just want you guys to know why we chose you for your roles.” Lang said, “Darren, we love you and you’re the only person that could smoulder the way you do, but still make it funny and have a depth to it.” I loved that they did that and took the time to tell us that. What she was getting at too was “you guys have what we’re looking for”. And speaking of Paxton, I felt like I could relate to him. During high school, and even now in my life, it’s easy for people to make an assumption or judgement about me very quickly. No one would have known in high school, I did play sports and I was, quote unquote, the popular kid, but I also had straight As and was doing community service. My Mom, in real life, is Japanese and she always pushed me to the edge and people wouldn’t notice that. This kind of character where things came easy to him, Paxton that is, but there’s a lot more going on. I’m sure he’s also used to being judged very quickly. So I kind of crafted it around that – living a life where where there are layers to me that people just didn’t see because of what I look like or who I was around.
BT: Was it a very collaborative environment on set?
DB: It was so collaborative, I couldn’t believe it. It was collaborative to the point where our A.D. Yuko Okuda, an amazing woman, and I were speaking Japanese to each other. Any time I get a chance to practice my Japanese, I love to, so we were speaking Japanese and I forget if it was Mindy or Lang, but they came up to me and said “hey, were you speaking in Japanese with Yuko? Are you Japanese?”, and I said “yes, my Mom is”, and they said “we’d love to incorporate that into your character, do you mind?”, and I said “of course, let’s do it!”. So my character’s name went from being Paxton Hall to Paxton Hall-Yoshida. That was awesome.
BT: I really liked the development of the dynamic between Devi and Paxton. What was it like working with Maitreyi Ramakrishnan?
DB: She is a young prodigy. She was chosen out of fifteen thousand people! This girl didn’t really have any formal acting training or experience in her life and then she was leading a Netflix show, and she did it in stride. It was so easy to work with her. I won’t lie, part of me was worried for a split second until I slapped myself in the face and thought “Mindy Kaling knows what she’s doing! Don’t panic.” [laughs] But she’s just such a natural. There were intimate scenes that we had and it was very collaborative and we were both very professional about it. As soon as the cameras cut, we would just sit there laughing. I enjoyed every part of working with her. Testimony to Maitreyi, there are certain times where an untrained actor can make something not believable – for instance, crying and breaking down. But I can say that I believe Maitreyi the entire way through the show and I have the utmost respect for her. She’s one of my best buddies now! [laughs]
BT: Speaking of buddies, I loved the natural back and forth camaraderie on screen between you and Benjamin Norris. You two were hilarious together and really sold the comedic bits in the group project scenes and party scenes. Did you two bond off set?
DB: So we went to our first table read and pretty much everyone except for me and Ramona (Young) were not locals. So we got done with the first initial meeting and we had a three hour break before we were going to read episode two. I had my car there so our director, Tristram, said we could do whatever we want during the break. We took that literally and our idea was to go bowling. We went bowling at a place called Pins not too far from Universal Studios and so we all went bowling, had a really great time, and then went back. Little did we know, everybody was freaking out going “where’s the cast??”. We got back and I mean we didn’t get in trouble because Tristram did say we could do anything we wanted, but then we came to find out that once you basically check into the studio, you’re on the clock, so you can’t really leave. So we caused a bit of a heart attack for some of the execs but we came back safely and made the show. Good times.
BT: I saw that you’re close to Jaren Lewison too. I really enjoyed the classroom scenes with your characters verbally sparring with one another.
DB: It’s funny watching the show because I love the guy so much and he’s my buddy now, but I watch him on camera and it’s a mixture of “I want to punch you in the face so hard, but also give you a hug.” [laughs] I want to punch him in the face so hard until I realize what he’s going through, and then it’s like “aww, man! After I’ve punched you, I want to give you an ice pack to tend to your wounds.” [laughs] There’s many kids like that where you think they have everything and they really don’t. I think he really portrayed that so well. Another very talented person. I love him.
BT: Did you have a favourite scene to shoot?
DB: I think my favourite scene to shoot was the scene in the car where, well you’ve seen it but I don’t want to give away the whole thing in your publication, we kiss. I rescue her from the party and there’s this very nice montage with music as we’re driving, that was probably my favourite. Just the way that they put it together, the way it was done was so cool. I learned a lot about how they do scenes like that and that’s the one that really gets me. I love watching that scene.
BT: What else have you been watching lately?
DB: I just stopped half way through I Am Not Okay With This and I’ve really been enjoying that. I will continue it. I love Stranger Things and everyone behind those productions, so I knew it would be something that I would enjoy. Another kind of sci-fi thriller that I’ve watched on Netflix is called Freaks, with Emile Hirsch. That’s become one of my new favourites – the writing, the twists and turns, it’s amazing!
BT: Made by Canadian filmmakers! We have to give a shout out to all the Canadians featured on Netflix, starting with Maitreyi of course.
DB: Canada is killing it! Maitreyi puts the “can” in Canada. [laughs]
DB: Altered Carbon as well, it’s a good show. I’m on season two now. Ooh, Peaky Blinders! I love Peaky Blinders, I cannot stress that enough. I love that show so much! I’d say those are my top ones, and Stranger Things, I can’t wait for it to come back. I feel like every time I go outside grocery shopping, it feels like the Upside Down. [laughs]
BT: Speaking of shows that everyone loves, you played young Jack on This Is Us. Tell me about that acting experience.
DB: That was my first real big TV moment, my first securing an offer from a bigger production. It was a small but impactful part and it was just one of those moments where I knew I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing. I loved that it was time period and I got to wear these old Converse-like shoes from the 1940s. I spoke to wardrobe and said “man, I’d love to maybe buy these when we’re done”, and she said “well, you’re going to be battling a lot of Japanese businessmen”, and I said, “what are you talking about?”, and she said “those shoes are three to five thousand dollars, they’re actually from 1945, so please be careful when you walk away and go to the bathroom.” [laughs] I got to meet Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore, which was so incredible. We actually had to reshoot the scene because I suppose there was something about the direction of the first one that didn’t fit in the episode, so we had to reshoot it. So Milo came up to me and said “hey man, I want to let you know that I saw your take and it was so great. Please do exactly what you did.” He gave me all these compliments and he didn’t have to go out of his way and do that. I really appreciated that.
One thing that did stick out about that production was that they sat Milo next to me and they were trying to get our faces to look more similar. I’m just about to get out of the chair and they said “you know what, Darren, your eyebrows are thicker and longer than Milo’s. Do you mind if we trim them?”. My whole life my Mom has said “your eyebrows are great. Don’t let anyone ever touch them”, but it was my first big production so I sat there and said “I’ll do whatever you want! Go ahead!”, and then they cut them and I thought “oh my God! are they ever going to grow back?”. It was interesting but it was definitely worth it.
BT: Did you tell your Mom about it afterwards?
DB: I did not. The scene is pretty dark, lighting wise, so I don’t know if she ever noticed, but I guess now she will. [laughs]
BT: You’re also a musician. How did you first get started and inspired in terms of your musical ambitions?
DB: I think it’s just always been in my blood. My Dad was a musical guy, so was my grandfather, and I grew up writing poetry a lot and enjoyed writing poetry that rhymed. It was an easy segue-way that I started writing hip hop at a young age and that was a natural transition. I think I get my rhythm from my grandfather and my Dad, for sure.
BT: Do you find that you’re writing more music now that you’ve got more time?
DB: I do, yeah, and it’s really nice. It’s just interesting being in this quarantine because there are so many things that we put off for things that seem important, but really aren’t, and during quarantine you realize that. Sitting here writing and being creative because I can’t go grab the same lunch I grab with my friend at the same spot every other day for two months, I can’t go out and celebrate a birthday at some dance club, you know? It’s just interesting how I’m prioritizing things now and I think it’s really opening people’s eyes to be like “wow, there’s a lot to be done here but with all the distractions and all the fomo we get, it’s so easy to get side tracked.” It’s really realigned my priorities, which is nice. It sounds depressing but there’s been a lot of time of me sitting here and just staring out the window, and that’s really nice. My neighbourhood is so quiet, the environment seems so quiet and still right now and that’s allowed me to be quiet and still. It’s easy as an actor, especially one that’s still securing his ground in the industry, to panic. Then something like this comes up and it’s like “wow, am I ever going to work again?”, but I choose not to get in my head. As a young actor, you get so focused on work. All you want to do is work, work, work. All that really matters to you is booking the next job. It’s kind of allowed me to sit here and say “that’s not what my happiness and well being should be based on”, and it’s really taken off a lot of stress that I didn’t know I really had.
BT: What did you like best about your time working on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
DB: I guess I can give this away because they’ve talked about this on their own social media, but I loved the fact that it was time period. I will leave it up to the imagination if you want to go look at the wardrobe, but it was time period that was just so amazing, engulfing the music of the time period. My grandfather was a very famous musician in real life in the time period which we shot it in, and I was listening to my grandfather’s music all day in my trailer, getting into character. The wardrobe was exactly what I wanted and the arc of the character was also something else that I was very excited about. It was my first recurring guest star, meaty role on a television show. I got this right before I got Never Have I Ever and American Pie Presents: Girls’ Rules, and it was something that I could really sink my teeth into. Everyone on set welcomed me into the family right away and I just always felt so comfortable and so safe. Also, it’s Marvel, they know exactly what they’re doing, it’s a well oiled machine, so you worry about ‘how much can I really collaborate here?’ or ‘do they have such a secure vision of what they want that that’s the lane that I have to stay in?’. But they were very open to me sharing ideas and trying things and playing and it was a surreal moment walking on that set. It was surreal.
Never Have I Ever is now streaming on Netflix. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s final season starts tonight at 10/9c on ABC and CTV.