Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, 17, remembers the question that changed everything — the one that took her from regular high school life to the center of Hollywood.
"Why not me?" she asked herself when she saw an open casting call for Mindy Kaling's coming-of-age comedy series, which is slated for 2020 and hasn't yet been titled. It was a good question, and coincidentally, also the name of Kaling's 2015 memoir.
Despite having no professional acting experience, Ramakrishnan, who is Tamil-Canadian, got the job. The young actress will play a character named Devi whose life story is inspired by Kaling’s.
“It was actually my best friend who encouraged me to go for it, and I was like, ‘Hey, why not?’ I fit the description of a South Asian female teen, so why not me? So I took a chance and I gave it my all,” she told TODAY Style.
The Mississauga, Ontario, native filmed an audition video and submitted it. Four days later, the auditioning process began. About one "fast and furious" month later, she got a phone call. Kaling and screenwriter Lang Fisher were on the other line.
“They told me that I got the role," Ramakrishnan said. "I was in complete shock. I just kept saying, ‘My life is completely going to change. Wow!’”
The surreal experience taught her a life lesson she thinks applies to anyone.
"I feel like if you don’t find what you’re looking for in the media or the world in general, you should be out there, and go take up that space and go be that change," she said. "Be what you want to see, and other people will look up to you."
As a woman of color starring in a Netflix series, that’s exactly what Ramakrishnan is doing and why she's being honored as a Groundbreaker in our series for International Day of the Girl.
“One thing that’s really important to me is just representation in the media in general, of people from all walks of life," she said. "It’s really important to see on-screen people that they can identify with and relate to. To feel like they’re also a part of this world and they’re not an outsider."
Her personal role models, including her high school drama teacher as well as various women in Hollywood, have played a big role in creating her world view.
“My high school drama teacher is always pushing me to try new things," the teen said. "She was the one who encouraged me to try out for plays and take bold risks, which now I’m known for."
In terms of celebrities, the young actress draws inspiration from women like Emma Watson, known to many for her role as the intelligent Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” movies.
“I really admired (Watson) as a kid when she was Hermione Granger," Ramakrishnan said. "I really loved the character, a very intelligent girl in school at Hogwarts. I also love her work she does being a feminist."
The theater and TV buff is also a big fan of “The Office” and looks up to Kaling as an inspiration.
“(Kaling) uses her media for body positivity and for genuine comedy, comedy that’s age appropriate and not stereotypical," she said. "She really knows how to own her space."
Now, Ramakrishnan gets to be a part of that comedy.
When asked how she hopes her role will impact others, she replied, “I hope it passes this on — the 'why not me?' Why can’t I just go out and do what makes me happy? Do what makes me feel great and confident?”
Clearly, it's working.