The remembrance of youth is like a call to our core selves, where we skip off tempo to the beat of our own hearts. Jaren has been following his heart since he was a kid, enamoured by the beauty of performance and story-telling, which led him down the path of acting at a young age. Listening to his heart has never weakened though, especially with the support and love of his friends and family. He soaks in the present moment of where he is today, just a year ago having finished university with a degree in psychology, and now settling into a multitude of feelings tied to the final season of Never Have I Ever having been released. Jaren takes all of these accomplishments in strong strides of immense gratitude and pride, never forgetting the work he has put in to get here, as well as the paramount importance of the people that have lifted him up along the way.
Like the taste of lemonade - ice clinking together in clear glasses, a ring of water collecting onto the table; the day is sweet, refreshing and, at times, a bit tart and tangy. During our time together, Jaren and I take each moment and toss it back and forth, a gentle game of catch that is forever. Between minutes, we count down the memories until summer passes, holding onto them like a zealous child with a quickly melting ice cream. The sun smiles down and basks through the windows in deep golden rays. The welcoming embrace of the season is all around. Grounded in the present, Jaren and I chat about time management and burn out, dedication, the true gift of soul connections, and the ebbs and flows life throws our way. We plunge into it all, like a clear, crisp pool in the midst of this summer heat.
Never Have I Ever Season 4 is out now on Netflix. Please note, this conversation contains some spoilers.
Okay, so a fun little question to start off with. If you get one person from your life to describe you, who would you choose, and why?
I think I would pick my mom. She sometimes knows me better than I feel like I know myself. My mom was also an English major and a teacher for a long time, so I think that if someone was interviewing anybody in my life, my mom would be someone who could eloquently, but also accurately and honestly, describe her son. She's very proud of me, but she can also be constructive and recognise that there are things that I do really well, and there are things that I can improve on, so I think that she would be a fantastic person to describe me. I love my mom, we're very close. My whole family is very close.
That’s very sweet. What year did she teach?
She was a preschool and kindergarten teacher for a long time, and a stay at home mom for a lot of my life as well, which is why I think that we have such a great relationship. My mom is very nurturing. She's somebody that kids sort of flocked to, and is definitely somebody who provides a lot of structure and routine, which I think is really great for kids. I know it's done wonders for me specifically. I credit her for my success in terms of time management and knowing how to discipline myself, and also [learning to] celebrate my accomplishments. My mom is definitely a massive cheerleader in my corner, and I’m very grateful for her. I have a lot of friends she taught and they are all very, very fond of my mom. I think that even if you were kind of close to someone as a child, you sort of always subconsciously feel comforted and safe around that person. So, even as adults, some of my friends will see my mom and give her big hugs. It's very sweet.
What’s one thing you’ve done today that has helped keep you grounded?
Going to the gym is always really grounding for me. No matter what happens in my life, as long as I can get some exercise in, it really allows me to focus on things that are important, no matter what's going on. Life can get really crazy, especially right now, since Never Have I Ever season four is about to come out. I'm doing press and other things this week, like going to USC graduation, where a lot of my friends are getting ready to graduate. It’s a very crazy time. My sister graduates law school next week as well! So there's a lot, but getting into the gym for an hour and a half or two hours, it’s like a big breath of fresh air. I sort of sink into the iron paradise and allow that to expel most of my energy and help me focus.
The newest and final season of Never Have I Ever is coming out! What initial feelings come up when you think of the entire journey through filming the seasons of the beloved show?
For me, it was a dream come true. There were a lot of points in my life where I wasn't sure if I could be an actor, and there's a lot of people I know in my life that are really talented and incredible and hard working, and they eventually wound up doing something else. For my whole life, I always had structure. I always had school, and before the show, I was getting ready to go to college. My initial plan was to audition and go to school at the same time, and cross my fingers, then see what happened if I booked something. I wound up getting the show before college even started! I was like, can I do college and the show at the same time? Luckily for me, I went to USC, so we shot at Universal Studios, which is nearby, so I got to do both.
A lot of people feel like college is such a formative period of their life, where it teaches you a lot about your identity and your own growth. It absolutely did that for me, but on top of that I had my professional dreams coming true as well. It was this culmination of adulthood, about finding myself and who I was, and who I wanted to be. I'm still on that journey, in finding the people you want to surround yourself with, your life partners, what career trajectory you really want to find yourself in. Filming the show and also being in college really helped me do that. I was lucky enough to be on a show that has done so much for so many people, who have related to the show and are fiercely protective and passionate about it as much as I am. It's a show that has so much diversity and inclusion and does it in a heartwarming and impactful and complex and wonderful and chaotic and messy way.
For this show to be my big break in my first large project, I don't think I could have written it better. It truly feels like it was written in the stars. I feel really lucky and grateful to Mindy Kaling, Lang Fisher, and the rest of the writers, Netflix and Universal and everyone that had a hand and allowed me to play a part in this amazing show and to help bring it to life. It's changed my life forever. I will forever be grateful to everyone involved. And it also helped me meet some of my best friends along the way, so it definitely makes me emotional thinking about it.
What are some of your initial feelings and emotions with the newest and final season of Never Have I Ever coming out and having wrapped filming?
You sort of grow up through the show as you watch it, and you watch the characters grow up too. The fourth season feels like you're ready to send these characters off - you're ready to send them off to college, you've watched them go from lost children to young adults who are ready to make their mark on the world and really find themselves, like I did in my own personal life when I turned eighteen and went to college. For my character, Ben Gross, I feel really lucky and grateful, because Ben went through so much, and he still is in the fourth season. He's figuring out college and relationships and dealing with thinking about who he wants to be in, not only the future, but in the present moment as well. There's so much going on in high school, speaking of formative times, but I think all of the characters have grown so much. This fourth season, you can really see that growth in terms of the characters. They are ready to go and change the world. And yes, they've made mistakes. And yes, they still kind of screw up sometimes, but within that there's such a profound sense of beauty with all of those characters.
For me, as an actor, it was bittersweet. But the special thing about it, too, was we knew it was going to be the last season when we started shooting. I’m grateful, as well, to Netflix and Universal for letting us and the writers know that, because we got to send it off on our own terms. It's a high school show, you do four years of high school and you go all the way through to graduation - it kind of just makes sense. You're ready. Personally, I didn't really want to leave high school either, but hopefully fans will also feel the way I did, where it's like, you know what, they're ready. We've seen so much of them, and now you get to think about who they will be as adults. Maybe we'll find out one day. I don't know. John McEnroe says “for now.” Who knows?
You finished an undergrad degree in Psychology alongside filming Never Have I Ever (congratulations on graduating, by the way!), what was it like being knee deep in college work while also giving your all to the role of Ben Gross?
It was about time management for me. I had a lot of support from professors, and from my family and friends in terms of helping me along through the journey. It's definitely not something that was easy - I lost a lot of hours of sleep, and at times I was like, oh my gosh this is really difficult. But I've always been someone who, maybe like Ben, loves academics and loves being in the classroom. Maybe because my mom was a teacher, though, my parents never pushed education on me. I think it's just about hard work and about dedication, and they were both a dream of mine. It was something I wanted to be able to accomplish. I wanted to go to school and do the show at the same time. I wanted to prove to myself and to others that I could do it, that you can get a college degree while you're shooting a show. I’m proud of myself for being able to do that.
I’m sure studying psychology has allowed you to dig deep within the characters you get to play. How has this influenced the way you prepare for or think about a role?
Yeah, I think mental health is a big one. For me, it's something I'm really passionate about. I grew up in a family that is very emotional, but I've always been a pretty sensitive kid as well. I've also played sports and know that toxic masculinity, and similar tropes, are still very much prevalent. They are in my own mind, as well. I definitely have a hard time crying, and that was something I struggled with for Ben's crying scene in season one for the solo episode, where he's crying in the doctor's office with Dr. Vishwakumar, because I don't really cry very much in my normal life. There are a lot of things that we bury deep down, and it can be really hard to find an outlet to process those things, which is what Ben dealt with in season three, where he starts working with art to try to express his feelings and open up, and it's scary. I remember that it touched me really deeply.
I think that, again, college was a lot about me finding myself, the impact I wanted to make, and the legacy I want to start building. I put a lot of pressure on myself internally, and sometimes I struggle dealing with that. Like I said, fitness is a big outlet for me. [It’s also important for me to] be honest with my friends and family as well, and look for support and help. That was a big theme of last season too, where Ben is expressing his feelings to pass them, which I think was really strong and really powerful. In this season, you see Ben open up in a different way, he's sort of romantically vulnerable, which is something he's dabbled with in the past, but is ready to take a deep dive.
It's also important to note that he does have support from Devi, and even though this next chapter of his life is going to be very different going to college, he still finds a way to prioritise what's important to him. Prioritising what’s important and how that connects to mental health is something that's really important to remember in my own personal life. It's a great reminder for me when I'm in those scenes as well, I need to stop sometimes and say, okay, how am I doing? If I can't fix something myself, if there's an issue, can I go to someone that can help me? [Those people] are my roommates, for sure. They’ve had such a profound impact on my life, personally, professionally, in every way. They have lifted me up time and time and time again. I am forever grateful. I found some of the best friends in the world. I'm also so proud of them too, they’re incredible people, so big shout out to them.
What was one of the most impactful things you learned or felt really passionate about during your studies in psychology?
For me, it's really important to learn and understand the motivations, behaviours and objectives behind a character. For Ben, specifically, it was a lot about looking at his developmental psychology, because there are parts of Ben where you're like, oh, my God, you are so annoying and rude. Like, why are you doing this? And then you look back at it, and you see this avoidant attachment. He doesn't want to get close to people, because the people that he has craved the attention from continually leave him, like his mom and his dad. It's not to say that they're bad people, because I don't think they are, they just are a bit absent. But, that's had a profound effect on Ben’s life, and allowed me to understand he's a struggling, lost kid who's in need of some love and attention. The way he tries to get that attention is by acting out and trying to get a rise out of people, and this humanises him for me. I think it humanised him for everyone. The writers, Mindy, Lang, and the rest of the team, really gave me so much to play with in that regard, because they wrote his story in a way where you feel for Ben and he pulls at your heart even though sometimes he drives you up a wall and makes you crazy. You recognise that he does have a good heart though. He’s someone who’s a really, really sweet kid, he's just been knocked down a hell of a lot.
In real life, you never know what people are going through. That's something else our show does so, so well - it's so relatable. Mindy and Lang have said in interviews that, I think everybody knows a Ben in their own lives. Not to say they're always deep down really great, but oftentimes, it's because they're struggling with something, and they need to process, and they may need help and support to be able to draw that beauty out of them. And we really did do that with Ben. I don't know, maybe for me, it's slightly endearing. Maybe I'm a bit biassed, but I do think that from the messages that I've received from fans, he has resonated with a lot of people, so I think that's pretty cool.
In a way, you went through your own transitions through college alongside Ben’s highschool experiences. How have those transitions alongside one another felt for you?
It's super weird, I kind of felt like his older brother at times. I would learn a lesson that he's just now asking questions about. That was something where I was like, okay, you're definitely not there yet, but I promise in a couple years you'll find that answer. I bet at his age I was asking the same questions; Who am I? How do I make friends? When Ben visits Columbia, he has all these hopes and dreams running on this one school, then has one conversation there and he's terrified. That was definitely me.
When I went to USC, it felt like home, but I was scared. Even making friends, it's not something you have to do quickly, and everyone told me that everyone else is in the same boat, but it's still so intimidating. Then I found that all I had to do was be myself, and I would find some of the most amazing people in the entire world that would eventually become my best friends. Ben is going to figure that out. But I understand the stress, I understand the anxiety associated with that big life change. I was going through other big life changes with being on the end of my college journey, and him being on the beginning of it, but I still remember that excitement like it was yesterday.
There's so many feelings that come with going to college, finishing college, and looking back on it and thinking, wow, these were probably some of the most incredible years of my life. I'm proud of myself for everything that I've done, the people that I've met, even the mistakes I've made. Ben will make mistakes as he did in high school, because I did, and those were some of my biggest lessons within my failures. You find the biggest revelations in the questions you're asking. So, I would say that I'm excited for his college journey, or his imaginary college journey. I'm sure he'll eventually figure it out and become very successful and hopefully a little less brash at times.
Ben’s anxiety is tied to a place of “performing well” and being successful. Do you find his own struggles are tied to young people’s current struggles in our day and age?
Absolutely. Ben has dealt with a lot of stress and anxiety around being a perfectionist and living up to his perceived parental expectations, which may not even be the reality. For Ben, he does remind me a lot of myself sometimes, and a lot of my generation specifically. We put so much pressure on ourselves to be at the height of our careers as young as possible. Ben is so stressed out all the time, which is why I think it was super, super fun when he stops doing his homework after he gets into Columbia. He takes edibles with Trent and has that whole life journey within those couple of episodes. He puts so much pressure on himself, that then he's like, oh, I guess I've reached my dreams and goals. Then he finds out quickly that it's not even over, which is sometimes exhausting. We're constantly grinding, constantly moving forward. Sometimes all you want to do is take your hands off, grab an edible and go to another planet - which Ben finds is not the healthiest of outlets for him. I'm definitely not advocating to take drugs or anything, but Ben was like, okay, if I take my feet off the gas pedal, I could risk losing everything, but at the same time, I need to learn how to balance this so that I don't do what happened in the past. And if he's not careful in the future, he could be so stressed out trying to beat everybody.
You have to recognize that you're not always going to be the smartest person in the school or the smartest person in the room. And that's okay! You just have to be the best version of you, which Ben is still figuring out. But I think a lot of my generation is also struggling with that - being the best versions of themselves, but also having expectations that are actually attainable. It's a fine line. I know I've overstepped at times and gotten really frustrated at myself or broken down at times, because I'm putting so much pressure on myself. It's important we’re talking about mental health. I have a lot of mentors in my life that I'm so grateful for that always told me how young I am. I always roll my eyes. And, yeah, I'm twenty-two years old, but I want to do so many big things. I want to make such a huge impact on the world and on people. But I have to take it one day at a time. I have to be proud of the things I've done and recognize that good things will come to good people. It may not always be on our timeframe, and that's okay, but it's about that journey. That's what we should be celebrating rather than the end result. Otherwise, we'll never really be happy. It'll just be the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. You don't want to live your life like a checklist. You want to be proud of what you've done and move forward in that way.
In terms of seeking help or finding support with mental health issues, how do you think Ben’s character’s vulnerability allows space for people to find community and support of their own?
It’s changed my entire perspective on who I am. That's what's moulded me- my community. We talk a lot about that in psychology, if it's nature versus nurture. And it's kind of both. Yeah, your genetics play a part, but so much of your environment determines who you are. I'm constantly surrounded by people who are striving to get better, but they also continue to live their life with kindness and positivity. I think that's so infectious. I had a football coach in high school who said that you're the average of your five closest friends, and I think about that almost daily. I think about my five best friends and I am so proud of who they are. In turn, they’ve impacted me. I feel like I'm talking about them over and over again, but they’ve just totally changed my entire life. Things that would bother me before or would make me anxious don't bother me anymore.
The same thing goes for my family. People say you can't choose your family, but if I did have a choice, I wouldn't choose any differently. My sister is one of my best friends and my biggest supporter, and my parents are two of the most incredible people - they're my heroes. I have gotten so lucky that so many people have taken the time and invested in me. I hope one day I can give even fifty percent of what people have given to me, whether it's younger people that I can mentor in the business or my own kids, eventually one day, or my peers. There's a large principle in psychology that says, essentially, people watch and they learn by observing. And when you have amazing mentors and an amazing community around you, you watch, you take that in and it impacts you - it changes you. That can be said for negativity as well. That would be my bit of advice: be very careful who you surround yourself with and find people that lift you up, find people that celebrate your accomplishments and people that help you achieve your goals in a manner that is conducive to your mental health, goals and life trajectory. I've been lucky enough to find a lot of those people, and I'm looking forward to continuing to find them along the way, and hopefully impacting them as much as they have impacted me.
There are a lot of interesting relationship dynamics in Never Have I Ever, with friends, family, romantic partners. How has the show helped your view with relationships in your own life?
It taught me a lot of lessons. Ben and Devi taught me a lot about relationships. They sometimes make each other crazy, but even in my own life, I learned it's really important to find somebody that pushes you, and I think Ben and Devi do that so, so well. They're always in each other's corner. No matter the ups and downs, they are always there for each other. That’s something that I look for in friends. I don't know if that even encapsulates the idea of loyalty, but whatever it is, whether it's love or loyalty or something in between, that's something I really look for in my loved ones. Perseverance and resilience also describe Ben and Devi’s relationship quite perfectly. They have an ability to have really deep, meaningful conversations that impact their lives. Then you have that last scene, which is one of my favourite scenes that I've ever done, where Ben flies back from New York and says he loves Devi, and she says she loves him too. Young love is really beautiful. I think love can be in many different forms, whether that's familial or friendship or a mentorship type of love and respect, and finding that is really important. Those are, for lack of a better word, soulmates, because I think you can have many. The soulmate for me is just someone who has such a profound impact on who you are and your personality and your perspective on the world. I don't know, maybe Ben and Devi are a type of soulmate if we’re using that definition. It’s kind of romantic.
There’s a really interesting ebb and flow that happens with Devi and Ben’s relationship in this most recent season. What do you hope the viewers will take away from the care and patience they show each other in this final season?
I think it's exactly what you said. I hope that people recognise how much they really care for each other, and the lengths they're willing to go to help each other out, whether it's Devi literally giving the shirt off of her back, or Ben finding out Devi didn't get into any colleges and rushing to her aid. I try not to romanticise life, but I think our show really is representative of life. I think Ben and Devi’s relationship is perhaps heightened slightly, but shows care. There are a lot of relationships in my life, whether it's my dad still buying my mom her favourite cookies that she loves, or my sister having a long night studying and my parents buying her dinner, or I send her a little Venmo for food, those little moments are really, really important, and the big ones are as well, where you're just there for that person. No matter what's happened before, you have this foundation of friendship, love, honesty and care that doesn't just go away. When things get hard, Ben and Devi gravitate to each other, almost like a magnet. They keep finding each other. When you have someone like that in your life, I would encourage viewers watching to pay attention to those people, to hold on to them and put in just as much effort as that person is putting in, or raise the level together to help you achieve your goals and meet your needs. When you find somebody that deeply understands you and is deeply, inherently in love with who you are as a person, that's someone you should hang on to for the rest of your life. That's a soulmate. I think Ben and Devi are that way, and I appreciate that they went to so many lengths to be there for each other.
Their relationship transitions so much, just as they are as well - it’s one of the biggest times for change in a young person’s life. How important do you find these transitions are for both Devi and Ben as individuals, but also the change that happens alongside each other? Throughout the series, Ben and Devi have taught each other a lot. They've taught each other about who the other one is and how they can move forward in their own growth and identity process. For Ben, Devi has taught him a lot about how he doesn't have to always be the one that wins. She even says to him, “You're the biggest bullshitter I know, if you don't know something, just fake it till you make it, you're gonna be okay.” I think that was really powerful to hear from her for Ben. As we get through this season, Ben realises he needs to be with Devi. He needs her for this next transition, and I think she feels the same way. That's why they agreed to give it a shot, and who knows how it goes in college for the two of them, but the fact that they said, we're going to stay in contact and we're going to stay close, that to me shows not only bravery, but also a tremendous amount of maturity from both of them. I wish Maitreyi [Ramakrishnan] was on this interview so she could phrase it more eloquently than I will, but I think for Devi, it's learning that when things get messed up, she doesn't have to handle everything herself. Even when she messes up, people will still love her, and they'll still be there for her. That's important to know, that you're not alone, I think Ben and Devi will always be there for each other.
It seems you’re very motivated and have juggled a lot of things at once! How have you dealt with the aspects of burn out in the past?
To be honest with you, I quit. I wouldn't say that it's something I'm proud of, but it's what I needed. I started out as a child actor, when I was five years old on Barney. There was a point where I was fourteen years old and didn't want to do it anymore. I wasn't sure acting was something I wanted anymore, so I took some time away. I took time for myself, I listened to myself and thought, if I can't put 110% into this, I need to take a break and put everything aside for a year - if I miss it, and I'm ready to come back, then I will. And I did come back. The rejection is so hard though, where 99% of the things you audition for, you're probably not going to get and it's not on your timeline. You could be unemployed for years, or work for four straight years then be unemployed for five straight years. It vacillates so frequently, and that is so frustrating for someone like me who likes routine and structure. But on the flip side, it's the most incredible job in the world. I try to remember that often. I remember all the amazing people I've met, the amazing days I've had, the fans I've gotten to meet, the impact I've gotten to make and the stories I've gotten to bring to life.
There's a quote I remember often …“remember why you started.” Obviously, there are certain things that have to be at the forefront of your mind as an adult, like paying your bills and knowing where you're going to sleep at night. But, I want to always make sure I don't lose that childlike wonder, even when I'm frustrated and had a bad day, or I'm devastated because I got so close and didn't get a job. I want to still be proud of myself for getting close, and know if I put forward that positivity and energy, and I work really hard, hopefully something will come my way. I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. My mom says that to me all the time. I'm always going to try to keep going. There are absolutely times where I think I should just go live a nine-to-five life where I have more structure and stability and the white picket fence. But, I wouldn't be happy. I love to travel. I love to see the world. I love to tell stories. I love to be the centre of attention. I love to talk, I love to memorise and give a piece of my heart away every day. I think that's what I'm meant to do. It doesn't mean it's going to be easy, it never is, but there's a beauty in that. There are going to be really low lows, but I promise you those highs are going to be worth it.
That’s really beautiful. My mom has always said the same thing to me - everything happens for a reason. What are some forms of self-care you enjoy when you feel burnt out or overwhelmed?
The biggest thing is reminding myself that I'm not just an actor, and I have so many other hobbies. I really like to bake. That's a big one. I have a huge sweet tooth. If I'm sad, I'll probably bake something. I also really love sports, whether it's throwing the football around with my best friends, or going to the beach and playing spike ball. I play a lot of tennis, or pickleball. It's about getting me moving and getting out of the house and not sleeping in my bed, getting frustrated at myself if I don't do a good job or something like that. Being around people that care about me is always great as well. I'll go home sometimes and spend time with my parents. Whether it's going to play tennis with my dad, watching movies with my mom or going shopping with my sister, it ends up being about finding that community like we talked about earlier.
Yeah, for sure. What's the hardest thing you've ever baked?
Cheesecake. Oh, cheesecake is really hard. You have to bake it in a water bath, where the cake sits on a higher level, then have a pot of boiling water that rises up to create the steam. I still haven't quite figured it out, because my crust is still not super crisp. It's a bit soggy. So I’m still working on that. But yeah, it's delicate. It's a delicate art.
Just like acting.
Yes! Just like acting.
What is one thing that instantly makes your day better?
I'll switch it up from the gym and say coming home to my best friends. Sometimes I’ll walk in the door after I’ve had a tough day, and I just can't really be upset around them. They will literally or figuratively grab me by both arms and just hoist me up. So, no matter what happens, they'll make me feel okay.
The work you do in general is a form of escapism, but are there any hobbies or other things in your life that feel like forms of escapism for you?
I love to travel. I also love history. Like I said, I'm a big learner; the ability to drop into another culture or new way of life is fantastic. It almost feels cinematic in a way, because I feel like I'm the main character of my own story. When I take a trip somewhere, it blocks everything else out. You get to be in the present, you get to enjoy this culture that you haven't really been around before. Travelling to other continents is just fantastic. I want to see as much of the world as I can, and hopefully I get to continue doing that. I've been to Europe once and I really want to go back. I mean, I want to go everywhere!
What’s something you are looking forward to within the year to come - personally or professionally?
Professionally, it's the newest season of Never Have I Ever being released. Yeah, I’ve been counting down the days for people to see this incredible last season and this creation in the way that it wrapped up and to hear what they think about it. I don't really read reviews or anything, but I'm more talking about the kind of personal testimonials that are super impactful. The comments on Instagram, the messages and the letters, or people coming up to me and telling me what they love about the show. To me, that is what really fuels my fire.
Then personally, I'm really looking forward to some of my friends' milestones and getting to celebrate with them. Whether it's USC graduation, my sister's law school graduation, or celebrating new jobs that my friends have, and hopefully finding some of mine as well. Seeing where life takes us after college is another crazy adjustment period, so visiting my friends and their new lives, it’s going to be super cool. I have some friends that are going to New York, which is one of my favourite cities in the world. One of my other best friends lives in Chicago, actually, so I'll be there. Maybe I’ll see you on the street! But, yeah, it's just exciting. It's an exciting time seeing the impact that people are going to start making. We'll see what the next year brings. You know, I try not to plan too far ahead in that way.