Darren Barnet’s first day on the set of Never Have I Ever as Paxton Hall-Yoshida started off with a splash. Well, sort of. They were filming the scene that introduces him in the new Netflix series as the hottest guy at Sherman Oaks High School, where he climbs out of the gym pool wearing Nike jammers and shakes his wet hair, water dripping off his abs and Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” blasting in the background.
“[Director] Tristram [Shapeero] was like, all right, ‘Let's get your hair a little bit wet, rub your hands through your hair, really flex your chest when you get out of the pool, really milk the moment.’ It was kind of hysterical,” Darren tells Teen Vogue. “The set was a very creative space. I have zero complaints, the cast got along so well, every director that we worked with was absolutely incredible. Mindy [Kaling] was so great, open to input from the cast, always telling us if it doesn't feel right, let me know, we'll try something else.”
It’s quite the debut, solidifying Paxton as the target of protagonist Devi Vishwakumar‘s thirst. Then it goes from simple thirst to the real shebang when Devi approaches Paxton at the end of the first episode, asking if he’d ever consider having sex with her. The jock obliges, however, Devi’s plan doesn’t go as planned. We end up getting to know Paxton a bit more – beyond peeling off his shirt, Never Have I Ever also peels away his aloof exterior. The actor connected to Paxton in that regard, unable to count the number of times people who thought he was unapproachable before getting to know him during high school.
“What I loved about it is that he does have layers to him. He doesn't have a certain empathy up front that you would notice, but it’s not him being a jerk,” Darren says. “Then you come to find out that he has more struggle in his life than you would think. Once you pull back his layers, you realize there is a very kind, caring person underneath it all.”
Darren moved from California to Florida when he was 12 and grew up in a lower-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Orlando. Upon entering high school, he was accepted into a rigorous program at a school 30 minutes away that required students to keep a 3.5 GPA and take college-level classes. His mom was also diligent about getting him involved in sports to keep him busy, playing pretty much every other sport except for Paxton’s (“swimming was just my Achilles heel”) and eventually becoming the lacrosse team captain. His life was devoted to academics and athletics, and never went to a high school party.
The performer actually wanted to be an actor starting at age five, but his parents, who had both dabbled in acting, were wary because they knew how competitive the industry is. However, he made short films with friends throughout his teen year. While at college on a full-ride scholarship, he decided it was finally time to more seriously pursue his dreams, nabbing lead roles for a number of school productions. He notes that his mom has always supported him, but she recently became his biggest fan. She told him something along the lines of: “I needed to know that you were willing to die for this … for it to really come through, and you need to have thick skin. Once I saw that I was fully behind you.”
While auditioning for the role of Paxton, Darren was so flabbergasted by creator Mindy Kaling that when he walked in the first thing out of his mouth was, “Oh wow, Mindy Kaling. I’m low key freaking out right now.” It might have been word vomit, but thankfully it broke the ice for what can usually be a high-pressure situation. Additionally, Mindy and showrunner Lang Fisher changed up the character of Paxton once they chose Darren. The actor is part Japanese and one day they overheard him speaking the language. They asked if he was OK with having the character match his ethnicity and henceforward, it was Paxton Hall-Yoshida.
“I grew up in California and when I was young, being Japanese was like the coolest thing ever. You’re a little kid and as cliche, as it sounds, it's like, ‘Oh, Japanese. Karate. Ninjas. Samurais. Oh my God!’ Then I moved to Florida and it was just really different. I got made fun of hardcore for being Japanese,” he says. “Later on in my life, I've become so proud of it. It's just a rich history and rich culture and it was a struggle for a while, now I could not be more proud of it.”
That nuance to Paxton, along with how we see from the other teens in Never Have I Ever deal with regular adolescent challenges and angst, is what makes it feel like a refreshing reflection of the real world. There’s an angry teen protagonist still processing the grief of losing a parent (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s Devi), a young woman coming to realize her queer sexuality (Lee Rodriguez’s Fabiola), and another high schooler realizing that her mom has dropped the ball when it comes to familial responsibilities (Ramona Young’s Eleanor). And all these characters happen to be people of color, who are struggling and navigating high school.
“I'm not going to put down anyone, but it's becoming a little bit of a broken record seeing the hot guy at school as the tall blonde, blue eyed guy named Trenton Vandervort, you know? It's cool bringing in a little bit of culture to it,” he says. “What I love about this show is that it really does that, but without making it preachy. The whole diversity factor of it is more so a cherry on top.”
Darren also notes just how well the cast got along and how they all bonded pretty quickly thanks to some mishap, largely due to him. During one of their early table read sessions, they had a large break of three hours where the director told them they could do whatever they wanted. Taking that quite literally, Darren suggested that they go to the bowling alley. They had a great time, roasting each other and building up chemistry. When they got back to set, everyone was freaking out because they weren’t technically supposed to leave.
“We had to put out fires when we got back,” he says. “Nothing forms a bond like chaos.”
As for future roles, he’d love to play Tyler Durden in some sort of Fight Club reboot or spin-off, but soon you’ll be able to catch him in American Pie Presents: Girls' Rules. He’s been spending his time at home self isolating by staying creative, writing lyrics and screenplays. He’s also been getting some sun on his roof and doing home workouts, trying to stay in tip top Paxton Hall-Yoshida lifting himself out of the pool shape.
“I have seen the whole show many times and I'm going to be shameless when I say this: I will go through the episodes and stop and be like, ‘All right, good job kid. Your working out in the gym definitely paid off. All right,” Darren says with a laugh when asked about all the NHIE clips and photos that feature him scantily-clad. “I knew it was coming, being used as a thirst trap. I can't complain about it. It's been interesting. I will say that at all times I’m just trying to be ready at any moment to take my shirt off because I feel like that moment is coming.”
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue