As one of the breakout stars of “Never Have I Ever,” Jaren Lewison’s life was drastically changed four years ago when he was cast as Ben Gross in the hit Netflix comedy created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher.
The 22-year-old quickly emerged as a fan favorite in the show, whose fourth and final season was released on June 8. Lewison spoke with Unpacked about the final season of “Never Have I Ever” and why he’s proud to play a Jewish character on screen.
Jaren Lewison embraces Judaism in his everyday life
Kicking off our interview, Lewison enthusiastically exclaimed, “Let’s get Jewy” and launched into an explanation of his Jewish identity — a part of his life he holds dear.
“I’ve always been really proud of being Jewish. I’ve found that I gravitate oftentimes to other Jews, I just sort of find them,” Lewison said. “It’s always something that bonds me to people when I find out that they are also Jewish, because it just kind of feels like safe. It’s a shared experience.”
Raised in an Ashkenazi family based in Dallas, Texas, Lewison attended a Conservative Jewish day school where he took classes in both Hebrew and in English.
The former high school football star noted that his Jewish education gave him a proficiency in reading and writing Hebrew, approximately at a second-grade level.
For the holidays, Lewison typically returns home (he currently lives in Los Angeles) and takes an active part in the family festivities. For Passover, he leads his family’s Seder and hides the afikoman (his leadership makes him the “rabbi” of the group, he jokingly said). For Rosh Hashanah, he enjoys cooking for his loved ones.
Reflecting on his college experience, Lewison expressed gratitude to USC’s Hillel for keeping him involved in the Jewish community and giving him the opportunity to meet fellow Jews in Los Angeles.
Lewison embraces the complexity of his character, Ben Gross
Ben Gross is the first openly Jewish character Lewison has portrayed — his acting career began with a two-season stint on “Barney & Friends” in 2007-08.
He was excited about this opportunity to share his culture and applauded the “Never Have I Ever” writers for crafting dynamic characters who stay connected to their cultural roots.
“What I really love about [Ben’s Jewishness] is that it’s not his entire identity. Much like myself — I’m also an actor and an athlete and a former student. I have so many other different interests, which I think is so representative of Jews in the world,” Lewison said.
“In my case, I’m an actor who is also Jewish — that’s something that’s really cool. And that’s also Ben Gross. He’s a student. He’s striving really hard to accomplish his goals. He’s trying to get into Columbia, which is obviously a fantastic school, and he’s also Jewish,” he added.
Ben Gross — one of the two main love interests in “Never Have I Ever” — remains the academic rival to protagonist Devi Vishwakumar (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), even as a teen romance blossoms between them.
As the show progresses, Ben, the star student, becomes more forthcoming about his feelings of loneliness and self-doubt, but also comes to terms with expectations of others.
“He is a kid who, deep down inside, is just looking for love and attention, and I think we all know a Ben Gross,” Lewison said.
He added that people like Ben, who often “put on a mask,” tend to have an easier time forming relationships when they allow their true selves to shine.
Lewison brought up the Ben-centric episode in “Never Have I Ever’s” first season, narrated by Andy Samberg, as the moment when Ben begins to reveal his layers and allow vulnerability.
The episode delves into Ben’s strained relationship with his often-absent parents. His mother leaves him for a wellness retreat, and his father and girlfriend cancel plans to attend a Los Angeles Clippers game he’d been excited about for months.
Ben breaks down during a dermatologist appointment with Devi’s mom, Nalini, and it’s his first display of weakness on the show.
Lewison emphasized that this episode laid the groundwork for Ben’s subsequent growth over the next three seasons. The Texan stressed the recurring theme of self-discovery throughout Ben Gross’ character arc.
“Ben’s overall journey is about finding himself and finding who he wants to be. In the fourth season, the theme is preparation for adulthood. He’s figuring out who he wants to surround himself with — the people who will push him outside of his comfort zone to nurture him, help him grow, and introduce him to different perspectives.
“For Ben, it starts with Columbia. It starts with them saying ‘yes’ to him, and people in his life saying ‘yes’ to mentoring him and helping him grow. That’s his journey as he goes through college,” Lewison said.
“Never Have I Ever’s” authenticity is what draws people to the show, says Lewison
Lewison highlighted the authenticity of “Never Have I Ever” as a significant factor in its appeal to audiences. The writing process for the show demanded that every narrative event be rooted in real-life experience, either directly from the writers or from people they knew.
“The writers were absolutely brilliant on our show and it’s part of the reason why so many people love it. I think that it is so authentic, and it does come across as ringing so honest and so true,” Lewison said.
In addition to creating diverse Jewish stories, he added that Jewish writers must also help uplift other marginalized voices. In Jewish stories, Lewison dreams of a media landscape where they are represented in all their rich diversity, and not just rolled out as the token Jewish character.
“I love being proud of being Jewish. I love playing a character who’s Jewish — and like I said, it’s a part of his intersectionality like it is mine. Hopefully, people will continue to think that ‘Never Have I Ever’ does an incredible job of telling really authentic stories and investing in underrepresented groups, and showcasing their authentic stories,” Lewison said.
However, he emphasized that there’s still work to be done to continue creating unique, authentic and diverse Jewish stories from Jewish writers.
“Jewish writers are increasingly sharing authentic stories of mixed Jewish families and Jews from all over the world. I think that’s really cool, and I would hope that we continue doing that, and continue supporting underrepresented groups in general as Jews,” Lewison said.
“I am proud of the Jewish community, and who we are and what we stand for. Hopefully, we continue embodying those qualities — you know, being awesome, kind, positive, wonderful, like mensches. You know, do some good deeds, some mitzvot, and be proud of that.”
Lewison wants to set the record straight that he also had an awesome bar mitzvah
While Ben Gross notoriously had the famous basketball player Blake Griffin at his bar mitzvah — this was one of the attributes that initially drew Lewison into the character — Lewison wanted to clarify that his own bar mitzvah was also pretty impressive.
“My bar mitzvah was pretty freaking cool — I just want to put that out there,” Lewison said.
He mentioned that he had a digital green screen at the event where guests could spray paint their photos.
In his dream bar mitzvah scenario, he would have invited Adam Sandler, whom he had met when he played Sandler’s son in “Men, Women and Children” at the age of 13.
“I met [Sandler] once, and it made all of my dreams come true,” Lewison recalled. “If he sang any kind of song, I think I would faint. When I met him, it was the coolest thing ever.
“It was the best experience I’ve ever had. You know the saying that you’re not supposed to meet your heroes? Totally not the case for me.”
Lewison pursued his bachelor’s degree while starring on “Never Have I Ever”
For most, juggling college classes and shooting a popular Netflix show might seem daunting, but not for Lewison. He filmed the first three seasons of “Never Have I Ever” while a full-time student at the University of Southern California.
Lewison landed the role of Ben Gross just over a month before starting his freshman year.
To keep up his excellent GPA (Lewison graduated summa cum laude in three years with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in forensics and criminology), he planned out his work schedule ahead of time, often completing assignments a month in advance.
“Throughout the filming, it was all about time management. I always say that one of my strongest skills is my time management and my preparation in terms of planning ahead — I’m like the opposite of a procrastinator,” Lewison said.
In addition to his planning and reliable friend circle at USC, which helped keep him “grounded, sane and stress-free,” Lewison also praised the “Never Have I Ever” team for being accommodating of his schedule. They installed WiFi in his trailer so he could attend Zoom classes and scheduled his shooting schedule around his exams.
After his herculean college experience (he graduated in May 2022), Lewison didn’t skip a beat, heading back to the set to film the final season of “Never Have I Ever” and promote the third season.
“For the first time I was acting full-time. It was a big adjustment at first,” Lewison said.
Now, Lewison is in the process of “saying goodbye to ‘Never Have I Ever’” with the release of its fourth season. However, he’s excited to embark on new projects.
Describing himself as “picky” when it comes to selecting projects, Lewison knows he hit a “home run” with “Never Have I Ever.”
Now, he’s brainstorming future collaborations with directors he admires, including fellow Dallas native Cooper Raiff, Greta Gerwig, Damien Chazelle and Ryan Coogler.
“There are so many talented people out there that I’d love the chance to work with…that I would really love to be able to embody. I’m excited to see what ends up happening next,” he said.
Lewison would eventually return to Ben Gross if there were a “Never Have I Ever reunion”
While Lewison has no plans on returning to Sherman Oaks High School anytime soon, he would be open to reuniting with his castmates given the right circumstances.
Lewison said the project would need to be at least a decade in the future and in a rom-com movie style.
“Obviously, I love Ben so much and he will forever hold such a special place in my heart. As of now, there are currently no plans for any kind of spin-off or film, but I think in 10 or 15 years, it would be really cool. If the writers and cast agreed to come back and continue that story, I think it would be fun to portray these characters as adults,” Lewison said.
Originally Published Jun 8, 2023 06:03PM EDT