Never Have I Ever
July 5, 2023
Darren Barnet anxiously counted the minutes as midnight approached on the evening of April 26, 2020. The next day was his birthday, but that wasn’t the source of his nervousness and excitement. Rather, it was the Netflix “drop” of Never Have I Ever, a highly anticipated teen comedy-drama in which he played a prominent role.
Aspiring actors learn quickly not to get too excited until they see themselves on screen. Barnet had witnessed the crushing disappointment of friends who staged viewing parties celebrating a new role only to discover their hard work had wound up on the cutting-room floor.
That wouldn’t be an issue in this case. One, there was no viewing party – the world was in lockdown due to the onset of COVID-19. Two, his character, heartthrob Paxton Hall-Yoshida, was central to the plot.
Barnet hadn’t really expected to get the part when he showed up for auditions the year prior. More than half a decade on the Hollywood “roller-coaster” had delivered many lessons in managing expectations.
This time, however, he won the role, which offered the promise of steady work as a series regular on a show buoyed by the creative involvement of acclaimed writer, comedian, actress and producer Mindy Kaling. On set, he quickly found himself immersed in a “playground of creativity” that made it “a joy going to work every day.” Still, there were no guarantees the show would find an audience.
So, Barnet waited. Tick, tick, tick. At midnight, he turned on Netflix … and nothing happened. His Wi-Fi had completely shut down. In that moment, he thought, “Maybe this is a sign. I’m just going to go to bed.”
Barnet awoke the next morning to a flurry of congratulatory calls and messages, not to mention an Instagram following that had spiked by 200,000 overnight. The show was a hit, topping Netflix charts domestically and abroad. The service later reported that 40 million households tuned in during its first four weeks on the platform.
Soon, a second 10-episode run was ordered. Then a third. And now a fourth and final season, which hit Netflix in early June.
“It has completely changed my life,” Barnet praised. “I was starting to get really at the end of my rope. I was like, ‘I’m about to be in my thirties soon. I don’t have a dime to my name. I’m job to job.’ It brought a lot of opportunities to the table. And it made me feel like, ‘OK. Yeah. I’m here to stay.’ Until the job ends. And then you’re like, ‘Wait, am I here to stay?’”
Such is life for a working actor.
Call of the stage
When Barnet arrived at Berry as a freshman in fall 2009, he had no plans to pursue acting, at least not openly. His parents were less than enthused when he first voiced an interest in the profession as a young child. An audition verdict of “very shy” not long after only validated their reservations.
He gave it another try after relocating with his mother from his childhood home of Los Angeles to Orlando, Florida, for his adolescent years, but again the experience “didn’t click,” so Barnet focused instead on academics and athletics, knowing he needed all the help he could get to attend college.
The necessary assistance ultimately materialized in the form of Berry’s work-based Gate of Opportunity Scholarship, which opened the door to a wide range of experiences in video production, including work on both sides of the camera that would prove invaluable in his future career.
Still, acting wasn’t at the forefront of his thoughts until the spring of his junior year when a friend announced his intention to audition for a Berry College Theatre Company production. Hearing this, Barnet immediately perked up, declaring out of nowhere, “I’m going to do it too!”
Barnet spent hours researching the role in preparation for his audition, even going so far as to record himself so he could be sure his portrayal was on point, only to arrive late. No matter. He got the part, playing Joe Farkas in the spring 2012 production of The Last Night of Ballyhoo.
Standing on the Berry stage, awash in the adrenaline rush of live theatre, Barnet felt at home. And his childhood dream suddenly seemed very attainable.
“It was the first time I felt like I found something I was truly good at,” he said. “Even though I was new at it, I felt like I had this knack for it, and all I wanted to do was explore it more.”
That summer, he interned at a production company in Los Angeles. When his boss mentioned the prospect of a full-time job after graduation, Barnet declared that he would indeed be returning to L.A. the following summer, but not for a production job. He wanted to be an actor.
Power of persistence
True to his word, Barnet headed west after graduation. In his mind, there was no “Plan B.” As a small boy watching blooper reels of Jim Carrey, he imagined that acting had to be the best job in the world. Now he would find out.
“I was just so dead set on it at that point, and it just clicked,” he said. “To my mom’s chagrin, I did it. But now I think she’s happy I did.”
A Craig’s List search yielded early results in the form of a casting call for extras. He showed up, only to find he didn’t have the $20 fee necessary to sign up. He declared: “I need to go find $20; I will be back tomorrow.”
When Barnet returned, the agency next door invited him in for a quick reading. He wound up signing a contract, a stroke of good fortune he now chalks up to “right place, right time,” adding, “I have friends still struggling to this day to find a representative.”
Even with others working on his behalf, it was a slow go. One minute, he would hear, “You’re amazing!” The next, crickets. Over time, casting directors started to remember him and request that he audition, but there were still more lows than highs.
“I go up to a network to test for a huge pilot; it’s between me and one other guy, and they choose the other guy,” he ruefully recalled. “You get thoughts in your head like, ‘Is it my face? Is it my height? Is it my talent?’ And then you self-destruct. These are the things you need to learn not to do.”
Between casting calls, he did everything he could to make ends meet, working an assortment of odd jobs all over town – manning the front desk at a bike shop, handing out samples at a grocery store, building movie lights in a factory – whatever it took to keep a few dollars in the bank.
While blessed to have family close by, Barnet was careful not to overstay his welcome. Thus, he surfed from couch to couch, living as a self-described “nomad” out of the trunk of his car.
Did he ever have doubts? Absolutely. Yet he pressed forward, encouraged at one point by his still not-quite-convinced mother, who nevertheless told her son, “Darren, I can’t let you give up on something that you haven’t actually tried yet.”
With time and determination, Barnet began to accumulate film and TV credits. One notable breakthrough came in 2017, when he was cast as the younger version of family patriarch Jack Pearson for an episode of the hit NBC drama This Is Us. Later, there was a two-episode turn as the villainous Wilfred ‘Freddy’ Malick on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
These roles and others enabled Barnet to gain a greater foothold in the industry. While growing visibility offered an advantage in the otherwise arduous audition process – which can consist of multiple callbacks, producer/director sessions and chemistry reads with potential castmates – he has never taken anything for granted, bringing the same level of commitment and work-ethic to every opportunity.
Through it all, he has strived to be grateful for his successes while doing his best not to allow setbacks to define his self-worth.
His gratitude overflowed in the days leading up to Never Have I Ever’s 2020 debut. Posting on Instagram, Barnet recalled how he once had to walk a mile to work each day at a bike shop on Sunset Boulevard because he couldn’t afford the parking fee. Along the way, he would look up and see ads for new shows and movies. Now his was among them.
He enthused: “The climb certainly continues but I cannot express what a milestone it is for me to see our show all up and down Sunset today. Thank you to those who encouraged me and also to those who told me to get ‘realistic.’ You’ve all motivated me to do one thing … keep going. I challenge you to do the same. Whatever it is you’re after.”
Three years later, that same sense of appreciation resonates in the way Barnet talks about his career and especially his attitude toward fans.
“Every time a fan comes up for a photo I always say yes, because this person is the reason I have a job,” he said. “I’m so thankful. It takes two seconds of my time to give someone a smile.”
With his most prominent role to date now behind him, Barnet is excited to see what comes next.
Recently, he traveled to the Dominican Republic where he worked with Jake Gyllenhaal and Conor McGregor on a remake of Road House. He’s also been to Budapest, Hungary, to work on Gran Turismo, a racing biopic with Orlando Bloom and David Harbour.
“One minute, you’re sitting there watching a movie with them in it thinking, ‘Man, how cool would it be to work with them?’ And then the next day you’re working with them. It’s insane!” Barnet exclaimed.
In addition to another movie shoot in Australia, he’s also engaged in other high-profile projects such as a promotional partnership with PINK, sister brand of Victoria’s Secret. Barnet’s work as PINK’s first male celebrity ambassador has included promotion of a gender-free collection of lounge/active wear, as well as related mental health awareness initiatives for young adults, a connection he truly appreciates.
Continuing onward, he aspires to even greater heights.
“I want to be leading films,” Barnet stated. “I want to be telling compelling stories that start a conversation, that can be controversial, that can move people, inspire people, whatever it is. I really want to get more into writing.”
One project of particular interest would focus on the life of Charlie Barnet, a famed jazz musician in the 1930s and ’40s who also happens to be his grandfather.
“I’m reading his autobiography right now, which I really want to adapt,” he said.
Like his grandfather, the younger Barnet also has an interest in musical performance – hip-hop specifically – which he hopes to pursue in greater depth. He’d also like to try his hand at directing, having already worked as a producer, among other off-camera roles.
However, his greatest passion remains acting, and he plans to do that as long as he can.
“They say this career is like one in a million,” Barnet said. “But I really feel like if you’re persistent, the odds can be more on your side.”
Overcoming the odds – yet one more thing this dreamer can scratch off his “never have I ever” list.