Darren Barnet is more than just the heartthrob du jour

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

Getting famous is weird. Getting famous practically overnight is even weirder. But getting famous practically overnight amidst a global pandemic? It’s an experience all too familiar for actor Darren Barnet. His breakout role as Paxton Hall-Yoshida on the hit Netflix series Never Have I Ever has gained him a loyal and effusive fanbase while also earning him much-coveted Hollywood heartthrob status. It’s a title he calls flattering — ”who would be mad about that?” he says with a shy laugh — though he says he welcomes roles that allow audiences to see a more gritty side. “I’m excited that I’ve established this, showing people I can do the heartthrob thing, but I’m eager to show people that I can also go in a completely opposite direction.”

And though he’s got more rom-coms in his future (the upcoming Love Hard will see him play opposite Nina Dobrev), he’s also got some more haunting projects in the works, like Apophenia, an upcoming psychological thriller in which he plays a character he describes as a complete maniac.

That, and he has the just-dropped second season of Never Have I Ever, which sees his character, Paxton, sidelined from the swim team due to an unexpected injury and thus forced to confront who he is outside of his athletic achievements. Unlike Paxton, Barnet considers himself a shy guy who is still adjusting to his newfound fame. “When it happened [at the beginning of quarantine], not much changed about my life because I was in sweatpants on my couch eating breakfast the day before the show dropped, and then a week after, I was doing the same thing. I didn’t get that rush of fame and notoriety. Not to say I don’t welcome that, and I think it’s super cool when fans come up and ask for pictures, but it was a much more gradual introduction to that, which I think was probably better for me.”

Below, Barnet chats about growing up in a single-parent, low-income household, his run-in with Common before the two appeared together on the same series and why social media isn’t his thing.

I want to start off by digging into your early life. How would those that knew you then describe young Darren?

I had a very, very shy side as a kid, but also a very zany side. I always loved impersonating characters, especially those by the beloved Jim Carey. I think some may have just plain out called me weird because I would get obsessed with like one noise or one catchphrase and go around saying it a million times. So I’d say shy but with the crazy side.

So shy, but you chose to get into acting, which is actually interesting. ‘Cause I feel like that is the trajectory of a lot of kids that start off shy and kind of find acting as a way to get out of their shell. Do you remember when the acting bug first hit you?

I was about 5 years old. I was a huge fan of Jim Carrey, and I watched blooper reels of a lot of his films, and it just looked like so much fun. But both of my parents were not very excited about that idea, especially growing up in L.A., where you have a lot of people that have kids that are actors, and how that can be very detrimental to their wellbeing and mental health sometimes because of how cutthroat the industry is. I remember my dad took me to an agent and was like, “Look, we’ll take you to an agent, and we’ll see what she says, and whatever she says goes.” And the agent said I was too shy, so I kind of put it on the back burner for a very, very long time. Then I went to college and got my degree and started doing theater at the end of my time there and got bit by the bug all over again. When I graduated, my mom was like, “What are you going to do?” And I was like, “Well, I’m going to go do exactly what you kinda never wanted me to do, and that’s chase my dream.” And I’m very happy I did. And I think she is too.

You mentioned those perceptions that your parents had of Hollywood and the mental health impact it can have on a young actor, especially just dealing with rejections that the industry serves up. Those don’t go away, even in adulthood. What has it been like for you to get famous very quickly from the mental health perspective?

I try and realize that you’re never going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and you’re never going to please everyone. And that’s not just with acting — that’s in relationships and with anything in life. I think a lot of people have to learn that because that pursuit is an impossible one. And it’s finding comfortability in your own skin and love for yourself, and not for what people expect or want you to be. So you really have to take time for yourself and realize you’re not a machine, you are not at anyone’s expense, and you don’t have to live up to anyone’s expectation other than your own. So, set your expectations high and then love yourself.

You moved from Los Angeles to Orlando at 12 years old, which I imagine is a tough move at such a formative age, especially when you’re just beginning to form meaningful friendships. What was that like for you?

It was pretty insane. My dad had been in a car accident when I was in fifth grade and then was diagnosed with cancer and then given three years to live. It was an eye-opening moment at a very young age where I had to grow up pretty quick. And on top of it all, we were dealing with other family trauma and things at that time that kind of drove me and my mom out of L.A. She was very much struggling to find work, and we were very low income and having to pay for my dad’s surgeries and things like that. Eventually, my mom found a job in Orlando, of all places, and it seemed kind of like a fresh start. 

You mention growing up in a low-income home. What is it like for you now to be able to financially support yourself and have the financial security that you didn’t have growing up?

The first thing I did was just pay off debt. I didn’t buy anything fancy. I still don’t really treat myself much. Even though I have good means right now, to an end, and even some money to play with, it’s a mindset that I still have, and I’m trying to break, that I’m broke. I’m just so used to being broke that it doesn’t feel much different because I think when it comes so quick, you’re afraid that you’ll lose it just as quick. So I’m just doing my best to be very smart with it but also understand that I deserve to treat myself a little bit and treat those around me. And that’s something I’m becoming more comfortable with, because I still don’t think I understand exactly the position I’m in and hopefully will continue to be in. So I’m just trying to break the mindset that I’m … [laughs] that I’m broke.

When you first got to California, you started working at SoulCycle as a bike attendant prior to booking work as an actor. What is your fondest memory of your time there?

I would park a mile away from work and walk down Sunset Boulevard because I didn’t want to pay the $3 parking fee per day. Fifteen bucks a week was a lot for me at that point. And I’d be walking down Sunset and see all these billboards and just think about how cool it would be to be in a show where I saw my show advertised on a billboard. And I go into work one day, and I see Common in his car when I’m about to go in. I’m a huge fan of Common, so I pat my chest and wave my hand just like, “respect to you,” and he does it back, and I felt so cool. Flash forward six years: I’m driving down Sunset, and there are billboards with my actual face on it, and Common is now an actor in my show. It’s totally surreal.

Speaking of Never Have I Ever, what is it like to be a part of a show created by two women, one of whom is a woman of color, that has this multicultural cast at the center of it all? I think one of the things resonating most about this show is that so many people can watch it and see some part of themselves represented on screen.

It’s been a true treat because this show, it’s not just ethnically diverse; it’s diverse in the topics and issues that it touches upon. I think it does it in such an organic way because it does it gently, but it also does it with comedy, which is a very hard thing to do. It’s very hard to take real issues and somehow have comedy intertwined with it. And what I think makes that appealing is that it really replicates real life a lot more. You watch some shows, and it’s all about drama and the dramatic music and the dramatic culmination, but in real life, sometimes things get so bad that you have to find a way to laugh at it. And there’s tragedy in that, sometimes even more than crying. So I think it relates to real life a little bit more. I think that’s what makes it relatable to a lot of people.

I read that aspects of your Japanese identity were incorporated into the character after Mindy and Lang heard you speaking Japanese to an AD on set. Can you tell me more about that?

Yeah. Our AD was named Yuko Ogata, and I knew that was a Japanese name. And I asked her if she spoke Japanese, and she said yes, so we just started conversing as best I can. I always like to practice it if I meet someone that can speak it. And our costume designer, Sal Perez, I believe is the one that recognized it, and he told Mindy and Lang about it. So they approached me and asked me if I was part Japanese and asked if I minded if we make my character, Paxton, match my ethnicity. I was overjoyed by it, and I think it’s provided a really cool story arc that I’ve been super proud to represent.

I know you aren’t a big fan of social media, despite being quite popular on there. I feel like this is quite the opposite mode of thinking in comparison to a lot of your Hollywood contemporaries. What don’t you love about it? 

I’ve felt the pressure, but I never think I would give into it. I’m a huge admirer of some parts of old, classic Hollywood. I think mystery is very valuable, and I look back at the days where people would be enamored by a certain celebrity, but they would either have to wait to see them on screen or randomly pop up on a talk show, and as a result, I think people were a lot more invested in them. They didn’t feel like they already knew everything about them. And I feel like, with social media, I understand that it can make fans feel closer and feel like they know you, and that’s cool in a certain way, but I also think there’s a downfall to that because people then think they know you. Everyone’s showing their exclamation points of their life on social media, but they’re not showing the periods, the commas, the question marks, all of the other elements of it. And I think it makes people sometimes expect that of you all the time, and I don’t think anybody owes anyone that.

You are both producing and acting in the upcoming Apophenia. What can you tell us about that film and your role in it? And what has it been like producing your own work?

Producing and starring in a film is nothing I recommend to anyone, especially a role as demanding as this one because it is a psycho-thriller. It’s a very tortured character. He’s dealing with very serious mental illness, so that’s been something I’ve had to heavily research and fill my head with. But it was also a great process because I made this movie with two of my best friends. We were planning on doing it on iPhones and just being creative during quarantine, but then the script got passed around and got a lot of positive feedback, so we decided to make a real film. It was the most exhausting process I’ve ever been through in the creative sphere, but I am so happy I did it because I really think if I can handle that, I can handle anything.

If you enjoyed this article, check out Evan Ross Katz’s piece on the upcoming ‘Sex and the City’ reboot.