Meet Asian American heartthrob Darren Barnet, Internet's new crush


Darren Barnet was born in Los Angeles to a Swedish-Japanese mother and German-Cherokee Indian father. Photo: Handout

After playing the object of a teenage crush in the romantic comedy Never Have I Ever, Darren Barnet was promptly pronounced as the Internet's newest crush. But the Japanese-American actor, who also stars in the final season of superhero show Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to be more than just a heartthrob.

1. Official heartthrob status

Released on Netflix in April, the rom-com series Never Have I Ever was the actor's big breakout. Created by actress and writer Mindy Kaling (The Office, 2005 to 2013), it casts Barnet, 29, as Paxton Hall-Yoshida, the boy that heroine Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) has a crush on.

The show won over many viewers and critics, who praised its humour and inclusiveness.

In a telephone call from his Los Angeles home, Barnet says the creators were "very strategic in how they touched on so many different issues - diversity, ethnicity, sexuality, religion - but they did it without being preachy".

"Devi is Indian but that's not her whole identity. It is prominent but that's not the whole show. It's mixed with humour and touches every part of your heart, and I think that's why people gravitated towards it."

2. Moshi, moshi

"I was speaking Japanese with our assistant director, Yuko (Ogata), and our wardrobe designer caught wind of it and told Mindy and (co-creator) Lang Fisher," says Barnet, who was born in Los Angeles to a Swedish-Japanese mother and German-Cherokee Indian father.

"Lang came up to me and said, 'Do you mind if we make your character match your ethnicity?', and that's how Paxton Hall-Yoshida was born."

How good is his Japanese? "Growing up, my grandmother taught me how to count and say hello, then I took it in school for two years.

"It's difficult to practise so I'm at less than conversational level now, but it would be pretty quick for me to get it back because I have a good foundation."

The star has never been to Japan but desperately wants to. "I can't wait to travel there and meet the relatives I have all over the country."

3. Mysterious character

Barnet appears in the seventh and final season of the show, which is about a law-enforcement agency dealing with superhuman and paranormal threats. The series sees the agents travel back in time to 1930s New York, where they meet Freddy Malick (Barnet), a man who may hold the key to the world's fate.

The part was a dream come true for the actor. "It was the biggest role I'd ever done at the time, and it didn't really hit me till my first episode aired and I saw the word 'Marvel' and my name on screen."

4. Family history

Barnet dove headfirst into preparing for the Marvel series. "It's the most research I've ever done for a part and it allowed me tap some of my lineage. My grandfather, Charlie Barnet, was a big swing musician in the 1930s and 40s, and I created a Pandora station with his music that I played every day as I got into character.

"I also looked up old films and interviews to get the 1930s New York-slash-mid-Atlantic dialect down. It was really fun."

5. Role model

Barnet is mindful of the fact that his "fan base is mainly young women", and wants to set a good example. "As a guy, the main thing is being a gentleman and trying to uplift women. I was raised in a house full of women and nothing makes me angrier than men thinking they are better than women or putting them down," he says.

When it comes to his mixed ethnicity, Barnet admits it "used to be something I was self-conscious about - that I don't really fit into any box".

"People assume I'm so many things - part-Hispanic, part-Asian or part-Middle Eastern. But that means I can audition for lots of different roles, so I regard it as almost a superpower."

At first, he was worried about representing Japanese Americans on screen. "I thought people would go, 'They had a part-Japanese character and this is the guy they chose? He's not Japanese enough'."

Then he realised what it meant for viewers who, like him, grew up in more than one culture. "Because that's a pocket of people I think is under-represented too." – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

Never Have I Ever is available on Netflix. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. S7 airs every Thursday at 9pm Fox (Astro Ch 704/unifi TV Ch 453).

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