Never Have I Ever's Darren Barnet on Mindy Kaling, Fan DMs and Dating in Quarantine

"I keep saying Valentine's Day is going to be very expensive," the 29-year-old actor tells PEOPLE

Darren Barnet
Photo: Brad Everett Young

Chances are, if you don’t know Darren Barnet’s name, you’ve seen his face — the 29-year-old actor’s chiseled grin has flooded social media feeds since the release of Never Have I Ever, Mindy Kaling’s coming-of-age comedy.

Barnet’s role — he plays Paxton Hall-Yoshida, the jock with a heart of a gold — quickly earned him a reputation as “the Internet’s new boyfriend," and his follower count on Instagram has shot up to 1.3 million. And yes, fans DM him the wildest pick-up lines. “I keep saying Valentine’s Day is going to be very expensive,” he jokes toPEOPLE.

Never Have I Ever is the Los Angeles native’s biggest project to date. He’s also played a young Jack in This Is Us and picked up a recurring guest role as Freddy Malick in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Before, he was booking one-off acting gigs while working at SoulCycle in Hollywood and greeting the studio’s famous clientele, including soccer star David Beckham and actress Tia Mowry.

“Meeting them in gym shorts and no makeup, in a very vulnerable way, I wasn’t as intimidated as I thought I’d be,” he tells PEOPLE. “Their levels of success as actors didn’t seem so far away from me when I met them in such a humble environment.”

Below, Barnet talks Never Have I Ever, dating during quarantine and what fans can expect next.

How are you holding up during this quarantine? What have you been doing to stay busy?

Oh man, I've been trying to watch a lot of movies and films I haven't seen for enjoyment but also for studying purposes. I just finished Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I think I learn a lot when I watch other actors. Right now I’m quarantining alone. I’ve been trying to maintain some type of structured routine of exercising and chatting with friends and family, also doing a little painting and writing. I’ve been taking up cooking more, too, which has been great.

What’s been your reaction to the overwhelmingly positive response to Never Have I Ever?

I'm thrilled. I'm humbled and honored. I didn't expect my character to be such a focal point. I knew the show was going to do well, I mean it's Mindy Kaling! Her writing and creative mind is awesome. But I don't know if I expected all the attention around my character because I didn't feel like I was in the show that much when we were filming. I was like, "Oh, I'm one of the smaller characters." So I've been really thrilled that I did enough with him to make him more than just the jock heartthrob. And I think that's kind of why a lot of people are gravitating towards him. So I'm happy with that.

Never Have I Ever has also been praised for its diverse casting and highlighting issues like race, culture, mental health, sexuality and more. How could other TV and film projects follow their example?

So many shows lose me as an audience because they become so preachy and on the nose. They take a protagonist and they define them by their struggle, whereas I don't think anyone in life is merely defined by their struggle of being a minority, their sexual orientation or their mental illness. I think comedy replicates life a little bit more than drama does. There are things that we all go through, but we learn to laugh about a lot of them and brush it off. There are also very serious issues tackled in the show, but it's not so on the nose and preachy that it just defines everyone. So I think that's a little note that everyone can take, that in real life there's no person, I believe, that is fully defined by their struggle.

Darren Barnet
Brad Everett Young

How did your character, Paxton, evolve once you signed on to the role?

He was a little bit more surface-level when I first read him. I ran with that and tried to formulate his arc in a way that gave him layers; it was almost a slow burn with him. His name was also Paxton Hall originally, but one day I was speaking in Japanese with our assistant director, Yuko Ogata. Mindy and the team got wind of it and asked me, “Hey, are you part Japanese?” I was like, "Yeah," and they go, “You speak Japanese?" I was like, “Yeah, you know, a little bit.” And then they were like, “Great, can we make your character Japanese?” So they made him Paxton Hall-Yoshida.

It's something I can relate to, I've always been guessed for some type of ambiguous [ethnicity], you know, half this, half that. So it's interesting playing my own ethnicity and truthfully enough where even those closest to me are like, “Wait, you're Asian?!" and I have to tell them, “Yeah.” So it was a lot of fun to play with that.

Living in Los Angeles, have you had any wild celebrity interactions?

I was at 1OAK nightclub on Sunset Boulevard, sitting at a table and I felt someone jump down into the seat next to me. I look up, and it’s Jim Carrey. He’s looking down at me, waving, and I’m thinking, “What is going on?” Mind you, it’s a nightclub, so we can’t really talk, right? So we chatted for a good five, 10, minutes. He’s brilliant. I told him he’s been a huge inspiration to me, he’s one of the reasons I wanted to get into acting. He looks at me, very Jim Carrey-like, and goes, “You’re an actor?” and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s the plan.” And he goes: “Just find your color of the rainbow, man!” Then he just gets up and dances away. Disappears into a crowd of people. I doubt he remembers me, but one day when I meet him again, I will definitely bring it up.

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Are you single? Have people been sliding into your DMS with more regularity since Never Have I Ever dropped? How are you navigating the quarantine dating scene?

Yes, and it has been interesting. Some people are just shameless, absolutely shameless. Most of them are really sweet, complimenting the show and my acting and I love that, I always try to respond. But yes, there have been the occasional, “Get naked or I’m unfollowing you” message. I've never really been on dating apps and don't know if I’ll ever be. It seems like kind of an empty pursuit. Like you're cute, swipe left. You're not cute, swipe right. And I think, “But maybe she was nice.” Times are rough. Maybe I'll do it one day. I'm not going to knock it for anybody that does do it, because some people find love and it's real. It just seems like a lot of work to me.

Next you’ll star in the latest American Pie film, American Pie Presents: Girls’ Rules. How does the film take inspiration from others in the franchise? What was it like working with [co-star] Madison Pettis?

It was a lot of fun, it replicates the point of the first film but from a female-driven perspective. It shows another side of young, teenage girls. A lot of people don't realize that they can be just as bold, vulgar and think about sex just as much as guys. Madison is an absolute sweetheart. She’s obviously gorgeous and very talented; there was never a moment of discomfort. We still DM and joke around a lot. She'll be at the pool in her bikini and I’ll joke around like a big brother and say, “Put on a sweater or I'm telling your mom!”

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