When he’s not filming scenes in Malibu at 5 a.m. or sleepily finishing math homework in the library at 3 a.m., Jaren Lewison is likely hanging out with his friends at University of Southern California Hillel.
Lewison, 19, a full-time freshman studying psychology, secured his breakout role in Netflix’s new hit sitcom “Never Have I Ever” earlier this year. Lewison plays Ben Gross, a classic overachiever who secretly just wants to make some friends. The coolest part: Ben is a nice Jewish boy, just like Lewison.
Now that the first season of “Never Have I Ever” has been released and Lewison is finishing the school year online from Dallas, he took some time to chat with Hillel News. Here are the highlights from our conversation:
You’ve been acting since you were a child. What drew you to that field?
I think I’ve always just really loved performing and entertaining people. At family functions, I would always be the one to try and do impressions, even as a little kid. I don’t really remember an age where I didn’t want to be an actor. It’s kind of always been a part of my life, and my parents were always supportive in whatever I wanted to do and helped me pursue my passions.
Growing up, what was your Jewish experience like?
I went to a conservative Jewish day school until I was 14. It was a great community for me. Being Jewish and growing up Jewish was very important to me and it still is, which is why I’m involved at USC Hillel. I always feel a little bit more comfortable meeting strangers who are Jewish because you somehow know them, and you’re probably related to them or you know someone who is related to them, so it’s like they’re not really strangers.
Identity and learning to appreciate your heritage are major themes in “Never Have I Ever.” How did your own Jewish identity impact the way you played Ben and explore these themes?
Growing up Jewish, and especially going to a Jewish school, taught me to be very proud of who I was. I think that’s one of the big overarching themes in “Never Have I Ever,” embracing your culture and embracing your own background and learning to appreciate others as well. In the show, we have the Jewish aspect, representation of Tamil culture and a Japanese character. We get to see the beauty of all different types of cultures, which sometimes we don’t get to see readily, especially on TV and film. There aren’t tons of Jewish characters freely available, so to be able to portray one and represent that side of my life is so much fun. We wanted to make sure it felt honest and real, because that’s how you get something people really relate to.
What was your favorite part of working on “Never Have I Ever?”
It all felt like a dream. I was a random, normal kid from Texas two months before we started shooting. Every day, I was driving to work pinching myself to remind me this was real. Getting to work with such talented people who are so professional, focused, creative, intelligent and kind, that’s every actor's dream. Being part of a show that is diverse and inclusive and means so much to people, it’s a dream to start my career like that.
How did you balance being a full-time student while also filming a TV show?
It was just about taking responsibility and being disciplined, and it was a lot of not sleeping. I remember one night where I got home from shooting and I had homework due the next day for my math class at 8 a.m. There’s a picture of me on my phone walking into the library and it’s got a timestamp of like 2:30 a.m. and a caption of me saying “Welp, time to start my math homework!” Looking back, I wonder how I wasn’t exhausted all the time. I guess when you’re living your dreams, you just have a different energy.
What programs have you participated in at USC Hillel?
We have a big program at USC Hillel called Fresh Fest. It’s a program that connects Jewish Trojans before the school year starts so that you can start building a Jewish community at USC. We go to a camp and do a bunch of activities and the counselors are called FEFs, meaning first-year engagement fellows. This year, I’m going to be a FEF. It’s a really great program, it actually helped me find three of my best friends. It gives you a place to go and a community to have and when everyone comes to Shabbat dinner, you don’t worry about who you’re going to sit with. You also have the ability to chat with your FEFs, who are current students, and they can give you advice throughout the school year.
Have you been involved in any virtual Hillel programs while in quarantine?
My best friends and I did a trivia night with USC Hillel. I didn’t win, unfortunately, but it was a blast. They had a bunch of questions on Israel — Israeli culture, Israeli politics, Israeli facts. We’ve also had orientation stuff for Fresh Fest FEFs where we’ve gotten to brainstorm about what Fresh Fest is going to look like this year, and it’s worked out really well.
What do you see happening in your future — more acting or work in psychology? Or both?
Acting has always been what makes me the happiest. I know the cliche is, “When you’re working and it doesn’t feel like work, you know that you’ve found your path.” But honestly, this show really proved this to me. There was a day when we were in Malibu at 5 a.m., and I hate mornings, but when I’m working, it could be 3, 4, 5 a.m. and I will always have energy and a smile on my face.
The reason that I chose to be a psychology major is because I felt like it would help me with characters, understanding the way they think, creating their world and relationships with other people and how they would approach specific situations. Acting is definitely the path that I want to continue going on. I guess we’ll see where everything goes from here.