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'You cannot be serious': How John McEnroe landed the unlikeliest role of his career

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If you are over the age of 30, John McEnroe is likely known to you as the infamously brash tennis hall-of-famer — dubbed "Superbrat" in his prime — who now offers his take on the sport as a TV analyst. These days, though, the 62-year-old has taken an unusual career turn as a sage narrator of teen life in Netflix's "Never Have I Ever."

McEnroe has answered the call from Hollywood to play himself before, with appearances in "Mr. Deeds," "Anger Management," "Wimbledon," "30 Rock" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," to name a few. But narrating a coming-of-age comedy co-created by Mindy Kaling, about an Indian American teen named Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) who desperately wants to be popular, lose her virginity and get into her dream college was an unlikely choice. (It becomes less peculiar after it's revealed that Devi's late father was a great admirer of McEnroe.)

Kaling approached McEnroe at a post-Oscars Vanity Fair bash, vaguely pitching the tennis great, whom she'd grown up watching, on the idea of narrating a new series she was working on. ("I remember him being friendly and confused," Kaling says.)

McEnroe video-chatted from London, where he was fulfilling his on-air commentary duties at Wimbledon.

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Q: When Mindy Kaling approached you at the Vanity Fair Oscar party about narrating the point-of-view of an angsty, boy-crazy Indian American teenager, what was your initial reaction?

A: You cannot be serious. But I didn't get the full details. At first, she just said, "(I have) this idea for the show I'm doing and I'd love you to narrate it." Nine times out of 10, it's the last time you'll hear from someone. So when I actually did hear from Mindy and her people, I was pleasantly surprised.

Over the years, people have said to me often: "Oh, I recognize your voice." Years ago, when I was probably 25, I was fed up with being recognized — I know that's sounds terrible — but I wanted to just walk down 5th Avenue. So I wore this Jimi Hendrix-type wig and a beard. And I was at this gallery that sold tapestries and I saw one that I like so I went in and asked, "How much is that tapestry?" And they go, "Are you John McEnroe? I recognize your voice."

I didn't realize until I got into it — I was, like wait a minute: I'm in the head of a high school girl who's Indian American? And I'm supposed to be like her uncle, as well as her psychiatrist, as well as a few other things? And there's a lot of lines? I was happy because I've done a lot of cameos over the years, (which) are fun, but this one seemed like I was actually, in a way, part of the cast.

Q: What made you say yes?

A: I like to try to do things that get you out of your comfort zone a little bit. I've always believed in the theory (that) it's better to try and fail than not try at all. And I thought this was different. I saw one interview on one of those entertainment shows where they were speaking to Maitreyi and they were like, "Have you ever thought about who you'd like as narrator?" And I'm like, "Why the hell are they saying that?" She didn't respond with something like, "Yes, I want Michelle Pfeiffer or I want Mindy Kaling to do it." I suppose, as you get older, at least with me, you learn to appreciate things more. At certain times, I was disappointed in myself that while I was doing what I was doing — and I was even the best at it — I wasn't getting the type of enjoyment I would have liked. So it's nice to sort of do something later on (in life) where you can.

Q: If you could pick, who would be the narrator of your teenage years?

A: Jack Nicholson. He's my favorite actor, so I'd love to hear what his thoughts would be, like (mimicking Nicholson), "Johnny, what are you doing?" He said to me once in the mid-'80s, "Don't change a thing!" And I remember thinking, "Jack Nicholson just told me not to change the thing, and everyone's like, 'He's got to behave better or we're gonna throw him out of the game.'" Who am I gonna listen to: some old guy at the U.S. Tennis Association or Jack Nicholson?

I love "Charlie's Angels." So if we're going to do something completely bizarre or total opposite where it's a girl that's doing teenage John McEnroe thoughts — I mean, it gets complicated with Farrah (Fawcett) because I have a connection. Not that I didn't have her poster on my walls as a kid, but it became bizarre as we got older because we spent a fair amount of time around each other for a while. Jaclyn Smith might have been my favorite. I probably would have thought of someone that was another athlete, like Larry Bird or something, because Larry Bird and I are completely different.

Q: Have you learned anything about your own youthful angst in the process of narrating the series?

A: I don't know if I've learned that much about myself. But it has been interesting to keep an eye on it from a distance — where (the cast members) are headed. Maitreyi, who plays Devi, she never acted professionally and all of a sudden she's doing Mindy Kaling's series. That's big — thousands of people tried out for the role. That's quite the life-changing experience. I don't know where that's gonna lead her. She could win an Academy Award in 10 years for all we know. And that would be, like, from where I began winning Wimbledon and being able to succeed. So, hopefully, the next time they ask her after Season 2, "Hey, do you think there should be another narrator?" she'll say, "No, I think John's pretty good. I want to keep it John because it's working his way. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Q: Would you say the John McEnroe of today is calmer?

A: I'm definitely better at taking the deep breath. That doesn't mean I don't fly off the handle at times. I was so impatient with everything (when I was younger): "Why did you say my name that way?!" In the warm-up, I'd be so amped up. When you walk on a court, it's like a lion in a cage — you're letting them out, that's the idea to me. You come in with such an intensity. Because it's not like I blow people over with how strong I am or how tall I am. You've got to bring something to the table. And I think what I brought was an energy and an intensity that you sort of like build the whole day and then you let it out. That's why I got myself in trouble, because if you said hello to me the wrong way, I'd tear your head off.

 

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