FLARE’s October Cover Star Is… Mindy Kaling!
With zero Hollywood connections, Mindy Kaling wrote her own script, rising through the ranks on The Office and then creating a sitcom for herself. The Mindy Project star sits down with Maureen Halushak to discuss sexism, selfishness and the single life
It’s 8:30 on a Thursday morning and Mindy Kaling is looking boss: black blazer, navy-and-white-striped T, black shorts embellished with gold sequined fleurs-de-lys—a far cry from the Rainbow Brite separates she wears as hot mess Mindy Lahiri on her slavishly watched sitcom, The Mindy Project.
And then, shortly after we take our seats … “This is fruitless! Why is this so hard?!” Kaling is struggling to remove her blazer, but one arm is stuck in a sleeve. I freeze for a few seconds, unsure of how to proceed. I feel as though I know Mindys Kaling and Lahiri intimately well, thanks to the former’s bestselling memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (a second installment is to be published next year) and the latter’s television series about a love-obsessed OB/GYN (its third season debuts Sept. 18 on City). I almost reach out and pull her arm through, but then realize it’s way too soon to get feely. Thankfully, Kaling successfully extracts herself—“25 years later!”—and we turn our attention to a menu of $22 egg dishes.
In the lead-up to a Celebrity Interview, much of the anxiety is logistical: Will my flight be on time? Will my alarm go off? Will I meet The Celebrity at the designated time and place, and successfully record The Interview without a colossal c-ck-up? In the case of Kaling, who exudes such an everywoman realness that she is considered a spirit animal among urban working females aged 20 to 40, there was one additional concern: What if she’s actually a total bitch?
Reader, she is not. Over a breakfast burrito for her, eggs for me and “bacon for two,” as our waiter puts it, I discover that 35-year-old Kaling is the stuff of her diehard fans’ fantasies: a smart, work-around-the-clock professional who also loves Style.com slide shows and “talking about guys.” In other words, she is us, except for the fact that she runs the show, literally, having written and starred in nearly 50 episodes of The Mindy Project, which she created after an eight-year stint as a writer, actor and producer on The Office, for which she earned six Emmy nominations.
Just how comfortable is the world with the idea of a powerful woman who can also passionately discuss, as we do, her quest for “lingerie that’s not simply for pre-sex occasions”? Not very, according to a Politico article that went viral this past July, which decried how women’s magazines profile high-ranking females, focusing on “trite obsessions with clothes, hair, childcare choices and exercise routines.” In response, Alyssa Mastromonaco, former deputy chief of staff for President Obama, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post in which she declared: “Is it so inconceivable that a smart, accomplished woman would have both the latest issue of The Economist and the second season of The Mindy Project downloaded on her iPad?”
“I thought that Politico article was very incorrect in many ways—the assumption that you’re seen as weak if you have any interests outside of professional ones,” says Kaling. “That’s not what any real person is like. But it’s become the new Are women funny?”
In a way, The Mindy Project is Kaling’s rebuttal to both of these click-bait debates: it’s pretty hilarious and also undeniably pretty—Mindy’s clothes! Mindy’s apartment! Mindy’s office! (“Whenever I walk in there,” Kaling says, “I think, Man, I wish my OB/GYN had an office like that.”) It’s a romantic comedy determined to upend romcom clichés—attempting to join the mile-high club results in your partner accidentally flushing your hair down the toilet, a Valentine’s Day date to the Empire State Building concludes with your new boyfriend realizing he’s in love with someone else—while still offering the daydream factor of a slack work schedule and a ludicrous apartment. “I think sometimes our show is seen as breezier than it is, because it looks beautiful and the people are dressed really well,” says Kaling, swiping a piece of bacon from our communal plate. “On a lot of shows, the aesthetic is kind of cruddy, which seems to equal really funny, which I don’t think is correct. If you’re looking for this vérité thing, watch a documentary.”
After picking at her burrito, Kaling reaches for the sugar bowl and digs out a cube: “This is far more delicious than my breakfast.” Mainlining sugar is just one of the character quirks she shares with her on-screen doppelgänger. “Mindy Lahiri is a heightened version of Mindy Kaling—they’re both very confident, very successful single women who have high-powered jobs, except Mindy is a boy-crazy maniac who doesn’t vote and spends most of her paycheques on emojis,” says Tracey Wigfield, an Emmy-winning former 30 Rock writer who joined The Mindy Project midway through season one. On her first day, in a scene that could have occurred on either show, Wigfield accidentally walked in on Kaling in the washroom, mid-pee. “We got along famously after that. Mindy is so disarming and easy to know. She treats everyone like her best girlfriend from college, whether it’s me or the hair and makeup ladies,” says Wigfield. “But she is a leader. She is super-decisive and knows exactly what she wants.”
Wigfield is one of nine writers—four women, five men—on the show who have the unique task of writing for a batsh-t-crazy character who’s not-so-loosely based on their boss. “Like the best comediennes, Mindy is so willing to make herself look like a fool,” she says. “But we need to make sure she’s still a likable person and not sell out the character.” Likability has been an issue: early viewer feedback indicated that some people found Lahiri unappealing. “I don’t think about it a ton, but I was surprised by how much not just men but also women felt like they wanted her to be less selfish,” says Kaling. “Because the show has this romantic aspect to it, Mindy Lahiri can’t be as edgy as I thought at the beginning.”
This has got to be frustrating in a world where a character like Kenny Powers—the drug-addled, family-abandoning ex–baseball player protagonist of HBO’s Eastbound and Down—can skate through four seasons with unmitigated awfulness. “Hopefully,” Wigfield says, “we’ll get to a point in time where we can have female antiheroes.”
That said, both Eastbound and Mindy share low-ish ratings and an absence of Emmy nods. “I come from a hit show, and I am competitive and I am a perfectionist. So for me, ratings do count,” says Kaling. “Wednesday mornings, I always check, and it affects my demeanour for a while.” For season three, Fox has ordered fewer episodes—15 as opposed to two dozen—but Kaling has no plans to change her course. “Whether it stays on the air or it doesn’t, I want to feel like it’s my show.” (Case in point: despite Lahiri’s profession, Kaling has no plans to address the American right’s current war on abortion: “It would be demeaning to the topic to talk about it in a half-hour sitcom.”) Her conviction is admirable, though Kaling—whom some critics have accused of overconfidence—notes that there’s a double standard at play: “Of course I’m riddled with doubts like every other creative, neurotic person, but if you don’t display them all the time, you’re seen as overconfident,” she says. “I’ve worked in television for 10 years straight. If I were a man, it wouldn’t be considered strange [to have confidence] at all.”
Like many children of immigrants, Kaling credits her parents for instilling a killer work ethic—and a sense of possibility. “Maybe because they worked so back-breakingly hard for so long, and travelled so many continents to get here for me, I think they thought, You can do anything!” she says. “I’m not going to travel any continents or anything, but in my career, well, maybe I can do anything.”
Former Office co-star Ellie Kemper says that “anything” includes being an all-star friend. “Mindy Kaling is one of the busiest people on earth, and is invariably the first person to RSVP or write a thank-you note,” she says. “That woman was raised with class.”
Kaling was born in Cambridge, Mass., to Swati, an OB/ GYN, and Avu, an architect. Her Indian parents met cute in Nigeria (she was working at a hospital he had designed) and immigrated to the U.S. with their son, Vijay, in 1979, shortly before Kaling was born. After studying theatre at Dartmouth College, Kaling moved to New York City and worked as a babysitter and production assistant before co-writing the two-woman play that would change her life. Matt & Ben, based on the friendship between Damon and Affleck (Kaling played the latter) led to a pilot deal for Kaling and her best friend/co-writer, Brenda Withers. The pilot forced the pair to move from NYC to L.A. but ultimately led nowhere; Kaling, then 24, landed a gig on The Office instead.
During her time there, she befriended another up-and-coming boss: Lena Dunham. The Girls creator recalls, “She reached out to me, which she so didn’t have to do, and took me out to dinner at her favourite Ethiopian restaurant, which has since become my favourite Ethiopian restaurant. I had never been in a writers’ room before, and she talked to me about the process and its joys and maddening moments.”
Mindy Lahiri’s on-off-on relationship with fellow OB/GYN Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) is foreshadowed in the ever-changing f-ck-marry-kill dynamic that existed between Kaling’s Office character, Kelly Kapoor, and Ryan Howard, played by Office writer, former boyfriend and current best friend and collaborator B. J. Novak. “Episode to episode, Kelly and Ryan could be madly in love or they could be hating each other, and it was the biggest drama in the world for them,” she says. I wonder if Kaling—who’s currently “dating a couple of different guys”—craves drama in her real-life dealings, too. “I come from a family where my parents were madly in love with each other, but we were one of these loud, ethnic families,” she tells me. “It would always seem like everyone was screaming, but there never was that peril that anyone was not going to get along. Friends would come over and they would be like, ‘Oh, you’re war-torn,’ and I would be like, ‘No, this is just how we interact.’”
It’s also how Lahiri and Castellano interact, reading Bridget Jones’s Diary in bed together one episode, breaking glasses and breaking up the next, until—spoiler alert (a phrase Kaling detests)—they end up together in the season two finale. At first, this seems entirely cliché. Of course they become a couple. Kaling convinces me otherwise: “In romantic comedy, everything ends when the characters get together,” she says. “But there are so many fun struggles that exist afterward. I really wanted to explore that. A lot of shows do it and it sucks, but these characters are so different that I think people are going to be excited about what we do.” One thing viewers will notice about season three is that it’s a lot more … sexual. “It’s absolutely crazy,” says Kaling, with relish. One shot taken on set and posted on her Facebook shows her in a hot pink negligee, straddling Messina.
While Kaling hopes more viewers will tune in to season three, above all she wishes her mom could see the show. Swati died of pancreatic cancer in 2012, on the same day her daughter learned that Fox had picked up the first season of Mindy. “She would love the clothes so much,” says Kaling, her eyes lighting up. “I had zero rebellion against my mother. I was terrified of her, and I thought she was very glamorous, and I just wanted to emulate her all the time.” She describes Swati’s style as colourful and tailored, and says her mom placed a premium on looking put together—something she “very much” inherited.
“I love clothing so much; it almost scares me sometimes,” she says, noting she had 23 outfit changes in Mindy’s 22-minute season-two finale. In real life, Kaling prefers everyday dressing to special occasion: “Whoever said, ‘Anyone can wear a dress, it’s how you dress during the day that matters’—I really believe that.” She loves online shopping (“I do tons, and then massive returns”), has never attended a runway show—though she has hilariously faux-tweeted as though she were at New York Fashion Week—and calls her attendance at the 2013 Met Ball “a little intimidating”: “I lost a ring I [had borrowed] that was incredibly expensive, so that was kind of the worst,” she says (it was never found, despite the fact Kaling returned to the venue the next day to look for it). She wore a custom Lela Rose that night; she also loves Miu Miu, Missoni and Peter Pilotto for statement dressing (“but every time I’ve worn Pilotto, I feel like people don’t understand it”) and, for everyday, Rag & Bone, Vince, Opening Ceremony and Emma Cook. She prefers to style herself when she has the time, but hires L.A.-by-way-of-Toronto stylist Hayley Atkin for special events and press trips. “If you love fashion and you’re not skinny and something fits you, most stylists are like, ‘That’s great for you,’ and it sucks,” she says. “I have my own taste and I want to try weird stuff and Hayley’s not going to put me in a fuchsia shift just because it fits me and hides my quote-unquote problem areas.
Kaling recently turned 35 and says she “wasn’t stressed remotely” about this semi-milestone. “Though this has been the first year I realized that if I want to have three kids, I need to get going.” As for the different guys she’s dating? “It’s never been the case before,” says Kaling, who swears she knows fewer men by name than her alter ego has dated in one season. “I’m assuming it will all go away, or one guy will be persistent and it will work itself out.”
Our 8:30 breakfast is now veering into 10 o’clock territory, and Kaling needs to get to work. “In my 20s, I was not only boy crazy, but marriage and relationship crazy,” she tells me as I grab the bill (“Are you taking me out? I have money!”). “Now it’s almost the opposite. My work is so rewarding and I’m so self-centred about it that I’m kind of excited about not having to go home and ask someone about their day.”