Mindy Kaling: Force for Funny

She's in the Hollywood vanguard: young, talented and running her own show

Let everyone else complain about not getting their fair share in Hollywood: The success of Mindy Kaling proves you wrong. She acted in, produced, directed and wrote for The Office for eight years before creating her own series, The Mindy Project (at which she was able to add “co-showrunner” and “editor” to the mix), and has established herself as one of the funniest, smartest, take-charge minds in sitcoms today. As The Mindy Project heads into its second season, Kaling, who talked with Randee Dawn for Variety, will take more of a behind-the-scenes breather, preferring to focus on her acting. She’s clearly a multi-talented force to be reckoned with — but will Emmy voters take notice?

Was it particularly taxing to create, showrun and star in your own series? Is that a pace you can keep up?
I started showrunning with Matt Warburton last year, then Jack Burditt came over from 30 Rock about halfway through the year. Next season I’ll still be an executive producer and creator, and have final say — but hopefully it’ll help me be more present on set. I don’t see myself as a showrunner next year. It’ll be great to step back on certain things with Jack taking the reins. Then I can be on set more and get home a little earlier so I can learn lines and get sleep for the next day.

Over at The Office you also had multiple jobs, which makes you a rare woman in this business who’s had access to nearly all rungs of the ladder very early on. Has your gender ever come up as an issue when you wanted to write or produce or direct — or create?
I was very lucky, because there is a sense that it is a male-dominated area, and there are a lot of female writers on The Office. But it’s reductive to say that any male writer has the same demeanor across the board. The writers from The Office were hyper-sensitive sweetheart feminists. So I wasn’t surrounded by a quintessential boys macho club ignoring me. You can generalize about male writers, but I didn’t sense an iota of misogyny on that show.

When you were hiring writers, or taking advice about putting together the show, did you make any special effort to include women in that process?
Sure — Tracey Wigfield is one of my favorite writers on the show. She’s not only a woman but younger than I am. She’s an amazing writer, and people often when they name who inspire or mentor them are older, but I’ve found inspiration from Tracey, Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey. The problem is if you can find a woman you’d like to work with who’s inspiring she’s often the star of her own show and you can’t pull them into your world!
A recent opinion piece in the New York Times Magazine was headlined “Don’t Act Crazy, Mindy,” which referred to the seemingly independent-minded female characters on your show and others as really just being nuts. Is that a fair assessment or an overgeneralization?
I have yet to read that. But I run a comedy show, and comedy characters make big, funny choices and are often flawed. I want to write a character who’s funny and relatable. So I definitely don’t think she’s crazy. She’s nuanced and interesting and flawed just like other people.

There’s a lot of moaning about women not having bigger roles in television, but I don’t hear that from you. Where do you get your confidence from?
I had very supportive parents, which is probably the answer for 90% of people who have to answer that. I am frequently riddled with doubts and worries and anxiety but my character is blissfully self-confident, and I want her to have a learning curve. Getting feedback from smart people is one of the most important things you can do, and I don’t want to ignore that. There were many times this past year where I’d say, “God, I hope I know what I’m doing.”

Your ethnic heritage is Indian; have you ever felt that helped, or even hindered you in this business?
Not particularly. The people who have given me jobs have never expressed that it was the reason they hired me. But they seem to feel I have an interesting point of view for a (writers) room. The male writers get to talk about the characters on a show — and of course the politics of my job, and the way I look is important and shouldn’t be ignored.

Is your success a signal that Hollywood is more egalitarian?
Even 10 years ago I’m not sure this show would have been greenlit. I think it’s really cool that Kevin (Reilly, Fox entertainment chairman) and Fox took a chance on it. Kerry Washington is the star of her own show now (Scandal), and Shonda Rhimes is so responsible for diversity on television — things are changing, even in my old network (NBC) there are so many more Indian people on the comedy shows than when I started. So I think things are changing.

What’s your most enduring memory of your first season running a show, now that all is said and done?
The table read for the finale was pretty great — we’d gotten picked up for another season, so that was an amazing feeling. (Chris Messina) sits next to me at the table reads, and he was crying just a little bit because he felt moved by the experience of the year. That’s really one of my favorite moments, the fact that we could do the show is a dream and then he was crying because he was so moved. I almost cried, too, but he beat me to it.

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