Even on her third TV series, Mindy Kaling still finds herself learning on the job.
Kaling spent a better part of the last six years playing the loud and wildly outspoken Mindy Lahiri on “The Mindy Project,” who was known for her sharply outrageous and often narcissistic one-liners (A classic example: “It’s so weird being my own role model.”)
So when it came time to write “Champions,” Kaling and co-creator Charlie Grandy tried to inject Mindy Lahiri’s signature self-assurance into the show’s lead, played by Anders Holm.
The only problem? While it was delightfully charming on “The Mindy Project,” the overconfidence didn’t exactly translate well coming from a straight white male.
“Me and Charlie were like, ‘Oh, wow. Some of the things I used to get away with saying, Anders Holm would not be able to say,'” she tells Variety. “We had to do a quick reshuffling of things when that happened.”
Quickly enough, Kaling says, the writing staff of “Champions” was able to find the right voice for Holm and his co-stars J.J. Totah, Andy Favreau, and Fortune Feimster.
Here, Kaling talks with Variety about her role in potential upcoming seasons, conversations in the writers’ room, and why she doesn’t plan on directing just yet.
What has been the biggest learning curve on “Champions” compared to your experiences on “The Mindy Project”?
Mindy Lahiri would say such crazy things and such questionable things, and when it comes from my mouth, when you’re a 5’3″ Indian American woman with dark skin, it has a very different impact than when it comes from a white man that’s 6’3″. The way that it looks on camera is very different — the level of privilege. How things come across is just completely different. I had to write things that were more palatable coming from his mouth.
Was that something you realized while you were writing it or while you were filming it?
It was while we were filming it since I was the onsite writer — by the way I was eight months pregnant while we were filming this. Basically what happened was Anders would be saying something that would be completely fine coming from Mindy Lahiri’s mouth, but from his mouth, had a completely different effect on everyone. Mindy Lahiri would walk into the room and tell everyone that they were idiots and she was the only smart one there. It was funny because she was so clearly a marginalized person. Coming from Anders Holm you’re like, “Whoa, this guy is a jerk.” We had to rewrite it, which was interesting. I hadn’t written for a white male lead in a long time, so I had to change that. He couldn’t act like Mindy because then he becomes like Stalin.
Did you ever consider being the lead of this show?
“The Mindy Project” was such a different thing because the voice of the show was so my voice and I was playing the part. In pre-production, onset, editing, everything, I felt like I needed to do this. It was my first big thing after “The Office,” and it was telling the American public who I was, and so I needed to be very hands on. With “Champions” because I’m not playing the lead and because Charlie and I came up with the character together, in an interesting way, because I’m such a Type-A personality, I had to let other people do stuff. So I was stepping back into production. I was there as a writer, like back at “The Office” where I was just there to help the character but I wasn’t the lead. It was a very different role for me to play in this.
Do you plan to direct any episodes?
I actually aspire to direct because that’s the one hat I hadn’t worn when I was on “The Mindy Project.” I wouldn’t rule it out, but right now I’m incredibly excited about finding young, female, diverse talent to come and direct the show. I learned a lot from Ava DuVernay and the way she does her shows, and as an employer, that’s really exciting to me right now. More than picking up the camera and doing the shots, me being an employer is what’s exciting.
The chemistry between you and J.J. Totah is so electric on screen. Would you consider having a bigger role if there were more seasons?
I love playing J.J.’s mom on the show. The dynamic between the characters is so funny. It’s pretty dysfunctional because they are more like best friends than mother and son. That is just a really fun relationship and there’s so much love in that relationship. Especially now that I’m a mom, I feel very maternal toward J.J. as an actor. He’s such a sweet kid. I would for sure come back and do more. I would love that. It’s up to Charlie. Because the cast is so funny, to my chagrin, I’m going to have to step back a little bit so [the audience] gets to love the ensemble characters. Then I’ll slip in and out when they need me.
J.J.’s character is openly gay, but it’s very much a nonissue. Why was that important to you and Charlie?
The show is a lot about the fact that he is gay, but it’s not about his persecution about it. That was not something that was so interesting to me and Charlie. His personality is so intermingled with the fact that he is an openly gay teenage boy who happens to be half Indian. I think that is a huge part of his identity because he doesn’t know a lot of people like him, and I don’t think America has seen a lot of characters like him, so for the audience as well. What was a conscious choice for me and Charlie was we were not interested in seeing a kid who was beating himself up about being gay. I’ve seen that before and that’s an important story to tell, but we wanted to do something different.
Did you find his character evolving as you got to know him better? In what ways did you write to him?
I’ve written over 50 episodes of television, and I’ve never had this experience where we wrote a character so specific that when we stepped back we were like, “How on Earth are we going to find a 15-year-old who is gay, half Indian kid who looks like he can fulfill this role? We’re obviously going to have to compromise on one or two things, we know that.” And then not having to compromise at all when J.J. just fell in our lap. It was crazy. I’ve never seen casting like that in all my years. You always have to tweak something. It’s been such a gift to us as writers. He has none of the bad children multicam show bad habits. He’s a very subtle performer for a character who has such a big personality.
Both “The Mindy Project” and “Champions” have so many really specific and observational pop culture references. What are the conversations in the writers’ room like to get to that place?
All of the characters have big opinions, super culturally literate, really know their pop culture. It’s a show that [has a line like] “Billy Eichner, check your privilege,” [and] there is a very specific person who will get that reference. [Editor’s note: The full line is, “As an African-American man, I can’t just run up to people on the street, you know? Check your privilege, Billy Eichner.”] My hope is that when you watch it — whether or not you get that specific joke — that episode is about a kid feeling worried that his dad feels ashamed of his existence. Overall, that’s what I hope you can get from the episode. If there are a handful of jokes that you’re like, “I didn’t quite get that, but I want to look it up,” that would be my ideal scenario. You can’t be an African American man and have [Billy Eichner’s “Billy on the Street”] job. That kind of observation when we heard it in the writers’ room, while it might not be every person in the world gets it, if you think about it for a second you’re like, “Oh my god, it’s so true.”