Mindy Kaling Plays Outside the Lines

She has achieved television stardom by refusing to play by the rules. This month, as The Mindy Project enters its final season, the creator and star is poised to make her mark on Hollywood.

Mindy Kaling Plays Outside the Lines

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Photographer: Mike Rosenthal. Shot at The London West Hollywood. Stylist: Cristina Ehrlich; Hair: Cindy Williams; Makeup: Laura Larocca; Manicurist: Jolene Brodeur

Sometimes it happens in a coffee shop, sometimes on the street, but when strangers say hi to Mindy Kaling, they often think they’re addressing the other Mindy. This is partly because Kaling has the same first name as her television alter ego, but it’s also because she has put so much of herself into The Mindy Project, for which she serves as creator, writer, executive producer and star—the first woman of color to enjoy that multi-hyphenate distinction.

Kaling may be responsible for the thoughts and actions of her sometimes-flighty Indian-American character, but there are differences—unlike Mindy Lahiri, she doesn’t have a crush on Bill O’Reilly or think Iranistan is a country. It also seems unlikely that the fictional Mindy would arrive early for a 9 a.m. interview, yet the real Mindy does, breezing into her office on the Universal Studios lot, where the Hulu series is filmed, and past a clothing rack heaving with her character’s loud, eccentric wardrobe (Kaling is wearing a simple blue macramé Phillip Lim dress).

This month, the 38-year-old reprises her character in the show’s sixth and final season—so does Kaling feel she will lose a little part of herself? “I think people forget when you create a show, you’re creating different characters that have different aspects of your personality,” she says with a shrug. “I play one of them, so obviously, everyone thinks I identify most with her.”

Kaling is here today for a table-read of the first episode, which will tackle the fallout from Mindy’s hasty marriage in last season’s finale (note to Danny: try to keep up). First, though, she has an interview to do and a croissant to eat, both of which she prepares for by settling onto a turquoise leather pouf. “It’s like a Pinterest page back here,” she says, gesturing at the room’s pink chairs and blue-and-red flowered wallpaper, the result of a recent photoshoot makeover.

At 10 episodes, the final season will be shorter than others, and for that you can blame Kaling’s hectic schedule. Next year, she will appear alongside Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon in Ava DuVernay’s film A Wrinkle in Time. She’ll also join Sandra Bullock and Rihanna for Ocean’s 8, an all-female spin-off of the franchise made famous by George Clooney and Co. And early next year she begins filming a movie Kaling wrote for the English actress Emma Thompson, with whom she also co-stars. “I’m new to the movie stuff, I love it,” she says, in a bubbly, rapid-fire voice that belies her decidedly non-flaky manner. “But it takes so long for them to come out.”

Kaling’s chaotic schedule will be getting even more complicated. A few weeks after this interview, she confirmed on NBC’s Sunday Today that she was expecting her first child, saying, “It’s out of my hands, which is kind of a fun feeling.” The pregnancy provides an undeniable parallel between Kaling and her onscreen creation, whose world was turned upside down when she gave birth, a turn of events that still looms large as The Mindy Project takes the last lap of its bumpy ride.

Originally passed over by NBC, the show premiered on Fox in 2012, and was a promising companion to New Girl, another female-driven series starring a headstrong, whimsical Zooey Deschanel. For a while, the two shows aired back-to-back, but in 2015, after three seasons, Fox pulled the plug on Mindy. “I was super disappointed,” Kaling says, although that didn’t last long either. “Less than a week later, they announced that we were going to be on Hulu.”

The switch to the streaming service afforded Kaling creative freedom that network television did not. Significantly, it allowed Kaling, a Nora Ephron devotee, to redefine what a half-hour rom-com could be, especially as her character’s romance with fellow OB/GYN Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) deteriorated. “Hulu is at the stage where they really want to start pushing the envelope in terms of how people behave, particularly women,” says Kaling, citing the recent success of The Handmaid’s Tale. “Everyone could be a little more realistic.”

In season four, with their wedding approaching, Danny pressed his fiancée to abandon her career to raise their infant son. Mindy resisted, and he broke off the engagement. It was unusually dark and complicated territory for a TV comedy—Ross and Rachel never had to deal with such issues. The portrayal of the breakup, Kaling says, “could only happen on Hulu.” She pauses to pick up a pink Lucite heart that I accidentally knocked off the table, then adds: “On TV, we don’t see the discomfort that a lot of husbands feel when their wives have really demanding full-time jobs, but in almost every one of my married friends’ relationships, this is the biggest single cause of stress.”

Kaling insists that she has a deep affinity for Danny, even though the character grew increasingly loathsome. “He has these big swing opinions, he’s so ethnic—more than Mindy—in his whiteness, and I certainly have that attachment to my mom that he does.” (The show debuted shortly after Kaling’s mother died from pancreatic cancer.) But she is also very much in her character’s corner when it comes to career goals—a topic she explored in her 2015 collection of personal essays, Why Not Me? “My professional life is the only thing that I feel I have a lot of control over—romantic stuff is a little bit more mysterious,” says Kaling, who is not publicly linked to anyone at the moment. “I think a lot of women respond to that.”

In the past, Kaling has displayed an almost laissez-faire approach to having children, once telling Yahoo! Style, “I’m going to not actively plan, but if it happens it would happen.” Creatively, this idea manifested in a plot point for Mindy Lahiri, whose pregnancy on the show was a surprise. The twist didn’t fundamentally alter Lahiri’s character—as Kaling puts it, “Motherhood doesn’t make saints of anybody.” It did, though, provide a possible insight into how Kaling might respond to finding herself in the same situation: “A child is part of the fabric, but I didn’t want Mindy to give up her professional life.”

Kaling’s professional life started in earnest in 2004, when, at the age of 24, she began writing for and co-starring in The Office, NBC’s adaptation of the British series. Once it became known that the person who portrayed the hilariously venal airhead Kelly Kapoor also wrote for the show, Kaling became a hot property. She was eventually promoted to executive producer, but prior to the show’s ninth and final season, she decided to leave to create her own series. “It was time,” she says. “I’d learned everything I needed to learn. I was ready to be the lead.”

In her 2011 memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Kaling recalled growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the daughter of middle-class Indian immigrants. From the start, their work ethic was drilled into her, while stress was considered an indulgent emotion. There’s no denying Kaling has an ambitious streak, given her decision to abandon a hugely successful sitcom in order to go it alone. She also realized, due to the lack of diversity on television, she would have to write her own parts. Yet she did not meet with instant success. Mindy & Brenda, a script about a real-life friendship—developed before her gig on The Office—turned into a pilot featuring, she writes, “a much thinner, more conventionally attractive” lead, because The WB network wasn’t necessarily willing to take a chance on Kaling herself.

But by 2012, when Fox picked up The Mindy Project, the landscape had changed. “Tina [Fey] was doing 30 Rock, Lena [Dunham] came out with Girls. There was a groundswell, and I was lucky to be part of it.” Kaling’s work is also part of an interesting cultural inversion. While male comedians are increasingly toying with sensitive portrayals of masculinity—think Aziz Ansari’s Master of None or Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King—Kaling and her peers have gone the opposite way, creating female characters who are lewd, self-absorbed or downright flaky. Predictably, they’ve met with disapproval.

“Here’s the thing,” Kaling says with a sigh. “In the history of comedy, the best, most fun lead characters are flawed. But when you’re a woman, your character is supposed to be plucky and put-upon. Well, I had the wrong training for that. I didn’t get trained on Caroline in the City. I got trained on The Office. I watched Carell for eight years.” She adds, with emphasis: “It’s called The Mindy Project, so you’re hoping that she becomes better.” In addition to being a champion for women’s rights, Kaling is also expected to address race, and has drawn fire for joking about negative stereotypes rather than combatting them.

Kaling’s foray into film has meant a break from some of this scrutiny. Late last year, she flew to New York to join cast members of Ocean’s 8, including Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not the star of this movie,’” she says cheerfully. “It was a relief to not have to carry something. It’s the kind of movie where, were I not cast in it, I would have been very jealous.” She also got an informal lesson in how a female actor might reconcile apparently conflicting responsibilities. “I think when a group of men go do a movie, they say goodbye to their lives, but a lot of the women are moms, so they had their kids on set,” she says. “That was really enjoyable for me, because I felt like I got to see a window into their lives.”

Initially, when Ocean’s 8 director and co-writer Gary Ross asked Kaling to meet for breakfast, she assumed he wanted help punching up the script. But once they got to talking, and she started loosely pitching ideas for a character, he reshaped a role specifically for her. “This is a movie about eight strong women, and Mindy’s been exemplary in what she’s done on television,” says Ross. “I was so excited about the idea of working with her.” The director stayed true to this opinion on set, allowing Kaling to improvise when she saw fit: “When Mindy Kaling comes up to you and says, ‘I have an idea for a line here,’ you listen. She has a dry, deadpan sense of humor that’s just fantastic. All of her comedy is rooted in reality.”

Ocean’s 8 was pure fun, but Kaling describes working on Ava DuVernay’s sci-fi drama A Wrinkle in Time—adapted from the 1962 young adult novel by Madeleine L’Engle—as “humbling.” It’s the first film with a $100 million-plus budget to be directed by a black woman, and has a young actress of color (Storm Reid) in a lead role. “It felt different and important in a way that made me very nervous,” she says, forming a small heap of croissant flakes with her palm. “Oprah, Reese and especially Ava—they don’t just want to create something great as a product. They want to push forward culture in some way. That was really helpful for me to be exposed to. It inspired me for upcoming projects.”

That inspiration is evident when she discusses the movie she wrote about a talk show host (Emma Thompson) and its first female writer (Kaling).

“I’ve played so many high-status people now that I was really excited to go back and be like, ‘What was it like when I started? What things does a young woman of color face when trying to break into this industry?’” Kaling specifically wanted Thompson for the lead because she remembers how, in 1996, the Sense and Sensibility star earned Oscar nominations for both best actress and adapted screenplay. “She’s the person who taught me you can be a multi-hyphenate,” she says.

Breaking into film does not mean that Kaling is leaving television behind. Champions, a series she created with Mindy Project executive producer Charlie Grandy, was picked up by NBC in May, beating out another comedy from one of Kaling’s idols, Tina Fey. The new sitcom is set in a gym and features two brothers, one of whom (Anders Holm) has a gay, half-Indian son. Kaling will have a recurring role as the boy’s mother.

Abruptly, Kaling stands to leave. She’s expected in a nearby conference room, and is excited to see her castmates for the first time in months. To her, the studio is like a second home. “I love the writers’ room dynamic,” she says. “It’s very good for my particular personality. I think I could work in TV for the rest of my life and be very happy.” She shrugs, nonchalant. “Unless I flame out spectacularly or get consumed by a drug habit.”

Now, see, that is something Mindy Lahiri would say.



What would Mindy do?
The star ponders her post-Project career

Write a Young Adult Novel

“If I had an idea. I remember books I read from age nine to 16 better than I remember books I read last year. All of The Baby-Sitters Club, Judy Blume, Anne of Green Gables. I wasn’t a snob.”

Judge RuPaul’s Drag Race

“I don’t watch a lot of reality TV, but RuPaul’s Drag Race is fun. I would love to coin a couple of cool catchphrases.”

Learn more about Disney

“B.J. [Novak] was in a movie called Saving Mr. Banks, and all that Walt Disney stuff was so interesting to me. If I had more time, I would go to Disneyland more and just read up more about the history of animation studios.”

Be a contestant on Family Feud

“I really want to be on Family Feud because I like Steve Harvey. I’d be bad at it, though.”

Travel to Cape Town, South Africa

“Not very many glamourous things have happened to me, but Bono wrote and asked me to come to Africa with him as part of, like, a humanitarian mission. And I could not do it because it fell right in the middle of shooting. Bono, if you’re reading this, please ask me to do this again once season six is done.”