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Mindy Kaling on why she wanted to tell a more male-centric story with Champions

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Mindy Kaling is ready to hit the gym.

Only a few months after saying goodbye to six years of The Mindy Project (first on Fox, then on Hulu), the comedy multi-hyphenate is returning to NBC, where she began her TV career on The Office, with new sitcom Champions, premiering Thursday, March 8. Kaling co-created the series with The Mindy Project writer-producer Charlie Grandy and the show takes them far from the world of Mindy Lahiri’s rom-com vision of a Nora Ephron New York City.

They’re still in New York, but now they’re across the river in Brooklyn at a rundown, family-owned gym named Champions. Owned and operated by brothers Vince (Anders Holm) and Matthew (Andy Favreau), the gym is home to a bevy of trainers portrayed by a diverse group of actors that include Mindy Project alums Fortune Feimster and Yassir Lester. Vince and Andy have their lives upended when Vince’s son, Michael (J.J. Totah), a musical theater-obsessed openly gay teenager, suddenly re-enters the picture.

Kaling is still onboard as a co-creator, writing and producing the series, but acting-wise, she’s taken on a smaller role, guest starring as Michael’s mother Priya. We called her up in the midst of the whirlwind that is A Wrinkle in Time promo to get the details behind her inspiration for the series, why she wanted to set a show in a gym, and how her own life informs her writing.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for this series come from?
 MINDY KALING: I wanted to do something very different than The Mindy Project, in terms of who the lead was. I just felt it would be so inspiring to see a diverse young person who was an openly out character, who also loved New York City. I thought that would be such a fun world to write about and inhabit — a kid who was not from New York City, who loved it.

Did you generate the idea and then go to Charlie Grandy or how did that work?
 Charlie and I have worked together so closely for so long and his office is right next to mine. I had an idea for just the general structure of the family and the characters. I said, “Charlie is this anything?” And it made him laugh, so we started talking about it just as Mindy was ending. We were in our final season and, after work, we would be talking about the characters, and it started to feel really real. We were like, “Should we try and see if this could be a pilot?” And from there, that’s how everything started.

You just spent six seasons telling a very female-centric story and this is arguably much more in the world of men with its central characters of two brothers who own a gym and Michael. Was that a conscious choice? Or why did you want to pursue this story? 
It was, [though] the show is not as male-centric as it seems. We have a male lead, but Fortune Feimster is also one of the leads of the show, and we had her in mind for the show from the very beginning. It was a nice change: instead of writing for an Indian woman to have the lead be a young gay man. But there’s actually a lot of creative overlap that I did not anticipate in writing about those two characters.

Yes! Michael’s attitude towards life and sense of entitlement really reminds me of Mindy Lahiri. Did you find that they have a lot in common?
I think they would either detest each other because of the narcissism and the small differences, or they would find each other kindred spirits.

Your character, Priya, is a guest star. Why did you want to take a smaller role this time around, especially one demonstrably the opposite of Mindy Lahiri in so many ways?
I would love to be on the show more — I love playing Priya so much, she’s such a dork. But the world of the show is better without her around. I mean, Mindy Lahiri was a dork, but this character is a completely different type of character, so that’s very fun to play. She’s unglamorous and doesn’t have the confidence that Mindy Lahiri had. But I just really wanted to do something where I could enjoy it without the scrutiny that I have when I’m the lead. As a narcissistic actress, you really can’t look at things the same way when you’re the lead; I wanted to enjoy this without feeling self-conscious.

Will you be as deeply involved in this in the way you were on The Mindy Project, where you were writing, producing, editing, and overseeing every single aspect, or are you taking a bit more of a step back since you have a co-creator here?
I created The Mindy Project by myself and I was excited about taking on so many of those roles by myself. But the great thing about creating this with Charlie is that we do split the work up, which is awesome. For instance, when I was on maternity leave, I was able to edit. Frankly, four days after my baby was born, I was watching cuts while she was sleeping and giving notes and editing from home. So this kind of worked out with my main schedule as a mom and also working on all these other things [Kaling is currently developing a movie featuring Emma Thompson, as well as promoting the upcoming A Wrinkle in Time]. It’s really fun to be able to share those responsibilities because you don’t have to stress as much. You can actually enjoy it a lot more. I can edit at 2 o’clock in the morning after I feed my baby and not be like I have to get up at 5 in the morning to go act a 14-hour day. I can enjoy it, rather than dreading certain parts of the job. 

The Mindy Project was very much a blend of rom-com and workplace sitcom. This definitely seems to be a mix of workplace comedy with the gym setting combined with sort of About a Boy vibes – should we expect that to remain the same? Or can we expect more romance to make its way in (since it is created by you, after all)?
The first episode order was 10 episodes, so you kind of have to pick and choose what you’re going to focus on… Frankly, Charlie and I were maxed out on romance because on The Mindy Project she dated literally every man in Manhattan. We felt like let’s focus on the immediate issues at hand, which is a father who has never been a father dealing with that, and then, also being an employer. Believe me, we love romance and should we be lucky enough to get a second season, I’m sure that’s an area we’d want to explore.

In the third episode, an older woman who owns another gym responds to condescending comments from Vince and Michael about her success with a firm shut-down. You’ve expressed similar thoughts about backhanded compliments towards your success before, so how much do things like this make their way into your writing? 
I’m so glad you noticed that. As a creator, I’m often surprised where I will exorcise my personal anger at things on the show. These two guys, they’re this literal symbol of the patriarchy, right? Like thinking they can bulldoze over this woman because she’s 62. They’re being both sexist and ageist around her. It’s really fun to be able to have our leads learn lessons about stuff like that — to become more woke and have to pay the price a lot for their sexist behavior. In another episode, Hasan Minhaj plays my younger brother, and he alleges that the guys are whitewashing their half-Asian nephew/son. It is a great episode in terms of dealing with stuff that I was raised with dealing with — feeling like I had my cultures clashing a little bit growing up in super suburban Boston, but being Indian. That stuff comes up in almost every episode and Michael was a really good duffel for all of those things because he’s so tapped into that whole period of his life.

You’ve written before about how much you love to try out different exercise fads. Did that feed your desire to set this show in a gym?
That’s interesting; I hadn’t made that correlation before. Maybe on a subconscious level that’s what it was. I’m not known for like my hard body (laughs). I do spend a lot of time in the gym because it’s what I do to de-stress, but I hadn’t thought of that. It’s a place that spans all socio-economic ranges, which we really liked, and frankly, haven’t done on a show. Like on Mindy, basically the characters were all rich doctors. We thought this would be a more inclusive environment, and this body image stuff is so funny. Having most of the cast be trainers that deal with people with those issues seemed like a really rich area. We get a ton of comedy out of the trainers and their relationships with their clients on the show. 

Would you work out there?
No, because I like really bougie classes. When I go to workout, I want to feel like a princess in the environment. It’s like [The Office’s] Dunder Mifflin – would I get my paper there? I’m not sure I would, personally, but I see the people in their office as very funny.

If the rumored The Office spin-off is a go, would you be up for returning?
 I love [producer] Greg Daniels. If he asked me to be a part of it, whether it be writing or directing or even just brainstorming about the experience, I would do anything for him.

Champions premieres Thursday, March 8, at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBC.