How Mindy Kaling mined being a diversity hire on The Office to write Late Night
Mindy Kaling is hitting a lot of firsts this year.
After closing out The Mindy Project in 2017, the multi-hyphenate comedic talent is making strides into some new areas. Kaling, 39, makes her feature film writing debut with Amazon Studios’ Late Night (out June 7), a workplace comedy set in the world of after-hours talk shows in which she costars with Emma Thompson. Then there’s her reimagining of the British romantic-comedy classic Four Weddings and a Funeral as a limited series (coming to Hulu this July), a movie in the works with Priyanka Chopra, and a new Netflix series that’ll mine some of her childhood experiences.
But first: Late Night. Kaling plays the happy-go-lucky Molly, who lands her dream job of writing for the acerbic late-night host Katherine Newbury (Thompson), only to face a hostile workplace as she realizes the only reason she’s been hired is to diversify the otherwise white and male writers’ room. As Katherine faces the prospect of losing her job, she and Molly find that they have more in common that they first realized.
Playing Molly presented a new challenge, Kaling says, “a different acting style than I have ever done.”
“The characters that I usually play, in The Mindy Project or in The Office, are these big, broad comedy characters who are delusional and very funny and flawed,” she tells EW. “Molly’s flawed too, but she’s much more of a grounded, vulnerable character, who is a little bit more relatable than I’m used to playing.”
From starting out as a diversity hire herself to now running shows and hiring an inclusive staff, Kaling tells EW about drawing from her own experiences in television to write Late Night and the new chapter she’s entering in her career.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve obviously had a lot of experience working in writers’ rooms, so was it cathartic to look at your past experiences and then put them on the page for Late Night?
MINDY KALING: The joy of writing this movie was that it’s the only experience I’ve had where I identify so completely with the two leads and there’s not one that I feel more close to, even though I played one of the characters. I have all my distinct memories — of being the only woman [and] the only person of color on a TV sitcom writing staff as a young person, having no experience, being terrified that I would get fired — all of those things which I can access so easily [for Molly] because they were so vivid to me. Then I have all the feelings of being an employer 12 years later on my own show: the impatience, all the frustrations.… I finished The Mindy Project and I was like eight months pregnant and I was tired. So I really do identify with both the Katherine and Molly characters, and that was like, “Oh, this is going to be so fun to write.”
What was the most authentic thing you felt you were able to bring from your past experiences into Molly’s experience?
There’s a part in the movie where Emma’s getting interviewed and she talks about how she thinks that comedy is a meritocracy because she thinks that if you’re funny, then you can rise up to the top. That’s something that I think I would have believed when I was first hired, when I was 24 years old. Like, if I was hired then I was good enough, and if you’re good enough you get the jobs. It took me a while to realize that that is not true, and that being successful in comedy is about access. What I really liked about the movie was being able to show the way that I used to think, the way I think now, the way that I’m still evolving, and I get to do all that in one movie. So those were the kind of things where it’s great to shine a light on things that I used to be really naive about and I’m not anymore, and to show the reason why I don’t feel that way, and to do that in a movie was really enjoyable.
You also examine the notion of someone being considered a diversity hire and people in the workplace discussing that. Molly is not just the only woman on the staff, but also the only person of color. Is that something you had experience with yourself, and if so, what was that experience like for you?
What I like about the movie is that it really calls out what Molly is, which is she is a diversity hire. And I think there are times in situations where we beat around the bush about it, but I came up on The Office writing staff as a part of the NBC diversity initiative and I remember feeling so embarrassed about that — grateful for it but embarrassed for other people to know that, because I didn’t want them to think that that was the only reason that I was hired. And it took me, again, a long time to realize that that was the way that I found the opportunity to be on the show that other people, who don’t necessarily look like me, find access through where they went to college, who their siblings are, just the culture that they’re from which provides them access, and I didn’t have to feel guilty about that. So I love in the movie that she is the diversity hire — like that’s what everyone calls her and she is. There’s a moment in the movie where she’s like, “They think I’m just a diversity hire,” and she herself thinks that’s very pejorative, and it’s like, “Yeah, that’s what you are.” And once you know that, it’s like, where do you go from there?
I couldn’t help but feel like Katherine Newbury was perhaps your Miranda Priestly. What were you interested in examining with her character and her being part of a male-dominated world for the entirety of career?
I think what was really interesting about the characters to me is that [Katherine and Molly] would both identify as feminists, and yet their feminists are completely different waves of feminism. Katherine is feminist, but she believed that she needed to look and act and make jokes like the men and conform to their view and be the very best, better than the men, in order to succeed. And Molly does not feel that way. Molly has a more millennial approach to being a feminist. And so the movie is a lot about intersectionality. Now, when you say stuff like that, it’s also just like a funny movie, a workplace movie, so when you start talking about issues of feminism intersectionality, I’m like, “Who would want to watch this, it sounds like a snooze,” but I do think that that I was really interested in writing about those issues.
Molly comes into this male writers’ room and does fall for the charms of one of the writers. What made you want to include the element of a workplace romance in this story?
I think it honestly is because it sort of felt real and it felt real to my life. If I had been someone who had never fallen in love with a co-worker, I would not have written that story line, but because there’s something so intoxicating about working with people who are funny, being intimidated in an environment like that where the stakes seem so high to you even though it’s just television comedy, it is a place where you feel overwhelmed and you feel overwhelmed by people and you really fall for them. So that felt that felt kind of natural to me. But the romance of the movie… is not the major part of the movie. It’s not like I’ve done before in my other things because I obviously love romance so much, but it is an element of it.
Did you always have Emma Thompson in mind to play Katherine Newbury?
I did. I always had her in mind. I always had her as a late-night talk show host, and I thought that we would have a funny dynamic together, and I liked the idea of being her employee that she didn’t like. That was where it came from. I was like, “That seems fun to act, and that seems like a movie that I would want to watch, and a role for her that I think she would score in.” It turned out better than I could have imagined for her playing Katherine.
What was your favorite line to write in Late Night, whether for Katherine or Molly?
One of Katherine’s lines where she’s fighting with the head of the network, played by Amy Ryan, and she says to Amy Ryan, “I have seen Somalian warlords who have more job stability than you,” in response to her respecting Amy Ryan’s authority as the president of the network. I enjoyed writing that line and I knew Emma enjoyed it, so watching her say it on the set was so pleasurable.
What was some of your real-life influences for Katherine?
No one believes me, but truly the character is a composite of a lot of different influences. There are certain late-night talk show hosts that bear some of the same resemblances to her impatience and not wanting to know her staff, but some of the other details — the fact that she numbered her staff instead of learning their names, that comes from a famous sitcom star. I’ve been tempted to be like, “This is what Stephen Colbert is like,” but I know he is not like this at all. It’s really based on a lot of different people. It’s also because it’s Emma doing it, I think I wasn’t really interested in doing a sendup of a specific person, it’s truly supposed to be an original character.
With The Mindy Project concluded and the projects you have coming up, it feels like you’re entering a new chapter of your career, especially with Four Weddings and this new Netflix series.
I’m not in the Netflix show; I think people have reported that it’s about my childhood and It’s not about my childhood, it’s just about a 15-year-old Indian-American girl growing up in 2019. So there will be of course lots of experiences pulled from my childhood, but it is really about a girl today. I love acting, but I also really love not acting, and I did it for so many years straight between The Office and The Mindy Project and there was no break in between the two. Also, I think having a baby, I’ve been able to focus more on creating new material and frankly finding new talent. Nothing would make me happier than if [Four Weddings lead actor] Nikesh Patel had a Henry Golding level of being embraced because he’s so talented and so great and very handsome. I think that seems fun, and I finally have a platform where I can write things for people and hopefully help their careers along a little, and right now, this is the thing that’s the most rewarding to me.
What’s the biggest change that you’ve been able to bring to help diversify behind the scenes, and have you faced challenges in trying to make your writers’ rooms more diverse?
When I was doing Four Weddings, it was uniquely challenging because when you want to hire writers, you usually hire them two weeks before the show starts. But we wanted to get British Pakistani writers on our staff, and the visa issues were such that we hired this incredible standup, Bisha Ali, who came to work on the show and it took nine weeks to get her there and she joined the room months after everyone else had.… Sometimes it’s logistically hard to get other voices; there’s just like logistics that make it hard, and so there’s all these things that are kind of incentivizing you to just use the same people you’ve used before, and you kind of have to decide that you don’t care about that and it’s worth it.
A lot of times a diverse writer will not have the same amount of credit as someone who is white because they haven’t simply had the opportunity. And so you have to decide that part of your job as an employer is also to be a teacher, and that’s a little bit what as an employer you can decide, that you want to be a mentor or not. They don’t automatically go together, and what I have realized in my 30s is that for me, it is necessary to be a mentor, frankly, if I’m going to have rooms that are comprised of people who look like me. Two of the writers in my new show, which is about a young Indian-American woman, are Indian women that I hired as my assistants who then worked on The Mindy Project and my other show and now are trained to work on this show. I’ve decided that if they’re not out there, you have to create them by training them yourself. And then I reap all the benefits because now they work for me, so it’s selfish!
Before Kelly Kapoor on The Office, we had never really seen Indian characters outside of the serious supporting roles, so Kelly was kind of a groundbreaking character — do you think she paved a way?
It was fun to be an Asian woman in comedy, because I had not grown up seeing anything like that. If you saw an Indian woman on TV, she was like a mirthless autopsy report woman who was telling you how the victim died, or a scientist. So Kelly, while still a tertiary character, was still a fun departure. I’ve been noticing that now that The Office is on Netflix, there are memes about Kelly I see all the time and are so much fun. Then with [The Mindy Project’s] Mindy Lahiri, I think that when you’re the only Indian woman on a comedy TV show, there is a certain way that you feel a lot of pressure to do a certain kind of character and have it be the way that leads are always are, which is like a friendly schlub who is a good person but is bad at love and is very grounded and down to earth. And I just came from [The Office U.K.’s] David Brent, [The Office’s] Michael Scott, Eastbound and Down, these big comedy characters, and I was like, “Why would I not choose to play a character like that if I could?” The character Molly is so different than both of those characters, and it was like a real challenge in restraint to kind of scale her back because she’s someone who is a little bit more like someone you might know than these other two characters.
Has playing Molly made you want to tackle something a little different down the line? Are you looking at different types of roles for yourself?
I’m open to anything. I’m often surprised when anyone ever casts me in anything that I don’t write. Like when I was in Ocean’s 8 and Wrinkle in Time and Inside Out, I was delighted to do it but very surprised. I am never cast in anything that I don’t write, so those are the sort of notable exceptions. I am open to things but I feel that if I am going to do that, I would have to write it myself, and that’ll probably be the rest of my career, but it’s okay because I can write and I know my voice and it’s kind of the most gratifying when it’s something that I’ve written.
You’ve set yourself up into a successful showrunner — 10 years down the line, what would you like to see yourself doing and making?
The stories that I’m the most interested in — it took a while to figure this out — is really the story of underdogs, the people who everyone underestimates and people that don’t often get to get the spotlight, and right now it’s comedy. I hope that I can move into drama because those are all my favorite shows, but right now, that theme of being an underdog I think will kind of permeate all the things I do because it’s interesting to me. Because of my giant chip on my shoulder! [Laughs]
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