Anna Lisa Raya is editor of Awardsline.
Mindy Kaling — creator, star, executive producer and writer on Fox’s The Mindy Project — is living her childhood dream, albeit with backbreaking, endless days on set. Her big break into TV comedy came when she was the first woman hired — at 24 — as a writer on NBC’s The Office. She’s now the first and only woman of color to run and star in her own network show. With these firsts has come great responsibilities, some of which Kaling bristles against, such as viewers’ demands that her Indian-American character date more ethnically diverse men on the show. She can’t make everyone happy, but Fox certainly is. Despite middling ratings, the critically well-received show was renewed for a third season.
AWARDSLINE: What would you say were the biggest differences between Season 1 and Season 2?
MINDY KALING: We try every season for there to be certain scenes and journeys that each of the characters go on, certainly the leads. But it’s harder because, unlike a cable show, we have 22 or 24 episodes a year so we can’t do that wonderful thing I’ll see on some of my favorite cable shows where they’ll have 12 episodes to do a full arc that in the course of two and a half months is done. Our journeys have to be longer, so usually what we do is set up a couple of different arcs, which is something I learned on The Office. The single biggest difference is that you just know the characters more this year.
AWARDSLINE: How involved are you with casting?
KALING: I will get talent crushes on people and just have to use them, whether as regulars or guest stars. Usually (the casting process) is talking with (actors) and getting to know them. I find out what it is about them that I really like, and the great thing about me being the lead actress in the show is that if I respond to something very positively, and it seems like we’re riffing in a funny direction, it’s almost like we get a sneak preview of what it would look like onscreen.
AWARDSLINE: As the showrunner and star, would you say you have a different on-set perspective because you get to interact with the cast and other staff so much?
KALING: Oh, absolutely. One of the things I get asked a lot is how do I do it all, time-wise? And the thing is, (because) I have both jobs, it actually saves me and the production a lot of time. We never have the situation where the lead actor has a question for the showrunner and I’m in the middle of editing something and I have to run to set and there’s a holdup. There’s no contentiousness between the showrunner and the lead actor, which is something I think, more often than not, a lot of shows have. I can answer a lot of questions on-set quickly and things can change on the fly. Very few shows have the luxury of that.
AWARDSLINE: Who are your role models, comedic or otherwise?
KALING: I looked up to Emma Thompson growing up. I remember when she won an Oscar for best screenplay and (was nominated for) best actress in the same year for Sense And Sensibility, which is one of my favorite books. I loved that kind of writerly/actor persona and I think that’s absolutely my goal. Also, I was on The Office for so long and the philosophy there was, “What’s truthful is what’s beautiful.” One thing I learned from (Office showrunner) Greg Daniels is that I love a show with hard jokes but that has a very romantic center and seriousness and poignancy at times. (The Office) had tons of characters that were super flawed and weird, especially the lead. And that’s one thing that I took and wanted to have in my character as well, which you see less often with female leads.
AWARDSLINE: So much of the humor in the show is brutally honest and not necessarily politically correct. Have there been any points of view that have been a challenge to get across?
KALING: I think there’s a sense — especially if you are a minority woman on a show — that you are going to adhere more directly to these sort of standards of being politically correct than in other shows. I don’t think that is very well observed for the people I know who are minorities. We are just as un-PC as other people. And it’s funny. When you show people’s flaws and biases, it’s human and you cringe, but it’s also realistic. You have to have a very light touch, and the character needs to be punished for saying those kinds of things — and eventually is — and has to be redeemed in other ways. I think it would be unfair simply because my character is a woman or simply because my character is dark-skinned to not have her fall victim to the same flaws that a lot of other characters have. You end up short-changing your lead. Selfishly, I’m the lead and I didn’t want to do that. Also, we can handle more than we think we can, you know? There’s a sense that if people are going to be offended, first of all, are they offended by it or do they wish the character was different and would change? Because those are very different things. If it’s the latter and they’re thinking, “Mindy, be better than that,” then that’s funny and good because it shows an attachment to the character. We do battle with this all the time, but if we’re not having those discussions in the room, we’re not pushing the envelope.
Original photo atop interview by J.R. Mankoff