We're revisiting the cover story we did with Mindy Kaling for our Oct/Nov 2011 issue, back when she was still the best part of The Office.
While you may know her only as Kelly Kapoor on The Office, Mindy Kaling is one of Tinseltown’s most sought-after comedic writers. Here, she talks about forgiving Woody Allen, why she’ll never have a one-night stand, and the new life strategy she’s adopting as a result of this interview
By Jill Soloway
Photographed By Emily Shur
Stylist: Monica Rose // Makeup: LaVerne Caracuzzi // Hair: Alex Polillo // Set Design: Keith Eric Davidson
dress: Parker; belt: ChloÉ; earrings: CC SKYE
top: Marc by Marc Jacobs
dress: Parker; shoes: Giuseppe Zanotti; belt: ChloÉ; earrings: CC SKYE
Mindy Kaling has been a household name since 2005, when she originated the role of chatty customer-service rep Kelly Kapoor on the hit NBC sitcom The Office. But you might not know that this multitalented 32-year-old comedic powerhouse has also written 22 of the show’s episodes, directed 4 of them, and is credited as its co-executive producer. As a fellow TV writer, I’ve known Mindy for years. But we’ve never really had the chance to hang out and talk shop about being funny women making our way in Hollywood—until now.
Born Vera Mindy Chokalingam in Cambridge, MA, to Indian immigrant parents, Mindy cut her teeth on comedy as a member of an improv troupe at Dartmouth in the late ’90s. I became aware of her talent a few years later, in 2003, when she was making a splash playing Ben Affleck in a hilarious play she wrote with comedy partner Brenda Withers called Matt & Ben. My group-monologue show, Sit n’ Spin, was at the Aspen Comedy Fest the same year her play was, but we were never together at the right time.
Then in 2007, I started a BUST-y feminist nonprofit with my friends called OBJECT, and Mindy performed at one of our Lady Parties as a response to Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens saying that women aren’t funny. We passed each other backstage—again, we were in the same place—but we simply didn’t get the chance to connect.
As more years passed, of course I loved her on The Office. Then I got a delicious new taste of Mindy when I became one of her approximately 1,481,642 Twitter followers. Her tweets are consistently very funny, although I must admit, it did make me a little insecure to know what she was up to. It seemed like she was always having slumber parties with Samantha Ronson and Jordan Rubin and Sofifi, who was Nicole Richie’s best friend. That meant Mindy must know Nicole Richie, which, for me, took her out of the fellow-lady-writer camp and into the fancy-lady stratosphere. I was certain I was in no way cool enough for her—which seems ironic, now that I know the book of personal humor essays she’s busily preparing to debut in November is called Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).
A few months later, I ran into Mindy at Zooey Deschanel’s birthday party (which makes me sound a lot cooler than I am). And then I got the call to interview her. So I went to meet her...a day early. That’s right, I accidentally showed up at the photo studio a full 24 hours ahead of time.
I came home. I made turkey meatballs. I went to sleep. Then I woke up and returned to the photo studio where Mindy was dressed in a beautiful blouse and standing in front of some flowered wallpaper, looking much like a flower herself. I was in the right place at the right time. Finally.
I’m so happy to have you to myself for a whole hour!
I’m happy too! You did [BUST interviews with] Diablo Cody and Amy Poehler, and I’ve never had someone interview me who has so many cool credentials. The Oblongs [which Soloway wrote for in 2001 and 2002] is my favorite animated show ever. And then you wrote for Six Feet Under? Your career is so cool!
Wow, thank you. I think it’s reaching a pinnacle right now.
Don’t fuck it up. [laughs]
You write in your book about soul-mate best friends. I’ve always felt it was really hard for me to have good relationships with guys because I was getting my most intimate stuff from my best friends. Have you ever had that kind of dichotomy?
I’ve been very blessed to have really amazing, close female friends who feel like family. And I constantly compare the guys I’m dating with my very best friends. I have conversations with my best girlfriends that are like, “I wish you could just turn into a guy.” Doesn’t everyone have that conversation?
Totally. So, are you dating anybody right now?
Yeah. I have a boyfriend of almost three years, actually. His name is David, and he’s a web analyst and an actor.
Do you have any marriage fantasies?
Married people need to step it up, because the most depressing people I’m meeting at parties are married people. They always want to talk about how much work it is all the time. Marriage just seems so tough the way it’s presented to me by my friends in L.A. But I would like to get married. My parents have a great marriage. They really love each other, and they’re best friends. Or, no, they’re not best friends; they’re pals. I think your best friend can only be a woman if you’re a straight woman. But they’re pals, and I love that. I want to definitely have something like that.
You’ve directed some episodes of The Office, and you also recently wrote a screenplay called The Low Self-Esteem of Lizzie Gillespie. Do you ever think about directing that movie?
I have actually thought about directing it. Even more so because my friend Lena Dunham [writer/director of Tiny Furniture] directs everything she writes. I talked to her about it because I’ve always thought the most daunting thing would be to make that jump if you haven’t gone to film school. Lena read the script, and she really inspired and encouraged me, saying, “I think you should direct it.” So now when I think about that script, I think it would be something I would like to direct.
What is your screenplay about?
It’s about a girl with really low self-esteem who makes terrible decisions because of it. But she comes out of it, and not while she’s with a guy.
What did writing your book bring to you creatively that you’ve never done before as a writer?
Because my personality and my tastes run very girly, people are surprised that I’m a writer on the show, a producer on the show, and that I’ve written 22 episodes of The Office, which I’m really proud of. And I think what’s great about the book is that there’s tons of just straight-comedy pieces in it. I think I’m a funny joke writer, and this is one of the only times where I can show that off. I just wanted to do something on my own where I didn’t have to wait for a lot of people to say, “Let’s do it.”
Take me through a Mindy Kaling day when you’re not going to work.
My most productive time as a writer is in the morning. But I like to sleep until 1 or 2 p.m., the same as when I was 13. So every morning is as painful as if I’m being ripped out of a coma. I try to wake up between 7 and 8, and then I’ll go for a slow jog for 45 minutes. Then I try to eat a healthful breakfast, but three out of seven mornings of the week, I’ll get McDonald’s. Then I’ll start to write.
You haven’t tweeted yet?
No. I will tweet late morning. Now it’s time to work. With Twitter, there are some days when I feel like I’m forcing myself to tweet. But luckily, I always kind of want to tweet, usually about something that bothers me. I tweet without thinking about the consequences. Which has gotten me into trouble. Recently I tweeted, “I can’t read another article about how great it is to see the Harry Potter kids growing up.” And everyone was like, “Why all the hate? Emma Watson’s a thousand times prettier than you!” Sometimes people tweet at you, and it’s like, You just wanted to tell me I was ugly. You’ve been waiting with that insult in your heart to tell me.
What’s your relationship to being beautiful or hot as an actress? Do you think about it a lot?
I try not to think about it, but of course, I think about it a lot. I’m 32, so someone saying I’m not pretty does not have as big an effect on me as it would if they were saying I’m not funny or not smart. I would be really upset about that. But the pretty thing doesn’t bother me that much. Yeah, when we’re on the show, I want to look skinny, have perfect makeup, get my Spanx on, get a good angle, and get good lighting. But it wouldn’t superoffend me if Joan Rivers doesn’t think I look hot on the red carpet.
Do you feel like it’s harder for women writers in Hollywood?
I don’t think I’ve had fewer opportunities being a woman, but I have heard different people whom I care about on the show say, “You’re actually a great writer!” You know, I’ve been on the show since the very beginning, and I was in a ton of episodes. There’s no reason you would have to say “actually,” except for the fact that I’m a woman and it’s a surprise that I would be great. It’s not like I got to the show last year. I’m a veteran on The Office, and I sometimes wonder when I will just be considered a great writer.
Do you feel like you want to move more toward acting or writing in the future?
I’ll always identify as a writer, but I’d like to do half and half. I want to write roles for myself. This is going to sound strange, but I’ve always been very inspired by Tyler Perry. I think it’s because the first acting job that ever got me any attention was playing Ben Affleck in Matt & Ben, and Tyler Perry got such a huge following playing his character Madea. I just thought it was so original and so strange and so weird that he made this dynasty off Madea as his launching pad. Obviously, Larry David and Tina Fey are other people whose careers I really admire, but Tyler Perry is the one whom I feel the most affinity for.
Who are your other heroes? What artists or writers do you look up to?
I really look up to Lena Dunham. Her voice is so authentic and funny, and I haven’t seen her do something clichéd yet. I also loved Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. That performance was Oscar-worthy. It was so deeply funny and honest—I’d love to work with her. Woody Allen is amazing. I just saw Midnight in Paris, and I was like, “Is this the same guy who did Match Point and Hannah and Her Sisters?” I can’t believe how many times he’s reinvented his career.
Do you forgive him for marrying Soon-Yi?
At the time, I remember thinking, God, that is so gross that he married his kind-of daughter. But they’re still married, and they’re really in love. So I feel like love exonerates them a little bit. But man, that was superdisturbing when it happened. I was like, “Oh...this is when Mia Farrow’s life becomes a Kafka short story.”
Let’s talk about feminism. You know how there’s a kind of postmodern feminist perspective of, like, 100 percent tolerance, everything is awesome, we’re all sisters...
I believe that we’re all sisters. When you’re a comedy writer, you are so tuned in to human flaws, but I think I have to shut that off sometimes, especially when a young woman is just trying to come up. Even if she makes mistakes, I try to be encouraging instead of pointing out flaws or being a hater.
This is where I am with feminism. Because of our porn-identified youth culture, I feel some urge as a feminist to say, “You can write!” or “You can be something other than your implants!” It’s hard to know where to go next with the future of feminism, ’cause it seems like it’s at a standstill.
I don’t know if this is a feminist issue, but there are certain TV shows that I just can’t watch because I’m not interested in frank talk about sexuality. I don’t know whether it’s the way I was raised, but I don’t love raunchy, personal tell-alls. I’ve always been squeamish with that. I don’t think it’s awful; it’s just not for me. So when I see feel-good comedies about girls who are saying, “We can fuck just like guys!,” I’m sometimes like, “OK, well, we’ve all been given this sector of inappropriateness that Sarah Silverman pioneered, but we can’t all wield it as adeptly as she can,” you know?
In your book, you write about how other people can have one-night stands but that you’ve always wondered how it’s possible.
I think the reason I haven’t had a one-night stand is it’s impossible to charm me enough for me to want to sleep with you based on an evening’s worth of conversation. That’s not going to do it. Of course I love good-looking guys. But even if Daniel Craig himself was talking to me at the Four Seasons bar for an hour and a half about playing James Bond, I wouldn’t think, I just have to sleep with this guy. For me—and this has nothing to do with being a woman—I have to know someone better to have those urges.
As a TV personality, do you like getting recognized, or do you get annoyed?
I love getting recognized. I love people liking me or liking the show. What I don’t love is when guys act like they’re doing me a favor by even saying how much they like me. Like, at my boyfriend’s birthday two years ago, a guy came up to me at the bar and was like, “Hey, big fan. Love the show.” And I was like, “OK, great.” And he was like, “Can you come over to my friend? It’d be an awesome funny joke for you to say how much you wanna fuck him.” I was so revolted. The word fuck shouldn’t come up with a woman you’ve never met before.
What did you say?
I just said, “That’s so gross. This is my boyfriend’s birthday party. No, absolutely not.” He started apologizing, and I just walked away. People think they can ask you to do something embarrassing or humiliating because you’re not Angelina Jolie or something. But 85 percent of my interactions are with cute 14-year-old girls who are like, “I wanna be a comedy writer!” And that’s amazing.
When you’re writing, do you feel that there’s anything different about being female that you have to consider that guy writers don’t have to consider?
If you’re a professional woman with a nice career, you battle with two things you want to be. I believe in fairy tales, and I wanna be swept off my feet—I have that part of me that exists, which is a version of my 13-year-old self. But then there’s a part of me that thrives on competition with men and buying things for myself and having autonomy. That brings me a kind of joy that I can’t describe. A huge part of my confidence comes from being able to do that. But the other side sees a trophy wife and is like, “Wow, she really worked it out for herself. She’s completely taken care of.” Even though I’m supposed to be really disgusted by a woman who’s taken care of. I don’t know if a lot of men wrestle with those issues. I don’t know if men have fully had that conversation with themselves about whether it’s fine to be taken care of by their wife.
I watch those Housewives shows and I think, These women aren’t idiots. They are great conversation partners for their husbands, they throw great dinner parties, they have friends, they work on the boards of nonprofits, they’re living full lives. But their main job is to be a product, as opposed to our job. We make things as writers.
We have the easier job because I can go through seven marriages and I would always have my writing career. It seems much more terrifying to not be in charge of my own money and destiny. That’s what I think about all the time.
I try to inhabit the identity of being a writer to get my mind off making people want to have sex with me. If people find you attractive and want to have sex with you, great. But to actually put time and energy into it feels like a competition I can’t win, so I just stay out of it. I couldn’t put more than 10 or 15 minutes a day into it.
I love that, Jill. I want to do that as well. I’m gonna copy you.
Don’t copy me, I got nothing!
But you look so cute, and you’re telling me that it took no effort.
I don’t look that cute.
You look really cute.
Thank you. Gosh. I don’t feel cool, but I’m glad you said that.
This story was originally published in BUST Magazine, Oct/Nov 2011.
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