“Good to see you,” says Mindy Kaling. “Please, sit down in my weird cabana.”
We’re on the roof of the Beverly Hilton, at a party being thrown by Hulu as part of the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Reporters are quite literally lined up to talk to Kaling, and a publicist from the streaming service has decided that one of the canopied, bed-like seating areas will be the most quiet, private place to do interviews. Kaling’s game, and seeing her up close, I suddenly feel underdressed—she’s got on a sequined aqua pencil dress and white pumps, and now that the cabana’s in the mix, the whole scene just feels very glamorous and weird and distinctly Hollywood.
No one is more aware of this than Mindy Kaling, though, and before I’m even done figuring out how to gracefully sit down in the dress I’m wearing, she grins and breaks the ice with a comment about the vibe and an invitation to lean back with her on the pillows: “You’re like, ‘I’m so uncomfortable. I wish I had back support.’”
Support is something she knows a lot about these days, in the literal pillow-leaning sense and as well as the broader reason why we’re here: in May, Fox canceled The Mindy Project after three seasons, but before fans could even properly freak out, it was announced that Hulu had picked it up—for 26 episodes, a larger order than Fox had ever given the show.
It’s been a long road for the series (which Kaling created, writes, produces and stars in). The show was originally commissioned by NBC, where she worked for eight-plus years on The Office, but they passed on the pilot and sold it to Fox, where it struggled with low ratings despite cultivating a devoted fanbase. But Kaling says that even after Fox pulled the plug, she never really thought The Mindy Project was over.
“I think people might be surprised by this answer, and maybe this is my personality, but I knew that it wasn’t going to be done,” she says. “I mean, the wonderful thing about our show is our fans are so passionate, they love the show so much, and the kind of talent that we attract to the show, whether it’s Stephen Colbert, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth [Meyers], all these people, I just feel like this can’t be in my imagination. Like, I’m delusional, but only to a degree. People I think are responding to it, and so I never thought that it was going to stop.”
However, whether or not it was going to stop, the chances of it living on at Fox began to look slim, and Kaling says she always had Hulu in the back of her mind as another option.
“To their credit, and even now, there are so many people at Fox that we love and helped make the show so great—you know Joe Earley, Suzanna Makkos—and they were like ‘we’re not sure,’” she says. “And we had the relationship with them where they felt so invested in the show that they weren’t going to lie to us, and I obviously don’t know [Fox CEOs] Dana [Walden] and Gary [Newman], but to the very end it really felt like even they didn’t necessarily know. So we didn’t find out until very late. Although of course Ike [Barinholtz, who writes on the show and plays Morgan] and me and everyone, we thought, ‘OK, if this doesn’t happen, what is our Plan B?’ and we always had in the back of our head how cool it’d be at Hulu.
“And at that time I remember so well when we were still waiting to find out, on the cover of Variety was James Franco and [Hulu CEO] Mike Hopkins for that Stephen King miniseries they were doing, and I was like ‘That looks really cool.’ And, I don’t know, it’s like to be at a network is obviously amazing and great, but it’s not so often that people get so excited they put you on the cover of a magazine for it, and so that was exciting to me. And I can admit this now, that I was hopeful that we’d end up there.”
From a creative perspective, making the leap from network TV to streaming service does come with certain advantages. For one, there’ll be no more grappling with the censors. (Earlier in the day at the Mindy Project panel, Barinholtz recalled that he was once told his character couldn’t say “Jesus, you’re strong.” “Jesus” was changed to “jeez,” but “jeez” was still deemed too racy for a show that once had an entire episode about anal sex, and the line was cut. Go figure.) Kaling says the overall tone of the show won’t change, but she’s looking forward to having some wiggle room with episodes’ running times.
“Just letting an episode breathe,” she explains. “We used to have to worry about doing an episode in like 21 minutes, and so now we have extra time to breathe. That’ll be really nice. We can give some of our secondary characters extra lines, and coming from [playing] a tertiary character on The Office, I know how good that feels to be able to have screen time, so I’m really looking forward to being able to do that, because this cast is just incredibly funny. Beth [Grant] is a legend, Ed Weeks has become such a funny character on the show, so I’m excited about giving them more lines.”
Coming from a network background, however, is definitely something Kaling wouldn’t trade for the world—particularly now, as she’s writing the longest season her show has ever had.
“I’m happy because when I told the writers we had so many episodes, I was so happy that every single one of my writers had been trained on a network show because it is rapidly becoming not the case that people have the endurance to do that, and my entire staff is people from network shows,” she says. “It’s hard. I mean, in about a year or two, more people will not have that experience. I mean, I talk about this all the time, but it is hard work to do that many episodes a year, and I need endurance. I need long-distance runners.”
Her own endurance isn’t too shabby, either: On top of The Mindy Project (which will make its Hulu debut on Sept. 15), her second book, Why Not Me? (the follow-up to 2011’s excellent Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)) will be released next month (also on Sept. 15), and back in May, she and her close friend/ex-boyfriend BJ Novak inked a deal with Random House to co-write a book about their “weird as hell” relationship, which Kaling once described as “romantically charged camaraderie with loud arguments.” She’s got a lot on her plate, but The Mindy Project remains her main focus, and Kaling says she’s turned down offers to produce for other people to avoid spreading herself too thin.
“I think you can take two different routes, right?” she says. “One is the route of producing a lot of things for other people, and the other route is Wes Anderson, Woody Allen, people who only do their own thing, and right now I just want to make sure that I get it right and I’m working really hard to make sure the show is good, and I don’t want the people who commit years of their life to the show to feel that I’m checked out because I’m working on something else.”
That book with Novak is still in the very early stages (“I saw him last week for dinner and we started talking about it and then per usual we quickly started gossiping or doing something else, but we are still really excited about writing it, still in the really early stages of it. I think it’ll be very funny and very good,” Kaling says), but it can’t come soon enough for fans who “’ship” the pair. Maybe it’s because Kaling’s so closely associated with romantic comedies, maybe it’s because their friendship feels so When Harry Met Sally, maybe it’s just that people want Ryan and Kelly from The Office to date in real life—but whatever the reason, the internet has taken to rooting for the two to get back together, even creating Tumblrs about their relationship.
“I find it very flattering,” Kaling says. “It makes me feel more cool and famous than I am, so of course I like it.” She laughs. “But yes. I mean, we’ve known each other for such a long time that the fact that it would instill any kind of interest in anybody is amazing to me. We’re comedy writers. Our job at The Office was so unglamorous at the time that the fact that anyone would amplify it or think it was anything sexy or cool is great.”
She has carved a niche for herself playing overconfident characters, but the real-life Mindy Kaling is right in that self-assurance sweet spot: down-to-earth and self-deprecating, but never for a second insecure. She’s bold enough to keep fighting for her spot in an industry where being a minority and a normal-sized woman (unlike most actresses who, as she writes in Why Not Me?, are “so thin they’re like walking clavicles”) are typically viewed as handicaps—because she knows she’s earned it. And she knows she’s not done.
And with that, my cabana time is up, and the cool and famous comedy writer waves and wishes me well as the next reporter starts to climb in.