If Mindy Kaling is exhausted, she’s certainly not letting on. With no fewer than four major projects coming out this year (her NBC comedy, Champions, premieres tonight) and a brand new baby girl, the multi-hyphenate is one of the busiest people in Hollywood. And now, with the release of A Wrinkle in Time (out tomorrow), the June release of Ocean’s 8, a feature film with Emma Thompson about women in late-night TV, and more, Kaling is leading the charge of women creating content about women and diverse families.
But Kaling’s mission isn’t new. She’s been doing it for years, from her acclaimed off-Broadway satire, “Matt and Ben,” to The Office to The Mindy Project. Now, with Champions, she’s on a quest to further representation in the LGBTQ community by introducing a character who is not only secure in his identity, but thrives on it. It’s a character trait that has been a staple in all of her projects (Mindy Lahiri, anyone?), but one you may not have consciously picked up on.
Here, Kaling explains the reasons behind that and more.
Congratulations on [daughter] Katherine’s arrival and all these upcoming projects! I thought you were supposed to take it easy on maternity leave.
Mindy Kaling: Thank you! She’s the best. I thought I’d be taking it easy, too, but these projects are so exciting that I was like, ‘How could I resist?’
I hope you can get some rest between all this craziness.
MK: I’m literally sitting in a robe in a hotel room eating an enormous chicken salad, so I’m like, fantastic, thank you. [Laughs]
Let’s talk about your new show, Champions, which I love.
MK: Isn’t it tonally a lot like Mindy, although the set and everybody is so different?
Funny you say that because I was going to ask you to fill in the blank: If you loved The Mindy Project, then Champions _________ .
MK: OK, if you loved The Mindy Project, then Champions has some of the same tone with a completely new group with wonderful, funny actors.
What made you want to tell this particular story about this young boy, his mother, and his newfound father and family?
MK: I love writing characters who are, at least on the surface, completely comfortable in their own skin and are defiant and love New York City. And one of the things that was really appealing to me was to write a young, male gay character and have his being gay not be something that was…you know the struggles of being gay be part of his narrative on the show. To me, that was where we’re at culturally, and if we’re not there in certain communities, then I wanted to help push that forward with showing him being out and loud and proud, particularly because he’s Indian. To me, a character like that who lives in Manhattan, where he’s dreamed of being, and he felt like an outsider in his own town, just felt like such a character you could root for, and America hasn’t seen yet. That was really appealing to [co-creator] Charlie Grandy, too, so we decided to create the show around that character.
What issues are you particularly excited to explore on a network series?
MK: We’ve clearly seen how the Time’s Up movement has affected women in Hollywood and actresses, but it’s really great to see the trickle down effect of sexism in a workplace like this…a non-affluent gym in Brooklyn and more of like a typical office than just in the rarified halls of The Beverly Hilton during the Golden Globes. So it’s really fun to see how that has spread through culture. In our third episode, we deal with the guys…the two leads—who think of themselves as very woke—even though you can be considered woke in certain ways about ethnicity and about having rights, it’s all about intersectionality and they’ve completely underestimated this older woman who runs a gym nearby who is their competition. So with these kinds of characters, there’s so many juicy areas to explore, and really fun areas to write comic situations for.
How many episodes will you be on the series for?
MK: Well, you know, I was so, so pregnant in the shooting of this. I was pregnant in the pilot and then I was, and obviously you can’t tell, but I grew and grew, and then we got picked up and I got increasingly more pregnant, so I think I gave birth during the shooting of the seventh episode, so I couldn’t be in all of them, but we managed it in that I’m in four of the 10.
Publicists always pitch me their clients who play “strong female leads,” but I began to think, What does that even mean? Why do we always have to say “strong?” And then Shonda Rhimes tweeted a similar sentiment, noting that we never hear men described as “strong male leads,” so let’s stop calling females that and instead say complex or multi-faceted. As a creator and writer, what are your thoughts on that?
MK: Wow, Shonda always has a way of articulating what you’re thinking in the back of your head but haven’t put it together, because she’s a million times smarter than everyone, but I think that’s really smart and profound. In regard to your question, there’s so much more content starring women, thanks to people like Shonda, people like Tina Fey, people like Reese Witherspoon, who are creating these shows…
And you, too.
MK: Well, thank you. [Laughs] There’s just so many more women being represented, particularly in TV, that it gives people license to use more adjectives than just strong. You can’t call Laura Dern and Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon and all the characters they play all strong because it will seem like you’re the least creative journalist. So that’s nice about the influx of this much content.
In terms of the content you’re creating, what are you most looking forward to debuting over this next year?
MK: In keeping in the spirit of only being in movies with “strong female leads,” [laughs], I wrote and am starring in a movie with Emma Thompson … about late-night TV, and it’s awesome. I’m really excited for people to see it. It’s super funny, a work-place dramedy that gives Emma Thompson a big, big juicy role, so that’s something exciting to me because I’ve learned a lot from Ava [DuVernay] and from Reese, and from Gary [Ross] in Ocean’s 8 about how to make those kinds of movies and how to make things that a lot of people want to see, so I’m excited to take what I’ve learned and put it to action, actually. Cause movies feel like a new area to me because I haven’t done that many of them.
You brought up Time’s Up, and obviously Champions, Ocean’s 8 and A Wrinkle in Time were in the works before #MeToo and Time’s Up happened. What does it mean to you to have such empowering projects come out during such a watershed movement?
MK: I feel lucky in that I was involved in so many projects during a pre-Time’s Up era that I can be proud of even now. Like, looking at Wrinkle, looking at Ocean’s, I only worked with actresses pretty much all over the age of 35 for the past two years, so it’s been great, and typically those are the women that have the hardest time finding employment in Hollywood and to be able to be in two movies starring these incredible, diverse casts of women is incredible. I forgot what it was like to act with guys pretty much. And then with Champions and with J.J. [Totah, who plays my son], it just feels great to be part of all these different projects.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.