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Interview

Scene-Stealer Mindy Kaling Takes the Lead

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Scene-Stealer Mindy Kaling Takes the Lead
Photo Source: Matt Hoyle

Mindy Kaling may use the word “luck” a lot regarding her career, but she also knows that you usually have to make your own.

When only 22, she co-wrote and starred with Brenda Withers in 2002 NYC Fringe festival hit “Matt and Ben”—an offbeat play about Ben Affleck (Kaling) and Matt Damon (Withers) stumbling into fame after the script for “Good Will Hunting” fell out of the sky—and took it to Off-Broadway and then L.A. After the play and Kaling caught the eye of writer-producer Greg Daniels, he hired her as a writer and actor on “The Office,” where she spent eight seasons stealing scenes as self-centered drone Kelly Kapoor. Today Kaling is living what she calls her “dream scenario,” surrounded by dozens of shoes and clothing changes in her busy office on the Universal lot, where she is the writer-producer-star of the new Fox comedy “The Mindy Project.” Her turn as an obstetrician struggling to balance her work and love lives is exactly what the newly minted leading lady’s singular talents deserve.

If the show’s premise sounds like that of a traditional network sitcom, you obviously aren’t familiar with Kaling’s point of view. Her characters are consistently skewed and hilarious; her Affleck was a lovable macho goofball, while Kelly was apt to such childish antics as sabotaging co-workers who didn’t attend her “America’s Got Talent” party. The Mindy of “The Mindy Project” is considerably more mature, though her relationships are still complicated. Weaned on romantic comedies like “Notting Hill,” Mindy can’t quite figure out why her life isn’t a Sandra Bullock movie. It’s a complex, fleshed out character at the forefront of a fantastic ensemble. Not bad for the woman who jokes, “I had more lines in the pilot than the entire eight years I was on ‘The Office.’ ”

Not that Kaling is complaining; she loved her job on “The Office” so much that she says it was tough to leave. “The leads on ‘The Office’ are all very well-rounded, but some of the supporting players are full-on ‘Simpsons’ characters,” she says. “I knew that my role was to come in when you needed a mean, 14-year-old girl’s perspective on the world. And I loved that; it was a pretty sweet gig.” But Kaling knew that to carry her own show, she needed a three-dimensional character, one with major faults. “I love leads that have deep blind spots,” she says. “What I really liked about the Michael Scott character on ‘The Office’—and he’s nothing like Mindy—was that he was a deeply flawed, interesting character. Mindy can be super un-PC and astonishingly selfish, but she is also good at her job and can be very kind.”

Though Kaling plays a doctor on the show, don’t expect a medical procedural in the vein of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Kaling, whose mother is a gynecologist, chose the profession for its location and potential storylines. “It’s an office setting, and I know how to write offices,” she says. “And I picked it because I would like to spend most of my life with women. My mother is my best friend, my two best friends live in New York, and I pine to see them more than I’ve ever pined for any boyfriend. So I was like, ‘OK, I will always be able to have women on the show, funny guest stars, there will always be women around.’ I have little interest in really showing the nitty-gritty details of an ob-gyn. If I had just said the character was a doctor and not an ob-gyn, I think it would be different, but people have latched on to that world as if the show was just going to be speculums.”

Kaling says she shares some characteristics with her onscreen character, but the fictional version takes it to the extreme. “I’m a very confident person, but my character is crazily confident,” she says. “She can acknowledge she’d like to be a better person but also still thinks she should be married to Chris Evans.”

Kaling originally wrote “The Mindy Project” for NBC, which ultimately passed on the script before her manager suggested taking it to Fox. “Within that week, they decided they wanted to produce it,” she says. “Looking back, it happened so quickly, I didn’t have time to take it all in. It was a big disappointment, then an incredible reversal of fortune.” Fox has a great deal of faith in the show, pairing it on Tuesday nights with its other female-starring comedy, “New Girl,” but there are no hard feelings against the original network or NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt—whose office is not far from Kaling’s on the Universal lot. “Bob has been so generous and supportive about letting us make a great show,” she says. “I can only be grateful to him.”

Though Kaling again uses the word “lucky” to express her happiness and wonder, she also wants people to know that, unlike for her version of a certain Oscar-winning Bostonian, success didn’t fall into her lap. “Luck is when you blindly audition for something and get it,” she says. “We had to write ‘Matt and Ben’ because no one was casting us in anything. We put it on, and we fought to bring it to L.A., where Greg Daniels saw it. And while doing the play I had written an ‘Arrested Development’ spec, so when Greg met us and asked for spec, I had something to give him. There was luck involved, but I had to make everything for myself to get to the place where Greg could see me and know my work.”

After hundreds of performances over the years, Kaling still has a great fondness for Affleck. “I’ve really only played three characters up to this point, and Ben and Kelly are the two parts I’ve played the longest,” she says. “Playing Ben is so fun, and I loved it so much. And I admire the real person—he’s a great actor, an amazing director, and such a funny person.” Yet, after all this time, Kaling has never met the man. “I don’t want to force it,” she says, noting that they have mutual friends. “I hope to someday meet him. And when I finally do, I hope it’s in a really amazing, cinematic way.”

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