US comedian Mindy Kaling makes it look easy but her rise to the top has been tough, which makes her life advice hard to beat.
When we were six, most of us were fashioning dens out of sheets or pretending to be a newsreader through the hacked-out screen of a cardboard box. Mindy Kaling was sat in her mother’s office – an obstetrics and gynaecology office no less – and wrote plays, day in day out, which her parents would then read and give her feedback.
“My mum and dad were very suspicious of babysitters,” the 36-yearold laughs when I meet her on a stiflingly hot day on the French Riviera. “So after school, I would come to mum’s work and sit in the phlebotomy room where bloods were drawn, with a typewriter – which was a very glamorous thing then – and write. The plays weren’t to be performed; [they were] just for the love of writing.”
Of any story that Mindy tells – and she is one of those comedians whose skill lies in telling anecdotes laced with brilliant minutiae rather than laugh out loud gags – this one pretty much sums her up. For one, it proves how crucial her relationship with her parents Avu and Swati Chokalingam is to just about everything, including her success. For another, it showcases what a frighteningly hard worker she has always been. And for a third, which is totally by the by, it reveals her parents had very unique thoughts on childcare.
Today I’m meeting Kaling at the chic Carlton Hotel on the famous Boulevard de la Croisette. It’s the sort of place people get a helicopter to rather than endure a 30-minute drive from the airport. Where sweat-free women in crisp white jumpsuits drink rosé at 11am (although in Cannes, there’s never a time when people are not drinking rosé). Kaling looks the part in a structured floral Sachin and Babi dress but she’s replaced heels for Converse and no, she isn’t drinking rosé.
We’re here to talk about Kaling’s current incarnation, an impatient green cartoon character called Disgust. She’s one of the central characters in Inside Out – alongside Amy Poehler – the Pixar animated coming-of age story about a girl called Riley, and the emotions – Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness that control her, literally. A conceptual, smart and emotional film, this particular journalist wept at least three times. As did Kaling. “I cried at the premiere,” she reveals. “And that was the second time I’d watched it. Plus I’d lived with the script for so long.”
Kaling is a Hollywood phenomenon. Not least because she is the first Indian-American to have her own network TV show The Mindy Project about a subversive romance-obsessed ob/gyn – yet more proof those early days spent in that doctor’s office paid off. She is the writer, star, director and boss. But there was never really any doubt the show would happen. “Anyone – and this is at the risk of sounding too overconfident – who has the job of their dreams, you just know,” she muses. It’s an idiosyncrasy I note a few times during our time together; she’s confident and forthright, but quick to measure herself.
That knowing was cemented during Kaling’s playwriting degree at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire – which took her away from her home with her parents and brother Vijay in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A move to New York in 2012 followed where she wrote and starred in Matt & Ben, a brilliantly bizarre play reimagining the life of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (YouTube the scene where the script of Good Will Hunting literally falls from the ceiling).
Two years later Kaling joined the writing team on the US version of The Office and went on to star in the show – where she earned six Emmy nominations, and refined her writing skills; “Your bread and butter is finding observations in everyday people,” she muses. In 2012 she pitched The Mindy Project to Fox, and they liked what they saw. Soon after Kaling released New York Times bestseller Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and picked up 4.2 million Twitter followers and a place on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2013.
If this all sounds rather charmed, it is and it isn’t. While her career path seems uncluttered, it’s all entirely her own making, often against the odds in white male-dominated Hollywood. She changed her surname because comedy MCs couldn’t pronounce it and endured an audition where she was told she wasn’t attractive enough. There was a major setback when The Mindy Project was cancelled after three series, seemingly out of the blue, earlier this year (it’s just been bought by online streaming service Hulu for a lot of money). There was also personal tragedy when her beloved mother Avu died of pancreatic cancer in 2012 – the day The Mindy Project was officially greenlit.
It’s the culmination of all these experiences which means that on meeting Mindy, I’m struck by not how witty she is (of course she is) but by how much we can learn from her. About life, getting ahead and trusting your own mind.
In Inside Out Riley, the protagonist is 11, what were you like at that age?
I was the chubby friendly girl and didn’t talk very much. I was very, very shy. Were you aware you were introverted? I knew on some level that I didn’t have the same audacity as other kids – they were so fearless and I definitely wasn’t. But it wasn’t something my parents put a premium on. They said, “It’s more important to be perceptive than expressive when you’re young.” Now it’s like, 100% of the time you should be expressing how you feel. I don’t think that’s a great thing to tell children.
What would you say to that young girl now?
I would probably tell her to grow her hair out because no-one could tell if I was a boy or a girl for about 10 years [laughs]. I would probably tell her to learn how to do some exercise. Sorry, I’m just letting my hair down [she literally does take her hair out of its ponytail]. This is good; it means I’m feeling comfortable…
Did you think then that this was the career you wanted?
When I was about 12 I would watch Saturday Night Live and was obsessed with Dana Carvey and Adam Sandler, and so I said, “OK, that’s what I want to do”.
Inside Out is all about emotions. Are you an emotional person?
I do feel things very deeply, but because I’m a boss now, I’ve had to learn to quell them more because it’s not professional. But I am a very sensitive person.
I’ve read a description of you as ‘steely’, is that accurate?
Really? I think at times when you are decisive and run things – where a man might be described as competent, as a woman you might be described as steely. I have a lot of faith in my decision-making skills but I think because of that I can be, at times, very resolute.
Can you learn to become resolute?
The good thing was I didn’t get to make many decisions when I was at The Office, so I had eight years of watching my boss, [producer] Greg Daniels, who always had the final say. When you study how someone does that, you are given confidence when you have to do it. You’re gambling on the livelihood of 150 people so all anyone wants to see is that the person is confident in the decision they’ve made, whether good or bad. That’s taken a while to learn.
Did it rock you when your show got moved from Fox?
You’re very sweet not saying “cancelled” [laughs]! I would say yes. It never feels good to have that happen, and yet it opened up this opportunity. It’s like a relationship: you should always just be with the person that wants to be with you, who is proving to you over and over again, through actions not words, that they are into you.
Can having the rug pulled out from you be a good thing?
I’ve never had an easy time of it. I have found that in forging my own path, in almost every sense it has been a challenge, so I don’t know if there’s any other way to do things.
What have you learned about yourself from being in the public eye?
The people I surround myself with are feminists – the men, the actors on the show are feminists. But I have learned, unfortunately, that not everyone in the world will share the same opinions as I do. And so I learned to – and I still think that I could do this better – express myself carefully to everyone when I talk. And I try to always remember that my audience is not made up of people in my immediate friend group.
Is your dad a feminist?
That’s a great question. I’ve never asked my dad that. I bet having to define himself by that term might make him feel a little uncomfortable, but given the advice he has given me, and the way that he has advised me to lead my life, I think he would probably have to identify as such.
What has been the toughest lesson you’ve had to learn?
I am someone who is so emotionally invested in everything professionally – which is a blessing because it makes me enjoy success in a really deep, personal way – but I also have to learn to divorce the professional and the personal. I take things very personally, because my show is so much an expression of myself. But the great thing about my life is also the hardest as I don’t have a lot of time to reflect on anything I do. Sometimes if you reflect too much on things, it can be very traumatising. I’m anxious and I can worry about a lot of things, so that is a blessing.
Do you think you’ll have a massive therapist bill when you’re 60 and it all comes tumbling out?
[Laughs] Could be. I haven’t seen a therapist and almost all my friends find it of great value.
Is there a reason for that?
I am an open book. I talk so much of the time, so I’m always able to express myself and my fears. Sometimes I just like the quiet cathedral of silence and reflection. When I can, I just like to sit in the car and listen to music.
Are you a workaholic?
I am a workaholic. It’s funny, work has become the new villain in a lot of movies – it’s making people neglect their families, it has replaced terrorists. Work can take a toll but I also don’t know anyone successful who’s not a workaholic. I don’t think that’s told to children enough. People are like, “You don’t want to have your whole life given over to work,” but, was Henry Ford a workaholic? I think he was. Is Tina Fey a workaholic? Yes. Ghandi was a workaholic! I don’t think I’d be a success if I didn’t work this hard.
What are you like when you’re not busy?
I don’t like sitting still. Even when I’m on vacation, I need to fill my day with activities or assignments. I have to keep busy or I will die.
How do you define success?
That the people who work for you are happy and love their jobs, that I have a comfortable home, where everyone in it is happy to see me. And lots of sleep. And lately I’ve been noticing that young women say to me that I inspire them. Or they didn’t think someone who looked like them could have a job like mine.
Does it make you sad that they would have to even mention that?
It does make me sad, but when you grow up looking the way I do, I think that you’re hoping that it works out for you without having any role models, just because of sheer dint of will.
Who is the biggest love in your life?
My mother was the great love of my life, and that’s it so far. The one thing losing a parent does is make you want to recreate that relationship so badly that you’re willing to take on the role of the parent in order to have it. I don’t necessarily think, ‘I’m dying to be a mother’, but I loved our relationship so much that I would do whatever I could to have a kid, because I miss that camaraderie. I’d prefer to be the child but I can’t.
Is it easy to talk about your mother?
I talk about my mom with my father a lot. We take turns being the one that is sad. My dad will be reminiscing about her, and then I’ll have to be like, “OK dad, come on”. It’s good to have my father there because for every sad thing, he remembers a funny thing about mom too.
Are you in love at the moment?
With a million different people. My latest crush is the actor James Norton. He played a horrifying serial rapist and murderer on think that I could do this better – express myself carefully to everyone when I talk. And I try to always remember that my audience is not made up of people in my immediate friend group.
As a comic is it easy to make you laugh?
I don’t think it’s easy to make me laugh because I’m around funny people all day, but I’m often surprised at what I laugh at. I think that physical comedy is funnier than I am proud to admit.
You recently Instagrammed your plane reading: The Girl On The Train, Serena and Missoula: Rape And The Justice System In A College Town. What did you think of them?
I’m a fast reader so I’ve read about a third of each of them. I’ll start one – and it’s not to say I don’t like them, I like these books a lot – but I need to take a break. I’ll like a book so much that I want to prolong the experience.
What book has had the biggest impact on your life?
Probably House Of Mirth by Edith Wharton. If you’re single and in your 30s, you really identify with her and the idea of the ache of a missed opportunity.
Finally, since writing Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? have you stopped worrying about who’s hanging out without you?
Absolutely not [laughs]. If anything, the worry has increased.