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Mindy Kaling talks Late Night, being seen on screen and challenging Hollywood’s beauty standards

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Chloe Gray
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Mindy Kaling

Comedian and actor Mindy Kaling talked representation of women, diversity in Hollywood and her love of Emma Thompson at the Stylist X Reclaim the Frame preview of new film, Late Night

Mindy Kaling’s new film (Late Night, in cinemas 7 June) is exactly what the world needs right now. It’s hilarious (obviously, as it’s written by Mindy herself) but it also discusses privilege, sexism and ageism accessibly, and highlights the importance of ally-ship and the sisterhood which in today’s world, when we’re having to continuously fight for the rights to own our bodies, our work and our health, we all need to be reminded of. 

There’s one particularly poignant scene in which Mindy’s character, Molly, a woman trying to break into comedy who manages to land a job at one of America’s best talk shows, enters the writing room for the first time. With all the seats taken by white men, she literally has to bring her own seat to the table (which, in this case, just happens to be a rubbish bin that she turns upside down).  

It’s a wonderful nod to Shirley Chisholm’s “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair” quote and, though not quite as explicit as perching on a trash can, Mindy told the audience at the intimate Stylist event how she has had to create a space for herself in real life, too: “The truth is that I don’t get cast in anything largely unless I do it myself.”

Beginning her TV work in 2005 as a writer, actor and produced on The US Office, Mindy said she felt “accustomed” to not being hired for roles so instead decided to write herself into TV and films, including her own hilarious show, The Mindy Project.

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In fact, Mindy said that she grew up never expecting to be seen on screen at all because “there weren’t any Indian people in films or TV or comedy or drama” but also because of the shallow beauty standards in her industry: “I was never confident that I’d be on camera for a number of reasons. One being that I’m not traditionally thin or beautiful by LA standards.” Yet even in whitewashed Hollywood (in 2017 only 4.8% of TV writers in America were black, according to a study by Colour of Change) Mindy says she somehow still had the self-grown confidence and love for writing that gave her the hope that she’d be allowed to work behind the scenes.

But interestingly Mindy, who’s now 39, told of how she’s grateful for not being valued by her looks in what is the fickle and shallow world of showbiz. “It’s hard for people who have been cast as the beautiful women in everything since they were 18 and then they roll around to 42 and everyone wants them to play like the grandmother. I feel lucky that I have never had to base my career on beauty. That obviously sucks a lot for your ego when you’re in your 20s, but as I’m getting older I think that’s a benefit.”

As if writing herself into the industry wasn’t enough, Mindy also told of how she wrote Emma Thompson’s character specifically for her, too. While fangirling over her co-star, she explained how she wanted to challenge Hollywood’s ageism issue as roles for older women are currently limited to “grieving mums, or with something terrible happening to the woman”: “Emma is so funny and she doesn’t really get those [comedy] roles that often.

“And she’s so sexy, she looks great in the movie! I just wanted to write it cos I didn’t know that I would be able to see it otherwise.”

Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson

Of course, things are changing for women in Hollywood. People of different sizes, colours and background are landing roles (though it’s a slow process - there were still no female directors nominated for an Oscar this year). And although Mindy seemed hopeful about representation, noting how positive it is that actors like Melissa McCarthy can become a “bonafide movie star” which is not something she could imagine when she was younger, she did highlight how female experience isn’t valued in the same way the male trajectory is. 

Telling the story of how disappointed she was when a male journalist asked her whether the film was anti-male because the two leads are women, she said: “I don’t go into a movie that stars men and think well they must hate women! So it’s very interesting that in a movie like this, in which all the men have redemptive stories and they all go through a journey too, the assumption of his is to ask ‘tell me why this isn’t an anti-men movie?’. And he must be representing some pervasive thought if he felt like he wanted to bring it up?”

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But Late Night isn’t just a ‘woman’s film’. It’s a story of inclusion, the power of finding your voice and the importance of supporting those around you. But it’s also just a simply hilarious movie that fits perfectly within the zeitgeist. So, while we hope that Mindy doesn’t have to be the only person writing her roles in the future, we won’t be mad if she continues to make side-splitting, conscious creations like this. 

Late Night will be in cinemas on 7 June.