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September 2, 2015

The TV Squad Interview: Mindy Kaling of The Office

by Joel Keller, posted Mar 21st 2006 11:16AM
Mindy Kaling as Kelly in The OfficeOne of the things I like about this blogging job I have is that I get to interview people that I find interesting. They don't always have to be the biggest stars, but they have to have something about them that makes me curious. So when I started seeing more of Mindy Kaling on The Office, I decided to dig a little.

As I said in my February "In the Limelight" profile of her, the 26-year-old has accomplished quite a bit so far: besides being a writer and actor on The Office, Mindy also teamed with her friend Brenda Withers to write the play Matt & Ben, which won awards at the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival. She's also appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm and in the mega-hit movie The 40 Year Old Virgin.

In The Office, Mindy plays Kelly, a Dunder-Mifflin drone who lately has been given a few interesting plotlines -- she has a crush on indifferent office temp Ryan. Kelly also has her very own annoying characteristic -- she can't shut up.

Needless to say, I was very interested in finding out how Mindy was able to go from Dartmouth to the writer's room of a hit network show in less than five years. So the Thursday before last, I managed to find her on the set of the show as she was wrapping up filming for the day. She called me back on a land line (maybe from the set itself... the phones there do work) and we talked about a number of topics, including how she's going to spend her April:

[Photo: Chris Haston/NBC]

Joel Keller: So you just finished filming the finale today?

Mindy Kaling: Yes, we finished our last episode.  Actually, our finale was two weeks ago, and this is our last episode, but it's not the finale.  We sort of shot them out of order.

JK: From what I've heard, there are going to be episodes into March, then a pause, and then the finale in May.  Is that right?

MK: I think so, I think that's the plan.

JK: Let's start with the "big question", then: your show's PR person told me that everyone on the set is a big fan of TV Squad.  Is this true or was she just trying to butter me up?

MK: I don't think she was doing it to butter you up. I have an aversion to... whenever I look online about myself, I'll see two nice things and then one sort of horrible thing. I've long learned not to read them unless someone is like, "read this really nice thing!" But our cast is really into the Internet buzz about stuff and keeping up with the different message boards and stuff, so I can say that... it is very, very popular, and if I had a thicker skin, I would be like tuning in like every second. But I am so petrified of the backlash. But if this interview turns out good I'll tell everyone to read it! (laughs)

I'll try to keep my racist inclinations to myself (laughs), or whatever homophobic thing I might let slip out.

JK: Well, it would make for a better interview, of course.

MK: (laughs) Yeah, it would. OK, maybe I'll give you a few juicy ones. You can definitely expect some blatant racism if you get me going like a tiny bit.

JK: OK, well, I'll think of that as we go along. Did this season turn out to be, ratings- and popularity-wise, what you expected? Were you surprised at how popular the show got this season?

MK: I guess the humble thing to say would be that I wasn't expecting any of it and we were so fortunate and lucky. But ever since the second episode of the first season, I thought the show was great, and Greg had perfect pace -- Greg Daniels, our show runner -- and it was going to be fantastic, because the writing style was awesome and the actors were so cool and talented.  So I wasn't surprised; I mean, I was really happy it caught on in the second season instead of, you know, in the fourth season, or like Arrested, which all the critics loved but never got the popular turnout, I guess, in terms of viewers. I was psyched that we finally got people watching.

JK: I've seen your history a bit... You graduated college just five years ago; you worked on a couple of TV shows and had the play Matt & Ben. How were you able to get in position to come on board as a writer for the show?

MK: Well, actually, I had only ever worked as a temporary PA (production assistant) for a show before this. This was my first real involvement with TV, and I got this because Greg had come and seen me in a play where I was not even playing a girl; I was playing Ben Affleck in this play I wrote, kind of an absurdist kind of short play. And he hired me from that to be a writer and actor on the show. But he didn't know in what capacity I would act on it, because there was no Indian girl character in the pilot or anything. I was excited to write -- I mean, that's all I've wanted to do was be a comedy writer -- and acting was a nice cherry on top of the sundae.

JK: That show, you PA'ed on, according to your IMDb profile, was...

MK: Crossing Over with John Edward!

JK: Right. I don't know if you saw the profile I did of you a while ago...

MK: I did see it. Someone copied the text and sent it to me... It was so nice... I don't think there ever has been a profile done of me... thank you so much!

JK: You're welcome.  What I did say in that profile, though, is that the fact that you worked on that program showed right there that you had a good sense of humor.

MK: (laughs) It did. I look back and -- when I was working there, I really believed that his powers were real. I don't remember ever coming to work and thinking that I worked for, like, a charlatan. But since then, I feel like, how would that be possible, and also, why would that show have been cancelled if it was a real thing? I mean I've questioned it since then. But that was a fun experience.

JK: When did you write, develop and produce Matt & Ben?

MK: The summer after I graduated, I moved in with my best friend from college, Brenda, who's a year older than me, and we wrote the play together all that summer and fall. We did a short little version of it for our friends in the spring, and that following year we entered it into the New York International Fringe Festival. It was then that I was working as a PA.  And I was babysitting; that's how I made most of my money, from babysitting.

JK: You mean being a PA for a TV psychic wasn't a lucrative job?

MK: (laughs) You know, for a while, I was making like $350 a week off of that and I thought that was like the most money I ever made, but before that I was babysitting, and for a little while after that, too.

JK: When you took the job for The Office, they did tell you you'd be acting a little bit, as one of the background characters?

MK: Well, they had put me in -- and I didn't even know this when I had signed the contract, that Greg had signed me to an actor/writer contract. I certainly didn't expect to act, and then in the first episode after the pilot, he needed somebody... like a girl or a minority character in it, and he was like, "Oh! Mindy! We'll cash in the Mindy-as-Indian chip!" -- he didn't say that, I'm not using his words -- (laughs) and I played this character named Kelly Kapur who has to slap Michael. That was my first scene, I think, when I slapped Steve Carell across the face in our second episode.

JK: That was the "Diversity Day" episode, right? (Note: Weirdly enough, it was rerunning the night I spoke to Mindy)

MK: Exactly.

JK: How long were you were working on the show before it actually made the air?

MK: I got hired in May (2004) and we did six episodes -- that first season was very short -- so we started shooting in August and we ended at the beginning of November. And we had such a long time... We had like 4-5 months before the show aired.

JK: Through all that time, then the only way people knew about it outside the industry was through news reports saying, "Hey, this is going to be an American remake of Ricky Gervais' British show."  What kind of reaction were you getting from fans of the British show, knowing the sketchy history of British sitcoms adapted to American TV?

MK: Oh, God, it was such an uphill battle. I mean, enemies of it would just say that it's going to be the next Coupling, and would say it was going to be a disaster, and couldn't wait to sort of eviscerate it. And even people who were our friends... people would come up to Greg who were his friends and be like, "Man, this is a suicide mission. Why would you ever want to do this?"

I had never doubted it because Greg is such a genius and I have such faith in the writers. But it was really an uphill battle at that point, because the British version is amazing. I kind of think it might be the perfect television show. We even got that it was going to be hard.

JK: Did you watch the British version before you got this job?

MK: I think I had seen the Christmas special -- someone had given me an advance copy -- and I thought it was amazing. And I had seen some of the first season, and I loved it. I mean... I don't know if a mainstream American audience could respond to it, but I certainly found it gorgeous and so funny. But when I read the script for the pilot that Greg had adapted, I thought that it had a lot of potential, and that he was a fantastic writer, so...

JK: The first episode was basically the first episode from the British version, right?

MK: Yeah, it was a pretty strict adaptation.

JK: But then it diverted right away from the British episodes?

MK: Right, "Diversity Day" was the first episode that I thought couldn't have been more than just an original American Office episode.

JK: Did Greg Daniels consciously make that decision to divert from the UK version early in the show's development?

MK: Oh yeah.  He wanted to do episodes that -- you know, they're all offices, so of course, they're gonna bear some resemblances -- but he wanted to keep it as different as he could from the British version and put in characters that were not even too similar; I think we have a couple of characters who are similar, but I think they're all original, the side charachters.  The leads all have their British counterparts...

JK: Well I think Kevin, for example, has a British counterpart...

MK: Yes, he was the one I was thinking of... Kevin and Keith... the big slow-moving comedy character.

JK: When the show first came on, then, and you started seeing the reviews and started seeing people saying, "It's not as good as the British version..." I mean, what would you tell people like that? I thought people were very impatient with the show.

MK: People were really impatient. And I mean, I think the thing that was really troubling for people who really wanted to hate it was that the jokes were good. It might not have been off the top as powerful and as moving as the twelve completed episodes of the British version, but it wasn't horrible. And I think that that was the sort of the thing that... there were really funny jokes, and we had Steve Carell... I mean, he wasn't The 40 Year Old Virgin Steve Carell yet, but he's still unbelievably talented. And we still had Krasinski (John Krasinski, who plays Jim) and everyone else, so it had legs.

I never worried, which is crazy, because I know that even if a show's good, it could not do well.

JK: How much involvement did Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais (the creators of the UK version) have in the show?

MK: We always sort of had their goodwill, but it wasn't until recently, when they wanted to do a an episode, did we really kinda come in touch with them. I mean, they visited a couple of times, and they've always sent us positive e-mails after viewing episodes, but they live in England and they're working on Extras, so we don't interact with them all that often.

JK:  But they did write a recent episode.

MK: It's going to be for next season... I don't think they're finished with it yet, but we're very excited. That's such the ultimate stamp of approval that they want to be involved in a creative way.

JK: From what I saw of the first season, the style was very much the same as the British show, even if the plots were different. You guys were in the background. The show had the same kind of drab lighting, and the same quiet sequences in between the scenes. With the second season things changed, right?

MK: Well, the biggest change is in, I think, Steve's character Michael. But we've taken out a lot of the darker elements of the show. I just think in general the second season is a lot more cheerful and bright than the first one and not quite as dark. I think we've found that Steve has a lot of warmth to him that people love. And we kind of learned it a lot even just seeing Virgin, that there's this other side to him, there's like a sweetness that we think people are responding to a lot this season.

JK: Was the change in the characterization of Michael driving the changes or did something else drive it?

MK: I kind of think it was the character -- I consider this for myself, I mean Greg might disagree -- but I do think that it came from Michael not being... Before it was sort of like he was an unforgivable lout, and by the end of last season, beginning of this season it was like, this man has some redeeming qualities, and we'd like to see him fall in love and see him have a relationship at some point, even though he is always putting his foot in his mouth and is insensitive a lot of the time.

JK: How do you write uncomfortable?  Know what I mean?

MK: (laughs) How do you write uncomfortable?

JK: Yeah... How do you kind of write that kind of tense silence where the audience is cringing at what Michael's saying?

MK: I mean, that comes naturally when you have a character that has no filter, you know? Or he thinks he has a filter but his filter is really off from other people's filters. The uncomfortable silences are just sort of the natural by-product of a character with no filter. So that isn't really the hard part; the hard part is thinking of new and creative ways for him to put his foot in his mouth.

JK: One of the funnier things for me is when Michael went to New York and he's chasing someone who he thought looked like Tina Fey, and while he was doing that the camera sees Conan O'Brien walk by.

MK: Yeah, that's a great sequence.  I mean we sort of capitalized on the fact that Greg and Conan, I guess, have been friends since freshmen year of college or something, and I guess he was a big fan of the show; that was awesome that he could be in that. For someone like me and a lot of the writers and actors on the show who are in our mid-20s, having Conan do a cameo was really a huge milestone, because it really doesn't get cooler than Conan O'Brien. We sort of grew up watching him in high school and college and stuff, even more so than Letterman.

JK: Wow... Conan debuted when I was entering my senior year of college and you're talking about watching him in high school.  I've got to reset here for a second...

MK: (laughs) Well, that was only three or four years difference.  You're still young.

JK: Do you and the other writers draw on experiences of working in offices?

MK: I think a lot of what it's coming from is -- you know, we all kind of worked in offices throughout our lives -- but most of it's coming from interviewing our friends who work in offices, and I think B.J. (Novak, who is a writer and plays Ryan) went out and temped for a week or something before he took the job so he could get some experience... But our office is of course so different than a regular office, that we have to draw from other people.

JK: It is a live office, right? I mean, you have live Internet connections and live phones, that kind of thing?

MK: Oh, yeah. The office of The Office definitely has all the boring aspects of an office, but, you know, it's so fun because we get to write and we have like a huge game room and lots of snacks all day long. 

JK: Your office pretty much has everything that my office doesn't. So I could understand why you'd like it so much. (Mindy laughs)

MK: This is the perfect job; I mean, when people ask me how the writing compares to the acting, it's like the acting pales in comparison so much. The wrting on the show is the most fun. And acting has its perks too; it's always good to see yourself on camera. But the amount of work you have to put into it, the "hurry up and wait" time, is just mind-numbingly boring. And the writng is just so fun.

JK: What was your reaction when they decided to bring the background characters into the fore?  Because now you're all full-fledged cast members.

MK: Right, it was so exciting, especially when Kelly started turning up and being a chatterbox; that was great. And how she sort of is oppressive to Ryan and desperately in love with him; I mean, that's all really fun to play. I think there's nothing more fun to playing a character than to play utter puppy dog, undying love for someone who is only lukewarm about them.

But her (Kelly's) outfits are like the worst ever, in a good way. I think they're brilliantly horrifying.

JK: Right, because she wears all these kind of girly, frilly...

MK: ...silly, but also hideous, like paisley and pink with ruffles. Like two parts old lady, one part Jennifer Lopez. She has a very skewed fashion sense. But it sort of works for her and I guess it's funny.

JK: That's weird, because in the "Dwight's Speech" episode, you looked a little bit different and our commenters actually noticed.

MK: Oh yes, that was where my hair wasn't pulled back so severely, it was just in kind of a neat little bun and I was wearing a little business jacket. And I think the reason why people thought I was nice because nobody ever saw my skirt; that episode the camera just never happened to catch my skirt, which was such a winner. It was like a bright pink and orange paisley number that was so horrifying, but no one saw it. So they all thought I had undergone this transformation fashion-wise.

JK: You became "Business Kelly".

MK: Greg saw that when it aired and said, "I don't like 'Hot Kelly' at all; we have to get her back in her horrible printed mumus or whatever." So I hope nobody gets used to seeing me look hot (laughs), because it's not gonna last.

JK: It's a little change from the relentless way everybody dresses... I guess that's the feeling you guys wanted to convey with the show, that every day in that office is the same?

MK: Right, and also Greg always has this saying which I think is so nice, which is that what is true is beautiful. That's his mantra for the way this show should be shot.  And I think that's especially in the most superficial sense of the words true and beautiful. Jenna's (Fischer, who plays Pam) costumes are like old cardigans and just boring old button down shirts; but she is such a stunner just because of the way she acts and the way her character is, and that comes through so much.

JK: So you do like the fact that the other characters are taking some of the stories?

MK: It's fantastic.  And my two favorite characters are ones that didn't even have a line in the first season, which is Toby and Creed, they're my two absolute favorites.

JK: Do you think it's easier to write now because there's more characters to write for?

MK: Oh yeah, it's like a wonderful little zoo and every little cage has some funny new animal that you learn something about every day. It's so great.

JK: This is your first TV writing experience. How did that differ from writing the play?

MK: I guess the time pressure is something that I've never had to deal with. Here it's really like you write something and it shoots the next day, so that's kind of exciting to be a part of that and writing lines on set that Steve Carell is going to say... I mean, working with celebrities (laughs), that I had never done.

Also we never... the idea of a junk room... we have a room full of junk food, and that's it.  (laughs) And that was the best part of the entire first season, my fondest memory of the entire show was thinking about how awesome the food was here.

I fell for like the... I guess the freshman writer thing; I just put on 15 pounds the first season and my outfits on set didn't fit by the end of the season (laughs). So I kind of had to cut back a little bit. But the free food -- I still have that college mentality that if there's free food I have to eat it all.

JK: Yeah, free food is good food.

MK: Oh, man. A PA will come in with an Entenmann's chocolate cake and you're not even hungry and you'll finish the whole thing. That's the best part of TV writng.

JK: So did your role in The 40 Year Old Virgin come about because of your association with the show?

MK: That came about because the casting director on The Office, Allison Jones, who did casting for Freaks and Geeks and Curb, she had me audition for the Virgin part. It obviously wasn't for an Indian girl, and I met Judd (Apatow, the director) and Paul (Rudd, who was in the scenes she was in) in the audition, and I guess Judd had seen The Office or whatever, but that was such a nice surprise. And she put me in for Curb. I mean, she's really like an amazing casting director and really nice and open minded. If you saw Freaks and Geeks, that's got some of the best casting I've ever seen. She really gave me the breaks that way. So I felt so lucky that I met her through the show.

JK: You shot it after you shot the first season of The Office, right?

MK: Yes.

JK: So you had that whole TV experience. How was the movie experience different?

MK: You don't really feel when you shoot a movie that you necessarily know what the whole thing is about when you just come in for a small part like I did. I mean, I came in for two days and I only saw one or two scenes. But on The Office there's only one set and you are there for the whole week. You really feel like you know the beginning, middle, and end and that you're contributing to a larger thing.

JK: You've been the main writer for two or three episodes (Note: Mindy was the main writer for the last new episode, "Take Your Daughter to Work Day"). When you're the main writer, is it because you came up with the idea and the basic script and then everyone added to it? How does that work usually?

MK: Well, Greg assigns us an episode, and it will usually be on who he thinks has the biggest handle on the issue and understands the comedy of it more than most. Sometimes that can mean that you pitched it or that you came up with the idea, but oftentimes it's just means that he thinks you'll have a funny take. And before you go out to write your script we all sit together and outline it, almost all the group, and pitch different jokes. Once you have that outline it's your responsibility to leave and come back with a finished draft, then we read it and do a few more tweaks to it. Then it goes to the actors. It's a very collaborative effort.

JK: I heard that you're going to be participating in a much different writing experience when you come back to New York, right?

MK: Oh yeah! I'm going to be working on SNL for a little while in April.

JK: How did that come about?

MK: Last fall I had been asked by SNL to come out and audition. And even though I had a contract here, Greg was nice enough to let me go out there. I don't do characters or anything; I just have stand-up because I'm a writer, not an impressionist -- except for Ben Affleck (chuckles) -- and they offered me a writing job. But I already had a writing job, so...

About a month ago, Michael Shoemaker, who's one of the (SNL) producers, asked if I would consider maybe doing a guest writing thing for them for the month of April. I was overjoyed because that's always been my favorite show on TV since I was a little kid. And I lived in New York for two-and-a-half years before I moved out here so I'm excited to go back to my roots.

JK: Do you have any concerns or are intimidated by the hectic wrting process there?

MK: I should be intimidated... I mean, I'm intimidated by the talent a little bit, but I'm mostly just excited, because I've heard of some of the people there and I've met a couple of the other writers, and I think it's gonna be really fun. I mean I'm a huge fan of the Lonely Island guys (Note: She's referring to SNL featured player Andy Samberg and writers Avika Schaffer and Jorma Taccone); I've only seen their movies, and I think those guys are just awesome and what they're doing is great. And I just can't wait to go out and meet them.

And from what I hear, SNL is very supportive of The Office; they love our show and of course we certainly think SNL is fantastic. And we're all part of the NBC family, so I think it'll be cool. 

JK: I would guess that it's an honor to work there.

MK: It is an honor, because Greg and Mike (Schur, producer/writer) both put in turns there; they both actually met their wives at SNL which is pretty funny. But I hear it's a pretty competitive environment.

JK: Well, for all you know, you might meet your future husband there.

MK: That'd be great. And I'd love for it to be Andy Samberg.

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Great interview! Mindy has writing my favorite episodes - I think she's hilarious!!

March 24 2006 at 1:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

She likes Andy Samberg? That guy is so over-rated. Ah, sweet, beautiful, Mindy. What a waste.

March 21 2006 at 9:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was one of the fans of the British Office who was ready to hate this one, but I just couldn't. Great job, Mindy!

March 21 2006 at 7:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great interview! I love Kelly's character and she's obviously a great writer. Didn't know she did Matt & Ben. I always kick myself for never having gone to see that.

And Willy, Mindy isn't the only one pulled from behind the camera to act on the show. The guys that play Toby and Mr. Brown (the diversity coach) are writers, Ryan is a producer and Phyllis was a casting associate. And a couple of the show's accountants appeared in the pilot.

March 21 2006 at 2:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This was a very nice interview. I had no idea she was one of the writers. I think her character is hilarious. Each time she comes on-screen, my wife and I roll our eyes, because we know what's coming: blahblahblahblahblahblah.

March 21 2006 at 1:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tony Scida

That was a great interview. I want your job.

March 21 2006 at 1:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Joel, great interview! My favorite part was Mindy's description of Kelly's wardrobe: "two parts old lady one part Jennifer Lopez." :)

March 21 2006 at 1:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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