Kaling’s latest creation, Late Night, was inspired by the actor-writer’s experiences breaking into the male-dominated world of comedy. We spoke with her about why she was the only one who could write this story and how relieved she was when the woman she wrote it for said yes.
Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow
June 14, 2019
Mindy Kaling knows what it feels like to be the only woman in a room full of male comedy writers. She knows what it feels like to be the only person of colour in that room, and she knows how hard it is to be taken seriously when it comes to being funny.
Kaling took those experiences and funnelled them into her screenplay, Late Night, in which she stars as Molly, a novice comedy writer who joins the staff of a late-night talk show hosted by Katherine Newbury, played with prickly precision by Emma Thompson.
Related: Mindy Kaling channels her writing experiences in Late Night
Katherine has been hosting the show for 28 years, but the low ratings and lack of buzz — where are the viral videos?! — could spell the end of her reign, as the network president (Amy Ryan) informs her she’s going to be replaced by a younger, hipper host. Faced with having to revamp her show and image, the hard-edged Katherine leans on Molly to help her rekindle her passion for the job.
“I'm at the place in my career where I only want to write things that seem like I could be the only one that writes them, and this particular story felt very suited to that aim,” says 39-year-old Kaling on the line from Los Angeles. “I had 15 years of observations and memories to draw from for this movie.”
Kaling was just 24 when she was hired to join the writing staff of The Office. She was the only woman on the team of eight, but her work wasn’t limited to the writing room, as The Office producer Greg Daniels also cast her in the recurring role of talkative customer service rep Kelly Kapoor. After eight seasons on the beloved show, she left to star in, write and produce The Mindy Project. Already pulling triple duty on her own show, she began piecing together Late Night.
“I'm at the place in my career where I only want to write things that seem like I could be the only one that writes them, and this particular story felt very suited to that aim”
“I worked for so many years on this movie,” she says. “It was not like one of these quick processes. Every Sunday while I was working on The Mindy Project, I would just write, a scene here, a scene there. So it took forever.”
Kaling’s script takes a smart, lighthearted approach to the issues of workplace gender equality, office romances and ageism. It’s also a love letter to Emma Thompson, who Kaling had in mind when writing the script. Screenwriters are told never to write a part with a particular actor in mind, but Kaling couldn’t help herself. She envisioned Thompson, and only Thompson, as the acerbic Katherine.
“Writing something that only one person could play, I think, was very stupid, and I don't know that I'll do it again because it leaves you so vulnerable as a filmmaker,” states Kaling. “But I don't think this is hyperbole — although, of course, it's really subjective — but I think Emma Thompson is the greatest living actress. I love everything she's ever done. She's one of those people who is so deeply funny but is also incredibly talented at drama. There are so many amazing dramatic actors, but she’s someone who can also be so light on her feet and nimble, and she also has one of the most unique comic minds out there. She’s a writer herself who came from comedy, came through stand-up and sketch.”
You can’t blame Kaling for wanting talented actors to perform her work: After all, it’s something with which she’s familiar. “I’ve been lucky, what with Steve Carell — I used to get that weekly on The Office. You'd write this stuff for Michael Scott, and he would do it. You get really addicted to that, so when you don't have that calibre of performer saying your lines, it’s very demoralizing. That was what was so wonderful about working with Emma — she just nailed it.”
While Thompson’s Katherine cuts through BS with rapier wit, Kaling’s Molly takes a much gentler approach. Some may think Kaling is simply playing a version of herself, but that would be underestimating her acting talents.
“For the past 10 or 11 years, I have played characters that are big comedy characters with big flaws and delusions of grandeur,” she says referring to her Office and Mindy Project roles. “But I've never played a character as earnest as Molly. The way she approaches work and the way she expresses herself at work is kind of something I borrowed from younger writers I've met along my career.
“Obviously, we bear a lot of similarities. She is incredibly ambitious and hard-working, which we do have in common, but her earnestness and her lack of cynicism — I'm not like that at all.”
"I wanted to try to do something that felt a little like the movies I watched when I was a teenager. They made me want to move to New York City and be a grown-up, when a lot of movies now are kind of about how fun it is for grown-ups to behave more like teenagers.”
Kaling was born and raised in Cambridge, Mass., the daughter of an architect father and obstetrician-gynecologist mother. She grew up on the TV sitcoms and movies her protective Indian parents felt were appropriate, and she drew on her love of whip-smart comedies when it came to crafting Late Night.
“So much of the inspiration of this movie came from those ’90s comedies and Mike Nichols movies,” she remembers. “Where it's like a workplace movie and people are dressed well, are trying hard and have big personalities. I wanted to try to do something that felt a little like the movies I watched when I was a teenager. They made me want to move to New York City and be a grown-up, when a lot of movies now are kind of about how fun it is for grown-ups to behave more like teenagers.”
In the end, Kaling wants viewers to see that change is possible and that people can make better workplaces for themselves — where women can succeed and men can be part of the solution.
“People hope they will see change in their lifetimes in their industries, and I've been so amazed that from my 20s to my 30s there's been so much change. I started in The Office, and I was the only woman, and I was the only person of colour on that staff. And now that would be insane. Like, there’d be litigation,” she says with a laugh. “So now the fact that it’s such a different experience is really nice, and for someone like me, it makes me feel so hopeful and excited.”
See Late Night with the girl bosses in your life.
A film that celebrates women killing it in their careers and fighting for their dreams, this is one to share with the powerful women in your life. It’ll inspire you to continue thriving and breaking through the glass ceiling, with plenty of laughs and heart along the way.