Brow Beat

Mindy Kaling on Letting Female Characters Be Obnoxious

Mindy Kaling of The Mindy Project arrives at a screening of Fox TV’s new Tuesday night comedies

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

When does Mindy Kaling sleep? The Mindy Project’s creator-star-writer-producer is currently putting in workdays that begin with a 5:30 a.m. wakeup call, so that she can be on set early to tape the show, and end in the writers room somewhere between 10 p.m. and midnight. “We have really long days because it’s a single-camera show, and because we’re a first-year show, and we have to make it perfect,” she said on a conference call with reporters yesterday. “But I don’t want that to be the case the whole time. I love this job—it’s an amazing dream come true, and everyone who’s working on it is great—but I want to live. I don’t want to be a writer or an actor if I can’t see other things. There’s a tendency in this business to make it your entire life. I don’t want to do that, even though I’m doing it right now. Right now, it’s all I think about for 26 hours a day.”

Which is one of the reasons that the character on her show is very much not her, despite the shared first name. “I’m a nerdy, boring writer, and that’s my lifestyle,” Kaling said. “The character has a great glamorous, exciting, and at times even noble job as an OB/gyn. We both were nerds in elementary school, high school, and college, but things got really different when she finished medical school. She likes to party, she likes to drink, she’s definitely more boy crazy than me. I just don’t have that in me, but I like writing that character. If I wrote a character that was actually me and my life, no one would watch that.”

Kaling also discussed brushing up against what female characters have generally been allowed to do on television. There are things that male sitcom leads have always gotten away with—like be a jackass and date a different hot woman every week—that women have been denied. When I asked Kaling if she was consciously taking a risk by having her character, Dr. Mindy Lahiri, occasionally be obnoxious and go out with a string of guys, she cited the example of Larry David, who “often acts in what people might characterize as obnoxious way” on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Still, viewers enjoy it because they think, “Larry’s doing things that we wish we could do.”

Kaling’s goal for Lahiri is that viewers will get a similar frisson from her behavior. But most of all, she says, “I want her to be realistic and authentic. So many of the female characters that I see on TV, they’re just kind of put-upon and boring. They’re so worried about viewers not being able to handle them being nuanced or occasionally selfish. But every woman I know is occasionally selfish—and also can be heroic and funny. I just try to make her interesting and nuanced, and if some people think she’s obnoxious sometimes, well, people are sometimes obnoxious, and they can still be heroes.”

That concern for realism extends beyond the character she herself plays. A “sassy black woman” will not be showing up on The Mindy Project, Kaling insisted, and Anne Hathaway will be more than just a gorgeous heroine in the movie The Low Self-Esteem of Lizzie Gillespie, which Kaling co-wrote. Instead, Hathaway’s character will be “pretty unglamorous and a little dowdy,” she said.

And when did she find the time to co-write that movie? I have no idea.