This post contains mild spoilers for Late Night.
In 2017, during the press tour for A Wrinkle in Time, Reese Witherspoon recalled a conversation she’d had with co-star Mindy Kaling. “Don’t you ever get exhausted by always having to create your own roles?” Witherspoon had asked Kaling. “Reese,” came the reply, “I’ve never had anything that I didn’t create for myself.” While born of necessity, this has given Kaling uncommon control over her projects and screen image, and it’s revealing to look closely at what she’s chosen to do with it. After nearly a decade and a half in the public eye playing a ditzy chatterbox on The Office and a chirpy sociopath on The Mindy Project, Kaling finally seems to settle for the ingenue role in Late Night, her first feature in which she plays a major starring part. (She wrote and produced the movie, which was directed by Nisha Ganatra.) Her character, a newbie comedy writer named Molly Patel, is the kind of relatable underdog certain fans have wanted to see the writer-actress inhabit for years. Late Night suggests that Kaling is as fascinated as ever not by the girl next door but by powerful, unruly women—and the unconventional love stories befitting their willful, idiosyncratic selves. But the film may be most notable for its summation of the thinking and rethinking that Kaling has done about her 15 years in Hollywood—and how to fight to change it.
Like The Devil Wears Prada, Late Night is an odd-couple comedy about two women—a jaded icon and a naïve upstart—who discover that they work far better together than apart. Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, the improbably female, English, and high-minded host of a network late-night talk show that debuted in the early ’90s and never bothered to change with the times. When a resentful underling points out to the long-coasting Katherine that she doesn’t have a single woman in her writers room, a haphazard search leads to the snap hiring of Molly, a comedy superfan with zero writing experience. Unlike most of her new colleagues, Molly is not only a woman but a person of color with a non–Ivy League education from rural America, living with her aunt and uncle in an outer borough. Plucky and just a little bit dowdy, she couldn’t be more just-moved-to-the-city-to-pursue-her-dreams if she tried.
We’ve seen dozens of protagonists like starry-eyed Molly, but many of the specifics that set Molly apart come from Kaling’s own origin story. Kaling first caught the entertainment industry’s attention by starring as Ben Affleck—yes, you read that correctly—in a play she co-wrote called Matt & Ben, about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck chancing upon the screenplay of Good Will Hunting. (It literally falls from the sky and into their laps.) But her big break came when she was hired for the writers room of The Office through NBC’s diversity program. This formative period in Kaling’s career provides much of the basis for Late Night, as well as the “diversity hire” label whose stigma Kaling contends with so many years later. “I’d rather be a diversity hire than a nepotism hire,” Molly tells naysayer and head monologue writer Tom (Reid Scott), who Kaling has essentially acknowledged is a stand-in for Kaling’s ex-boyfriend B.J. Novak. (Novak was a similarly intimidating Harvard Lampoon alumnus in The Office writers room when the two met.) “At least I had to beat out every other woman and minority to get here. You just had to be born.” Kaling has made similar statements in interviews. There was a time when she thought, “If you’re funny, it’s funny and you’ll get noticed. But that isn’t true,” she told Deadline. “If you don’t know the right people to get into the rooms, you will just never be seen.”
Complaints from Molly’s new co-workers, like “It’s a hostile environment to be an educated white male” and “I wish I could be a woman of color so I could get any job I want with zero qualifications” are met with similar rebuttals. Molly eventually reframes her differences, as well as Katherine’s, as advantages, guiding the host to play up the facts of her femaleness, her age, and her white privilege.
But Kaling doesn’t speak only through Molly. When Molly hits setbacks, she’s advised by several kindly mentors to replace her protests with hard work: “If you want people to see you as something other than a diversity hire, you have to make them.” It’s instruction Kaling herself has given in her book Why Not Me?: “I don’t understand how you could have self-confidence if you don’t do the work,” she writes. “Confidence is like respect; you have to earn it.”
Indeed, as the movie goes on, it becomes clear that Kaling is as interested in critiquing Molly as in having viewers see themselves in her. If viewers mistake Kaling as identifying only with the character she’s playing, and expecting others to do the same, well, it wouldn’t be the first time. While Kaling’s breakthrough role was as Kelly Kapoor on The Office, it was as the star and creator of The Mindy Project that she created a truly groundbreaking comic id, the devilishly narcissistic Mindy Lahiri—then had the character wildly misunderstood as an incompetently written everywoman. In an essay on “the female bad fan,” New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum bemoaned the viewers who took The Mindy Project’s rom-com trappings to mean that its protagonist was, like those of most romantic comedies, an aspirational or familiar figure. Kaling told Nussbaum that she thought playing a female version of Michael Scott, on which Lahiri was based, would be more “fun.”
With Molly, similarly, Kaling seems less invested in bridging an identification with the audience than in mocking Molly’s earnestness and teaching her a more nuanced view of the beneficiaries of privilege. Kaling pokes gentle fun at the trope of that “absurdly confident newcomer” who tactlessly tells her new employer exactly what’s wrong with her show, and Molly learns that men like Tom might have literally inherited their TV writing jobs from their fathers, but aren’t necessarily untalented. Kaling also seems to be satirizing a certain type of social justice warrior—or at least the stereotype of one—by having Molly tell her co-workers that she’s “marginalized by the iron first of white privilege.” Molly is our entry-point character, and while she has legitimate gripes, the character quickly comes to feel like a repository for all the reasons Kaling has never seemed interested in playing roles like this one.
And if viewers still don’t get the message, well, she’s speaking to them through the movie’s other protagonist, a character whom Kaling admits she identifies with just as much as she does with Molly. You can hear Kaling bristling at critics of The Mindy Project in a rant she has Katherine direct at Molly, about “an absurdly confident newcomer coming in, criticizing my show, and giving me her assessment of my comedic persona, without doing the hard work of presenting me with solutions.” Kaling may have started out in Hollywood as a Molly, but she’s become something closer to a Katherine.