Thirty-Three Facts You Learn About Mindy Kaling by Hanging Around Her

Photo: Courtesy of Fox

Tonight is the debut of Mindy Kaling’s new Fox sitcom, The Mindy Project, which our critic Matt Zoller Seitz called “a keeper.” Earlier this month, writer Jada Yuan spent a great deal of time with Kaling for a New York Magazine cover story (specifically: eight hours on set with her; two hours watching her try on clothes in her Spanx; and another several hours just talking — about the show, her ambitions, and her best friend and mother, Swati, who passed away this January the very day that Fox greenlit her pilot). The resulting pile of notes and transcripts was too much for one magazine feature: An addendum was called for. And so here, based on many Spanx-supported hours with her and those who know her well (who may or may not have been wearing support undergarments), are 33 more facts about Mindy Kaling, including her hatred of the terms “girl crush” and “besties,” an exhaustive analysis of her relationship with B.J. Novak, and how to do an impression of her, courtesy of Rainn Wilson.

  1. She’s still getting used to having absolute power. Besides not being able to wander around her offices in her Spanx for fear of being charged with sexual harassment, she’s learning, she says, “I can’t just ask people at work, ‘Hey, you want to go see Prometheus with me?’ Because I’m a boss, so people feel compelled to do that.”
  2. Despite this, she did ask co-workers over to her place on the day of our interview to catch up on Breaking Bad. It’s the one show she and her friends try to stay top of, because, she says, “I actually get irritated when people are spoiler-phobic. Like when you’re talking about the show and they’re like, ‘Don’t say anything!’” She makes fun of that type in The Mindy Project pilot, when her character calls out her ex-boyfriend, played by Bill Hader, in a drunken speech at his wedding (to a much-younger Serbian bagel girl) for being annoying about spoilers for Downton Abbey. “I have friends who go bananas or theatrically leave a room when someone’s talking about a TV show they haven’t seen,” says Kaling. “It makes me laugh, like, ‘Come on. Be a man about it.’”
  3. Apparently what impressed her father the most about her having her own show was her parking space, right outside her office door and adjacent to Dick Wolf’s. Says co-star/writer Ike Barinholtz (formerly the Russian pitcher on Eastbound & Down), “He visited the set and then wrote her an e-mail after he left, like, ‘Mindy, it was so great to see you and your wonderful writers and your actors and congratulations on your show and your premium parking.’ That was a big deal for him: ‘Wow, my daughter has parking right next to her office.’ It’s really touching.”
  4. She’s still getting over residual habits from having to fight to be heard as one of the few females in the show’s male-dominated writers’ room. “Some days,” she says, “I find myself arguing passionately for someone and Howard [Klein, her manager] will have to be like, ‘Hey. Relax. You don’t have to actually keep belaboring this point. It gets to be your way.’”
  5. That fighting spirit actually made her a kind of role model for the other women on The Office. In the first season, she was the sole female writer, and Jenna Fischer was the sole female lead cast member, and Fischer remembers asking Kaling for advice on how to get respect in the writers’ room, “because sometimes I feel like people’s eyes glazed over,” Fischer says. “And I remember her saying, ‘If you can get them to yell at you, then you know that they’re treating you like an equal and not like a girl.’ That made me feel brave.” So one day, Fischer marched into the writers’ room and would not let go of a position she had on a Pam story. “I don’t think I won that battle,” she says, laughing, “but I did feel like I was listened to in a way that I never had been before, and I credit Mindy with that. And I got yelled at! I wear it as a badge of honor.”
  6. She’s had to trade her writers’ room diet of eating nothing but “Sour Patch Kids and licorice and Umami Burgers for eight years” for “horrible-tasting” green smoothies and packets of vitamin-laced goo. Just before the show started production, Malcolm in the Middle showrunner Linwood Boomer told her to get in the best shape of her life. “At first I thought he meant, ‘Oh, as an actress, get in great shape,’” Kaling says. “But he was like, ‘No. No. No. Get in the best shape of your life because you are going to be so tired and broken by the show.’ I was like, ‘Okay, Linwood. I think I’ll be okay. I did eight years at The Office. I was fine.’ And the first week of shooting it was the middle of August and I had a full on, winter-level cold. And I was like, ‘Linwood was right. I need to start getting into Linda Hamilton-in-T2-level shape to do this show.’ There’s no coincidence. I mean, I look at Tina [Fey] and she looks so sinewy and strong. And even Lena [Dunham] now, when I see her she’s just this compact little thing. Maybe a more cynical person would think it was for something else, but I truly don’t believe both of those women are as wiry and in shape as they for simply cosmetic reasons. I think it’s because they need to be strong and fit and alert for their shows. I can’t go to sleep at 4 a.m. on a Friday night and wake up at 2:30 like I was doing for so many years.”
  7. Kaling plans on using her character as a conduit for expressing her strong opinions on, well, everything. “In one episode, my best friend is like, ‘I have such a girl crush on Tina Fey.’ And I’m like, ‘Just say you have a crush on her, or that you really like her.’ I take issue with the phrase ‘girl crush,’ and I take issue with someone being like, ‘Oh is she your bestie?’ I’m an adult woman. She’s my best friend. I don’t have a bestie or a BFF. Don’t infantilize me.”
  8. Also on Kaling’s hit list: birthday celebrations. She thinks they’re silly and so does Dr. Mindy Lahiri. “Anybody can have a birthday,” says Kaling. “It requires nothing. Murderers have birthdays. It’s the opposite of anything that I believe in. And I don’t like at work where you stop everything to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to someone. I feel like that’s for children. But if I banned birthdays from my new show, people would think I’m a monster. I can’t do all those things I would maybe want to do, so I just have my characters say my controversial opinions and then hide behind them.”
  9. Her character’s love-life conundrums are often derived from her own experiences as an academic overachiever and romantic late bloomer. Kaling didn’t start dating until senior year in college: “I’ve had four boyfriends, you know, and I’m 33,” she says. Her character is even slower-paced; Kaling sees her as someone who didn’t start dating until she finished medical school. “I’m discovering my character has a little bit of an arrested development thing because in her 20s she was busy [studying] instead of partying, and now she has disposable income and a real chip on their shoulder about not having a fun 20s,” she says. (Kaling, of course, did have a fun 20s, because “The Office was just like college twice.”)
  10. Kaling thinks she may have developed heightened expectations in her own romantic life from having spent eight years writing for The Office character of Jim Halpert — “as unrealistic and desirable a guy as there is out there” — and then being confronted with the crushing reality of the actual dating pool. “You can’t help but in my real life think, ‘Oh, maybe there’s somebody like that.’ And when you meet someone who has maybe three quarters of [Jim’s] qualities, they also have some terrible qualities, like they can’t hold down a job, or they haven’t spoken to their parents for fifteen years, or they don’t shower.”
  11. One of Kaling’s four boyfriends was B.J. Novak, although their characters on The Office started dating before they did. Novak thinks the Kelly-Ryan pairing likely came from “an observation from the writers’ room that Mindy and I were extremely close and constantly fighting.” What would they fight about? “Oh, anything,” he says. “Honestly, we would sometimes not be speaking for an hour and I couldn’t remember why. I don’t think she could either. The tone in choosing which place to order lunch from. The tone that one of us would have about Thai food in general. Who knows?”
  12. Kelly and Ryan’s relationship mirrored Kaling and Novak’s in that, says Novak, “No one, including us, ever really knew, ‘Is this dating? Is this not dating?’ We were never really dating, we were never really not dating. We didn’t know. No one knew. All you’d know for sure as that you’d always find one of us next to the other, even if we weren’t getting along.” He’s clearly thought about this a lot. “Sometimes viewers would ask, ‘Are Ryan and Kelly together right now, not together?’ It’s not even that I wouldn’t know. I thought the question was missing the point. Write whatever you want. So, Kelly needed a boyfriend this week, so Ryan goes on a date. Ryan and Kelly are getting engaged … I think it was sort of expressive of the relationship that we were in.” So did Kelly and Ryan’s breakup mirror Kaling and Novak’s, too? “In real life, I think we just essentially grew up and it became more of a transition,” says Novak.
  13. Kaling has a slightly different version. They met when they were 24 on a writing staff of six or seven, making a ratings-starved, critically slammed first season TV show “and kind of fell in love through doing that, and then dated on and off for a couple of years, and now we are just, like, best friends,” she says. “Like, real best friends. It’s the kind of friendship you have when you are embedded with someone, that you can only get by putting in that insane amount of time with people.” 
  14. As Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight on The Office, puts it: “To do an imitation of Mindy, all you need to do is just be constantly texting and saying, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!’ and then looking up and going ‘Where’s B.J.?’” He explains, “They’re just best buds, so they often seem to be connected with an umbilical cord. And she gets lost on Twitter and, you know, the hours go by and she’ll look up and she won’t have realized he’s gone.” (He also describes her as so chock-full of ideas and eager to get them out, “she’s kind of like a Beverly Hills Chihuahua.”)
  15. Right now, Kaling is single “and enjoying-slash-tolerating it,” she says. “I have crushes on celebrities or people I meet or see in the coffee shop, and every day I fall in love with three people simply because they said one funny thing or appeared to me in a certain way.” But she doesn’t have time to date right now and she’s pretty calm about it. “It seems like when I have a serious relationship with someone, despite my schedule and everything else, they find a time to pursue me and date me. So I have this maybe naïve thing of, like, ‘Well, they’ll just find me.’ You know? ‘They will figure it out and find me and we will work it out.’”
  16. It’s a belief that comes from how her parents met: In Nigeria, where her father, Avi Chokalingham, was the architect designing the wing of the hospital Swati was working in. “She didn’t plan it, it just happened,” says Kaling. “She moved to Nigeria to be a doctor and was just living there and my dad met her and he pursued her. And as my grandmother always said, the best relationships are the ones where the guy likes the girl a little bit more than the girl likes the guy. So great, I’m busy. I’m doing something I love. And if someone really likes me, they will come and find me. I don’t mean that like, ‘Oh come find me.’ Like I’m this little daisy and I’m not a strong woman. I mean that if someone is willing, and they see what my schedule is, and they are really that interested, we’ll find a way. I don’t have to change that much.”
  17. In contrast to her character, she doesn’t feel a great urge to get married. She does want to have kids, though — something she became sure of when her mother passed away. “My relationship with my mom is really the single-most profound relationship that I’ve ever had in my life,” she begins to explain. “And when people talk about soul mates, they largely mean romantic soul mates, but my soul mate was really my mother. And I think that the relationship that I had with her … when she died, that’s when I was like, ‘I really want to have kids.’ I mean I always knew I wanted kids, but when my mom passed away I was like, ‘I want a bunch of kids. I want three kids or four kids, and I want to have that relationship again.’ I can’t bring my mom back, but I can have children.” She clarified this later: “I would love to be married. But it’s not a necessity like the way that I feel I need and want to have children. It would be wonderful to have a husband, and I would feel blessed to do it. But I would feel sad for the rest of my life if I had no kids.”
  18. Perhaps because both of her parents were Republicans, she’s somewhat conservative, politically. According to Michael Schur (who went on to co-create Parks and Recreation), when he and Kaling joined the first-season writing staff of The Office in 2004, “it sort of snuck out that she was planning on — I don’t know if she did or not — but she was at least thinking about voting for Bush.” She also was “very pro-gun, which is very odd,” says Schur. “She’s always talking about wanting to buy a gun, and I’m always like, ‘If you buy a gun you will kill yourself accidentally or you will harm another person. There’s no way you could own a gun successfully and responsibly for more than a week without harming someone.” (He adds: “The umbrella thing that I would like to get across to you is that I think she’s a wonderful human being and I hope she and I are friends forever. I just want to make that perfectly clear. And when I say she’s a disaster and a complete wreck of a human being, that’s coming from a place of love.”)
  19. Kelly’s steadily improving wardrobe and hair on The Office was all Kaling’s doing. The character had started out season one dressing, appropriately, as if she worked for a drab paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. But Kaling “definitely had a very strong idea of who Kelly was and it just shifted out from under us,” says Office creator Greg Daniels, laughing at the memory. “And that was one of the very funny things, to see Mindy take this character and make it what she wanted in spite all of the higher producers’ efforts to try and keep it consistent.” He continues, “I mean, aside from her face, there’s no similarities between what she looked like in season one and later seasons. And she’d do it very gradually. She’d say, ‘I think Kelly should get hair extensions.’ And we’d be like, ‘What? That doesn’t seem like it’s in character. We don’t really agree with that, Mindy.’ And the next thing you know, she would have persuaded the hair person to get the hair extensions.” Letting Kaling direct webisodes like the one where Kelly and Erin, played by Ellie Kemper, form a band named Subtle Sexuality and dance around in gold lamé was Daniels’s way of giving her a place to “put all her Beyoncé energy.”
  20. She came up with Michael having a man-crush on Ryan. “That was one of the first impacts she made on the show,” says Novak. “It wasn’t building to any punch line. It wasn’t going to climax in any actual gay incident. It was just a weird dynamic that she could picture. I think that helped push the show into embracing odd, lifelike changes. It wasn’t just about a horrible boss and a beautiful couple in love and a militaristic weirdo sidekick. We all expanded it from that. But Mindy had a very big role in sort of delightful tangents. That is very much her voice. Another example of Mindy’s voice is that she loves characters to love things. Michael loved Ryan. That was very Mindy just because it was someone randomly loving something.”
  21. She always insisted on writing the Christmas episodes, says Novak. Now that she’s in charge of her own show, The Mindy Project has two Christmas episodes a year.
  22. As someone who attended one of her fittings for Emmys dresses (see: Spanx), it’s a bit shocking that she chose a tasteful forest-green gown instead of polka dots and/or sequins. Half her instructions to her stylist, Sara Paulsen, were to find outfits more “razzle dazzle” and “show-stopper-y.”
  23. Other fitting comments included, “To me, this is more for when I’m going to, like, my sexy divorce-court hearing,” about a flattering, but too-conservative skirt suit. “It would be good for, like, a WJA panel on female diversity mentors.”  On button-downs: “They’re so cinematic. You always have this thing where you look like you slept over at a guy’s house: ‘Hey, last night was fun. I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.’” On white faux-snakeskin jeans: “Sarah, I’m trying these on for my love of you. They have about nine things that I would never go for. White, flared … ” It’s kind of great to play dress-up with Mindy Kaling.
  24. She drives a nine-year-old red Mini Cooper, which has broken plastic hanging off its doors. When Barinholtz suggested she should lease an Aston Martin, to symbolize her graduation to badass showrunner, she says that the other guys on her writing staff told her, “‘No, you should keep your mini. Guys won’t be intimidated by your mini.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? So guys who I want to date, you think won’t want to date me if I have too nice a car?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah! Just telling it like it is.’ I’m like, ‘That’s so depressing.’”
  25. She thinks the notion of guys being intimidated by women, by the way, is kind of bullshit. “I feel like I’ve met so many girls who say that: ‘Oh, he’ll be too intimidated.’ And I’m like, ‘No, you’re just terrible. That’s why they wouldn’t want to date you. It’s not because of some fake-y thing like intimidation.’ I’m supposed to appear less successful than I am? Yeah, it’s total crap. Even if you were able to con somebody into not being intimidated by you, eventually your true self would emerge, who’s successful and self-sufficient, and then they would be turned off by it.” She continues, “I will also say that the two guys that I think are incredibly talented, catch-y-type guys — Max Greenfield and Chris Messina — they are both married to women that are incredibly successful and a little bit older than them, and I just love it. They’re like, ‘I fucking love how powerful my girl is,’ and they’re such great guys. They totally love it.’”
  26. As if you couldn’t tell, she has a (harmless!) crush on the married Messina. “I didn’t want to say this at first because I didn’t want to seem unprofessional,” she says, when I confess that I think he’s pretty hot, “but I feel like he has the perfect face. I think he looks like one of those statues in ancient Rome that they have of, like, fleet-footed Apollo. He looks like a statue, but he’s a tough guy. I can’t even look at him sometimes because he’s too cute.”
  27. Her three-bedroom house in West Hollywood, which she bought from Schur, is filled with stolen props from The Office. Above her cherry-red washer and dryer, she has a poster for Subtle Sexuality: “I was like, I can’t keep faux-sexy photos of Ellie Kemper and me up anywhere but my laundry room.” Her hallway is dominated by a giant black-and-white close-up of Steve Martin’s face. It was a prop from Michael Scott’s going away party. “I think he didn’t even end up showing up to the party, was how the episode went, but they decorated the office and the conference room in a way that he would really like, so the props person blew up this picture of Steve Martin and they were throwing it away. I was like, ‘I’ll take a perfectly good poster of Steve Martin that’s been framed already,’ and this was the only place to put it. But when you come in it seems like … I mean, I adore Steve Martin, but this makes it seem like it’s my life’s work.”
  28. Her work office has posters of Peter Sellers, You’ve Got Mail, Hannah and Her Sisters, and My Fair Lady. Also, a copy of People’s True Crime Stories special issue, because Kaling is obsessed with crime-fighting and justice.
  29. She keeps bulletin boards filled with colored index cards and plot points for each episode next to her bed so they’re the last thing she sees and thinks about when she’s going to sleep. She also keeps a gigantic bulletin board in her home office with each actor’s headshot, including her own, because she finds it easier to write for people when she can see their faces.
  30. Because of her hours, she’s gotten into the habit of picking out all her outfits for the week, “almost like I’m a fifth-grader,” so that in the morning, “all I do is, like, roll out of bed, walk like a zombie to the shower, and just put something on and drive to Universal.”
  31. Despite the sometimes self-promotional feel of her Twitter feed, Novak assures me that she did not start tweeting as a way to amass a following big enough to propel her beyond her limited screen-time as Kelly. “No. I can say for a fact it was not strategic. She just wanted to talk. The girl also just loves to talk.”
  32. In the middle of prepping the show, she took a red-eye out to New York for Ellie Kemper’s wedding this summer, and flew back first thing Sunday morning. “We all know it’s kind of a pain to go to weddings; I thought that was just really generous of her,” says Kemper. “She was the first to respond to the invitation, one of the first to get us a gift. She writes thank-you notes promptly. She’s very, very well-raised.” And she dominated the dance floor. “She was dancing like a fool, but a fool in a good way. She was dancing like a rock star,” says Kemper. “She does this thing where her hands are up in the air and she’s smiling so contentedly, like this is all she wants to do, is dance like this. If I had to imagine Mindy’s special place, that’s where it would be, because she just seems so at peace when she’s dancing. I’m making her sound like she’s, I don’t know, a special case, but she’s got good rhythm. It’s not so much a move as a movement, of letting the feelings go through you. Just fully immersing yourself in that moment.”
  33. She has enough of a financial cushion that she’ll be okay no matter what happens after tonight’s premiere. “I’ve saved up enough money that if the show doesn’t work and I want to go do an indie movie that maybe doesn’t make any money, or do a cable show that pays a lot less and is just twelve episodes, I can do it. Or take off three years and have a kid and write a book. Or spend the entire year submitting “Shouts & Murmurs” [columns to The New Yorker] and getting them rejected. That’s fine.”

33 Things You Learn Hanging Around Mindy Kaling