Talking to Ike Barinholtz About ‘The Mindy Project’, ‘MADtv’, and His ‘Game of Thrones’ Audition Tape

From Twitter buddy to staff writer to breakout series regular, Ike Barinholtz earned a well-deserved meteoric rise during the first season of The Mindy Project. The improv actor had initially befriended Mindy Kaling over Twitter, which led to an invitation to the writer’s room on her Fox sitcom, which in turn led to Barinholtz donning the medical scrubs of Morgan Tookers, the show’s eccentric yet affable ex-con nurse. Barinholtz’s character was a highlight in the comedy’s freshman year, which should come as little surprise to anyone who knows him for his work as a former cast member on MADtv, or more recently as Eastbound & Down’s Ivan Drago-inspired Russian rival Ivan Dochenko.

I recently chatted with Ike over the phone about what we can expect from Morgan in The Mindy Project’s upcoming second season, his career in sketch comedy, and the drastic, Christian Bale-esque physical changes he’s undergone for his television roles.

Hey Ike, how are you doing?

I’m good, I’m good. I was just checking my neighborhood for sex offenders.

Like as a neighborhood watch?

Uh, no, someone said you should do it sometime, and I just clicked on. It’s pretty interesting.

Have you found anybody interesting?

It’s weird, my house came up.

[Laughs] Oh really, you’re listed as a sex offender?

No, no, no. It’s just very scary. [Laughs] This is not the best way to start an interview where you’re talking about being funny.

I don’t know, I think admitting to being a sex offender is a pretty good lead in. So how’s filming and writing for the second season of The Mindy Project going?

It’s doing good; we just finished episode four and yeah, they’re looking good. First episode James Franco shows up as kind of Mindy’s replacement because we left off the season with her going to Haiti with Anders Holm, her preacher boyfriend. So she kind of comes back to find that, y’know, the worst person possible has taken her place, because she’s basically like, “He’s a super cool, good looking white guy!” Everything she’s not. And so it’s kind of all about her getting re-acclimated. And then the second episode really focuses on her and Franco’s rivalry, and he was great - really, really funny. We loved him, and we want him to come back later in the season.

Can you tease any of the story lines coming up for Morgan?

Yeah, there’s a big one in episode four, which we just wrapped last week. It’s definitely a big Mindy-Morgan episode. Morgan sort of helps Mindy get over her ex-boyfriend, and they have a big day together, I would say. But it’s definitely the biggest Mindy-Morgan story yet, and he gets naked for her, and she really hates it. It really bums her out.

How can anybody hate that?

She wasn’t expecting it, and seeing so much of my body bummed her out a little bit, I think. And lawyers get involved. It turns pretty ugly.

Sitcoms usually spend their first season figuring out their voice, and The Mindy Project obviously had a few shifts in focus over the course of its first year. I wanted to know, as a writer for the show, could you describe the process of finding out what material did and didn’t work?

Yeah, I mean, basically we just wanted to go with what was funny. And once you really know who you’re writing for, like what characters you’re writing for, that really helps. Once we really kind of got our cast together, especially toward the end, really it was easy. At first Mindy’s concern, too, I think was we always wanted to write her with edge. And she is a role model and she is a great doctor and does do great things, but she’s also got a ton of flaws, and I think maybe earlier on, based on feedback, we were like, “Oh wait, can we do this? Is this okay? Is this likeable for her?” But then we just kind of realized that it doesn’t matter. She’s likeable already. So for us, it just became more about, okay, once we really knew this is who she is, and after the first few episodes, this is what we want from her, then it became easy. The other thing is, for Chris Messina too - at first, we know the character was kind of angry and eventually we felt like, “He’s not really angry, he’s a bit of a curmudgeon, and he definitely has strong beliefs that are not very popular, but he’s not angry. He’s just grouchy.” And for Ed Weeks too, at first we were like, “Oh well, y’know, he’s a good looking guy, and having him being like a lothario is kind of who he is.” And you kind of start to see Ed Weeks more, and you realize, “Oh no, he’s kind of a nerd!” I mean, he’s like a handsome nerd, but he’s still a nerd. And to write that character more flustered and more like Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show is just a funnier shade for him. So I think that definitely once we started figuring out who these three leads were, it became a lot easier and a lot more fun because you don’t have to worry about, “God, is this representative of who they are?” No, now you know who they are; this is what’s funny.

And you’re probably really hitting your stride in the second season now that you’ve got a handle on those characters.

Yeah, it changed. Like all of my favorite shows, it takes a little bit of time. You watch the first season of Seinfeld and Kramer’s hair is normal. If you watch The Office’s first season, Kelly Kapoor was really just very normal. It takes time to really figure out who they are, and I think we’ve done that, and we had a couple of really fun additions. Xosha Roquemore plays one of the nurses; she’s so funny, she has such a crazy energy. And then Adam Pally, who was on Happy Endings, who I was a big fan of for a long time, he’s kind of bringing this really fratty…like, he’s so fratty, and he thinks he’s so great, but he’s really kind of a sad character. So yeah, now that we know who they are, it’s so much easier to write for them and to focus on funny stuff to say.

Similar to Mindy in The Office, your character became more prominent around the first season’s midway point. Did you expect to become a series regular when you first got involved with the show?

No, I didn’t actually. I was really psyched to write on the show with my writing partner Dave Stassen and Mindy was like, “Oh, you should be on the show!” And then kind of right away she wrote such a big, strong character for me. Right away I was just like, “Wow, this is a character that really has an opportunity to chew up some scenery and really be kind of crazy and fun, and really different from everyone else.” And so I was just having a great time doing it, and then halfway, or actually earlier on in the season, they said, “Hey, we want you to be a regular,” which was really cool. And it’s been fun. Morgan is a very fun character to write for. I don’t write for him as much as the other writers do, just because I feel weird doing that, but definitely he’s the kind of character that, if you don’t have a blow or an end to a scene, you just kind of have Morgan enter and do or say something, and it usually works.

The structure of the show allows for a lot of guest stars as Mindy’s love interests. How does the casting for those parts work? Do you write the characters and then think of who would be good to play them? 

It’s a little bit of both - there’s times where we’ll have, like the character of Josh who was her boyfriend in the first half of last season, we had in mind he’d be more of a little high energy Jewish guy, and then we saw a tape of this guy Tommy Dewey and we were like, “Oh my god, he’s not what we had in mind, but he’s so different and interesting and funny that we want to cast him.” So we actually ended up kind of changing the role a little bit to fit his personality more. But also, Seth Rogen said, “Hey! I want to come on your show.” So we sat around and said, “What would be a funny idea for Seth Rogen?” And we gave him a soldier currently serving in Afghanistan. We thought that was funny because when you look at Seth, you think, “Oh, what a nice Jewish stoner!” You don’t think, “Oh, there goes a guy that’s going to kill some Taliban!” [Laughs] And then sometimes it just kind of works out both ways. We had an idea for this character coming up that we’re shooting next week who’s this older, kind of dim skater guy, and we’re like, “Oh, it would be great if Timothy Olyphant would play this.” And then sure enough, randomly he got in touch with Mindy, he was texting Mindy and said, “Oh, I’d love to be on the show.” So sometimes it just works out. So we sort of have a variety there.

The show plays around with a lot of romantic comedy tropes, like love triangles and will-they-or-won’t-they tension. Were you a big fan of romantic comedies before writing for the show, or did you have to brush up on them?

Ah, my favorite romantic comedies are Goodfellas, Blade Runner, The Unforgiven, and Love Actually. So, kind of taking tropes from all of them. Yeah, I’ll be honest, I’ve never been the guy who’s like, “Oh my god! 27 Dresses is available on Blu Ray!” [Laughs] I just don’t watch them as much. There’s a few that kind of sneak into my mind. Like I said, Love Actually is definitely one. And there’s parts of Love Actually that are so good, like the stuff with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman is so good, but then there’s parts of it that are so terrible that you’re like, “How is this even a movie?” But I don’t pitch a lot of romantic comedy tropes. Like a lot of those come from Mindy and a couple of other writers. Y’know, if I was to pitch storylines based on tropes off of movies I watch, you’d have, Mindy would be in a prison, and she’d have a device on her and if she gets more than fifty yards from the fence, her head blows off.

So that’s not going to be an upcoming storyline?

I don’t think, not this season. That might be, like, if we go to season five, and we’re kind of just throwing out and just looking for shit, maybe we’ll just do that.

About your role on Eastbound and Down, you’ve been saying in interviews that you’ve been back and forth with Danny McBride – you were either going to show up on the new season as a limo driver or a prisoner in an underground Siberian jail. Were you able to reach a medium between those two, or can you not say? 

Actually, you will not see Ivan in this season of Eastbound. I have read the scripts and sent in some jokes for some of the scripts, and what they’re doing this season is so funny and so different that it would have been kind of weird if he showed up. It would have looked like they were crowbar-ing him in for no reason. And with that said, this season of Eastbound is going to be so funny. Like, the bad guy this year is Ken Marino. I wouldn’t even call him the bad guy, but he’s an antagonist, a little bit, and it’s really funny where they’re going with it this year.

There’s an amazing photo of you at a costume party as you dressed up as Brienne of Tarth with your wife as Jaime Lannister. Was Game of Thrones the HBO show that you originally were hoping to star in? 

Yes, I wanted to, and actually it’s funny. I told my agent that I’d love to be in Game of Thrones, and they were like, “Listen, there’s a part that they’re casting right now and you should put yourself on tape and you should send it.” And I got so excited about it. It was the part of, y’know the Brotherhood Without Banners — it’s like the crew that Arya starts traveling with for a little bit. There’s like an archer character. So I got my camera, I set it up, and I started reading the lines and halfway through, I was so embarrassed and so ashamed and decided that no one could ever see this. I erased the tape, I destroyed the camera. It won’t happen, and that’s just something I have to live with.

Were you self conscious about it? Like, the fantasy aspect of it? 

Oh god, instantly! Instantly! The minute I started talking with that kind of Game of Thrones-y British accent, I was just like, “Nope. This is not going to happen.” Because it wouldn’t make sense! You couldn’t be watching Game of Thrones and be like, “Aw man, what a great episode. It was great. That scene where Dinklage says goodbye to his bride, that was good. And then that fat guy from MADtv was in it, what the fuck was that?”

[Laughs] I don’t know, I’d like to see that episode. You also came up in Second City as an improv actor, in addition to working on MADtv for five seasons. Do you still have time for improv and sketch comedy, or any desire to do more of it when you have the opportunity?

Once in a while I will. I mean, I have a new baby at home, so most of my time is wiping asses. Not just hers, mine as well. It’s not all about her. But whenever I have an opportunity to, my big theatre was the ImprovOlympic. The iO, that was kind of my jam. And I’ll do some shows there. And then I actually just did a show with Adam Pally at UCB out in LA, just doing a show and it was really fun. It’s tough. Improv when you’re in your twenties or early thirties? It’s the best. You go out, you have a few beers, you do some funny make-em-ups on stage. As you start to get older, the show’s at ten o’clock and it’s seven and you had a big dinner and your back hurts and you’re tired. And you’re like, “Okay, I’ve got to motivate myself,” but then you end up watching The Real Housewives of Orange County and you fall asleep. Not that that happens to me, but I can see it happening to other people.

So it’s more of a young person’s game?

Yeah, with that said, some of the funniest guys I know, like Matt Walsh, are older than me, and they still do it. But it’s a lot easier to do when you’re young and you have less responsibility. You come to an impov show, you want to go out and have some drinks and talk about scenes that were funny, and more importantly, the scenes that weren’t funny, and at my age you just want to work for a podcast and lay around in your underwear.

You also recently appeared on the Hulu exclusive animated series The Awesomes where you play the superhero Muscleman. Was an invulnerable man with superhuman strength a natural fit for you?

Yes, it was. Basically, to get into character, I took multiple cycles of steroids and I put on 280 pounds of muscle. And then I found out it was an animated show and they just wanted my voice, which sucks because now my balls are shriveled and I have roid rage, and it didn’t affect my voice at all; my voice sounds the exact same. So yeah, I mean, it was kind of a bummer to find out it wasn’t a live action. With that said, Seth [Meyers] and Mike Shoemaker are dear friends, so I was happy to help them out. But I wish they would reimburse me for the money I spent on anabolic steroids because it cost thousands of dollars. And when I brought it up to them, they didn’t even reply to a goddamn email, which I think is pretty inconsiderate.

[Laughs] I mean, you’re used to that. I heard you gained some weight for Morgan’s role.

Yeah, I did. Last year, Mindy was very clear, because all of the guys on our show, like Ed and Messina, they’re like, y’know, they’re the kind of guys that are like, “Aw man, I’m so hungry. I’m going to really gorge myself. I’m going to have half an avocado and a little bit of tuna salad.” And like, I’m from Chicago, and like, Chicagoans, regular pizza wasn’t bad enough for us - we had to stuff two pizzas inside one pizza. Y’know what I mean? Like, that’s what we bring to the game, y’know? So I was very happy to hear Mindy be like, “Oh, you should be a bigger and real person.” So, yeah, I put on twenty-five pounds, which isn’t healthy. I basically did the opposite of Christian Bale in The Machinist, y’know. He just drank coffee and ran, and I just drank milkshakes and sat.

That’s the better option, I think.

I think so. I think I’m a better actor than Christian Bale, I think you can safely write that. I don’t think anyone will disagree in the comments section. No one will disagree if that’s the thesis of this interview.

Well, I’m leading with “sexual offender” and “a better actor than Christian Bale,” so I think that’s going to be good. 

[Laughs] I think people are going to really like me after reading this.

Talking to Ike Barinholtz About ‘The Mindy Project’, […]