Mindy Kaling is blunt. Like, really blunt. Not offensively so, not like her character Mindy Lahiri can sometimes be on her series The Mindy Project. It’s more like she knows exactly what she thinks, and then articulates it as clear as day.
Basically, she’s everything a young woman might want to be on a job interview, a first date, or at a cocktail party: pure confidence and witty quips.
On Thursday night, Kaling brought her characteristic spunk to an interview with Fusion’s Alicia Menendez at the Women in the World Summit, a gathering of firebrands, dissidents, and barrier-breaking women in entertainment (produced by Tina Brown Live Media in association with The New York Times) to talk about the difficulties of being a boss, playing a version of herself—and perhaps most significantly, the challenges of being both a person of color and a woman working in Hollywood.
“Women, especially young women—especially young women of color—want to see someone on TV who is not playing a terrorist or someone in IT,” Kaling told Menendez. Amen.
But Kaling’s comment about television diversity speaks to a larger truth, one that she knows all too well being the first Indian-American woman to create, executive produce, and star in her own TV sitcom: Even though she has her own show, the platform can act as a double-edged sword.
Take, for instance, the people who confuse TV Mindy with IRL Mindy.
TV Mindy is, let’s face it, outrageous and inappropriate in ways that make your craziest friend look like a nun. TV Mindy wants to be so hopped up on drugs while giving birth that, when she wakes up, Donald Trump will be into his second term. TV Mindy doesn’t like recycling because she thinks it makes America look “poor” to other countries.
And yet, while TV Mindy is hilarious, she's also monstrously selfish in ways that IRL Mindy simply can’t be. But therein lies the fun. Playing nice, both in life and onscreen, is as mind-numbingly boring as watching golf on a Sunday.
“I hope that young women look to me, Mindy Kaling, as a role model, and let me play the characters that I want to play,” said Kaling. "But I also know that that is … a sophisticated thing to require of people … But that’s sort of how I look at my work.”
She was quick to note that when men play characters, the media and fans rarely (if ever) conflate the two. As if men are better or more capable actors who clearly exist on two separate planes. Mindy isn’t afforded that luxury. Sure, she might like fashion just as much as TV Mindy, but the similarities are scarce.
“I like to be a fashionably dressed rich brat on the show and look cute, but this season is about more than that. It was a great challenge as an actress,” said Kaling of the rather unexpected turn the show takes this season when it returns to Hulu on April 12. It’s no spoiler to say Mindy and Danny Castellano, her boyfriend/baby daddy (there’s really no other way to put it), are on rocky ground. He wants another kid—and for Mindy to stay home with their son—but TV Mindy loves her work as an OB-GYN. And perhaps in the biggest similarity to IRL Mindy, she definitely doesn’t like other people telling her what to do.
Kaling told Menendez that while she’s very decisive, she also cares what other people think of her, bringing up the whole likable v. relatable quandary, and why we don’t see more perfectly polished onscreen heroines.
“I’m in an industry where likability is the most paramount thing you can have in a lead, and often likability is when people think you are an underdog. If you take the average person who creates a [TV] show,” said Kaling, “it’s a Herculean task, and that type of person is not a mess, and no one wants to see a type-A, creative, decisive person on TV, because that’s just not soft and likable.”
I mean, maybe she’s right. But I know a dozen people who’d watch a behind-the-scenes show on the making of The Mindy Project, if only to see how Kaling gets things done. She did give the Lincoln Center crowd a hint at how she manages 150 people.
“My whole thing is I’m very assertive, almost to the point of being brusque, and then I just send cupcakes … with a note that says, ‘I’m sorry I was so assertive. Love, Mindy.’”
Despite being the first Indian-American lead on a television show, her character miraculously channels what Kaling calls “the confidence of a white man.”
Her own self-assertion was late-blooming and far from innate.
“I don’t think that confidence is something that you just have. I come from Hollywood, the land of reality TV,” said Kaling. “I think confidence should be earned. It’s good to be quiet and listen to your parents.”
In fact, it was Kaling’s mother and father who taught her about comedy. Coming from an immigrant family, “you’re a liaison of your American pop culture world to your parents,” she said, and from an early age—when she was a “weird, chubby kid with giant glasses” who observed everything around her—she could see the humor in, say, her parents bucking traditional Western shopping conventions and haggling over the price of a vacuum cleaner at Sears.
Kaling also spoke with pride about her beloved mother, who died from cancer in 2012, calling her “the most hardworking and glamorous person I had ever met.”
“She loved that I was a writer. I would write thank-you notes for her because … she'd always tell me, ‘We didn't spend all this money on your Ivy League education for you not to write my thank-you notes.’ … I was like her personal secretary.”
There's a reason she doesn’t post photos of her mom on Instagram. Not every part of her life is up for double-tap consumption. Especially not this part, the one closest to her core, the very thing that explains so much of her success and drive and even her killer fashion sense. Because if some anonymous commenter said something mean about her mom? Well, Mindy would hunt them down and…she was joking, I think. But it’s safe to say that nasty person would not be getting a cupcake delivery.
So does the actress/creator/boss ever sleep?
“I’ve said this before and it sounds so maudlin, but it's true—I am literally living the dream that I had when I was a six-year-old kid who would watch television. I have that now. And so, when you have your life’s dream you don’t want to sleep, because living your life is so fun.”
Kara Cutruzzula is a writer and editor covering culture, travel, and the occasional life hack. She rhymes with Methuselah and lives in New York.