If you’re in the bad business of comparing your output to others’, might I suggest avoiding Mindy Kaling‘s resume? In the years since her acclaimed turn as Kelly Kapoor on The Office and the success of her self-styled rom-com The Mindy Project, her rise in Hollywood has expanded to a whopping writer-producer-actress dominion—and she’s also published three books, most recently the 2020 Amazon Original Stories essay collection Nothing Like I Imagined. Let’s see, what else? Her teen dramedy Never Have I Ever is one of Netflix’s greatest success stories; she has an HBO Max series set to debut this fall; and she’s gearing up to voice one of animation’s most adored (and, arguably, misunderstood) icons: Scooby Doo‘s Velma Dinkley.
But perhaps what makes Kaling such an effervescent figure in an overstretched television landscape is not her work ethic, but her magnetic attraction to overlooked stories. Certainly many of these tales bubble up from her own life—she has a particular talent for digging through her history and mining gold for essays (or, ideally, TV shows). But, Kaling says, she’s also developed a passion for connecting with other women, collecting their accounts and feeding her storytelling with them. It’s part of why she recently partnered with T.J. Maxx to launch The Change Exchange, a charity campaign and letter-writing program pairing women from around the world as pen pals. The idea is to give these women, who are often undergoing massive life changes—promotions, marriages, kids, moves—a vessel to share their issues. “I have a pen pal [through The Change Exchange] named Jalisa, and we talk about our problems—it’s incredibly private and emotionally nourishing,” Kaling tells ELLE.com.
As she continues to lure more more projects to her table—including the highly anticipated Legally Blonde 3—Kaling believes these relationships will only prove more necessary for her life and life’s work. As Never Have I Ever gets the green light for a third season and Kaling readies herself for another wave of attention, she sat down with ELLE.com to discuss all that’s on the docket.
The first season of Never Have I Ever was a hit, but the reception of the second cemented just how deeply fans adore this show. Were
you surprised by the reaction, or is it what you expected given the talent behind this series?
I think I’m always delighted and surprised that tens of millions of people around the world are tuning into this story, because it seems so specific. It’s a story loosely based on my childhood. Obviously it takes place now, but when you write a story about three Indian women in different generations and different points in their immigration story, you think, “Well, this is really specific. I don’t know how universal this is going to be.”
When a story like that resonates all over the world, in Bulgaria and Ukraine and Brazil, it’s life-affirming. We underestimate audiences. They want to hear about other people outside of their own life, as long as the stories feel honest.
This young unknown, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who we found through an open casting call—she was a high schooler in Toronto, and then less than two years later she’s on the cover of Time. It’s been amazing to be able to be the person who’s like, “Oh wow, we found her.”
What made you want to do a teen show, specifically?
I didn’t actually even want to do a teen show. Netflix wanted it—they’d read both of my books, and they said they really loved the part where I talked about my childhood. They wanted to know if there would be a show in there, and they’re shrewd. I remember thinking, Oh man, my teenage years. That feels intimate and makes me feel really vulnerable and cringe-y.
I didn’t want to do something that was a nostalgia piece for the ’90s. I wanted to do something set today. By doing that, it felt like I distanced myself a little bit from it.
Now that you’re in it, have you enjoyed writing for teenagers?
Writing for teenagers is really fun and very terrifying, because, first of all, it’s very ephemeral. They have short attention spans, so we write the show and then it comes out a couple months later, and you’re like, “Ah, I hope that it feels fresh.” The references, the things that they’re into, the apps that they’re obsessed with? There are very few people who are less forgiving than a teenager sniffing out inauthenticity. So, they are a terrifying group of people to write for and about.
Now that the show’s officially renewed for season 3, I’m curious what you most want to explore next in the lives of Devi and her family.
I lost a parent, and I think that grief and grieving is such a complicated thing and can take many forms, and we’ve loved the scenes between Devi and her father, played by Sendhil Ramamurthy, who’s incredible. So I think the thing I’m most excited about is delving into their relationship, and how your relationship with your parents continues even when they pass away. We’re excited to explore that. Also, she’s just a funny character who is good in her heart but makes a lot of terrible decisions. I love seeing her do that as she approaches college, trying to apply for college and what that brings out in her.
How many seasons would you ideally like the show to run?
I haven’t thought about it yet. I think that, because they’re teenagers and because they’re maturing a lot, there’ll be a time when it would be absurd that they’re still in high school. I think there’s a place where it’ll reveal itself when we see them on-camera. Like, “Okay, now it’s getting absurd.” But I still think there’s stories to tell.
You’ll be voicing Velma in an upcoming adult animated comedy for HBO Max. What drew you to that particular role?
More than almost any other animated character—well, her and Harriet the Spy—I really identify with Velma. I love that she’s so valued in her group, but she’s not like a traditionally beautiful animated character. She’s so smart, and the Scooby gang values her. We don’t know a ton about her personality, so it felt like a really rich character to give a lot of backstory. That’s been a really fun project to work on.
What can you tell us about your other upcoming HBO Max show, The Sex Lives of College Girls?
It’s about four young women who are assigned randomly as roommates at college, in a fictional East Coast college in Vermont called Essex College. It’s an amalgam of a lot of different experiences that me and my co-creator, Justin Noble, had. The girls are so different from each other, and we get to see them at the beginning of their freshman year, and they’re all very ambitious. We see how they navigate classes and romantic relationships.
How would you describe the show, tonally, compared to Never Have I Ever?
It’s definitely more adult, as you could guess from the name of the show and this subject material—it deals with their sex lives. But also it tackles the challenges of being a young woman in college. College campus life is fascinating; we did a lot of research on it. It’s such a hotbed for activism, and it can be a really scary place, too. We got to explore a lot of different things, but we wanted to do it through the lens, as I always do, of comedy and diversity. We approached different issues, but with a sense of humor about it.
I’m excited for people to see it. We’ve finished production. We are just editing it and getting it ready to air.
Speaking of women’s relationships: What lured you to the Change Exchange program? Why were you drawn to letter-writing as opposed to, I don’t know, Zoom calls?
I’ve always loved epistolary relationships. I love a handwritten letter. I think it’s this sort of Jane Austin-loving side of me. What’s so amazing about the Change Exchange was that it’s designed to help women connect with each other.
I’ve gone through a lot of changes in the past year and a half, and I think it’s really hard to embrace change. It’s something that I struggle with all the time: My changing body after I had my second child, the isolation I felt during the pandemic. I’ve found this exchange to be very invaluable.
Given how much you enjoy expressing yourself in writing, do you have plans to publish another book soon, following your essay collection last year?
Thank you for asking. I love writing my essays. I always get so much out of it therapeutically, and writing the essays, it jogs memories. I feel like sometimes if we’re busy—we have children, or even if we don’t have children—we go through life without anyone there to say, “Hey, you should reflect on what you’ve been through.” Writing my essays and looking at my life through this lens of humor has been such a gift to my life. It lets me think back on memories that are even painful sometimes, but to see them with a sense of distance. I would love to do that again. I hope I get that opportunity again.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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