NPR

Mindy Kaling Loves Rom Coms (And Being The Boss)

Dr. Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) must juggle a variety of responsibilities as an obstetrician-gynecologist in the new comedy The Mindy Project. (Fox)

Mindy Kaling says she loves romantic comedies, even though she wrote last year in The New Yorker that saying so "is essentially an admission of mild stupidity."

Her new Fox TV show, The Mindy Project — which she created, stars in, writes and runs as co-executive producer — is essentially a serialized romantic comedy, where each week, viewers can check in with the character to see how her life is going, Kaling says.

Except she hopes her show is "actually funny," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Kaling plays Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a successful obstetrician/gynecologist, whose personal life is a mess and who struggles to do the right thing.

Kaling's late mother was also an obstetrician-gynecologist — and an inspiration for Dr. Lahiri's career.

Kaling says that even though their actual jobs were very different, she and her mother had similar work ethics and long hours.

"I would often be leaving work at 11 o'clock at night in [Los Angeles] and call her in Boston and she would still be awake, waiting for a baby to be delivered," Kaling says. "It's fun to be surrounded by women in all different stages of their lives — some who are married, some who are expecting babies, some with families. It seemed like a good board for a character to be bouncing off her own neurosis."

Kaling played Kelly Kapoor in The Office, for which she also wrote and produced. She says she initially thought running her own show was a chance to "correct any pet peeves" from her old job; she wanted to listen to her writers the way she wanted to be listened to as a writer on The Office.

But about five weeks into The Mindy Project, Kaling realized she had to stop asking for as much input. It was hard, she says, because her "personality is to be chatty and to talk to people and hear peoples' problems."

As an Indian-American actress playing a lead on a TV show, Kaling says, she's gotten positive early feedback but still feels the burden of people pinning "their hopes and dreams" on her. She says she just has to brush aside her worries, because Dr. Mindy Lahiri is a "real character."

"This is not someone who should be winning a teaching award or being a role model," Kaling says. "Let me, Mindy Kaling, be a role model if anything — and that's pretty arguable, too — but let the character just be a funny character."

The Mindy Project premieres Sept. 25.


Interview Highlights

On being busy

"Now that I'm in Hollywood, I have many friends who run their own shows, and one of the personality traits at a party — being overwhelmed by being a show-runner on a show — is just something people adopt. ...

"And one thing my mom and dad raised me believing is that everyone is busy, so it's not really a good conversation topic to talk about how busy you are. And it's a little narcissistic, in fact, to talk about that, because everyone is stressed out no matter what job you're in. Nobody is like, 'Yeah, I'm doing really well — work is just a total snooze and so easy.'

"So when I got this job, I thought, 'I'm going to be that person who is the star of their own show and the show-runner and the head writer, et cetera, et cetera — but I'm going to always seem like it's no big deal.' And I was actually able to do that for the first six weeks. And now, I have to say, it's a little hard to pretend that I'm just like this cool-as-a-cucumber person."

On the list of 15 things that women love to wear

"I have found it to be true that men tend to not understand or like sequins very much. Men don't like the wedge shoe, I have noticed. Men don't like the statement necklace or chunky, tribal jewelry. These are all the things, by the way, that I love, so the overlap in the Venn diagram of things that men hate for women to wear, and things that I love to wear, is almost full overlap ... which is unfortunate for me.

"Like most women, I dress for other women. If I was going to dress for men, in general, I would just be wearing a fitted black T-shirt and tight jeans every day. Of course, this is my unscientific research done by working with male comedy writers for the past eight years. They just tend to really like — this specific group of guys — really simple, clean lines, things like that, but I don't. So I dress for women, I wear all of those things, because I like looking at it. It makes me feel happy and excited to wear it."

On her mother's death

"You have to struggle to try to remember the person before the [pancreatic cancer] diagnosis happened, because they really do change, as anyone would change. So for the first period of time ... the thing you remember most vividly is ... how the disease changed them. And then, now I'm beginning to remember my mom [when I was] 28, which is a real gift. But it was such a short amount of her life, that it seems unfair to her memory to let it cloud most of my memory of her."

On being an Indian-American actress on TV

"When you are the only Indian-American female lead in a television show, you seem to be making sweeping statements about that person simply because you are that person and the only one, whereas, for instance, Steve Carell — he's not making sweeping generalizations about white American men on his show because there's so many different white American men on different shows.

"So I get worried by doing this character that people think that I'm saying that about all those people. And I just have the weight of that on my shoulders, which is something that I do envy other performers for not having."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After playing Kelly Kapoor on "The Office" and serving as a writer and producer on the show, Mindy Kaling has created her own comedy series, which premieres tonight on Fox. It's called "The Mindy Project." Kaling is an executive producer, writer and the star. She plays Dr. Mindy Lahiri, an OB/GYN who knows how to handle a difficult birth but is striking out in the relationship department.

Dr. Lahiri loves romantic comedies but can't turn her life into one. Mindy Kaling wrote about her own love of romantic comedies in her bestselling memoir "Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me?" Let's start with a scene of tonight's premiere of "The Mindy Project." Dr. Mindy Lahiri is in the doctors' lounge at the hospital, preparing for a date.

She's wearing an outlandish sequined top that she thinks will really win over this guy, but it gets a thumb-down from Dr. Danny Castellano, a young doctor with whom she has an antagonistic relationship, played by Chris Messina. She dismisses his opinion of her blouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE MINDY PROJECT")

MINDY KALING: (As Mindy Lahiri) OK, thank you.

CHRIS MESSINA: (As Danny Castellano) Sure.

KALING: (As Mindy) I'm just going to take fashion advice from Danny Castellano because Danny Castellano, he really gets women, you know.

MESSINA: (As Danny) I do, don't I?

KALING: (As Mindy) Just ask his wife. Oh, I'm sorry, his ex-wife.

MESSINA: (As Danny) You know what would really look great?

KALING: (As Mindy) Yeah, what?

MESSINA: (As Danny) If you lost 15 pounds.

KALING: (As Mindy) What? Do you want to get smacked?

(As Danny) No, I don't want to get smacked, Dr. Lahiri, not at my place of work. How would I peacefully go about my day?

GROSS: Mindy Kaling, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your new show. Let me ask you to describe your character in your words.

KALING: Terry, thank you for having me back. I'm so excited to be here. My character is - her name is Mindy Lahiri, she's a doctor, and she's a pretty flawed, but realistically portrayed person, I think. I've - she's a funny mess with lots of problems.

GROSS: Now I know you love romantic comedies, and you write you love them even though you know admitting to that is essentially seen as an admission of mild stupidity.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So do you see your TV series as eventually becoming a romantic comedy?

KALING: I thought it would be really fun to do a show that was a serialized romantic comedy, where I was the star, and that it would actually be funny week to week and that you could check in with a character and see how her life is going.

But again, like I said, they have such a pejorative connotation now, romantic comedies, that people only think of them as guilty pleasures. So I wanted it to be very funny and not stupid, I guess.

GROSS: One of the things that happens to your character, who's an obstetrician/gynecologist, is that a woman who's - seems to be a newly arrived immigrant, she's Muslim and is wearing a veil and is nine months pregnant comes to the hospital and wants you to deliver her baby.

But she doesn't have health insurance, and you have to figure out what to do, and you manage to get comedy out of that.

KALING: Yeah, I mean, because the character eventually does take on the patient, I think what's really fun about her is that she has to struggle to do the right thing. And in the show, she ends up taking on this patient against her will because she's an up-and-coming doctor, and she would - in her mind she would like to have ritzier patients who can pay and things like that.

And I think if someone, kind of, eventually does the right thing, seeing them struggle to do it is actually enjoyable. And there's something where I don't know whether this is because I'm a minority, but I've always really found the prejudices that minorities have against other minorities to be a very enjoyable comedy area. And, like, and it's been really fun to sort of - to research and see.

And I think that people, they can take more than you think they can. You know? Like people want like an openness and a frankness in comedy, and I think they're offended by less than you think they will be. Or they are offended, but they still enjoy it, you know. And this character, she's kind of plainspoken about wanting a patient that can pay for the services, and I thought that was kind of a nice quality in her, even though she was being a little selfish.

GROSS: Well, she also tells her associate she wants more white patients.

(LAUGHTER)

KALING: Yeah, she's sheepish about saying that. I mean, that's one of the things we sort of tackle. I didn't want to play a character who's just deeply good all the time. Like that's not fun for me to write. And especially with working on "The Office" for so many years with Michael Scott, you know, Steve Carell's character, who is so flawed, you just thought that's much more fun to watch. That's much more fun to write.

And so yeah, she ends up taking on the character, so why don't we make it hard for her to do the right thing.

GROSS: Now, I think you've made her pretty professionally competent, unlike Michael Scott in "The Office," though actually he turns out to be a good salesman. But he has no knack with managing people. But your doctor, the doctor you play, seems to be pretty good at being a doctor, although she's not very good at having a love life.

KALING: I think that was important. There's almost a certain comedy percentage you learn with a lead character, of how good they have to be at their job because it redeems them. And if the character was, like, kind of a terrible surgeon in addition to being selfish and un-PC, sort of, then she becomes a hateful character.

GROSS: Right, and, like, women died in labor, ended up with infections, yeah, it would be terrible.

(LAUGHTER)

KALING: It becomes a huge bummer, and nobody wants to watch it. But it is a really fine line, I think. I decided my rule of thumb was I want her to be as good of a doctor as I believe I am, like, a comedy writer. And I, you know, I feel pretty confident in my talents as a writer so that why not just make her be good. That helps, that exonerates bad behavior, too.

GROSS: So when you became the showrunner of your own show, starring you, written in part by you, produced by you, what was it like to basically be the boss, to be the final word, to have to make a lot of decisions?

KALING: Well, it was - that was the thing I was kind of most excited about, about doing the new show. I mean, yes I was thrilled to be acting in the show, but I was really excited to be the boss. Like anyone who has kind of gotten that promotion, you have, OK, well, this is the time now when I can correct any of my pet peeves from my previous job, which by the way I didn't have that many, because I loved my old job.

But you - you know, I came into the new show thinking oh, let me have this democratic way of doing the show because I remember what it was like being a staff writer, and I remember thinking, like, oh, I get to manage the time now. And it was very funny how at the beginning, I started at the show being a little bit too democratic, and then I was just fearful that - I was like oh, everything's getting out of control, and I just didn't want to, like, overcorrect and become, like, the Saddam Hussein of my - the new job.

(LAUGHTER)

KALING: But it was - I had to really - it was a really interesting learning experience, deciding that I have to just be very decisive and not take everyone's opinion because I thought coming from "The Office," like that'll be great, I'll really listen to all of my writers and everything they have to say and then about five weeks into it being like, you know what, that was a mistake. I am sorry, I have to revoke me asking you guys for all your opinions all the time.

(LAUGHTER)

KALING: Which is a hard thing to do when you've given that freedom to people, especially because my personality is to be chatty and talk to people and hear people's problems. And it's been interesting at my show, because I've had to both want to do that at times and then kind of shut down that side of me unceremoniously, which I think can hurt people's feelings a little bit. And that's been a weird thing to have to learn how to do.

GROSS: Because there's no time for that?

KALING: There is, kind of, no time. So it's - I will be this kind of cheerful, talkative person, and then I feel like I've had to be very abrupt.

GROSS: You've got a show to do.

KALING: I've got a show to do, which has been fun to learn.

GROSS: When you wanted to be boss, and your boss actually disagreed with you on "The Office," what would happen?

KALING: Well, that's the thing is I was known as, like, a big fighter on "The Office." And Greg Daniels, who is a very professorial and actually encourages debate, loved it. I would exhaust myself arguing and arguing and taking on different tacks, and he was very open to it. Like, he would often, if you argued well enough, he would be won over. So it was kind of worth it a lot of the times.

But on this show, it's weird. When you have that will to fight in you, when you spent eight years learning how to argue, sometimes I have more argument in me than I'm even allowed to, because sometimes I'll start on this path, and one or the other executive producers is like yeah, you can you have whatever you want, you're the boss now. And I'm like oh, well, I have seven more arguments I wanted to use.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's - which is a wonderful thing, but it's weird because I feel like the - I have an underdog spirit in me, and now it feels weird to kind of get my own way more often than not.

So are you getting any sleep now that you have your own show?

KALING: You know, it's funny, now that I'm in Hollywood, I have many friends who run their own shows, and one of the personality traits at a party of, like, being overwhelmed by being a showrunner on a show is just something - I mean, people just kind of adopt that, like I'm so overwhelmed, I'm so busy.

And one thing that my mom and - my mom and dad sort of raised me believing is that everyone is busy, so it's not really a good conversation topic to talk about how busy you are, and it's a little narcissistic, in fact, to talk about that because everyone is kind of stressed out no matter what job you're in. Nobody is, like, yeah, I'm doing really well, like work is just a total snooze and so easy.

So when I got this job, I thought you know what? I'm going to be that person who is the star of their own show and the showrunner and the head writer, etcetera, etcetera, but I'm going to always seem like it's no big deal. And I was actually able to do that for, like, the first six weeks.

And now I have to say it's a little bit hard to pretend that I'm just like this cool-as-a-cucumber person. It's not as hard. I'm not getting a ton of sleep. I get to work at around - anywhere between 5:30 and, you know, seven in the morning to act. I wrap 12 or 14 hours after that, and then I stay in the writers' room approving the next day's work or editing episodes until 11 or midnight.

That might not always be the case, but I think for a beginning show, that is - that's going to be the schedule for a while.

GROSS: So you always wanted to write for TV. Like, this was an ambition of yours when you were a child. What did you love on television that made you want to write for it?

KALING: I loved everything. I mean, I loved "Saturday Night Live." I thought that was a really - besides just being a really fun and funny show was so glamorous to me, the New York City, the live aspect of it. I really loved that. I loved "Fawlty Towers." I used to watch that on, you know, PBS on Thanksgiving. I thought that was a really brilliant television show.

Mary Tyler Moore, I watched a lot, too. I mean, I really was not discriminating as a kid because I didn't know how to be discriminating. I watched everything, and I liked a lot of it, you know, with the exception of like, Benny Hill, I never really understood.

But I loved "The Cosby Show," I love David Letterman. I mean, I really was a sponge.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mindy Kaling, and she has a new comedy series about to premier on FOX. It's called "The Mindy Project." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Mindy Kaling. Her new series "The Mindy Project" premieres tonight on FOX. She played Kelly Kapoor on "The Office." Here's a scene from one of the Christmas episodes of "The Office" that she wrote. It takes place after the paper company Dunder Mifflin has been taken over by the big corporation Sabre.

Because Kelly Kapoor's parents are from India, she's been selected as a member of the Minority Executive Training Program, and in that capacity, she's chosen the office Christmas party gifts. She's standing in front of the room at the party, about to hand out the gifts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE OFFICE")

KALING: (As Kelly Kapoor) It's present time, you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) Great.

KALING: (As Kelly) Happy holidays from your friends at Sabre.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) We just want to say how grateful we are.

KALING: (As Kelly) Sabre is actively looking for ways to involve me as minority executive training. So I suggested choosing the annual Christmas gift to the employees. And they said oh, yes, perfect, thank you, Kelly, finally something for you to do. It's a Hello Kitty laptop sleeve.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Hello Kitty is for girls.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Nashville got MP3 players.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character) Yeah, I don't even have a laptop.

KALING: (As Kelly) I wonder if these presents would be under as much scrutiny if I were white.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As character) Oh God.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) Come on.

KALING: (As Kelly) I said I wonder, I didn't say I think.

GROSS: Now, that's Mindy Kaling on "The Office," an episode she wrote. That's really funny. Can you talk about writing that episode? And I even love the I said I wonder, I didn't say I think.

(LAUGHTER)

KALING: Thank you. It's funny listening to my voice on that show because it even sounds different than I am, and I think we shot that, maybe that was two Christmases ago. The quality in my voice even sounds different than it is. Yeah, I thought that was a funny, like an edgy little storyline we did where the character got promoted through kind of wrong-minded affirmative action and through a minority executive trainee program that the company kind of cynically put into place.

And the character was a little ill-equipped to have that kind of role, and it was kind of a nonexistent job. And she was given the task of something as insignificant as choosing the Christmas gift.

And that was the way on "The Office" you could do little tiny bits of satire. It could, like, creep out in those ways, and that really made us laugh.

GROSS: There's a scene that reminds me of - in your new show where your character is putting on some clothes for a date, and you put on this incredibly, like, spangly(ph) top. And the Chris Messina character, your fellow doctor, says that's something like your girlfriends will love. That's not something, like, the man you're on a date with is going to like.

KALING: Yes, yeah, that's something that I've observed in life is that there's, like, a list of 15 things that women tend to love, and men tend to not like, fashion-wise, which ended up being true. Any guy who I show that scene to is like yeah, that's a terrible outfit.

GROSS: So you said that there were 15 things in fashion that girls like that guys hate. What are some of those 15?

KALING: Oh, I said 15? Wow, that's so specific, so confidently specific. There's some things, you know, I've learned over the years. I think men - these, by the way, are all generalizations that are - many people listening to these will disagree with them. I have found it to be true that men tend to not understand or like sequins very much.

Men don't like, sort of, the wedge shoe, I have noticed. Men don't like - tend to like the statement necklace or chunky tribal jewelry. These are the things, by the way, that I love, so the overlap in the Venn diagram of things that men hate for women to wear and the things that I love to wear, it's almost a full overlap on the Venn diagram, which is unfortunate for me.

What are other things? Capri pants I've noticed that men tend to dislike. This is not clothing, but I adore a short haircut. I don't know a single man, including my own brother and my own father, who if I cut my hair shorter than my shoulders, they think it's a huge tragedy.

(LAUGHTER)

KALING: Which is again too bad because I would live to have like a - that Audrey Hepburn short sort of hairstyle. Those are a few.

GROSS: Does the fact that your research shows that men don't like these things prevent you from wearing them?

KALING: No because I, like most women, I dress for other women, I think. If I was going to dress for men, I think in general I would be just wearing, like, a fitted black T-shirt and tight jeans every day. I mean, this is very - of course, this is my unscientific research by working with male comedy writers for the past eight years.

They tend to just really like - this specific group of guys - really simple, clean lines, things like that. But I don't. So I dress for women. I wear all of those things because I like looking at it. It makes me feel happy and excited to wear it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mindy Kaling, and her new show, her new comedy series on FOX TV, is called "The Mindy Project."

So how did you get a job on "The Office"?

KALING: I was doing a play called "Matt and Ben" that I wrote with my best friend in New York City. And it had been in the New York Fringe Festival, and then it was transferred off-off-Broadway, to PS122, which is this incredible theater in the East Village. And it had a successful run there, so we - while that show was continuing on in the East Village, my friend and I went to L.A. to do it in Los Angeles, where Greg Daniels, who was - he had the rights to the British "Office."

He was doing a new series, and I had just shot the pilot. He was looking for writers and performers. And he saw the play, and then he hired me from that.

GROSS: So did you create the character of Kelly Kapoor for "The Office"?

KALING: Yes, the character didn't appear in the British "Office."

GROSS: So who did you want her to be?

KALING: We - you know, I will say, and I think I can speak for Greg and the writers, when you're starting a show, and you need to populate a workplace, there was not that much attention paid to what Kelly was going to be. She was a body to be offended by Michael Scott. That's kind of what every little - the side characters were, except for like the four or five leads.

We just - our biggest role was to be a straight person that was offended by Michael. And then as the series continues, and we have to fill in, you know, 22, 24 episodes a year, you get to learn more and more about them. But, you know, I've always said she's beyond tertiary character.

So the way it works in TV is like the first leads, the first five characters that you see in the opening credits, they're the ones you kind of find out more about their inner life and what their dreams and hopes are and things. And as you expand outward, it's - you kind of don't want to know, like, all of like the sadnesses in those characters' lives because they're there just to provide comedy.

And so that's kind of what my character was for eight years, which by the way I was delighted to be able to do, and because I had so many responsibilities in the writers' room, that kind of made sense.

GROSS: So your character, and we had talked about this a little last time you were on the who, your character is such a product of, like, American suburbia and American pop culture.

KALING: Yeah, I think that's really accurate.

GROSS: But a lot of people look at her and see of Indian descent and assume that your character's actually from India and doesn't - you know, is so tuned into traditional Indian culture, and it's not who your character is. Did you have that kind of disconnect in real life, where people would look at you and make assumptions that were just, like, not true?

KALING: People - I mean, some people wonder if I was born in India, which is - when people ask me that, I think that's - it's not that I have no relationship with India, I was when I was 14, but I mean, that was over 17 years ago at this point. It's just like I feel like I just feel American. You know, it's weird when that comes up. You know, it's not that I forget that I'm Indian.

Well actually, no, maybe it is that I forget a little bit day to day that I'm Indian. I am reminded a lot, though, especially now when I'm talking about the new show, that other people don't forget that I'm Indian, and that's important for me to remember because it's hard to - you know, I rarely do - you know, there's rarely anything ever written about me or the show that doesn't talk about me being Indian, especially in the face of, like, you know, white comedy writers and things like that.

So it's sort of like my existence, my existence in Hollywood sometimes is sort of written up as a story, like a struggle, when there have been times when it's been a struggle, but I wouldn't necessarily have always connected it with my race or my sex.

GROSS: Mindy Kaling will be back in the second half of the show. Her new series "The Mindy Project" premieres tonight on FOX. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Mindy Kaling. On the NBC series "The Office," she played Kelly Kapoor and she served as a producer and writer. Kaling created and stars in the new Fox comedy series, "The Mindy Project," which premieres tonight. She plays Dr. Mindy Lahiri, an OB/GYN, whose love life is a mess.

Now you've made your character an OB/GYN, which is what your mother was. Why do you want to give your character your mother's profession?

KALING: Well, my mom had a very different job than my job as a comedy writer and actress on a TV show. But I found that we had really similar lifestyles, because both jobs are very time consumptive. I would often be leaving work at 11 o'clock at night in LA and call her in Boston and she would still be awake, waiting for a baby to be delivered. So we would have weirdly similar hours and our lifestyles became really similar. And I thought it was like a very fun job. You're surrounded by women, especially for someone who's single and wishes she was married, it's fun to be surrounded by women in all different stages of their lives - some who are married, some who are expecting babies, some with families - that it seemed like a good board for a character to bounce off her own neurosis.

GROSS: So in writing the character could make you think a lot about your mother's life?

KALING: You know, the character is very different than my mom. Her job and her workplace was a big inspiration, but my mother was a very glamorous but very practical minded and series surgeon. If you met her she had a very - she was very opinionated and funny but she wasn't in love with love the way that my character is on the show. And she wasn't kind of frivolous and foolish and - my character is very flawed and interesting and my mom - I mean I'm biased, of course, because she's my mom - but was just a really like a sophisticated and yeah, like a serious type of person. So they are very different.

GROSS: Your mother was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer last year and died about eight months later. You moved back home to be with her when she was sick. There's something you write in your book, your memoir, or your collection of personal essays "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me," something you write about her that I related to so much. You wrote that whenever she cried you cried. Like, you couldn't help yourself. If she cried you started welling up and it was always that way with me too. Do you know? And my mother like your mother didn't cry very much but if she had a tear in her eye I would just, like, totally lose it. And I think I understand why but I don't know that I really understand why.

(LAUGHTER)

KALING: I think it's because - well, so I'm not happy that you can identify with that but I'm glad that you say that. I think it has to do something with my mom was a very strong person and was not a very outwardly emotional person. She was very empathetic and things but she wasn't like a big, you know, she didn't fall to pieces or anything and she was not theatrical in terms of expressing herself. So when she would cry, I think the reason why I always have to cry is it's a little traumatizing to see someone like that cry. And so I think it's, there's one thing which is, you know, empathizing or sympathizing with my mom for whatever she's going through, but also it is traumatic to see that when you see it so infrequently and she was such a pillar and such a rock in my family that seeing that, kind of, happen, would kind of move you to tears, in a way, because it was just so unusual.

GROSS: So if it was so difficult to just watch her cry, were you able to bear watching her suffer when she was sick?

KALING: I mean, the answer to the question is no, it was not bearable. It was - her personality completely changed. And, you know, I was talking to my father about this because we have a little perspective now because it's been some months, but you have to struggle. And anyone who's lost someone to cancer will say this, that you have to struggle to try to remember the person before the diagnosis happened, because they really do change - as anyone would change. So you for the first period of time, even now, the thing you remember most vividly is how the disease changed them. And then, like now, I'm beginning to remember my mom from when I was, you know, 28, which is a real gift. But it was just, it was such a short amount of her life that it seems unfair to her memory to let it cloud most of my memory of her, if that makes sense.

GROSS: Oh, I understand that completely and I experienced, kind of, the same thing while my mother was sick...

KALING: You know, you sort of think...

GROSS: Yeah, because they're physically transformed too. So...

KALING: Mm-hmm. And their demeanor and everything. I mean it is unimaginable to hear news that you have an illness that's going to end your life within the year, and so that really changed her. And, but again, it's like yeah, it was such a struggle to remember like there was this person that I knew for more than 30 years before that who was so different.

GROSS: You know what's really nice, your book which came out last year before she was sick. At least it was written before she was sick. It's dedicated to your parents. And then the acknowledgments in the back of the book, you write: I guess I'm just one of those weird kids who likes their parents too much. And - so it's great that, you know, she got to see all that.

KALING: Yeah. You know, she was so into it. She was so - she followed every, any interview, anything. I mean she, for instance this show and I would call her up and she loved you, Terry and...

GROSS: Oh, that's so nice.

KALING: ...would have parts of it memorized or I would go on "The Daily Show" and both my parents were confirmed conservative Republicans and they even would watch "The Daily Show" and Jon Stewart and they thought he was like a troublemaker and they would love it too. I mean they followed every aspect of it and with such detail. I mean that's been the one thing that's been hard, is that she was, selfishly, was my biggest champion. And I could always call her the way, after you, you know, finish a successful sports game and you can, you know, talk to your coach or your parents about how great it was and they can kind of go over the victory with you. And to not go through this with her has been a little - I've been missing her a lot lately with the show coming on.

GROSS: Sure. Sure. Well, thank you for talking about her a little bit with us. And I'm going to...

KALING: Of course. Yeah.

GROSS: I'm going to change the subject to something much lighter now.

(LAUGHTER)

KALING: That's all right. I could talk about my mom all day.

GROSS: Really?

KALING: I mean you, mentioned a little bit about your parents. It's like, she's such a source. I've been surprised at how my relationship with her has continued even though she's passed away, which is a weird thing to say. But people who have lost a parent I think - or anybody, like, I think they might be able to relate to that.

GROSS: In the sense that you find yourself still talking to her?

KALING: You know, I knew her so well, like, you know, we knew each other so well that there are times when I know the answer as I'm asking the question, so it - I can still have conversations with her if that and yeah, I can and I still find it kind of rewarding. That makes me sound a little crazy, but...

GROSS: No. No. I think lots of people will understand that. So here comes the changing it to a lighter subject part.

KALING: Yes.

GROSS: Shopping.

(LAUGHTER)

KALING: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You have a blog that's about things that you've bought that you love.

KALING: Yes. It's called Things I've Bought That I Love. It's a little defunct...

GROSS: Right. OK. I kind of got that.

(LAUGHTER)

KALING: ...for about eight months but, yeah.

GROSS: Oh really? Oh. It's still on there. I looked it up last night.

KALING: No, but it's still up I just having posted on it in a while. When this show got picked up in, you know, December and everything with my mom it just became both my interest kind of shifted and the show - became lots of other things kind of took over.

GROSS: So here's my incisive question, and that is, you know, for me nothing fits me. And so for me it's like, old boy, I think I'll go shopping today. I need some clothes. And I come home and I'm just like I'm so angry and I have such a bad headache because like there's been nothing that fit me, and the one thing I may be...

KALING: Wait. What do you say nothing fits you? Terry, I've only seen photographs of view but you seem like a tiny person, like you don't have to...

GROSS: That's the thing. I'm small. I'm narrow boned. And like I don't know if you've ever shopped petite style, but that...

KALING: So Terry, what you're describing is the most insufferable thing I've ever heard. I know that it is in fact a struggle for you, but to hear someone say - to complain about being narrow boned. I mean I think on "30 Rock" they literally did a joke about this with Emily Mortimer. She had Avian Bone disease...

(LAUGHTER)

KALING: ...which made her birdlike, birdlike I think. You are what we call humble bragging on Twitter.

GROSS: No. No. No. No. What I am...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: No, what I am is like really short, and when you see, like, jackets with the shoulders drooping off of you and, you know, pants that are just like way too like tight in one place and loose in another place, it's not a good thing. And the petite styles, they're - excuse me for all the petite designers out there - so many of them are just like hideous, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You want to go to like the great clothes stores and buy something nice and nothing in that store is ever going to fit. Nothing.

KALING: I'm so charmed, by the way, hearing this. Because in my mind and everyone has their imagination of what Terry Gross must wear. It's like you are just wearing like a slouchy like, you know, Jil Sander cashmere sweater and a pair of like perfectly fitting jeans and flats.

GROSS: I was...

KALING: And like you just bounce around like Audrey Hepburn or something. So that's nice to hear.

GROSS: Doesn't shopping ever, like, drive you crazy?

KALING: I have to say I never thought I would say this aloud, but because on the show I'm allowed to largely dictate the style of the character and I have lost my interest a lot, at least in clothing shopping. I am still interested in gadgets. I've always had that side of my personality. If someone on my staff gets a new car or a new pet, I love consumerism. I just - I really do love that. I'm a very new money aesthetic. That's always been. I'm the child of immigrants who came with new money, I mean that very much I'm cut from that cloth.

GROSS: My guest is Mindy Kaling. Her new series "The Mindy Project," premieres tonight on Fox.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Mindy Kaling. She created and stars in the new comedy series "The Mindy Project," which premieres tonight on Fox. On the NBC series "The Office," she played Kelly Kapoor.

So your parents are from India but they moved to Nigeria before coming to the U.S. Why did they move to Nigeria?

KALING: They moved there for work. It's actually a pretty common thing. I mean, I didn't know this until they told me this, that there's so many Indians in Africa. You know, they're in pockets of Kenya and South Africa. There's a lot of Indian professionals in different areas in Africa and they met there, which is why I think we weren't raised any kind of Indian dialect, because they met each other and they're from different parts of India themselves, so they only spoke English to each other, so my brother and I only know English, which is already I think unusual for a lot of Indian Americans who are my age, you know, where they speak a different language at home. And we didn't have that.

GROSS: What kind of reactions you get from Indian-Americans to your character on "The Office?" And has that affected anything in creating your new character for "The Mindy Project?"

KALING: In general, it seems that, I mean, mostly Indian-American women seem to really like - it seem fresh to them and refreshing that I wasn't playing a character who is a tech genius, or had an accent, or - I mean the character certainly was no hero or anything like that, she wasn't a role model to anybody, but that was nice for I think people see, largely. I'm sure there's people who wished that I had been a little bit better. With the new character, I don't know yet. It's a little - it's early to say. I think I've gotten a lot of support and supportive comments online and through, you know, different venues or whatever about it being nice that I'm a lead on a show and being of Indian descent. You know, I worry about it though, obviously because this is a comedy character and I want her to be funny. And you feel like you have people pin their hopes and dreams on you a little bit. And when you are the only Indian-American female lead in a television show, you seem to be making sweeping statements about that type of person simply because you are that person - and the only one. Whereas, for instance, Steve Carell, he's not making sweeping generalizations about white American man on his show, because there are so many different white American men on different shows - if that makes sense.

GROSS: Absolutely.

KALING: So I get worried by doing this character that people think that I'm saying that about all those people and I just have the weight of that on my shoulders, which is something that I do envy other performers for not having that. And I, kind of, just can't worry about it at a certain point because this is a real character, you know, this is not someone who I'm putting up as anyone that should be running for Congress. This is not someone who should be winning a teaching award or being a role model. Like let me, Mindy Kaling be a role model, if anything. I don't even know how arguable, you know, that's pretty arguable too but let the character just be a funny character is what I hope people will kind of take away from watching the show.

GROSS: Well, Mindy Kaling, congratulations on your new series. Thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

KALING: Oh, thank you. It's been such a fun time. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Mindy Kaling created and stars in the new series, "The Mindy Project," which premieres tonight on Fox. You can watch clips on our website, FreshAir.NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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