Earlier this year, in her well-received Super Bowl ad for Nationwide, Mindy Kaling thought she might be invisible. Hardly. As one of Hollywood's major creative forces, she's never been more prolific.
The actress and writer—and cover star of Adweek's Creative 100—voices the character Disgust in Inside Out, Disney/Pixar's summer blockbuster that is already the year's fourth highest grossing film, raking in $300 million and counting. Her critically acclaimed TV comedy The Mindy Project, which she created, writes and stars in, was snapped up by Hulu in May, shortly after Fox passed on it. It will return for Season 4 in September, right around the Sept. 15 release of her second book, Why Not Me? Besides Nationwide, the alum of NBC's The Office also starred in a high-profile American Express campaign this year that celebrated her status as an "unlikely leading lady."
Before diving into production on Season 4, Kaling talked with Adweek about the creative challenges of juggling so many projects and the family tragedy that drives her.
Adweek: When Fox didn't pick up The Mindy Project, were you certain you'd find another home?
Kaling: I have always been an optimist. I refuse to create things under the assumption of failure. So I thought that the best thing for the story creatively was to end last season on a cliffhanger, and it's a fun way to get people back. I knew in my heart for some foolhardy reason that we would be somewhere—and I ended up being right.
Will the show change at all on Hulu?
We want to keep the tone the same. But creatively, the episodes can be a little bit longer, which is good because we have such a funny cast and we can give more screen time to their characters.
Hulu will air new episodes each week. Do you wish audiences could binge it, like with Netflix?
As a consumer of TV, I love the experience of having all of them at once, but as a creator, I prefer having the episodes air every week because things become a little bit more special that way. I always loved that on The Office and on my show. The Christmas episode is special, and you wait for it to come out at Christmas time. It's more promotable, and it feels like anticipation builds.
You're the star, creator, writer and co-showrunner. How do you make it work?
I could never do it without the help of every one of the 150 people who work for me. Like the editors. They're used to working the normal work schedule, but because of my shooting, they start their workday when I wrap, and they're editing late into the night.
Your second book is coming out in September. Was this one easier?
I knew the 20 things that I wanted to write about at length, but it took a lot longer to write because I have less time. With this, I had to decide that Saturday and Sunday were going to be for working full time on the book.
Are you at your most creative as part of a group, like in the Mindy writers' room, or solo, like when you're writing your book?
Both, I think. Because of my training, I love and have grown to really enjoy being with other smart writers and having everyone pitch in a conflict or an idea. But I really like writing by myself, too.
Both of your ad campaigns felt like creative endeavors, not just cash grabs.
I felt so lucky because both of those companies asked me if I would be part of creating the campaign, writing the script. I don't think I would be part of anything like that unless I could have that control. Especially with American Express, the idea behind the campaign—of working through struggle—was fantastic, and I felt that this could also be inspiring to people, in addition to helping to sell American Express.
Were you apprehensive about doing them?
My manager Howard [Klein] said something to me that was so smart. There's two things that are important: One, that I think the company and what they're trying to sell is cool and helpful. And two, that I'm not holding up a product and being like, "Buy this product!" What's cool about both of these is that it's more like ideas I'm associating myself with, rather than holding something up.
How do you deal with writer's block?
It tends to be that I'm exhausted, and that's making me unwilling to think creatively. So I have a couple of triggers that help me get back to creative mode. One is to see something wonderful that I love. I'm on a script right now, and I didn't feel like writing because it was summer and the weekend. And so I saw While We're Young, which is very inspiring. That movie is incredibly different than my show, but Noah Baumbach is such a great writer and his dialogue is so funny. It made me think that in my mind, there's an imaginary Noah Baumbach that I wanted to impress. And that made me want to go write.
Do you always write in the same spot, or can you write anywhere?
I always write in exactly the same place, which is sitting in my bed, with two pillows behind me. I've written 50 television scripts and two books on this one place on my bed! I think the lack of the formality of a desk makes me feel really comfortable, and I'm a creature of habit.
What drives you to always have so much on your plate?
Without getting too sad, I think that when my mom passed away, I felt like she accomplished only a portion of what she wanted to do. I felt like, OK, I need to squeeze this orange until all of the juice is out of it because I felt uncertainty about my own mortality. So I thought, I always want to be doing a couple of things at once. This might change when I have kids or when I'm married, but until then, I have this need to keep going.
What do you want to tackle next?
I would love to write and direct a movie that I could have a small part in, and create an ensemble of actors like I have on the show. The other thing I'd love to do is start a fashion line, which I've wanted to do for years.
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This story first appeared in the July 20 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.