Mindy Kaling on How She Drew on Own Experience, Interests for 'Late Night'

Todd Williamson/January Images
From left: Katie Couric, Jennifer Salke and Mindy Kaling

"I was in this unique position where I completely identified with both of the female leads,” the writer-producer-star told The Hollywood Reporter after a recent screening in New York, saying it's fortuitous that the topics she explores in the Amazon movie, like intersectional feminism and equal rights in the workplace, are timely.

Mindy Kaling knows a thing or two about being the only woman in the writers’ room, but when she wrote the movie Late Night, in which she stars alongside Emma Thompson, she felt a lot closer to Thompson’s late-night host Katherine than the budding comedy writer Molly.

“I felt like I needed to write it because I was in this unique position where I completely identified with both of the female leads,” Kaling told The Hollywood Reporter after a screening of the movie at The Whitby Hotel. “I vividly remember my experience coming up in the industry with no connections, not having gone to Harvard, being the only diverse person in the room. But I also — even more vividly because I was living it when I wrote this — remember what it’s like to be in a power position where you’re the showrunner and the star of something. You’re impatient. You’re a little complacent, and you’re just kind of a demanding boss that worries a little bit that you’ve lost touch with people.”

Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke and Katie Couric hosted the intimate screening and reception on Thursday night, which included guests like Pat Kiernan, Padma Lakshmi, Fran Drescher and Josh Lucas. Amazon bought Kaling’s film, which is directed by Nisha Ganatra, at Sundance, and the sale marked the highest-ever for a female-directed project in the festival’s history. The film follows late-night host Katherine Newbury (Thompson), who hires Molly Patel (Kaling) when she needs to bring in new voices to her writers’ room in the wake of learning she’s going to be replaced. The film hits theaters on June 7.

“It was so fun to write because as a writer-performer when I write, I like to read the dialogue aloud, and I was like, ‘Oh I think I know this character Katherine really well,’” Kaling said. “Even though obviously Emma came in with her own research that she did as an actress and turned it into something totally different.”

Kaling wrote the movie based on her experience writing for The Office, and she wrote it with Thompson in mind. She emailed the script to Thompson asking if she’d do it, and luckily, she said yes.

“Emma’s my favorite living actor,” Kaling said. “In every performance, even in the most serious drama, she comes from comedy and she infuses everything with a lightness; she can just do both. To me, the performers I love the most are the ones that can do both. I just felt like she’s so dynamic, she’s so talented, so gorgeous. This character said so many unlikable things and did so many things that are so terrible, but Emma Thompson is the kind of person who can pull it off, and you’re still rooting for her. And not everyone can do that. And it was kind of a stupid thing because no one else could have played the part.”

While Kaling also identifies as her character, she said Molly is very different from her, and she drew inspiration from the younger women she has worked with in her career.

“She’s a lot more naive than I am. She has a lot of characteristics that are younger than me. She has a lot more of like what I would describe as more millennial personality traits and I’m like old as hell. I’m 39,” Kaling said. “But I felt like I work with so many young women that I’ve noted observations about them and the way they work so it isn’t really based on the way I am in a writers' room.”

The film tackles many topical issues, from the #MeToo movement to the dearth of female late-night hosts, and Kaling said the film's relevance has to do with her own interests. 

"I think I was just lucky that the things that I’m really interested in — which is intersectional feminism, equal rights in the workplace — those kind of things that are not that funny on paper can be made really funny when put in a workplace environment," Kaling said. "I’m just lucky because my interests just happen to be timely right now."

She hopes audiences will see the film and recognize that women could easily fit into the late-night lineup.

“When you watch the movie, there’s not a single person who comes out who couldn’t see Emma Thompson doing that. It seems like that could be a role that she could inhabit perfectly,” Kaling said. “It would be nice if people left the movie and saw that and were like, 'Oh, it wasn’t such a leap of the imagination for this woman to write this movie.' Maybe that could be something that would be a reality. I mean, I would watch that show.”