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“Joan was so incredible for so many reasons. … She was completely fearless and totally fine with taking an insult,” she said on Friday morning, as part AOL’s BUILD Speaker Series. Though Kaling didn’t personally know the comedian, who died last Thursday following cardiac arrest, she praised her body of work and lightheartedly noted that she was a victim of her Fashion Police lashings on several occasions. “Letting your sensitivities drop — we can’t be offended when people call girls ugly. We can’t be offended when boys say that they think we’re fat. Those are things that should not be important to us. … She was both someone who dished a lot but also taught, ‘Hey, don’t take it personally.’ So that was very inspiring.
“I also think, she died working. And that’s what I want to do,” Kaling continued, noting at one point that her house is filled with scripts, including Freaks and Geeks, The Princess Bride and Hannah and Her Sisters. “If I could choose the way I’d go, yeah, one week off of her TV show. I don’t know, I don’t know if I’d like to retire and not do what I’m doing. I thought that was pretty baller.”
Another comedian she greatly looks up to is Conan O’Brien, whom she watched obsessively on Late Night during her impressionable preteen period. “I had to tape every episode, every interview, rewind and watch it!” she recalled. “No one knew who he was when he got that show, and he was so virtuosic; it was like nothing I had ever seen before.”
She also greatly admires writer-actors Tina Fey, whom “I compare to Tom Hanks in many ways because it’s not like she changes her character so much role to role; there’s just something about that thing [she does],” and Emma Thompson, particularly with her double Oscar win for lead actress and adapted screenplay for Sense and Sensibility. “I had to look up what [adapted screenplay] meant, and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ “
Kaling was only seven or eight years old when she learned she love to write, as she would spend afternoons in the phlebotomy room at the office of her mother, a doctor. “I wasn’t doing any sports, I was not good at instruments, we never really traveled or anything. I was just told to study and read books while my parents worked,” she explained, wearing an embellished Opening Ceremony dress. “I would take the bus to her office, go to this last room, and I would sit there with a typewriter and either read or write. That was all I could do. And when someone had to get their blood taken, I would just get shuffled out. I’d wait impatiently, and then she’d leave, and I’d start writing again. … That feeling of waiting for this pregnant woman to leave so I could finish writing my little weird plays that I would write was when I was like, ‘Oh, I love doing this, and I do it without anybody else to entertain me.’ ”
Now, as the creator and star of The Mindy Project, Kaling noted that her dream lineup of guest stars includes Idris Elba, Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Chastain, Howard Stern and Sam Rockwell, as well as “nerdy” choices of scientists and writers, such as Zadie Smith. Still, she told the audience and moderator Donna Freydkin that she’s currently standing at the cliff of her ideal career path. “This is one of the cooler things about my life that I have to acknowledge when I get mad about it being humid or whatever — I’m living my life’s dream. The job I have now — I had a plan up until now, which was to get myself on television show that I would create,” she said with a laugh. “I have to make some more plans. … Oh, I should maybe have kids? Get married? Maybe that sort of thing? I don’t know, maybe I should do that.”
Would she rule out a post on a late-night talk show? “It’s so good, that connection of having a late-night talk show with an audience — when you’re lying in bed, this is last person you see before you go to sleep, or while you’re having sex with your husband,” she said. “Also, you have to muster up energy to be like, ‘Tell me more about your vampire show, you 23-year-old actress! I’m interested!’ It’s such a cool challenge.”
Regardless of what does come next, she admitted she has “this delusional feeling that I could do anything,” thanks to her incredibly encouraging parents. When asked of her advice to young girls who might lack confidence while pursuing their passion, she said, “Girls face so many challenges — people are constantly telling them they can’t do things, they can’t be funny, they can’t run the companies — but my advice is just not to focus on anyone telling you that you can’t do anything, or politics in your situation. … Just think about your art, that thing you’re gonna do. I can get caught up, I can spend my entire life doing panels on being a chubby person of color writing a TV show, and it would be useful to some people, but I wouldn’t be writing my TV show. And all my competition, all the white men who are doing the same thing, are not doing that; they’re just getting better and better and better at their jobs.
“We want to support each other without distracting each other. Heads down, work really hard, pretend your parents don’t like you and they locked you up in that third room, and just do your work.”
The third season of The Mindy Project airs Sept. 16 at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.
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