The first time we met Mindy Kaling was in Santa Clarita, on the set of “A Wrinkle in Time.”
She told us then how inspiring it was to work with director Ava DuVernay and her costar Oprah Winfrey. “The fact that not just our cast, but our crew is incredibly diverse is amazing and, as a showrunner, makes me want to do a better job on my own show. I’m an Indian woman and I think I can do better.”
Three years later, Mindy is cocreator, executive producer and showrunner of the new Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” which tells the story of high school student Devi Vishwakumar. “I’m so honored to be able to be the first person to depict an Indian-American teenager on TV in a starring role,” Mindy said in an interview over Zoom.
We told her it was striking to us that the show’s young stars were talking about her in the same way she was talking about Ava and Oprah in 2017.
“That’s so moving. I love that. I mean, that makes me feel so happy… One of the most terrifying things that can happen as a writer and a performer is when you realize you’re also a role model. I’m really honored and I really don’t want to mess it up.”
Mindy talked about how “Never Have I Ever” came about, getting John McEnroe to narrate, and why she regrets saying no to being in the show.
What inspired you to create this show?
There’s an executive at Netflix named Brooke Kessler who had read both my books and who really enjoyed the parts about my teenage years.. She thought that they would make a really good TV show. I had never written anything for teenagers and I was kind of scared of it, to be honest. I think it’s because my own teenage years are fraught with awkwardness and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to delve into that world for comedy. But I had a friend who had been working on the “The Mindy Project” for years named Lang Fisher who’d worked on “30 Rock.” We both bonded over being nerds all through high school, and we felt like the kind of nerds that we were had not been seen on TV and it felt like a really fun opportunity.
Is the show based on your experiences?
I grew up in the 80s and 90s and this character is going through high school now in the current day. Our childhoods look really different and our families look really different but there are certain things in it that were unmistakably my own, like the way that the character relates to her faith as a Hindu, the way she prays and how she has to have her textbooks blessed. Those are the kind of things that I grew up doing as an Indian-American.
What makes the show unique compared to other coming-of-age stories?
One of the things that’s unique about the show is the way that it deals with grief. My co-creator Lang and I both lost parents unexpectedly. That was something that we really wanted to show… That’s not very funny and both of us come from shows that have a lot of jokes and comedy and I think we wanted to see if we could do it and stretch as writers and try to encompass all of it, while also having Devi be this horny teenager. She was also dealing with this great amount of grief and to me that felt unusual.
Can you talk about the show’s family dynamic?
I think a lot of times, Asian women are portrayed as very demure and having anger as an Asian woman is not something we see, it’s not something that’s really embraced in a lot of Western culture. These are women who are really opinionated, who’ve had a lot of pain and who are really angry sometimes. Not all the time. And sometimes when they’re angry, they’re really funny too. But I think, with those three characters in particular I wanted to make sure that we gave them free rein to be that way. That was really important to me and that’s something that I see in myself.
We love that the characters’ relationships with their parents are complicated. Can you talk about writing that and how it related to your own experience growing up with your parents? Has being a mom changed the way you write parent-child relationships?
I think there was something really beautiful and interesting about the way that my relationship with my father has grown in the absence of my mother, and how we kind of were forced to become closer. That seemed like something I thought would be cool to explore. Nalini’s personality is also very strong like her daughter’s and it felt like the father was the person that kind of softened the both of them and was the glue that held the family together. So what happens when the glue is gone? That felt like an interesting story to tell. My daughter’s two, so we don’t have difficulties fighting with each other yet… but I do think I’ve been drawn to mother-daughter stories ever since she’s been born… To be honest, I’ve been pretty drawn to them once my mom passed away. I do think it’s nice to show moms and daughters who are not super, super close but that they can become closer and people can change.
What advice would you give to your 15-year-old self?
As a 15-year-old, I was so confident that if some 40-year-old woman was like, “Here’s my advice,” I’d be like, “I’m OK, I don’t need any advice from some old bag.” I don’t know how much my 15-year-old self would have listened to me. But I think the biggest advice probably would have been practical, like, don’t take nude photos of yourself, don’t send nude photos of yourself to anybody, don’t put anything up on YouTube because I guarantee you in five years it will not be hilarious and will come back to haunt you. I was lucky I was too old for all that so there’s no trace of me [from] that time.
Can you talk about the decision to have John McEnroe narrate the show?
I am a huge John McEnroe fan, my dad loved John McEnroe… I think he is so smart, so funny and I really liked that he embraced his temper. Indian people, particularly Indian men, love tennis… When we were talking more about Devi’s character, the parallels between her personality and John McEnroe’s became more and more clear. We reached out to his tennis agent and he had to read the script which he’s never done in all of repping John McEnroe… I met John in New York and I think his kids like “The Office.” We sent him the script and I think he maybe thought it was weird but cool enough that he wanted to sign on.
What was the most fun thing to shoot?
Lang asked me, “Do you want to be in it?” I said, “I don’t want to do it because I don’t want it to be distracting… I want it to live on its own.” When we started shooting, I was like, “Why the hell did I say that? This is so fun. I would love to be on this show.” But anytime that Devi is in her Facing History class with her teacher and all the other kids, those are to me the funniest. They really feel very much like my high school experience.