“I was terrified of your reaction to this,” Mindy Kaling told Stephen Colbert after her new film, Late Night, made its East Coast premiere at the Montclair Film Festival on Saturday.
It’s easy to see why. The hilarious, endearing dramedy stars Emma Thompson as a late-night talk show host, Katherine Newbury, who has lost her mojo over the course of 30 years and is facing replacement by a young bro comic (Ike Barinholtz, of The Mindy Project, does an uncanny Dane Cook). After she’s pressured to add Molly Patel (played by Kaling, who also wrote the script) to her white, male writing staff, Newbury gets her groove back by embracing the sort of political fearlessness that Colbert is known for. Which might be why the logo of Tonight With Katherine Newbury resembles that of Late Night with Stephen Colbert. Colbert is even mentioned by name at one point during a Seth Meyers cameo.
“I was really nervous to talk about it with you,” Kaling explained during a pre-screening conversation with Colbert at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, New Jersey, where Colbert lives, “because there’s five people that can really look at this movie and be like, ‘This is a bunch of bullshit.’”
“I’m here to tell you it’s not bullshit,” Colbert said, issuing his informed opinion on the scenes where Molly, a wide-eyed but ambitious factory worker who stumbles into a comedy career, tries to hold her own with the jaded, complacent Harvard Lampoon grads who are alternately dismissive of and threatened by the token female writer. “It’s long bouts of lethargy punctuated by panic,” Colbert observed. “That’s what writers’ rooms tend to be like.”
If Katherine Newbury has the acerbic wit and backstage fury of a certain other talk-show host (Thompson has said she “drew quite a lot from Letterman”), Molly is based very much on Kaling’s own career as a writer for The Office, The Mindy Project, and other sit-coms, as she revealed over the course of the hour-long conversation.
After growing up watching The Larry Sanders Show and transcribing Late Night with Conan O’Brien sketches, she scored an internship with Conan as a 19-year-old Dartmouth student. “I think I got it as a diversity hire intern, and it was totally magical,” Kaling said, adding that “it was a really unglamorous job, but it felt really glamorous.” (No, she didn’t talk to Conan in the elevator: “I think I guessed correctly that I wouldn’t want to interact with me if I was Conan.”)
In 2004, Greg Daniels, creator of the American version of The Office, saw Kaling perform at P.S. 122 in her show Matt & Ben, a Damon-Affleck spoof, and brought her on as a staff writer. She said she was hired as part of a diversity initiative wherein NBC covered the cost of an extra writer. “It was such a great opportunity, but also, I had such a big ego and at the time [I was] thinking I had come from New York and I was a playwright Off-Off-Broadway. And then when I was in that room, I thought, ‘Oh God, you know, I hate being a diversity hire; I hate that everyone thinks that the only qualifications I have is being an Indian woman, where I feel in my heart that I’m talented and important.”
In Late Night, Molly Patel struggles with the same sense of initial “shame,” as Kaling put it. One of the Tonight with Katherine Newbury writers grumbles about wishing he were a woman of color so he could get hired without qualifications. Molly catches another complaining about the “hostile environment in which to be an educated white male.” Meanwhile, before Molly’s arrival, these same male writers had been taking advantage of the unused women’s room as a place to take dumps.
At the same time that Molly faces resistance from her colleagues, she wins the begrudging respect of her boss with a joke that tackles abortion and menopause. After long having a “problem” with female comedians, Newbury comes to realize she wants a writer who “doesn’t think in exactly the same way as everyone else in the goddamn room.”
During Saturday’s conversation, Kaling acknowledged that being an Indian woman “has its pitfalls but also its benefits; so, if people were employing me or taking chances on me it was because of everything that I bring to it, which includes my ethnicity.” Her success, Kaling said, has mitigated some of those aforementioned pitfalls. “As an Indian-American single mom who is not traditionally beautiful by Hollywood standards, fame has elevated my status in this country a lot. I don’t want to depress people, but I think that is not necessarily a person who is prioritized in this county.”
Of course, Kaling’s fame has also inspired others. She observed that “with Asian parents, there’s more of a suspiciousness about show business” and noted that she’s often approached by women “who look like me,” who tell her that her career “has given them and their family a point of reference: ‘Ok then, we can allow our daughter to go into that world.’”
Kaling has made it a point to hire women of color. Late Night received a stamp of approval from ReFrame, an organization that endorses films that achieve gender balance by hiring female writers, directors, producers, stars, department heads and/or crew members, with extra points awarded for women of color. Director Nisha Ganatra, who had previously directed an episode of The Mindy Project and other TV shows, was hired in part because she “had such big ambitions for the movie” and shared some of Kaling’s references for it (Broadcast News, Working Girl). But also because “she really identified with that character,” Kaling said. “She was like, ‘I am Molly,’ and I loved that she was Indian and I kind of wanted to give a chance to someone who looked like me.”
Colbert, whose writers sat in on table reads for Late Night in order to ensure its authenticity, recounted his own experiences with building a more diverse team. When his instructions were “send me anybody, I want a variety of people on my writing staff,” he got six women out of 200 applicants. “Until I said, ‘Send me only women—which might be illegal, I’m not entirely sure— but I said, ‘Send me only women,’ and I had 87 women. And I thought, ‘Where have these people been?’ Well, there’s this expectation within the world that you only want to hire men.”
Kaling also found a way to hack the system. After realizing that she couldn’t rely solely on choosing from writers suggested by the network, she hired young women as assistants: “They would work for me and get to know the room and then I would kind of promote them within the ranks of the show and they’d end up as writers.”
That kind of rise is similar to the one Kaling had at The Office, where she went from writer to executive producer. “At the end of it, I got to be the kind of person who’d be like, ‘What should we do this season?” and then other people would say things, and I’m like, “No, no, I think it should be this.”
As a result, she said, “When The Office got bad, I was integral to that. I was one of the people that made sure that it was bad.” After the laughter died down, Kaling added, “I’m just kidding, it was all good. Don’t quote that, please.”
“Late Night” will be in theaters June 7.