Kaling also became a new mom to daughter Katherine just four months ago, and like any first-time parent, she’s still figuring out how to achieve that all-important work-life balance.
“I've had to learn to release myself from mom guilt at least a couple times a day,” she tells InStyle. “That's been a big one for me. I’m also learning to feel better about asking for help, whether it's from family or hiring help. It’s not profound, but I love my career and I don't want to make myself feel bad about pursuing both. Just cutting myself some slack has been very helpful for me.”
When Kaling went back to work on the set of Champions shortly after giving birth, playing Priya, a single mom of a teenage son, she instantly connected with her character's modern approach to parenting.
“I love playing Priya because she’s not perfect, but she has such a strong bond with her son J.J.,” Kaling says. “I think it’s funny that she admits to being incredibly lax with him at times. And as a very busy single mom myself, I wanted to have a character that has a healthy attitude about it, like ‘I'm not going to get everything right.’ Or ‘I have to work, so something's got to give.’ I know I’ll have to miss some things that I wish I didn't have to miss with my daughter too. But I like that I’m able to play a character that's like, ‘You know what? The kid will still be fine.’
Champions centers on a Brooklyn-based bachelor and gym owner, Vince (Anders Holm), who meets his 15-year-old son, Michael (J.J. Totah), when his high-school girlfriend Priya asks him to take him in so that he can pursue his Broadway dreams.
Ahead of this week's episode (airing Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET), we sat down with Kaling to talk about the show, motherhood, and the rumored reboot of The Office. Keep scrolling for the full chat.
Congrats on the success of Champions! Why was this project the right fit for your return to TV? Charlie [Grandy] and I have been working together for years on The Office and The Mindy Project, and this show felt like a real departure for us. We’ve written so many roles, but the character of Michael Patel was different than all of the others. He loves New York City, wants to make an impression, and be really brave in his life. All things I love.
You casted 16-year-old newcomer J.J. Totah in the lead role of Michael—how did you come across him? When we wrote the pilot, we created Michael as a gay, half-Indian teenager, and then when we had to cast the part, we realized what an impossible task it would be to find the right person. We thought, "Well, we’re going to have to change the ethnicity of the character," and then I probably wouldn’t have been able to play the mom. So when J.J. auditioned we couldn’t believe it! He's such an amazing performer—Ben Platt just tweeted about him actually. His specialness revealed itself very quickly, and I knew I hit the jackpot as a show creator.
You’ve said before that when you were growing up you didn't see characters on TV who looked like you. Is that partof why it was important to you to bring diversity to your show? It does feel good to have representation of different people like on TV. If you’re a showrunner and you’re not striving for diversity, then the show won’t feel very modern. That’s what I’ve tried to do with The Mindy Project and Champions. On it’s own, Champions is a workplace comedy about two brothers raising a teenager and that isn’t terribly original, so you have to have elements that are surprising and fresh. The Office wasn’t the most original premise either—it was the characters and the execution that made it so great.
Speaking of The Office, what did you learn from that set that you continue to use as a showrunner, writer, and actor? Well, that was my first Hollywood experience, and I stayed there for 8 years, so the entire way that I operate is a result of what I learned from The Office. The way that I run a room, the way that I cast people with a certain level of comedic timing, everything.
How do you think your parenting style will differ from Priya’s as your daughter gets older? I think I'll be definitely a very different kind of parent, but who knows! My parents were super busy, but they were very strict about certain things like doing homework for three hours a night. I was really monitored in a very loving way. I like knowing my parents had a really strong hand, and I felt very noticed.
You often write characters who are chasing their dreams. Is that a conscious choice? I love strivers. I relate to people who are focused on getting what they want and work really hard for it. I’ve never wanted to write characters who are kind of ambivalent, even though that can be super interesting too.
What advice would you give someone who wants to do it all—write, produce, and act? I was always told to go to all of the events and panels and parties, but I’ve found that’s actually a big distraction for me. I found that doing the very hard work and research and creating opportunities for myself is the way to go. I never did the networking thing. Not once. The great thing is that there are lots of ways to be successful.
You recently shared a snap of your daughter Katherine’s awesome Jeremy Scott stroller, which made me wonder—what’s the most fab thing in her closet right now? It doesn't get more decadent than matching Dolce & Gabbana dresses. I have this floral dress that I wore in The Mindy Project—I loved it so much, I bought one when the show ended. My producer gave me a matching one for Katherine, so we’re going to pull those out this summer.
Last thing: There’s been talk of a reboot of The Office. Would you be down to go back to the show? If Greg [Daniels] wanted to bring us back, let’s just say I would help him in any way I could.