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Mindy Kaling: The terror I felt being the only woman and the only minority was very real

Mindy Kaling tackles sexism and inclusion in the workplace in Late Night, a comedy-drama that's written by and stars the popular comedian. She chats to Kerri-Ann Roper about penning her first feature-length screenplay, its timely themes and the casting of Dame Emma Thompson

Making strides: Mindy Kaling as Molly Patel
Making strides: Mindy Kaling as Molly Patel
Dame Emma Thompson in Late Night

Mindy Kaling wrote a film specifically for Dame Emma Thompson. But there was one small snag - she had never met Dame Emma and had no idea if she would sign up for the project.

Luckily for Kaling, things worked out and the resulting project is Late Night, a film that Kaling also stars in.

It sees Dame Emma playing late night talk show host Katherine Newbury. As the only woman occupying the mostly male dominated, late night talk show space, Newbury has to re-shape her world when she learns she's to be replaced by a younger man.

Enter Kaling's character Molly Patel who joins Newbury's writing staff and has to deal with being the only woman in the writers' room. In addition, there's the 'diversity hire' label that's slapped on Molly too.

The world of comedy writing is not alien to Kaling, having cut her teeth starring in and writing for the American iteration of The Office and then later landing her own series, The Mindy Project.

"On my show (The Mindy Project) and on The Office, those were such enjoyable experiences but there was still so much I'm not able to discuss, things that I wanted to talk about, topics and characters...

"Emma is my favourite living actor and I've been wanting to write something for her for the longest time, and the world of late night TV was something I also found very intriguing. It seemed like the perfect place for me to explore the ideas and the characters I'd been wanting to write," says Kaling.

She's at the end of a long day of interviews when we meet in a luxurious London hotel. She's sitting on a chaise lounge with her legs tucked up next to her.

She lights up when asked about her love of British acting royalty Dame Emma.

She explains: "I wrote the movie for Emma which is a really risky thing because I'd never met her. I lived in Los Angeles and I was just writing the movie slowly, just for her, just as a fan.

"I didn't tell her 'I want to go and pitch this show' or 'pitch this together, let's do this'. It was just me writing and if you see the movie, you can tell no one else could have played this part.

"It was a pretty stupid thing to do actually too, to write this movie where only one person could play it, for a person who I did not know, who lived half way around the world. It worked out, but I don't know that I would do that again."

And luckily, the project resonated with Dame Emma too, who says: "I was astonished and honoured that she had written it with me in mind. The quality of the script is extraordinary.

"When people say they've written something for you, it can be touch and go, but her comic take, her timing, the cadences in her writing are just beautiful for all the characters."

A formidable female leading duo aside, Late Night also boasts an all-star male cast which includes John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy and Denis O'Hare.

It's witty, smart and upbeat - much like Kaling herself in the flesh.

How much of this script was based on her own experiences? She muses before answering.

"I'm always so careful talking about this because the experience of being the only woman and the only minority on a writing staff was true, for me at The Office my first year, but the people there, the men I worked with there were nothing like the men in the movie.

"But the terror I felt being the only woman and the only minority was very real," she says candidly.

The film is directed by Nisha Ganatra and having a woman lead it was crucial.

"I met a lot of different people to direct the movie, and it was interesting meeting Nisha because she said to me, 'I am Molly, I identify with Molly so much'," Kaling says.

"She did this amazing slide show, she was such an A-student about it and I really thought, when we were discussing all the people to hire, I said I know here is that opportunity that I was talking about - lifting up a woman to give them this job.

"There were other people I could have hired, and I thought, 'I don't think I can make this particular movie or be in this place in my career and not hire her - it just doesn't make sense, it just doesn't add up with this thing that I'm saying'. So it was really not a hard decision to make at all."

It brings us back to Dame Emma and why she decided to make the lead character female too when the world of late night talk show hosts is mostly male.

"It was unusual because I wanted to write about late night TV because I love it, but I didn't want to write a part for like a fifty-something white man," she says.

"Not that I wouldn't have found it enjoyable, but just because I thought that there are so many people out there doing that already and I thought it would be great for the role to be played by a woman, because it would allow me to talk about some of the issues that I wanted to talk about."

Things like slut shaming and the Me Too movement are both referenced in the film. So are things getting better for women in Hollywood and beyond?

"You know it's hard to say. In my little part of the world where I work in TV comedy, you wouldn't see a writers' room that looked like it did in the show - nowadays in LA, on a half-hour TV show that would be a very rare thing - but I do think there are overly more men than women who write on TV shows, that's just the facts, but it is changing," says Kaling.

She mentions a writer named Amber Ruffin, who started working as a writer on Late Night With Seth Meyers in 2014. Ruffin was the first African American woman to be hired to write on a late night, big network talk show.

"If you think of how staggering that is, that the talk show format has been around since the Fifties, shooting in New York City, and 2014 was the first time a black woman was writing on one of those shows?

"So when you hear facts like that you think, 'Oh my god we aren't moving fast at all'.

"But you can never speak on behalf of the whole industry. I can just say from my perspective - but again I come from shows where I create what the room looks like and my writers' rooms all look like the way the show looked like at the end of the movie."

Late Night is in cinemas now

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