Mindy Kaling is on the phone. It couldn’t be anyone else.
“People keep throwing the name ‘Kenny’ around, but I feel like I haven’t earned the right to call you that; I think it would be very forward of me,” she says, on a roll after I just say “hello.”
“I think I’ll call you K, like you’re my drug dealer.”
Great comedians I’ve met, people like Robin Williams and Elaine May, can do that, riff engagingly on next to nothing right off the top of their heads. And now, in more ways than one, it is Kaling’s turn.
Already a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, a creative force on television after “The Office” and “The Mindy Project,” and a member of the ensemble casts of last year’s “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Ocean’s 8,” she is moving into motion pictures in a major way, with the first film she’s written, produced and starred in.
That would be “Late Night,” set to premiere Friday at the Sundance Film Festival in a coveted evening slot and likely to set off the kind of spirited bidding wars the fest is known for. Not that Kaling believes any of that is going to happen.
For me, this is like low-level dread, much more stress than TV.
“For me, this is like low-level dread, much more stress than TV,” she says. “In TV, you don’t spend months and months and have the result on one night — that is life-shortening. It’s not glamorous, it’s people tweeting you your reviews while you’re sitting there vulnerable in snow boots in some café, uploading anxiety.”
Though worry is inevitable, Kaling, costar Emma Thompson — in top form — and director Nisha Ganatra have nailed it, turning out the kind of smart and funny entertainment with something on its mind that there never is enough of.
Kaling plays Molly Patel, a diversity hire who goes to work in the writers room of a celebrated late-night talk show that is facing rough seas after being hosted for 28 years by the acerbic, cerebral Katherine Newbury, smashingly played by Thompson.
“Everyone thought the first thing I would write would be a romantic comedy because I love them so much, but this is a workplace movie,” Kaling says.
“I didn’t want to play the girl who wants to wear cute outfits and get a husband. I’ve worn enough gorgeous outfits, I’ve done that and it’s fun,” she explains.
“I’m 39 years old and there’s a girlishness about me, but I wanted to do something that was about my grown-up ambitions and anger.”
More than that, Kaling says, “I’ve always wanted to write something that talked about my first couple of years being in Hollywood, when I had no friends and no connections that could help me in any way. I remember that frustration, those anxieties, a lot.”
The particular pleasure of “Late Night,” the writer says, is that “it was the first time in a script I fully identified with both my character and Emma’s character, which made it such a joy to write.”
In creating the character of Molly, she remembered being “a completely new comedy writer, no chops, with a delusional sense that what I have to say is important. Some of the things I did as a new writer, like feeling that your job is to criticize what’s wrong, really make me cringe.”
As to Katherine Newbury, “I’m not a venerated, legendary talk-show host, but I do employ people, I have high standards, and I can be grumpy and impatient.”
It was fun to write a character who is full of opinions and 100% confident.
That grumpiness and impatience translate on the screen to some spectacular lines for Thompson, a woman of deep intelligence and devastating hauteur, lines that were a special treat for Kaling to write.
“It was fun to write a character who is full of opinions and 100% confident,” she says. “And after coming from 117 episodes [of ‘The Mindy Project’] where I am the central character, it was a nice relief to have Emma come in and be the alpha.”
It was in fact a chance exposure, while watching TV, to Thompson in “of all things the third ‘Bridget Jones’ movie” that sparked this project.
“She was so funny in a very small part,” Kaling recalls. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to see this woman in a huge funny role.’ ”
The next step was “doing the incredibly stupid and ill-advised thing of writing it for Emma. Like any agent would tell you, ‘Why would you do that, it’s so stupid.’ ”
But she sent the script to Thompson on a Friday and heard back the next afternoon. “She said ‘I love this role, I want to do this movie, when can we set it up?’ ”
“Sometimes I just feel things,” Kaling says, thinking back, “and about 15% of the time it will come true. That’s a really low percentage, but I did it with Emma. I just had the feeling that maybe she’d respond.”
Now Kaling is about to find out how audiences at Sundance, and beyond, respond as well.