Created by Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy (who also worked on The Office and The Mindy Project together), the NBC series Champions is a half-hour, single-camera comedy that centers on Vince (Anders Holm), a former high school baseball star who reluctantly gave up his dreams to take over the family gym in Brooklyn. And then, his high school fling, Priya (Kaling), unexpectedly drops off their 15-year-old son, Michael (J.J. Totah), on his doorstep, so that he can leave his sheltered life in Cleveland behind and attend a prestigious performing arts school in New York, and Vince has to learn how to be a dad.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, executive producer Mindy Kaling, who also has a recurring role on the series, talked about how Champions came to be, why this is a fun character for her to play, wanting to keep this show and the characters real and authentic, the challenge of finding the right actor to play Michael, the unconventional family at the story’s center, and why comedy is key, when you’re exploring heavier subject matter. She also talked about why she wanted to tell a story set in the world of late-night comedy, in which she’ll be starring alongside Emma Thompson, being proud of her work in the female-led Ocean’s 8, and what she loves most about getting to do comedy.
Collider: How did this TV series come about and how did you come to be doing this with Charlie Grandy?
MINDY KALING: Charlie and I had so much fun writing for Mindy. After six years on a show with a strong female lead, we decided that we wanted to do something completely different. We came from The Office before that, which was also so different from The Mindy Project. We just thought it would be so great to write a character that was a young, 15-year-old, out boy, who also happened to be half-Indian. We felt like that was a character none of us had seen on TV and that it would be a great lead for a show.
Did you create this show knowing that you would be also be in it, in some capacity?
KALING: I had a feeling that I might be in it. I knew there was the role of the mom and that the character should be diverse, and Charlie was like, “Why don’t you just do it?” I was pregnant at the time, so I wasn’t sure how the timeline would work out, but it was great. I’m in four episodes of the first ten, and as I got progressively more and more pregnant, they just shot me at closer angles.
What do you most enjoy about playing Priya and how unapologetic she is about how she’s raised her son?
KALING: I haven’t really thought that much about why the character is so fun because I’m such a small part of the show. The show is so much about this group of people. But, she’s fun because she’s completely opposite from me. She doesn’t have a ton of money, she works really, really hard, and the way she’s decided to raise her kid is because she’s doing it by herself. They’re best friends. It’s great when Michael has this new situation because he gets a lot of structure in his life.
Knowing that you’d be portraying a teenaged LGBT character that a lot of young people will be looking to and seeing themselves in, what did you use as a gauge for how real and authentic you wanted that to be? Were there ways that you did and didn’t want to portray him because of that?
KALING: We just knew that it had to be really authentic, real and true, so we have gay writers on our staff, which was very helpful. We don’t want to write anything offensive, in that way. Even J.J. [Totah], himself, is a great resource for the character. He’s such a successful child actor and he’s out himself, so he was great at helping us, as well.
When you write a character that’s as specific as Michael is, did you worry that you’d never find an actor who could embody that, or was that easier than you expected it to be?
KALING: That’s a great question. The truth is that we wrote it not thinking about the casting process. And then, once it got picked up, we thought, “Oh, my god, now we have to cast this.” That was when we realized how specific this character is. To be honest, there’s not a ton of young Indian teenage boys who are really comfortable with playing gay. Either them or their parents don’t want them to play that kind of role. It’s a small pool of people, so when J.J. stepped in to audition for this role and he was the third person we saw, we knew that it had to be him.
When you found someone who was so perfectly suited to play Michael, you must have been so excited?
KALING: Yeah, we saw him and we just couldn’t believe that he existed. It was amazing!
This show has such a unique family dynamic, and even though these people clearly have no idea what they’re doing, there’s still a sense of love there that you can feel between them. What do you most enjoy about that family dynamic?
KALING: This is such an unconventional family that for the first couple of episodes, you wonder if they even like each other. It’s been really nice to see people have perceptions about what a 15-year-old out teenage boy is going to be like and have perceptions about what a white male gym owner might be like because part of the fun of the show is turning those perceptions on their head with really funny actors. That’s fantastic!
From what you first thought this show might be, when you started on page 1 until now, what’s it like to see that evolution and to see the characters brought to life, in the way that they have been?
KALING: Nothing is quite what you picture it. We wrote this with really nobody in mind. We just wrote characters and auditioned for them because we didn’t want to be in a position where we were tied into a certain actor. One of the great things is that we didn’t have a fully formed idea. We saw the actors embody the characters, and then we could play to their strengths, which is a really nice thing. All of the characters are so different from each other, and that’s a really great thing. In that way, it really reminds me of The Office. There’s no one type of person.
You explore a lot of issues and subject matter in this that you can get away with because you can always distract with a laugh. Does this feel like a show where you really can get away with exploring so many different types of issues that people face and struggle with, as long as you also make people laugh about it?
KALING: Yeah, completely! That’s the key. Representation and inclusion is something that everyone is talking about these days, but nobody wants to watch a show just because of its representation. They want to be entertained, after working all day or coming home from school. Life is really hard for people and they want to have fun when they watch TV. Charlie and I are very interested in representation, but we’re not interested in beating people over the head with it. Comedy is a great tool to get people to change their mind about certain things or to consider things in new ways without thinking that they’re doing that.
Awhile back, it was announced that Paul Feig might direct a comedy feature you wrote that’s set in the world of late-night comedy, and that you would co-star in it with Emma Thompson. What’s the status of that? Is that something you’re still looking to make happen?
KALING: That movie is starting to shoot in the beginning of next month (April), actually, and the new director is this woman named Nisha Ganatra. Paul is amazing, but the scheduling with him and Emma didn’t work out, and so we got a new director who is also fantastic.
Why is that a story you want to tell? What is it that makes that world interesting to you?
KALING: Emma’s character is a late-night talk show host and my character is a staff writer on her show. Having both played the lead in something and also having been a new young minority writer on something, I’ve worn both hats. It was great to write a movie where I could really relate to both points of view. I’ve never done that before.