From co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher (The Mindy Project), the Netflix original comedy series Never Have I Ever is a charming coming of age story about the complications that come with being a modern-day first-generation Indian American teenage girl, and figuring out where you fit in when it comes to the drama of high school. Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, a newcomer to be sure to keep an eye on) is an academic overachiever who falls short when it comes to romance, but who has two best friends, Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young), by her side through everything.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, writer/executive producer Mindy Kaling talked about what made her want to tell this story, teaming up with showrunner and friend Lang Fisher, their plan for this series and what they wanted to bring to the screen, who they wanted to center the story around, their extensive casting search, getting John McEnroe involved, why they wanted to leave things on a bit of a cliffhanger, and what it means to her to have this series be the first time an Indian teenage girl has been the star. She also talked about how she’d feel about a reboot or revival of The Office, and her own personal favorite Kelly moment, as well as the next two projects that she’s currently developing.
Be aware that some spoilers are discussed.
Collider: I absolutely loved this show. It just made me so happy, and I think it’s so important and beautiful for so many reasons. What was it that made you want to tell this story? What sparked this specific show for you?
MINDY KALING: Well, the origin of the story is so personal, in so many ways, but the actual way that it became a show is pretty unexpected, which was that Netflix approached me. They had read both of my books and loved the parts when I talked about my adolescence and teenage years. And that’s actually not a huge part of both of my books, but it wasn’t on TV, and Netflix thought it would be a great home for it and they wanted to do it first. It came from them. I had been mostly writing about single women in their 30s, and single moms, and people trying to fall in love at 32 and in another country. And so, I was not gonna turn down this opportunity, and I thought it would be great to write the show. There hasn’t been a show like this, but it really came from them. And then I brought Lang Fisher on board, who I did The Mindy Project with, and the two of us talked about our teenage years and about being a female nerd in high school. We thought, “This seems like pretty rich areas, comedically at least, to do a show.” And then we started.
What was the process that you and Lang Fisher went through working on this show together? Did you set up a bible for the show, and did you work on developing the show together?
KALING: Well, Lang and I are friends, personally, so we’ve spent a lot of time together. When we were talking about the idea of the show, we were talking about how it would be different than other shows. We loved Fresh Off the Boat and we loved Everybody Hates Chris, which are these very autobiographical shows which are period shows. One thing that we both wanted to do was avoid nostalgia. First of all, we love those shows, and they do that period really well, of the ‘90s, and this would be the same ‘cause Lang is the same age as me. So what we really wanted to do was do a show for teenagers now. Another thing that bonds us, and it’s similar with the character, is that we both have parents that died, and the experience of dealing with that and what it’s like dealing with that grief. For me, particularly being Asian, you’re not necessarily supposed to, in more traditional households, address that grief in a really open way. You’re just supposed to get over these things. So, we were really fascinated with a teen girl who is dealing with the biggest trauma of her life while also trying to fit in, lose her virginity, and get into a good school. And so, once we decided that those were the main themes of it, we were like, “Okay, we get the show now.”
When it came to this character at the center, who did you want her to be and what were the qualities that you thought were important for her to have?
KALING: Lang and I were both huge nerds and academic achievers, in high school and middle school, and one thing that we noticed with a lot of shows is that the nerds are quiet and repressed and comedic. And what we wanted to do was show nerds that have big personalities and big ambitions, and it’s just no one else thinks they can get them. That was one thing we really wanted to show. Another thing that was important to us was just to see a lot of really strong Asian female characters on the show. We wanted to show that the mother is very strong, as a single mother and the sole provider in the household, but we also find out the cousin is very strong and has lots of secrets and sort of a sexy secret life going on. It was important to us to not just show Indian women who are demure women that didn’t have big personalities. But in terms of the girls, the UN was something where my friends were mostly minority girls, growing up, and we always had to deal with that. I always had Korean friends or Nigerian friends, and we always had to deal with people thinking that the reason we were friends with each other was ‘cause of some ethnic connection that we must have. Honestly, there probably was some of that, coming from an ethnic background, even though it wasn’t the same, that bonded us, and we were all the children of immigrants. That was something that was important, in terms of wanting the three female characters to be minorities.
What was it like to do the casting hunt for this? Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is so great, but how hard was it to find the right actor to lead this?
KALING: Oh, my god, it was so challenging. The realities of production encourage you to try to find teenagers who are actually 28-year-olds that can work a full day of production. The labor laws say that, if you’re under 18, you have a much more limited workday, and then you have to go to school on the studio lot, and then have a rest for a longer amount of time. With almost everything in productions, that’s why so many of these successful teenage shows are teenagers played by 28-year-olds. And I actually like a lot of those shows ‘cause it’s a lot less awkward to watch a 28-year-old pretending to be 17 kiss and have sex and stuff like that. But for us, we really had to stick from to this idea that, even if it was not the easiest for production, we really wanted to get young women who were really teenagers. Finding them was hard. In the Indian community, there are more than when I was coming up on The Office, but there’s not a ton of encouragement by Indian parents to be like, “Yes, young adolescent, go be on TV.” The open call was necessary for us to find the cast.
When it came to your lead character, when you saw that actress, did you immediately know that she was the one?
KALING: Maitreyi came in from Toronto with her dad, and when she came into the room, the first thing Lang and I noticed was that, ‘cause she was 17 when she auditioned, and she just turned 17, we were like, “Wow, a teenager looks really different from these other girls that we were seeing who are were in their 20s.” So that was interesting. The other thing was that she had this confidence about her. She has this raspy, low voice and this confidence and comfort in her own skin that we were completely disarmed by. We had never seen that. Later, she said she was nervous, but she didn’t seem nervous at all to us. She just had this swagger, for lack of a better word, which was crazy for a girl who had never done any on camera work before and had flown in with her dad because she was a minor.
One of the things that I love is the total randomness of John McEnroe. How on earth did he get involved?
KALING: I think it’s because, once we realized that one of the central characteristics of Devi’s personality was her temper and her really high standards, coupled with the fact that her dad loved tennis, which is a real Indian male thing to do – Indian men love cricket and tennis, and it’s something that, culturally, a lot of Indian men are drawn to, and women, too – so when we were thinking about how her father would have been a big fan of John McEnroe, it made sense. And I know that John, personally, has a great sense of humor and he has a lot of the same personality characteristics as Devi, so it felt not as random, when you thought of those things. And we knew we wanted a narrator, so we thought, “Why not just ask him? He’ll probably say no, but let’s just ask him.” So, I met with him in New York, at his art gallery. We had coffee with him and his famous rock star wife, Patty Smyth. We all sat down, and he was into it. I think his kids were into The Office, so that helped. He was like, “Yeah, sounds great,” and he loved the script. So, that’s how it happened.
We get a full journey for this character over the course of the season, but you also leave the season on a bit of a cliffhanger when it comes to Devi’s love life. Was there a lot of thought and talk about where to end the season? Were there are a lot of conversations about that?
KALING: Obviously, we would love to keep doing the show forever, so we wanted a cliffhanger and not to tie up everything with a little bow. Also, I feel like life is really hard for most people, and just because she has a promise of something good, doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily going to happen. She’s still a really flawed character who could mess things up. So we wanted to keep the door open for next season, to wait to see those two situations would pan out.
Is what we see now the only ending that you came up with?
KALING: It changed a bit, actually. We had a vision. We thought that they would be on the beach, throwing ashes and roses into the ocean. That was something that we visually wanted to do. That’s what we did with my mother’s ashes, and a lot of Hindus do that. But we didn’t know the circumstances of Devi not living at home and that she would be at odds with her mother. Those were the things that we had to figure out as we started doing table reads and saw how the actors’ chemistry was with each other.
What do you love most about the fact that this show and this character are now out there in the world? What does that mean to you?
KALING: It’s really thrilling to know that this will be the first time an Indian teenage girl has been the star of the show. When I was growing up, I didn’t see Indian girls or Indian boys as side characters. You would just watch a show and it would be an all white cast, and you would have to find yourself in one of those characters somehow. You would be watching 90210 and be like, “I guess I’m like Steve.” So what’s nice about doing this is that, for these three girls, who would be the side characters on any other show, they get to be the lead, and that’s extremely gratifying. We feel lucky that we get to tell a funny story, but also, it’s a lot about grief. That’s something that Lang and I both have in common, and talking about those stories and therapy, which in a lot of Indian communities is a really uncomfortable conversation to have still, so we’re excited about doing the serious stuff, but also putting it in this really funny show.
As a writer on The Office, how do you feel about a potential reboot or revival of the series? Can you see positives and negatives to doing something like that?
KALING: Like anything else, everything sounds bad until you see the execution. When I heard they were going to make Fargo into a TV show, I was like, “Not Fargo, the pristine, perfect Oscar-winning Joel and Ethan Coen directed movie. That’s so perfect.” And then, I loved the show. So it’s one of those things where, if I was 24 when you told me this, I would’ve scoffed and been like, “Oh, no, what a stupid idea.” But now, depending on who’s doing it, I think it could be great, for sure. Particularly if Greg Daniels was doing it because had such a great vision for the American Office.
What is your own personal favorite Kelly joke or moment from The Office?
KALING: This is in a lot of memes, but there’s this one episode, that was the Super Bowl episode and there was a fire drill at the beginning, and we had a woman come teach us CPR. The way that she tells us to do CPR is to just think of the song “Stayin’ Alive,” that that’s the rhythm. When Andy, Dwight and Kelly start doing it, they start dancing. Andy starts singing a cappella and Kelly starts to dance. It’s not even a line. I had so many great lines on that show, but to me, the fact that she just stood up and started dancing to the music is very funny to me.
Have you thought about what you’d still like to explore, in the future, for other possible TV shows or movies? Do you have a dream project or two that you’re hoping to get into production, once production picks up again?
KALING: Yeah, I’m working on two things right now. I just finished a script with Dan Goor, who [co-created] Brooklyn Nine-Nine. We’re working on a movie for Priyanka Chopra and me, that’s a buddy comedy about a wedding, and we just finished that. The other thing that I’m working on is a series at HBO Max about the sex lives of college girls, so I’m working on that pilot right now. Hopefully, when this is done, I can get a writers’ room together on that. So, those are my two things that I’m working on.
Never Have I Ever is available to stream at Netflix.