MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, late-night television - it's something of an American institution, those personalities delivering monologues with crisp one-liners and snarky takes on the week's news as well as celebrity interviews, maybe funny skits. They become so much a part of people's lives they're like a combination of best friend, news anchor and therapist for many people. But every so often, when a show gets canceled, or there's a public squabble over a timeslot, the audience gets a glimpse of what often lurks behind the scenes - demanding and unreasonable bosses, long hours, cliquish co-workers and hardly any racial or gender diversity.
Not really the stuff of jokes, but writer and actor Mindy Kaling somehow manages to find humor and redemption in late-night comedy. Her movie "Late Night" stars Oscar winner Emma Thompson as talk show host Katherine Newbury, a once-popular comedian who broke through the glass ceiling of late-night comedy only to pull up the ladder behind her and settle into a stale, predictable show fed by a crew of all-male, all-white writers. That is, until Molly Patel, played by Mindy Kaling, joins the writers' room as a diversity hire and starts to shake things up.
Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson joined me recently from London to talk about their film, and I started our conversation by asking Kaling why she created a strong female lead for a film set in late-night, which in real life is dominated by men.
MINDY KALING: Well, I've wanted to write about late night so much because I'm one of those comedy nerds that was obsessed with it growing up. I read every book about it. I was an intern at "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" before I moved over into the half-hour world to work on "The Office."
But that environment is very famous even among comedy writers because it is hyper-masculine, hyper-competitive, very ruthless. And I was not interested, really, in writing a movie with an older white male lead, which is what we see in a lot of these shows. And I had always wanted to write something for Emma Thompson. I thought, you know what? This actually could be a perfect vehicle for her.
MARTIN: Did you just want to work with her or you just thought, if the kind of classic late-night host were a woman instead of the guy in a suit, it would be Emma Thompson? Like, what made you think of her?
KALING: OK (laughter). So this is when I say nice things about Emma, and she hates it so much, and she wants to curl up and die because she's English, and she also can pathologically not take a compliment. But here's why. Emma is my favorite living actor, and I've loved her since I was an 11-year-old girl, and I saw her in "Much Ado About Nothing."
So for me, you know, many actors can do dramatic roles, and we give them awards to do it, but so few can be funny and do drama. And it is, in my opinion, much harder to do comedy than it is to do drama, and Emma can do both. And she was just inspiring to me for such a long time, and I wanted to write for her.
And I said, I know it's science fiction for there to be a female late-night talk show host and even more so for her to have had the job for 30 years. But it was the only thing that made sense for me to write.
MARTIN: And, Emma, what about this role appealed to you?
EMMA THOMPSON: Oh, well, everything. I met Mindy, and she told me she'd written something for me. And I thought, maybe it's going to be about an elderly archeologist in Dorset because it generally is when people write things for me. And I read it and 48 hours later rang my agent and said, please tell her that I couldn't be more thrilled and that I will start tomorrow if that's possible.
MARTIN: There's so many issues to unpack in this film. I don't want to make people think it is a documentary because it's not, and it is very funny. But there's a lot in there - the racism, the sexism, the ageism. As we are speaking now, this week, late night lost another female host - "Busy Tonight," which was hosted by Busy Philipps. And it was cancelled, which leaves one woman in late night, which is Samantha Bee, who's talked a little bit about her struggles. And I was wondering, you know, is there something about that role that just makes it a hard place for a woman to be? What's your take on that?
THOMPSON: I think there is something a little bit macho about the late-night slot - a little bit kind of 1970s, "Saturday Night Live." Everybody's up all night taking coke. John Belushi's announcing that women aren't funny. And it's a tough, old world for a woman. And Katherine is the person who managed to survive it. And it's cost her, and she's had to make sacrifices, and she's probably had to build a reasonably hardened carapace. But she's also bright enough to recognize that she's got to change, and she's got to listen. And that's the story.
What's so wonderful about this story is so often, when you've got a female boss in a movie, she doesn't change. She's just the evil stepmother, the evil boss, the sort of cold, arrogant archetype person. But what Mindy's done is create an actual person, a living, breathing person who at the beginning is - does find it difficult to accept, actually, the fact that she's no longer as successful as she thought she was, and she suddenly realizes that she's been complacent. And because she is genuinely committed to being excellent, she decides she's got to change.
And it takes a while, but finally, Mindy's character does break through to her. They create a working relationship that's so fun to watch developing and doesn't turn all soft and fluffy at the end. It just becomes something very real, very believable and very uplifting.
KALING: Katherine's character does not care what people's reactions are to her honest answers and honest desires. If she sees any kind of inefficiency, she calls it out without anger. And it's interesting - we've been doing press for the movie, and everyone has been using words like bitchy and cold. And it's not that she's bitchy and cold. She's just dispassionately expressing what she needs.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And do you know what it feels like when you do that - especially if you're pathologically nice, or you want to be kind to everybody like me - is I experienced playing Katherine as a kind of five-week holiday...
THOMPSON: ...From being - you know, having to look after everybody. I was just so - it was so blissful just turning round to someone who was boring me and say, I'm not interested. Shut up...
THOMPSON: ...And then not apologizing for the rest of the week about it.
MARTIN: I'd never use those words - bitchy and cold. In fact, I would not. And I wonder whether...
KALING: Thank you.
MARTIN: ...The whole point of the movie - well, the movie's funny. That's the point of the movie. But part of it is the whole question of how women get to express authority. That's one of the points - and, you know, what it means when they do. So what does it say that the fact that people are using those words to you when that's the whole point - is to redefine what it means to express authority (laughter) if people are using those words to you? What does that even say?
KALING: A man is entitled to have a private life. But because Emma's character is very private about her husband and her life, the - certain people who have talked to us about the movie said that that was cold. But when I was writing it, I didn't particularly think that Emma was cold. I thought that the character was crisp and to-the-point and direct.
And those are qualities that are so positive in male leaders but in a woman turned certain people off. People are so uncomfortable with the possibility that a woman would be direct in her communication with her employees that people thought she was cold. And I'm very happy you're pointing that out because I don't think it is at all.
THOMPSON: No. I find it both bracing and uplifting and motivational as well. I think that a lot of women who've come out with these points - and they've all been women - it's just that thing of having ingested patriarchal views and not being able somehow to be released by seeing Katherine. Whereas a lot of men see Katherine go, yeah, that makes total sense.
KALING: There's a reason why at the end of the movie, when the conditions for my character's willing to stay there - she doesn't say, you have to be nice to everyone. She says, no more withering looks. And hire people who don't look like they normally do. She doesn't say, I need you to ask everyone about their day.
MARTIN: We are in a moment in the United States where this whole question of, like, what diversity means is something that is a part of the conversation. And your movie has something to say about diversity. I'd like to ask you, how would you describe what it has to say about why it matters?
KALING: Sure. So we talk a lot in the movie about the fact that Molly is a diversity hire, and I can't think of another movie or TV show that really talks about this head-on with that term. And the truth of the matter is, the term has really pejorative connotations.
I was a diversity hire at the office when I started writing, and it's the reason I had the job - because NBC was paying my salaries so that the office could hire me without having to take a hit on their budget. But it so embarrassed me because to me, to the other writers, it made me feel like they thought I wasn't good enough, and the only reason I was there was I was free. And for years, I was so embarrassed by that, and I was - I never wanted anyone to know - although, of course, it was plain as day.
It wasn't until years later that I realized that that program and diversity hire is something that I should be wearing proudly because what it did was it gave me access to work on a show that I would not have had otherwise that the writers who did work on the show did have access to, whether it - where they went to school, who they were related to. And I really wanted to talk about that - you know, creating these opportunities for other people. It can't just be one person in a room because then you're representing all of women, all of minorities and one person, and it's just too much. And I think you wouldn't see rooms like that anymore. And we're seeing it much, much less now, which is wonderful.
MARTIN: That was Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson, who both star in the new movie "Late Night," which was written by Kaling.
Thank you both so much. And to quote your character, Emma, I hope I earned the privilege of your time.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
MARTIN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUR SONG IS GOOD'S "CRUISE")
MARTIN: One more word before we let you go. Last month, on the eve of Mother's Day, we asked moms to tell us what they really, really wanted. Dads, it's your turn. Tomorrow is your day. What do you usually get? And is that what you really want? Drop your hints right here. We are @npratc. Tell us, do you really want that new toolbox? Or is a spa day more your speed? We won't judge - well, maybe a little bit because we hope to read some of your tweets on the air. And, yes, dad jokes are always welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUR SONG IS GOOD'S "CRUISE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.