Mindy Kaling on How She's Staying Creative During Quarantine and the TV Shows She's Binge-watching Now

The actress, writer, and producer shares her tips for staying creative during quarantine, the thing she misses most now, exciting details on upcoming projects, and more.

Mindy Kaling
Photo: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty

Mindy Kaling — the multi-hyphenate actress, comedian, writer, and producer — has one of the most creative minds in showbiz, yet she doesn't consider herself a crafty person — at least not in pre-pandemic times anyway. "I would never think of myself as a visual artist," she tells me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. For anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of Kaling's resume, this statement is likely surprising — well-known for her work in The Office and The Mindy Project, and for her New York Times best-selling books, she is, undoubtedly, a creator and maker. She continues, "But one of the things I have been doing during quarantine is looking inward to embrace my sense of craft and art."

The 41-year-old mom of two, like many homebound parents, has been tasked with constantly recalibrating over the last nine months, finding new ways to get creative in quarantine and entertain kids around the clock. For Mindy, that means experimenting with things like Lego Dots, fashioning picture frames, jewelry holders, and brightly hued bracelets with her nearly three-year-old daughter. Lego, long known as a source of self-expression and even wanderlust with its landmark pieces, debuted a collection called Dots, a colorful kaleidoscope of 2-D tiles that can be combined any which way to make vibrant accessories and home decor items. And they've bagged the perfect partner: Kaling, a self-admitted color-obsessed fashion junkie.

LEGO pieces and crafting supplies on a work desk
LEGO Group

"[My daughter and I] have a lot of fun making these things together. And unlike the sets, which are better for younger kids, I really feel like I can express myself, too," she says. "I just love it because there are no rules — they're just blank canvases, and we can use our imaginations. As a comedy writer, I don't really use my imagination this way — visually like this — so it's really fun for me."

But it's not just gratifying creatively, she goes on to explain — it's a form of relaxation amid the nonstop thrum of chaos, too. "Going into this quarantine, I did not know that it was going to be a real test of how I was going to find relief when I couldn't go out, go out to dinner, go to museums, and travel. So, it's just really fun to find little creative ways to express myself," she says.

A hodgepodge of colors and patterns, the Dots are very much in line with Kaling's own sense of style — bright, patterned, and mixed and matched — and you can see the same hints in the delightful characters she writes: "chatty, expressive, always putting their foot in their mouth…they [wear] their emotions and personalities on their sleeves, as I do."

She adds, "I also find it incredibly stress-relieving. It's just a great mix of crafts and spending time with family, but also getting to make these little items that I can keep in my workspace that just make me happy. When I'm working, and I can't hang out with my daughter, I can look at it and it's a nice feeling."

As for other tips for staying creative, Mindy recommends carving out a separate space for working and encouraging kids to think outside the box. "Every night, I read [my daughter] stories before bed. At first, I just read her the stories verbatim…but lately, with stories she knows by heart, I will turn to a page, and after I read it, I ask her why she thinks that happened and what she would have done differently. It makes her put herself in the shoes of the characters in the books and invent adventures for herself. It's so much fun for her and a way to make reading the same books a hundred times fun for me, too," she said during a recent interview with Dots designer and Lego Masters judge Amy Corbett.

Mindy also suggests finding the time of day that works best for you. "I am not creative at nighttime. In comedy, there's this romanticized idea of an all-nighter, where you stay up late and the muse hits you at 2 in the morning. That has never been the case for me…I am most creatively extremely early in the morning, from 6 to 10 a.m., which is unfortunate because I wasn't born a 'morning person' — I had to force myself to become one," she told Corbett.

That certainly seems to be working for her — she's been more than busy with plenty of exciting new projects, despite the world hitting the collective pause button. In addition to working on the screenplay for "Legally Blonde 3" and filming season 2 of Never Have I Ever, the comedic powerhouse calls out her new series on HBO Max, Sex Lives of College Girls, describing it as both funny and racy. "That's been a real bright spot in the day because it's totally unknown young actresses who are super funny, and I can't wait for the world to see them," she tells me.

Impressed, I sheepishly confess that my quarantine, filled with binge-watching back-to-back TV shows, pales in comparison to her remarkably productive one. But she stops me before I can finish my sentence: "Oh, I'm doing that, too. Last night, I fell asleep watching The Crown," she says. "Now that I have to pump a lot because of my son, I have to wake up every three hours, so at 2:30 in the morning, I clicked on The Crown and it's so anesthetizing. I spend a lot of time watching TV. Kobra Cai and The Crown — doesn't get more disparate than that."

We've been talking for 15 minutes tops, but it doesn't take long to learn that Mindy has a knack for making people feel comfortable and familiar.

Finding common ground among TV shows, I go on to ask her how she's fueling her wanderlust and coping with staying put, especially as someone who's accustomed to traveling plenty for work and play. "Not much, actually. Nothing can replace that," she admits. "I used to take these fun annual trips to New York for the Met Gala. And then internationally, I was supposed to go to London to shoot…there's been no replacement for that. It's a lot of longingly looking at my iPhone — it being like last year at this time, and we'll be in London or New York something."

Though she's steadfast in staying home to ride out the pandemic, she's also eager to hit the road once it's safe again.

"There are places that have been on my bucket list for life, like Cape Town, which I've always wanted to go to. And I, like many people, also fell in love with Emily in Paris — I would love to visit Paris," she says.

But, she admits, the places that excite her most right now are much closer to home: "I have family on the East Coast that my son, who is about two and a half months, has never met. So, right now, I'm excited to go to Bethesda, Maryland, and Cambridge, Massachusetts."

As for other things she can't wait to do when this is all over, Mindy says, "having a picnic, having people over to the house, picking up other people's children and hugging them — that kind of thing." She then laughs, adding, "But honestly, the thing I'm most excited to do is sneeze in public and not seem like I've betrayed everybody."

Alisha Prakash is Travel + Leisure's senior digital editor. A New Yorker through and through, she's caught in a love affair between big cities and the great outdoors. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @alishaprakash and Twitter at @alishasays.

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