Inside the Mind of The Mindy Project’s Resident Weirdo, Ike Barinholtz
It takes a really smart and well-adjusted person to play someone so odd as Morgan Tookers. We grilled the brilliant Ike Barinholtz on how he does it.
Being a scene stealer is hard enough. But Ike Barinholtz, who plays what could possibly be the weirdest and somehow most endearing character on TV, well-meaning and boundary-less nurse Morgan Tookers on The Mindy Project, is balancing his breakout as TV’s most valuable supporting player with his roles as writer and co-producer on Mindy Kaling’s ever-popular Fox sit-rom-com.
“I wear many, many hats," Barinholtz laughs when we chat just before The Mindy Project’s third season premiere on Tuesday. “I’m a caterer this year, too. It’s my real passion.”
But as is ever evident, as Barinholtz’s performance has elevated Morgan from the kind of character you laugh at uncomfortably to the fully realized oddball who you can’t explain why you want around as your best friend (think Rainn Wilson’s Dwight in The Office or Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer in Parks and Recreation), the Chicago comedian’s real real passion is making people laugh.
After performing in the Boom Comedy troupe in Amsterdam as a replacement for Seth Meyers (the cast when Barinholtz performed included Jason Sudeikis, Jordan Peele of Key & Peele, Pitch Perfect writer Kay Cannon, and Nicole Parker), Barinholtz’s big on-screen break came with a five-year stint on the sketch comedy show MADtv, the Fox Saturday Night Live rip-off that was famous for being twice as silly and half as sharp as the NBC elder statesman. To wit, Barinholtz left in 2007 after getting “restless,” saying that he was “always frustrated that MADtv wasn’t better than it was.”
It was another scene-stealing role on the HBO comedy Eastbound & Down and some friendly tweeting that got Barinholtz onto Mindy Kaling’s radar in 2012 when she was busy staffing what was, at the time, the hottest new comedy project on TV, the pilot for The Mindy Project. “Every year there are a few projects that are kind of ‘the ones,’” Barinholtz remembers.
Barinholtz’s journey to scene stealer is longer than you might expect. He had originally auditioned for Danny Castellano, the Italian curmudgeon winningly played by Chris Messina, before being hired first as a writer. It was almost offhand that Kaling wrote the part of Morgan for Barinholtz, which he never thought would morph into series regular, plot integral status.
Now, he’s writing, producing, and starring in one of TV’s most buzzed about sitcoms as it enters its third season and navigates the treacherous waters of coupling its central will-they/won't-they couple for the first time. As writer, producer, and star, Barinholtz could—and did—speak candidly about the handwringing of getting Mindy and Danny together (he wasn’t originally on board), why he stands by the idea, why The Mindy Project works as—but is way more than— a romantic comedy, and the wild showbiz stories that led to his dream job.
So in the off-season, there’s been a lot of talk about the rom-com making its way to TV, with the likes of A to Z and Manhattan Love Story premiering this year on top of The Mindy Project returning. There’s this sentiment that the rom-com is dead on film. But you look at TV and it seems to be flourishing. From a writing standpoint, having written the Mindy and Danny storyline, do you have any idea why TV is a place that suits this?
That’s a really interesting question. Maybe it’s more nourishable on TV because part of a romantic comedy succeeding is falling in love with the characters. For years we had so many movies, like obviously When Harry Met Sally, where you do fall in love with them. But movies now seem shorter. Our attention spans are shorter. And trying to introduce two characters that you’re really invested in and the audience is really rooting for in 90 minutes or less is tough.
And that’s opposed to TV, where you have 12 to 24 episodes to get invested in Mindy and Danny, or Adam and Hannah on Girls, or Leslie and Ben on Parks and Recreation. You have a lot more time. That luxury of having 250 minutes instead of 90 minutes goes a long way. You go on long journeys with them. The easy answer might be that we get more time.
That’s a great point. And you only have 90 minutes to watch Katherine Heigl fall in love…
With Gerard Butler. And then you realize you don’t like either of them. [Laughs]
The added element on The Mindy Project is the idea that Mindy and Danny started as a will-they/won’t-they couple, which is something that people like to obsess over. Why is it that people get so nervous when will-they/won’t-they characters are finally paired together?
Personally, as one of the writers who at the early point of last year when there when there was first talk in the writer’s room of making them a couple, I can be honest: I was the ones who was like, “Let’s not go there yet.” Part of that was the fear of, “What if this doesn’t work?” There also was this erroneous thought of, “Once you’re a couple, that’s it!”
But your mind changed?
But first of all, it does work, as we saw when the season developed. Fans would say that the scene in the airplane was their favorite scene. So clearly they do work as a couple. But also the more I thought about it, I thought it wasn’t true that once they were together that’s it. That’s not how life is. So I think that as the season progressed, I warmed up to it. And you know what? The great thing is that if this season they go all the way and make it work, in season four or season five it could be one of the things where all of a sudden they’re not together and have to work together. Having to work with someone who you’ve seen their balls—that’s interesting! But as the season progressed, it really became evident that, “Oh no, these guys are going to be together for a while.”
Are you into rom-coms yourself?
I am! Growing up I loved comedies that weren’t actual rom-coms. Like Trading Places. I loved the love story in Trading Places between Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis. How this blueblood guy who end up with this dirty Philadelphia street prostitute. And then I was older I fell in love with the movies of Woody Allen, like Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. The Woody Allen-Mia Farrow story in that, but it’s more about the complexities of love and doing something you regret. But now that I’m older I’m liking the cheesy romantic comedies. I love Love Actually. Love Actually, there’s like nine stories in that movie. Three of them are good. But watching that movie, I get emotional, I get choked up, my wife makes fun of me. I don’t know if as you get older you get sappier and sentimental.
What is it about Love Actually? So many guys’ guys, who you wouldn’t expect to be into romantic comedies, have no shame in admitting that they love that movie.
Here’s why: two of your main characters in that movie are Hans Gruber from Die Hard and the dude from Taken. I think those are such great guy actors. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is the greatest bad guy in a movie ever. Having those two dudes who you love and watching them in this sweet and sappy romantic comedy, that’s what got me into it. Then as you watch it more and more, you’re like ‘Dammit, this movie is charming. My mom is right. OK, Hugh Grant, I get it now. You’re adorable.’
There seems to this idea—based on a very unscientific study of me talking to my friends—that people think of The Mindy Project as a girlie show. Maybe because of the rom-com elements, maybe because of how popular Mindy is, I don’t know. What do you think about that, as a guy who is on the writing staff?
The thing is this: the only way this show is girlie is that Mindy wears colorful clothing. Mindy Kaling has the mentality of Eastbound & Down’s Kenny Powers. And I don’t mean Danny McBride. I mean Kenny Powers. But because she’s a very confident, intelligent, strong, funny woman who wrote this amazing book, she really speaks to young women. So we do have a core fanbase of women 18 to 25. So when we’re out we are flooded by smart, educated women who Mindy just really speaks to. So there is that element. And you’re right, maybe there is for some guys the stigma that this is a rom-com, that they think it’s going to be like a Katherine Heigl movie. But it’s not! Mindy puts the comedy first. That’s one thing I love about her. The most important thing to her is being funny.
It’s catching on with guys, I think.
I noticed in the last year that I get a lot more dudes in backwards hats at airports wearing fraternity shirts being like, “What’s up, man? You’re on that show with that girl. I’m into that. My girlfriend got me into that. I like it, dude.” So I do feel like there is a broadening of our audience a little bit. We are opening it up to the bro demographic.
So you had actually auditioned at first to play Danny. How did that go?
Clearly not that great! I heard that Mindy was doing the pilot early on. Every year there’s a few pilots that are kind of “the ones” that as a comedic actor you really want to target. And I knew she wrote for The Office, which is one of my all-time favorites, so I knew I wanted to work with her. I read the sides, and at the time the character wasn’t named Danny Castellano yet. They really molded that once Chris Messina showed interest. But I went in!
Does Mindy remember the audition?
One thing about Mindy is that she knows what she wants and she knows when something is right, or not. In her mind she had an idea of what she wanted and in her mind I think it was Chris Messina. So it was an exercise in futility. She does not remember me coming in. Even though she says she does. She’s lying. But I remind Messina every day that if my audition wasn’t so bad, he wouldn’t be here right now.
Well, he’s still on like seven other TV shows, I feel like.
That is true. He would still be working quite a bit. But he wouldn’t be working here! Next to me.
The story that’s been circulated a lot is that you got the job on the writing staff through a Twitter relationship with Mindy. Is that true?
Well, that’s how we met. I followed her on Twitter, like the rest of the world, and Eastbound & Down was airing at the time. And I remember seeing a tweet from her about, “I think this Russian guy is really cute and funny.” I replied to her and she started following me. The real way it happened is that my writing partner Dave Stassen, who is a producer on the show with me, we were thinking, “Hey, maybe we should work on a show, but we only want to work on a good show!” For guys who weren’t doing much we were pretty picky. But we had written a couple of pilots and she had read one and thought it was funny.
We met her a couple days before her show got officially picked up and we clicked with her right away, because she’s so funny and honest and right away makes fun of you, which I love. She hired us as story editors, and made a comment about “Ah, I think you should be in the show, I’ll let you know what we do.” I didn’t think she was serious, but little did I know that three days later she’s like, “Episode 2 is where I think your character will come in.” She showed me the sides for it, and I was like, “Oh my god.” It could not have worked out better.
And she described Morgan amazingly, right? With the best reference to Good Will Hunting ever?
Yep. She was like, “Remember in Good Will Hunting when Ben Affleck goes in and tries to get the job and just asks for money? That’s your character. That level of desperation.” I love that character, and I think it’s the funniest thing that Ben Affleck has ever done. I was just like, “I got it. Desperate. Hungry.” And then as the seasons have gone on, my character’s basically indigent now. At this point, in the first episode, I’m literally begging for food.
How do you make a character like this grounded enough to be endearing, to make it believable that Danny and Mindy would want him around or even tolerate him?
There are times where we do takes that are so crazy that we have to rein it in. First of all, it’s very easy when you have a character who is nice person. It’s established right away that he wants to help people and do the right thing. That gives you a lot of leeway to do crazy things and be really stupid. I think because he endeared himself to Mindy and Danny in the practice early on, we’re able to have him ruin their lives and not apologize for it. He has the inner sweetness, whether it’s like Woody on Cheers, Homer on The Simpsons, Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation, you buy a lot with the currency. The kindness currency buys you a lot of comedy.
Does it give you any anxiety to be so convincing at playing a character so off-kilter?
Listen, there are times in the writer’s room where I will say something and someone will ask if I’m pitching in character. I’ll say things like, “Hey, I’m going to eat all this calamari.” And then I eat it all and stand up and because I ate it so quickly, people are like, “Are you pitching a bit for Morgan right now?” In a lot of bad ways, we are similar. That comedy sense is one of them. If I was some erudite, Yale-educated writer for The New Yorker, I might be like, “Oh, I can’t believe that I’m playing this sloth.” But luckily I’m a big, dumb sloth from Chicago. So it’s not a stretch, unfortunately.
You’ve also filmed a part in The Nest, the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy. So you’re now uniquely qualified to answer the question about which one is the actual, best Dream Best Friend: Tina, Amy, or Mindy.
I think that depends on the person. I think any of them. God, if you like super funny, cool people, you’ll be glad with any of them. But none of them will be friends with you guys. That’s important. Like don’t even bother on them on the street. They don’t even like when I talk to them. But if you were lucky enough to be friends with them, they’re great.
It’s crazy how popular it’s become online to brand an actress on how much you would want to be “best friends” with them.
It is. And the funny thing is, people are like, “I feel like I was friends with Mindy or Amy or Tina we’d go hiking in the movie and then watch a movie and joke about pop culture. But if you’re friends with Amy or Tina or Mindy, you’re lucky if you see them once a month. Because they are the three busiest people I’ve met in my entire life. I cannot believe that they are human beings. Between work and books and movies and family and boyfriends, I do not understand how they function. They are literally the busiest people I have met in my entire life.