Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling had a heart-to-heart conversation on Saturday; it just happened in a gymnasium full of teen girls and parents at Brentwood School in Los Angeles. For the school’s second Young Women’s Conference, the two actresses interviewed each other, and spoke bluntly about being underestimated, what their lives were like as teenagers and how one of them (read below!) is a “freeloader.”
Reese Witherspoon: I asked Mindy to do this with me because I'm terrible at speeches. I thought it would be interesting because we have been good friends for a while and when we talk, we run the gamut of conversations that women have about business and life. I just find her so inspirational, so we have prepared some questions for each other.
Mindy Kaling: We’re kind of the same age but you’ve been working for such a long time and you’re so accomplished. You act, produce and you’re a busy mom and wife. If you were a man, no one would ask you how you balance it all. They would just assume you can handle it. So I’m not going to ask you how you balance it all. But I will ask you what one thing is that you do just for you and for fun? My answer would be nail art. Like a 14-year-old girl.
RW: Few people know this about me, but I like to take hip-hop dance classes. I’m not saying I’m good at hip-hop dance classes, I just enjoy taking them.
MK: What level are you at?
RW: I'd say a one or a two. That’s the bottom. I liked taking dance classes when I was in high school and I was never any good at it. But they would bring three girls to the front and they’d say, “Okay, watch Sarah for her arms. And watch Lily for her legs. And watch Reese for her personality.”
I read your book so I already know this answer already, but when you were in high school and learning about being funny, who was it that laughed the hardest at your jokes and encouraged you?
MK: Even though I’m a comedian now, I was largely silent until I was about 15 years old. I wasn’t raised in this kind of “Glee” world where children were told to “La-la!!” and express themselves all the time. I was around parents who said, “Be quiet and listen to us. Read, be kind to other people and learn from us.” And so I wasn’t a performer. My mom’s a physician and my dad’s an architect. And I think everyone thought I was smart, but my one best friend Emma used to say that I was funny. We’d do impressions of people who were mean to us.
As long as I can remember I have been organized and ambitious. As a kid, I would come up with a list of where I was going to work, what my kids would be named and where they would go to college. Were you hyper-specific about your goals as a kid?
RW: No. I don’t feel like I was very organized. I started doing commercials when I was 12. One day there was an ad in the paper that said, "Do you want to be in a movie?" I was like, “Heck yeah I want to be in a movie!” I grew up in Nashville, Tenn. They’re not making a lot of movies there. No one’s an actor. And so I ended up going down to audition in this movie and I got one of the leads because they wanted a girl with a country accent, which I had at the time.
My parents are in the medical profession too. My dad’s a doctor and my mom is a professor of pediatric nursing. So I thought I was going to be a doctor. I was sure I was going to be. And then the universe just showed me this different possibility. Thank god my parents did this, but they told me I had to stay in school. I was allowed to work in the summers but I couldn’t work in the school year. They said, “You’re not moving to California, that’s where crazy people live.”
So I was working only in the summers. Then I applied to college and ended up going to Stanford for a year, but after a year I was getting jobs -- movies. I was flying down every weekend from Stanford to LA to read my lines in auditions. And that’s sort of been my life. I haven’t had a lot of plans.
RW: It’s hard. You fake it a lot. It’s hard going out on auditions. When I was 14, I came out here to audition for a movie called “Cape Fear” with Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese and I just literally shook the entire time. I couldn’t even get the lines out. Robert De Niro had to finish my lines for me. I didn’t get the job [laughs]. But growing up, I watched “Saturday Night Live” every single week.
MK: You’re a secret comedy nerd.
RK: You don’t understand, when a comedy is on I’m constantly telling everyone to “shh!” so that I can hear the jokes. I need to understand the jokes.
MK: “Saturday Night Live” was a big deal for me. I thought it was the most fun environment ever.
RW: I would go home after school and watch seven hours of sitcoms while I did my homework. I was inspired by a lot of other actresses, too, like Sally Field. Holly Hunter was from Georgia and she spoke like I spoke, and I thought she was amazing.
MK: Something about you reminds me of Emma Thompson. She always plays intelligent characters.
RW: She’s really much smarter than I am.
MK: I always looked to the actors who seemed to be playing versions of themselves, like Tom Hanks or Ray Romano or Jerry Seinfeld and Tina Fey. I liked writer-ly characters.
RW: Well, that make sense because you write so well. We both grew up with very strong, work-minded mothers. I think that’s a big inspiration. And success is important, but so is failure. Is there a moment you remember or a person that really was sort of unhelpful in your life, and how did that drive you to move forward?
MK: Many people, especially young women, ask how I got to where I am now. Because the truth of it is there are not a lot of people who look like me in this business. So I have become a role model to girls who want to do what I do -– start their own show, have a love interest on their show, and not be a size zero or many of those things.
Growing up, I was not that encouraged outside of my immediate family to pursue on-camera work. People would find out I wanted to be a writer and they would encourage that. I think I had to find a spark that sort of came from within. My mom used to say to me: you have to be your own best friend. Then you’ll never be alone. And that was very true. I have been my own champion. And people don’t mean it in a mean way; I was just unfamiliar to them.
Since I moved here nine years ago for “The Office,” the climate as completely changed. All of my favorite shows have female leads for the most part. Tina, Lena, Amy. They all have a hand in creating their shows. That’s the message that I‘ve learned: you have to do it yourself. And that’s why you’re amazing to me, Reese. You’re producing “Gone Girl,” the biggest book in the last couple years. You’re an empire. That’s what I want to be.
I’ve been asked what advice I would tell the 15-year-old version of myself so I wanted to ask that of you. And also what is the aspect of your life now would the 15-year-old version of yourself would be the most surprised at?
RW: Gosh, probably all of it. Growing up in the South is much more of a conservative place. Even growing up in the ‘90s. I remember I got into Stanford and all of my girlfriends were going to Georgia or Ole Miss and the sensibility was people go to college, but you really just want to get married and have kids. But I was always ambitious. And I had one of the only moms in the school that worked. She worked a lot. And when I was little, I would wish my mom was there but as I got older, I was like, “Yeah! My mom is saving people’s lives. She delivered some of your sisters at the hospital.”
I feel like I was sort of underestimated and I remember getting into Stanford and going to my friend’s house and one of the men there, sort of this old Southern gentleman, said, “Now why would you want to go to a place like that?” It wasn’t very progressive.
I wanted to ask you a question about being in the public eye and how that can feel hard sometimes. How do you deal with scrutiny? How do you process it or tune it out?
MK: When you’re an A-student, I was and still am addicted to feedback. I think that can be good sometimes, but something I had to learn when I got the new show was to only get that feedback from smart sources. People will say incredibly painful things and you can’t understand how they can muster up the energy to feel such hatred towards you.
I was so much harder on myself as a teen. I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was 21 or 22. So I was an incredibly late bloomer. At that time, I thought confidence came from having that boyfriend or being a certain skinniness. It was extremely hard. My mom once said, and this is about romance, because I’m obsessed with romance, “You can’t say I love you before you can say ‘I.’” I was more stressed out at your guys’ age than I am now -- and I run my own television show! Things affect you more now than they will later.
Luckily for me, with the new show, people generally act like they went to camp with me. That’s one of the nicer things about not having a hit show [laughs]. People have a feeling that they know me. One really nice thing is that girls come up to me a lot and say things like, “You’re a role model” or “I wish I was your friend.” And for me that is what makes it all worth it. Having girls tell me that they wish they were my friend instead of saying my butt is too fat of my skin is bad. It feels good when someone says I wish you were my friend.
RW: But you are such a nice friend.
MK: I’m an okay friend. I’m a little bit of a freeloader, to be honest. You have the most beautiful Christmas party every year and this year I took sweets with me on the way out. There was a stack of little brownie bites and I took them.