When Mindy (Kaling) met Billy (Crystal): A conversation

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Image Credit: Frank Micelotta/AP; Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images;

Him: A celebrated actor, writer, and comedian who won our hearts long ago in one of the most romantic movies of all time.

Her: An award-winning actress, writer, and TV show creator who makes us laugh on The Mindy Project, while keeping the dream for true love alive.

Together: Two massively creative people who came together for a legendary interview — conducted by Mindy Kaling, ahead of Tuesday’s Mindy Project season finale — about television, When Harry Met Sally, the art of collaboration, and the glorious mystery of on-screen chemistry that you’ll only see here on EW.

This is when Mindy Kaling met Billy Crystal (again). You’ll see what we mean by that…

MINDY KALING: Thank you for talking to me. This is so cool. I’m really excited about your new show, The Comedians. I think Matt Oberg and Josh [Gad] are so hilarious. Have you guys already started shooting it?
BILLY CRYSTAL: No, we shoot in September. We’re writing now.

KALING: Are you in the writers’ room?
CRYSTAL: I will be, yes. I stopped by, they staffed about three weeks ago, and Larry Charles and I came in and wrote about three or four stories with them, and then I came here to do some work, and I’ll go back next week. Yes, I’ll be in the room all the time. It’s a hilarious show. I really was not looking to do something like this, and this Swedish production company sent these 10 shows to me that they did in Sweden called The Comedians, and it was absolutely hilarious. It’s a story of an older comic — I guess that’s me — and the younger guy, who’s Josh, of course, that team together to do a late-night sketch show, and they don’t like each other. They don’t think they need each other, but yet they really do. So, we have this live show that we’ll actually do in front of an audience, which is great, and then it’s the life around it — our home life, the writing staff, and so on and so forth. I looked at the first show from Sweden, and Mindy, nothing against Sweden, but I don’t think of them as a funny place.

KALING: Yes, me too.
CRYSTAL: You know, it’s dark at noon, and then what? But it was sensational, and I said, “I’ll do this.” And we made a really funny pilot, and I play myself and Josh plays himself. And it’s the kind of work that I’ve always loved to do on my days at SNL, some of the better things I did with Chris Guest and Marty [Martin Short], it’s in that vein. So I’m thrilled about it.

KALING: I’m so jealous that there are writers who get to sit in a room with you as a writer and that you get to create stories and write stories and they would be able to pitch jokes in it. I’m so angry about it.
CRYSTAL: Well, come and sit.

KALING: So, I’m just going to ask you some questions, some stuff about Harry and Sally, some stuff that’s just about other things you’ve done, and I have just questions about you and your creative process. And I know we have a short time, so I’m just going to get into it. … I want to talk about chemistry, because you have insanely good chemistry with Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, and I love the idea of chemistry, because it’s mysterious and intangible. And I think what it basically means is that I could very easily picture these two people having sex and, you know what, I don’t think I’d mind watching that.
CRYSTAL: [laughs]

KALING: And my question with you and Meg Ryan, because you have that so much from the minute you meet her and you’re giving her a hard time in the car, was did you spend a lot of time together before you shot the movie, or over the course of the movie did you get to know each other better? I’m so curious about that.
CRYSTAL: Well, we were casting the movie, I was cast before she was. So many terrific actresses came in — all really, to this day, very strong, terrific, present talents and very well known, all of whom we had a good thing. It was always, “Well, she could do it. She could do it. She’d be great. She’d be great.” And then Meg came in and we didn’t even read a scene, and we all knew it was her. It’s just one of those indefinable things that when we started talking we were them already, you know? And what was really interesting was Meg had auditioned for Throw Momma From the Train (1987), which was the movie I did before Harry and Sally, to play my girlfriend, and the same thing happened. It was right after she was in Top Gun, and she was so great in Top Gun. And she came in and Danny DeVito was directing the movie, and I said, “Well, God, it’s so natural.” And I said, “What was that? We weren’t even trying and it was just great.” And he didn’t cast her because he felt for that character he wanted that she was a tad young. And I’ve always wondered if Danny had cast her and she had played my girlfriend, would Rob [Reiner] have said, “Well, I just saw you do that. I want something fresh.” I don’t know. But the mystery of Meg and I was just — there was no mystery. We just hit it off.

KALING: You just hit it off…
CRYSTAL: It’s like a love at first sight. And I’ll tell you an interesting anecdote, and I’m sorry you weren’t there, because I know how much you love the movie.

KALING: Oh yes, we did an episode [of The Mindy Project] called “Harry & Sally,” and everyone loved it the most, and then the finale has to do a lot with it.
CRYSTAL: So, Monday Rob was honored at Lincoln Center–

KALING: I read about this, yes.
CRYSTAL: And Meg and I walked out on stage together for the first time as a couple in 25 years. We’ve rarely seen each other over time — once in a while, you know how that is. So, when Rob was being honored, we got in touch and we started e-mailing, and we talked on the phone a couple of times, [talking about] what we might want to say and what to stay away from and so on and so forth. Then she came over and we spent an hour together on Sunday, the day before the event, and it was like it had never stopped. We both went, “Isn’t this something?” We just fell into each other all over again.

KALING: Wow!
CRYSTAL: My Burns and her Gracie, you know, it really was that all over again. It was just, I hate this word, but it was delicious. So then when we walked out on stage together to “It Had to Be You” — nobody had any idea we were together. They snuck her in and out of Lincoln Center.

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

KALING: Oh, my God, I would have passed out.
CRYSTAL: And we walked out and the people went crazy. And we got to the podium and we just started talking, told stories, overlapped each other, giggled with each other. Besides the audience loving it, I said to them, “For those of you who wanted a sequel all these years, well, this is it.” And then we walked offstage and there was a monitor backstage and it showed the New Year’s Eve scene — the last scene in the movie where I had that speech to her — and we just held hands and looked at it. And [my character is] telling her, “You’re the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night…,” “…when you want the rest of your life to start right away” — you know, all of those great lines. And we just looked at each other and just smiled and hugged each other. It was, like, perfect. It was really perfect. So, it’s that undefinable kind of thing that you call “chemistry” that I call…it’s like a magic that happens. It’s kismet. It’s meant to be. And you don’t have that with a lot of people.

KALING: It’s incredible that it didn’t feel like any time had passed. That, to me, is really the most remarkable thing.
CRYSTAL: It was astounding. And really Rob, who put us together, really created happily ever after for people with this movie. You believe in happily ever after. That’s why there was no sequel. We talked about it with [writer] Nora [Ephron] on and off, and we said, “Why? What are you going to do?” You know, “Where do you go?” People want to believe they’re okay, then they’re fine.

KALING: I love a third of the way through the movie when you see your character at the bookstore and…you’re so vulnerable in the bookstore and you’re open to anything. He’s, like, a smart, needy New Yorker and type of person who just wants to make a connection with someone. I was just thinking how wonderful it was that you got to do so many different kinds of things in that movie.
CRYSTAL It was such a great part, you know? The really interesting thing about it was in creating Harry, because it wasn’t written that way. When I came in, the movie was called Boy Meets Girl…and Nora and Rob were in sort of a stall with the story. And — I wrote about this at length in my book, which is out — because it was such an important time, Rob and I were the closest of friends. I mean, beyond close. It was also a different kind of chemistry, magic, something — we just, as friends, just sort of you fall into each other. And he was going through a divorce from Penny and he wasn’t happy and having a lot of emotional distress about it, and a lot of the scenes that happened to Harry and Sally were really Rob and I.

KALING: I was reading about that. I was about to talk about there’s chemistry you have with a woman and then there’s the chemistry you have with Rob Reiner, which is as a friendship. It’s so enviable and so wonderful to have a creative partner like that.
CRYSTAL: He’d call me, he was all alone, you know, I’m happily married — with another kind of magic and two kids — and the phone rings and it would be him. “Channel 9, are you watching?” And then I’d put it on: “Oh, my God, what is this?” And it was arena football or something. And, “What is this? Indoor football? What’s next? Arena golf, arena jogging?” So we’d just play around, and then we’d just channel surf, and that became the split screen talking about Casablanca.

KALING: That’s amazing.
CRYSTAL: Yes. And also the symptomatic headaches of depression, you know, “It’s a 24-hour tumor, they’re going around,” is something I actually said to him. And he said, because I was having migraines, and he said, “Go to the doctor.” It’s a line in the movie, “No, he’ll just tell me it’s nothing.”

KALING: Oh, that’s amazing.
CRYSTAL: All that stuff was really Rob and I. So then when I got cast, I came in with tons of ideas, because I felt so happy to be cast, but I saw where this guy could go. And one day, I was feeling restricted by Rob in the rewriting process as we were developing it with Nora, and I said, “You know what? You have to step aside a little bit and take you out of the movie and let me put me in.” And he totally got it. And we soared off into some really cool places with ideas and things. And that kept happening when Meg came on board, and that’s how the orgasm scene was created, just out of talking.

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Image Credit: Jordin Althaus/FOX

KALING: That’s incredible. So they let you sort of give your gift. Chris Messina, who’s a director, he just directed this great movie. And he said this thing, which I think is so smart: “It seems like every actor has a gift, and you can try to jam me into a part, but you put me in this for a reason, so just let me show you my gift.”
CRYSTAL: Yes.

KALING: “Don’t try to get me to give you another gift.”
CRYSTAL: Yes.

KALING: I’m so happy that happened.
CRYSTAL: That’s why Rob was the perfect maestro for this little quintet.

KALING: Okay, I have so many questions, Billy. I’m going to ask a totally different kind of question, maybe you have some insight here: Why is it, why do you think I have such a big crush on so many Jewish men? [The Mindy Project] is a dating show, and my writing staff, a lot of them are Jewish, and they were like, “Ask him, ask him why it is.”
CRYSTAL: Wait, do you have a crush on me or Harry?

KALING: Well, I was doing some research on you and looking at old sketches of you, and then of course watching French Kiss and City Slickers and things, and you are, I can say this because you’ve been married for, I think, 44 years to the same beautiful woman…
CRYSTAL Yes.

KALING: And it’s not out of turn — I waited in 2004 in line to see your one-man show, which The New York Times rightfully said was, “As hard to get as a limited edition Prada bag.”
CRYSTAL: [Laughs]

KALING: And so I feel that I can tell you now, and it’s not untoward, that of course! A huge crush, a huge crush. But I also think that I’ve noticed it has been a pattern, that I have crushes on so many Jewish men. And it’s sort of a joke, but I’m sort of wondering why you think that might be.
CRYSTAL: Well, I can’t speak for all of them…

KALING: Yes, I know. You don’t want to get in trouble, and neither do I.
CRYSTAL: You know, I don’t know, I’ve heard this from a lot of different people.

KALING: I don’t want the Anti-Defamation League to get annoyed at me.
CRYSTAL: No, or what my answer might be… Let me ask you then, so what do you find attractive in the men? Is it a sense of humor, are they cute, are they both of that, are they caring?

KALING: I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. I think there’s a brown-haired neurotic sweetness. And a lot of my Jewish friends are sort of overeducated with chips on their shoulders as well, which I find very appealing. But maybe that was it — let me move on to a different question. This is a better question… So, romantic comedies, I was going to ask you about this. You probably made the same observation that I have, which is, the problem with most romantic comedies is that they’re neither comic nor truly romantic.
CRYSTAL: Right.

KALING: So, when you find one that’s so good, they’re very rare. But what are a couple of your favorites, maybe one recent and one older.
CRYSTAL: One, I think the difficulty in making them is that you know where it’s going to end up. It’s the route to get there that has to be so real and so challenging. So, I think the thing with Harry and Sally is, all these years later, it’s still difficult sometimes for people to commit and give over and realize this is The One. You know, it happens for Harry two minutes from the end of the movie. And when you realize what it is, then you always say you want your life to start right away, as soon as possible. So I think that’s the problem with them — they all seem similar and they all seem the same. That’s why Harry and Sally was fresh. It was different.

KALING: And all the side characters could be the stars of their own very interesting romantic comedies, you felt.
CRYSTAL: Yes, I really do. And all of the scenes are so beautifully done and interesting, and a sense of improvisation to them, and a lot of them were, the museum, the pepper scene was totally, I sprung that on her at the moment. I took Rob aside and I said, “I’ve got this idea.” And I told him what it was and he said, “Hey, try it.” And that was the pepper thing, which if you look at the movie I think after I say, “I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie,” she looks off to Rob, she looks off and she goes, “Oh, no,” she looks off to the side, and he just nodded, keep going, keep going.

KALING: Oh, that’s so funny.
CRYSTAL: I think that’s my favorite scene in the movie.

KALING: This leads into my other question about this — and actually it comes out of The Princess Bride, which is something that I’m sure you’re asked about a ton — but whenever Harry and Sally is on, I cannot turn it off, and whenever The Princess Bride is on, I can’t turn it off. You were in them both, obviously very memorably, and I found that often the most memorable lines in movies are improvised, which sometimes I hate because I’m a writer.
CRYSTAL: Yes, sure.

KALING: But you described some of the moments in When Harry Met Sally that are improvised — how much of The Princess Bride was? Because the feeling was very much a lot of it.
CRYSTAL: Yes, well, that’s Rob encouraging that. The mutton, lettuce, and tomato — that was improvised, a couple of other little things. There was tons of stuff that didn’t end up in the movie where it got a little dirty, which was really funny. And he said, “Listen, I’ve got the scene, go have fun.” How can you not have fun? You have a sleeping handsome guy and a giant, and Mandy Patinkin and a little apple sculpture for a wife. I mean, how could you not have fun?

KALING: Oh, my God.
CRYSTAL: Yes, so I just went in a lot of those things. Lemon juice and paper cut at the door, you are the brute squad — all that stuff just sort of happened right before we’d shoot, and then I’d play around. The only problem with the scene in doing that was Rob would laugh and he’d have to leave the set. Poor Cary [Elwes] was laying on the gurney, and he’d start laughing, and we had to give him something that he could bite down on.

KALING: Oh my gosh.
CRYSTAL: [Laughs] He kept starting to giggle.

KALING: Because he’s mostly dead all day.
CRYSTAL: Yes, yes.

KALING: Mostly dead and still slightly alive.
CRYSTAL: Yes.

KALING: It must be irritating to be in so many movies where iconic lines are constantly being said at you. [Laughs]
CRYSTAL: I don’t know how to say this, but, you know, I can do that. But it has to be encouraged by not only your director but your fellow actors, the trust that once in a while you’re going to hit one pretty good. That’s how “I’ll have what she’s having” happened, because of a provocative conversation in pre-production when Nora started bringing up the fact that women fake orgasms.

KALING: Wow!
CRYSTAL: Rob went crazy and said, “No, no, no, no. They never did that with me.” And she said, “I’m sure they have.” And then the scene started to write itself. And then Meg said, “This is hilarious. I should have an orgasm in a public place.” I said, “Yes, like a crowded restaurant, and it’s a big, beautiful, crazy orgasm.” And we started laughing because we could sense, one, how much fun this would be to see, how great it would be to write, how bold to perform…then flash-forward to about four or five months later, we’re at the first test screening in Pasadena, and Rob and I are sitting in the back and no one knows we’re there, and the movie’s playing really well because it’s also cut great. He’s got such a great sense of editing. And the scene comes on and the audience is going berserk, and he and I know what’s about to happen, and then there’s one look at Estelle — that’s his mom — so we set her up where she is geographically and then it finishes, and then when she says, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Mindy, I’ve heard big laughs in my life in a movie theater, and this was beyond anything I’ve ever heard before. And Rob and I held hands in the back and went, “Oh my God.”

KALING: The romance of you and Rob Reiner, by the way, is a movie. The romance of you and Rob Reiner is a movie I want to write. [Laughs] Your relationship is so tender.
CRYSTAL: Yeah.

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Image Credit: Isabella Vosmikova/FOX

KALING: You seem like a very nice person and easy to work with. I am a hothead, and I’m constantly losing my temper. Are you really that way? And that was the first part of the question. And secondly, when was the last time you lost your temper in a creative environment?
CRYSTAL: On the set of — I can’t say I lost my temper. I’m also very passionate. I’m passionate about the work. And if my pursuit of perfection gets in my way, it hits me in a bad way and I’ll get…I’ll use the word “edgy,” maybe, or something like that. I’m always fighting for the truth. I’m always fighting for stretching the boundaries of the comedy I’m trying to do, or trying to keep it on keel, you know? And we were shooting the pilot and we had a chance to do something and a couple of the guys backed off, and I said, “No, no, come on. Have some guts here. This is what we’re going to do.”

KALING: Was it the material, or was it a physical thing?
CRYSTAL: It was a physical thing about how to shoot a certain scene. I said that I thought that this little sketch that Josh and I were going to do should be done in front of a live audience, not just filmed as a sketch that we would roll in, like a digital short. “We have the audience here, let’s do it now, and let’s be bold about it. If this show’s going to be different, we have to start now.” I said, “That’s why I’m here.” I said, “Let’s do it, and then if we go into overtime then we’ll shoot it your way also, but we’ve got to do it this way. And let’s set the rules.” And I was very pointed about it, firm. You know, I’m fighting for the show.

KALING: Right.
CRYSTAL: I’m fighting to make them understand if this show’s going to live, that you’re going to live with me, and I’m going to be the 800-pound gorilla at times. It’s always going to be okay; it’s nothing personal. I’m fighting to make it better.

KALING: That’s so refreshing, because in your position — if I were you and had the career that you had and I was doing an FX show — I would be the laziest f—ing person in the entire world. It would be like, “Hand me my money.” The fact that you are so passionate and want to do it and what you seem to be arguing for is more work and to make it perfect, I think that’s so cool. And also I would be very upset if I went home that night and told my wife that Billy Crystal yelled at me.
CRYSTAL: I was very strong. Yelling is not–

KALING: Not yelling.
CRYSTAL: I was very strong.

KALING: “Billy Crystal was strong with me.”
CRYSTAL: I was very strong. It was heated. I later took them aside and said to the people involved, and said, “Listen, I’m very passionate about this piece and I’m sorry if anyone’s feelings get hurt, but sometimes that may happen. But you have to understand it’s not personal. It’s about making the show what I think it can be. And if I’m wrong, I’ll be the first one to say, ‘Hey, I blew it.’ But I know I’m right.” And you know when they tested the piece it was one of the sketches that the audiences all said, “Oh, I love that thing.” So, you’re finding your way. For me, it’s always a struggle creatively about getting it right, because I know that if it’s up there wrong and if it’s up there dented a little bit, I’m going to lose sleep over it. And I can’t do that.

KALING: Billy, this is truly the last question I have. … Do you think that Harry and Sally would still be together now?
CRYSTAL: Yes, well this is funny. This is what Meg and I talked about on stage, I said, “Well, where are they now? What do you think?” And Meg said, “I’m very optimistic about them.”

KALING: Yes, perfect.
CRYSTAL: And the audience just laughed. I think they’re great. You have to believe in happily ever after. It does exist sometimes. And for them, I know that it’s true.

KALING: Thank you so much for talking to me. This means so much to me. Everyone is so excited about it. The minute we hang up I have to call my writers’ room and just be like, “Then he said this, then he said that.”
CRYSTAL: I remember when I came over and we talked and we met, and we had such a nice visit.

KALING: And then B.J. [Novak] was in the neighborhood and was like, “Can I come over?” And I was like, “I think so. It’s kind of weird. But, yes, just show up.” He wants to play your son in something. I want you to play my boyfriend in something, so I trump him.
CRYSTAL: Well, Mindy, you write it and I’m there. And if I yell at you, it’s nothing personal.

KALING: As long as you’re strong with me. I can tell people that you were just strong with me.
CRYSTAL: I’ll be very strong. I’ll be very Jewish. I’ll be very needy. How’s that?

KALING: Oh my God, it’s going to turn into phone sex now.
KALING: We didn’t have sex just now, did we? Okay.

KALING: Great talking to you, Billy.
CRYSTAL: Great talking to you, Mindy.

The season finale of The Mindy Project airs Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.

Crystal can be seen in his HBO special 700 Sundays, available on HBO Go, and will next star in FX’s The Comedians, coming in 2015.

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