[Warning: This story contains spoilers from season five, episode two of The Mindy Project, "Nurses' Strike."]
Following Mindy Lahiri's all-important "Decision 2016" - the season-five premiere episode of The Mindy Project in which the single mom decided not to choose either one of her potential suitors - questions quickly arose about who her next love interest would be. After all, the Hulu comedy show has never shied away from its romantic comedy roots, particularly since the series has always had a deep bench of talented actors to romance creator-writer-star Mindy Kaling onscreen (see: Chris Messina, Tommy Dewey, Mark Duplass, Anders Holm, Glenn Howerton and B.J. Novak, among many others).
That concern however, seemed to be at least temporarily silenced with the arrival of Bryan Greenberg's Ben in episode two. A charming and intelligent pediatric nurse, Ben and Mindy initially found themselves on opposing sides because of the nurses' strike. However, by episode's end, he proved his medical acumen by showing Mindy just how to best give Leo his medicine for an ear infection, and also revealed a surprising common link with Mindy when he revealed the somewhat surprising factoid that he's dad to a 13-year-old daughter.
Although the romantic sparks haven't flown (yet), it seems safe to say Ben piqued Mindy's interest in the wake of her short-lived love triangle with Danny (Messina) and Jody (Garret Dillahunt). The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Greenberg to discuss what's to come, his first major TV role in five years and more.
How did the role come about?
I knew that they needed a new castmember this season and I did a chemistry read with Mindy and we had good chemistry and they asked me to be on the show.
A chemistry read, that's very telling of what you're playing …
Maybe, but I think you got to have chemistry with everybody. It's a very broad term, chemistry.
What were those initial conversations like with Mindy about the role?
Obviously, I needed to know a little bit more about it before I signed on. Just knowing that in the beginning, you're going to see one guy but they're going to really flesh the character out, so that was encouraging. Also, I've never really done a half-hour straight-up comedy like this before. Like I did How to Make It [in America], but that's totally different, so I liked the challenge of doing this kind of comedy and working with the cream of the crop of comedic actors, like Ike [Barinholtz] and Mindy and all of the guest stars that they've got coming in. And I just feel like the writing on the show is top-notch. When I've done comedy in the past, I always have to come up with bits, and you still have to do that, but I just feel like the jokes that they come up with here are so tight, the scripts are so tight, that you just kind of show up and get the timing right and you can knock it out of the park. It's a really fun job to be on. And I really haven't done a lot of guest-starring in my career. This is my first time that I've come on something that's really a moving ship and was a little worried that I would ruin it for everybody (Laughs.)
That can be intimidating to come onto a show in the fifth season …
It was a little intimidating, but once I met Mindy and the whole cast and the writing staff, they couldn't be more welcoming. I mean, they did beat me the first day. It was like a weird gang initiation. (Laughs.) But besides that it was pretty cool.
What made you want to do a half-hour comedy that was so different from your last TV series?
I think it's just a challenge. As an actor, you want to do different things, you want to change it up and I just really respect Mindy and her voice, and I wanted to be a part of it. I think that's why we're all here. It's so unique and strong, and it's just a really funny show.
So you were a fan of the show before? How much had you seen?
Yeah, I've seen a couple of episodes because I'm friendly with Chris. They just get really good guest stars, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and all these movie stars are coming in and playing. And it's an easy show to watch and it's actually a pretty easy show to be on because they all know what they want on season five. They're not trying to figure it out because a lot of times when you do a pilot, everybody's trying to figure out what's the tone, what's my character. Here, I'm the only one who's trying to figure it out - everyone else is like, 'No, you're good.'
Did you tell Chris when you got the part?
He was very congratulatory. He's a good guy.
What can you say about the dynamic between your character and Mindy's character?
I can just say that, well, our dynamic is pretty combative in the beginning, being that she is an elite, snobby Manhattan doctor and I'm a down-to-earth nurse from New Jersey. So we've got some tension there. But I feel like there is a connection and you really get to know Ben throughout the season. I can't say much without ruining it, but yeah, I do start a meth lab and … I have a dragon. That's all I can tell you. (Laughs.)
You get to work with two actors on the show who are also writers on the show. What has that been like?
It's been really interesting. It's unique for me. Usually you're just working with actors, so it's weird to work with someone who, especially Mindy, who created the show, she's directed episodes, she's starring in every scene, so, like, on her lunch break, she goes to the writers' room and then on the weekends she's editing, and I'm just, like, 'Wow, I feel so lazy.' (Laughs.) And then there's Ike, who's so cool and so welcoming. The second episode that I'm in, he's directing me, so it's weird but it's also really good because they know the show so well that if they're telling me that I'm doing alright, then I know that I'm doing alright, because they're in charge and they know the show better than anybody.
Have you seen your character evolve over time? Have the writers started play to your strengths in certain ways?
They're starting to write for me a lot, which is great. They fleshed out my world, you get to meet my family. … So you get to really get immersed into Ben's world, which is cool because this is a show that's been going on for five seasons now, so it kind of takes it into a new path and also there's some secrets that come out about me. (Laughs.) I'm trying to be as generic as possible without giving things away.
You've been strictly doing movies for the last five or so years. How has it been to have to worry about keeping storylines and plot points under wraps again?
Right, I was talking to the publicists, like, 'How do I talk about this? I don't want to spoil anything.' I also feel like the press and the people that I have told that I'm on the show or found out about it from the casting announcement - I've learned this is a very beloved show. People love it, I think because it's smart. I think it's really smart. That's what I gravitated towards.
As your career has evolved, how do you think how you pick projects has changed?
It's a career, so I just want to be challenged. I just want to work with good people. I've never been a person to say, "This is the kind of thing I'm looking for." You just can't as an actor. I feel like you've got to take it as it comes, and this project came along and I gravitated towards working with Mindy and Ike and everybody on it.
Several castmembers on the show hail from improv backgrounds. What's your take on that? Do you do improv on the show?
I don't. Look, they're so funny that I don't have to be funny, so I don't have that burden, but they do write good jokes for me. But, yeah, I'm a lot looser with it now, I've been improving a lot more, but by no means am I trying to go toe-to-toe with Adam Pally or Ike Barinholtz. Those guys are trained. it's different. I'm an actor who went to theater school, and they're improv artists who went to classes for years and have taught it. It's a totally different beast, so I can play a little bit in it, but you've got to know your length. I don't want to come in there swinging and just strike out. I've too savvy for that, you know what I mean?
Now that you've filmed a few episodes, how long do you see yourself sticking around on The Mindy Project?
I think I'm on for the season. Every script I get, I'm like, 'Oh, this is a cool adventure we get to go on.' I think it's fun for them, I think they're having fun writing for me. I can tell, I can see it on the page. They're taking the show in places they haven't taken it before.
What's your take on coming back to television in the #PeakTV era with these new streaming platforms like Hulu and Netflix?
Not knowing the ratings thing is kind of weird, but it's not as stressful. You don't freak out about that as much. It's hard to break through, I think, in this climate. There are so many shows, so it was nice to be on a show that's already got such a great fan base as opposed to starting from scratch. … I'm excited to see how people react to it.
Is that something you plan to pay attention when your first episode airs, knowing that the show has such a loyal fan base?
It's weird, I don't know how I'll even know if people are watching. … I guess my Twitter feed will blow up, but does that mean anything in this day and age? It's hard to quantify. I just did an independent film and it was on Netflix; it was called Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, and I don't know if it did well. It felt like, because of Twitter, that people were watching it, but it's just hard to tell in this day and age as an actor, and I'm also a hermit, so that doesn't help things. (Laughs.) I don't really go out much. I don't know how the response is if I'm not seeing the numbers. It's refreshing because you just put your work out there and hope for the best.
How concerned are you about how the show's fans react to your character?
I think I have some crossover fans just from the work that I've done. I have frequented a couple romantic comedies before and this is in similar territory, so I think people are excited to see me in this world from what I can tell, but yeah, I hope they don't hate me. I hope I don't screw up their baby. Should I be worried? Are they going to burn my house down? They are fanatics, though, about who she chooses and all that so, hey, look, Mindy's got a lot of options. Don't be mad. (Laughs.)
New episodes of The Mindy Project debut Tuesday on Hulu.