A near-death experience will change a person, even a comedian. Just ask Ike Barinholtz, who plays the kooky nurse Morgan Tookers on The Mindy Project, and he'll explain how nothing jump-started his career quite like begging for his life—on a Hollywood set.
The 36-year-old actor grew up in Chicago watching comedies with friends and in that strange way that an idle interest becomes a passion, he found himself working in Amsterdam with fellow comics Josh Meyers, Jason Sudeikis, and Jordan Peele. The crew did exactly what young people do in the great Dutch city—tour with improv comedy group, BoomChicago. After they had their fill of partying and performing in Europe, Barinholtz, Stassen, and Meyers moved to L.A. to find work. “[We did] every job short of sex worker,” he says.
I remember driving home from the audition, thinking, ‘I wonder how fast I’ll have to drive on this median to kill myself.’
Barinholtz tried out for role after role. He jokes that he tried making a sex tape entitled Ike Barinholtz, Comic, Himself. But his true test came during a CSI audition. Playing a director who gets murdered, Barinholtz had to beg and scream for his life.
"I took it really seriously," he says, "‘Please, don’t kill me! Don’t kill me!’ And then the guy shot me and I screamed, ‘Ahhh!’ The room was silent, and then they all started laughing. The producer told me, 'You’re really funny, man. That was great, that made our day.’ I remember driving home on the freeway thinking, ‘I wonder how fast I’ll have to drive on this median to kill myself.’”
Hands on the wheel, he didn’t give up. "Whatever you want to do in the industry, do it on the smallest level at first," he says. "If you want to be a writer, write a screenplay in your house. If you want to be an actor, put on a one-man show. If you want to be a stand-up comedian, go to an open mic. If you want to be a visual effects guy, go to a visual effects house and tell them you'll work here for a dollar an hour. Committing to it is a big deal. And not getting broken right away.”
His brush with death at CSI behind him, he broke into the biz landing a guest performer role on MADtv in 2002. This put him back alongside some of his fellow BoomChicago members, like Josh Meyers and Jordan Peele. Barinholtz’s first episode involved a parody of Nelly’s “Hot in Here,” in which he to slip-n-side—while wearing a clerical collar, mind you—into Michael McDonald’s nether regions. Seeing that he was ride-or-die, the producers promoted him to a regular starring role during the next season.
The security didn't stop Barinholtz from striving. He continued auditioning and working in L.A.'s comedy scene outside of the show.
“[Comedy] is a small community in the sense that there is just a few thousand people,” he says. The relationships he built helped him become a part of Danny McBride’s HBO comedy, Eastbound and Down, where he played a convincing Russian named Ivan Dochenko. Earlier this year, Derek Waters cast him in the role of August Spies in a reenactment of the Haymarket Affair for the first season of Drunk History.
Still, he credits Mindy Kaling, creator of The Mindy Project, with giving his career its biggest boost. Like most celebrity friendships, it began with an innocent Twitter conversation:
“I was doing a Russian guy [on MADtv] at the time, and she asked, ‘Is it weird that I think this Russian guy is kind of cute?’” says Barinholtz. “And I said, ‘No, no, no! It’s not weird!’” Luckily, this was around the time Kaling’s pilot got picked up by FOX. Barinholtz had auditioned for the part of Danny Castellano, but after that role went to Chris Messina, Barinholtz and his writing partner, Dave Stassen, pitched a script to Kaling. Kaling then wrote a part just for Barinholtz. “It kind of came together,” Barinholtz says.
So, with all these parts and the networking and climbing they required, does Morgan Tookers qualify as Bariholtz's peak? Not necessarily. He loves working on Kaling's project, but he has solo aspirations, too.
“You want to have your own show, where you’re the hit,” Barinholtz says, citing innovators like BJ Novak, Tina Fey, Lena Dunham, and, of course, Kaling, all who write and act in their own TV shows as guideposts for the future. But, for now, that mission is a distraction. His real priority at the moment is changing his daughter Foster’s diapers. “I’m trying to think of the answer that will get me in the least trouble,” Barinholtz says when asked about fatherhood. “You don’t expect how much a tiny, beautiful 12-pound baby can burp and fart.”
Maybe that nursing experience at The Mindy Project is more important than he expected.
Written by Vanessa Castro (@_castrov)