After starring on the US Office, BJ Novak became equally known as a bestselling author and Mindy Kalings soulmate. Now the actor has invented Hollywoods favourite app. Elizabeth Day meets him

This time last year, BJ Novak was already an acclaimed actor, stand-up comedian and author. He had starred in Hollywood movies (Inglourious Basterds, Saving Mr Banks) and popular sitcoms (the American version of The Office, The Mindy Project). His childrens book had been a New York Times bestseller for several months. His collection of short stories had been garlanded with praise. He was the worst kind of high-achiever, in that his achievements were myriad and in different fields. People were calling him a polymath and they werent even being sarcastic. Unlike James Franco, another actor who tried his hand at creative writing only to be roundly derided by the critics, Novak actually seemed to be good at the many things he was doing.

Was he ever worried about being called pretentious? Not pretentious, says Novak when we meet on a sunny afternoon at Soho House, West Hollywood. For me, it was more [the worry of] seeming distracted from my main work by a side project I was oddly passionate about. And side projects especially from celebrities dont tend to be successful either, they tend to be distractions.

Still, even all those side projects (and its worth pointing out that he also served as a writer on The Office and executive produced The Mindy Project) werent quite enough to sate Novaks ambitions. He wanted to be a millionaire tech entrepreneur, too. As a little kid growing up in Boston, his earliest ambition was to be a real-estate developer. I think I had some vague awareness of Donald Trump. Like, I want to put my name on buildings, I want to be rich and important and a businessman!

You dont get many Hollywood liberals admitting that Trump used to be their hero, I tell him.

But culturally, hes an icon, counters Novak. I think a secret aspect of [his popularity] is how familiar he is. Hes not a crazy man on the street, hes the crazy uncle thats been at your Thanksgiving for 30 fucking years! Hes been there for ever. So I think people feel safe with him considering how outrageous he is as a candidate. There is some subliminal comfort with him.

I am proud of being associated with quality things: as Ryan Howard in the US version of The Office. Photograph: UPPA/Photoshot

In pursuit of his Trumpian dream to become a multi- millionaire businessman, Novak came up with an idea for an app. His idea was deceptively simple: lists. Lists of things people wanted to share, such as recommendations of the best places to eat in Paris or five of their all-time favourite ice-cream flavours or three pieces of advice for a first date.

Novak got backing from private investors, hired some of the best people (his co-founder Dev Flaherty is a tech developer and Stanford graduate), set up an office in Venice Beach and launched the app for iPhone last October. In its first four months, it has amassed more than 250,000 lists, many of them compiled by celebrity users such as Lena Dunham, who admitted to lusting after a small marsupial sugar glider in Exotic Pets I Want or Snoop Dogg who puts thyme at number one of his Top Five Essential Herbs.

You can make anything into a list, says Novak. Although he conceived the app as a sort of advice-sharing mechanism, its actually turned into a medium for structured self-expression If I asked you: Hey, would you write me an essay about your father? its such an enormous ask. If I send you a list request for memories of your dad from childhood any of us can come up with seven, random, funny memories. And before you know it its very involving.

So, in the spirit of the, the top five things I learn about BJ Novak in the first 10 minutes of meeting him are:

1. He is wearing a lot of clothes. Despite the Californian heat, Novak is dressed in dark jeans, a black T-shirt, a navy-blue blouson jacket and a baseball cap emblazoned with the single letter B. When he takes off this cap at several points during the interview, his hair is slick with sweat. He then puts it back on again.

2. He orders green tea and, when it arrives, studiously ignores the biscuit on the side of the saucer.

3. He wants to run for mayor of Los Angeles. One of his flagship policies would be that everyone would have to refer to the city by its full name and not as LA because its bad branding. Another would be founding a museum of hip-hop in the suburb of Compton.

4. Hes smart. Very smart. He speaks rapidly, almost nervously, and he throws out ideas at a median rate of 35 a minute (approximate guess).

5. He doesnt smile that much. When he does, you feel like youve done something unexpectedly brilliant.

Were very close in sort of a natural, eternal way,: with co-star Mindy Kaling. The pair have been offered a rumoured $7.5m to write about their friendship. Photograph: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Of course, its unfair to expect someone to be constantly cracking jokes and gurning with hilarity simply because they are known for their comedic presence on-screen. And Novak clearly has a lot going on inside that sweaty head of his. His father was a writer who ghosted Nancy Reagans memoirs and Novak, the eldest of three boys, describes himself as a thoughtful child.

I remember my mum coming into my bedroom when I was lying awake one night and she asked what I was thinking of And I was telling her about the inventions I would invent and she said, Cant you ever just think stupid thoughts?

Novak went on to Harvard and did his thesis on the film adaptations of Shakespeares plays (his favourite is Kenneth Branaghs Hamlet because it was not obsessed with novelty and it was not obsessed with fidelity.) He moved to LA sorry, Los Angeles, after graduating and started out on the stand-up circuit as a way of testing his writing on a wider audience. Then he fell into acting and found he enjoyed it.

His parents are said to have set up a Jewish matchmaking service. Is that true?

Yeah, thats one of those questions that comes up every time.

Thats because its in your Wikipedia entry.

Well Im not going to take it off. Its not not-true, but its not like a big aspect of my life. I dont think its interesting.

Dont you? I think its completely fascinating. Were they always trying to matchmake you?


Spoonfuls of sugar: with Jason Schwartzman in Saving Mr Banks. Photograph: Photoshot

At 36, Novak is single, but has been engaged in a highly public on-off flirtation with his co-star from The Office, Mindy Kaling, for years. They used to date, but then realised they spent most of their time arguing, so broke up. They still have an intensely close friendship.

In the past, Kaling has described Novak as intoxicating and referred to the two of them as soup snakes a reference to a scene in The Office where a character writes a romantic note to his girlfriend only to misread soul-mates as soup-snakes. They signed a rumoured $7.5m joint book deal last year to write about their long friendship.

Were very close in sort of a natural, eternal way, says Novak, before getting his phone and reading out a series of recent texts from Kaling.

She texted me: Remake I Dream of Jeannie with me. You be Larry Hagman. This was on Saturday. Then I texted her: Im writing a list: Eight Times Mindy Kaling Bullied Me on the Set of The Office. So I was asking her details for that.

She used to bully you?

He cracks a smile. A huge grin that seems to take over the entire lower half of his face.

She would lie to me. She would make up these just out of nowhere purposeless lies that I believed. Like saying that Allison Jones, the casting director of The Office,was also an actress who had been the third lead in Cold Mountain. And so I just thought that.

And there was this director, this older woman who directed a couple of episodes, and Mindy told me I couldnt tell anyone, but Greg Daniels, the show runner, used to date this woman in college. And then Greg asked me what I thought of her cut and I lied to Greg and said I thought it was great, because I was nervous to insult his ex-girlfriend, so he didnt make the edits that I wanted.

And later I asked him about it and he was like, What are you talking about? Shes 20 years older than I am, we didnt go to college together! I realised that Mindy just made it up and he breaks off, laughing it actually affected my work life!

Kids care whether or not you have the book on you, they dont care whether you wrote it: reading from his latest book in New York. Photograph: Unique Nicole/FilmMagic

Even though romance hasnt blossomed with Mindy or through his parents Jewish matchmaking service, Novak is open about the fact that he wants to meet someone and be a father someday.

Yeah. I just need more of a test audience.

Still, the fact that he has no kids hasnt stopped him becoming a hugely successful childrens author. Novak wrote The Book With No Pictures after testing it out on his best friends two-year-old, Bruce. Again, the idea is winningly simple: the book consists entirely of funny things the person reading it must say out loud (My head is made of blueberry pizza). It has sold more than 1m copies in the US and has been translated into 26 languages. When Novak tours primary schools, he is greeted like a hero.

The people who stop him in the street now fall into two distinct categories. The first are those who say: Love your work (I think you say it to everyone, says Novak. I think you say that to Russell Crowe, I think you say that to George Saunders, I think it could mean absolutely anything. Love your work! As though theyve been poring over my work.) The other half are excitable parents who come up to him with their children in tow. Generally, kids care whether or not you have the book on you, they dont care whether you wrote it.

Novak thinks of himself as a writer first and foremost. He has always struck me as someone who has chosen not to be as famous as he could have been, I tell him. I think I am very proud of being associated with quality things. So if I were massively famous for doing massively beloved things, yeah, that sounds great. I think the pickiness is really just about I want to be in cool things.

He removes his baseball cap, then smoothes back his hair. His eyes dart left and right, like a magpie looking for shiny things to steal. I can sense his attention wandering on to the next thought, the next big idea. So, I say: At 36 youre more than halfway through your allotted biblical time

Biblical time? he jokes, In biblical time, I could live to 860.

But is that something you are aware of? That there are only a finite number of years left in which to achieve the things you want to achieve?

Sure. But why do you ask?

Because its an interview and its my job to come up with the questions.

So, are you asking: is mortality behind my drive?


There is a long pause, emphasised by the fact that Novak actually says: He takes a long pause, pondering the universe and its destiny Eventually, he concludes: I dont know. I mean, I dont think so more than anyone else.

Three Things I Notice About BJ Novak As He Leaves The Interview:

1. The biscuit is still untouched.

2. He walks rapidly, as though fuelled by his own nervous energy.

3. He is probably going to take over the world.

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