LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Don’t be fooled by her short hairdo. Mindy Kaling wants you to know she did not cut her hair.
“This is a wig right now,” she tells reporters gathered on the set of “The Mindy Project.” The second year comedy returns Tuesday on Fox and City (check local listings).
“I love having the short hair,” she says, “but my writing staff largely hates it.”
One of her writers predicted that if she cut her hair — as Keri Russell did several years ago to disastrous effect on “Felicity” —the show would tank.
Still, “chopping your hair off is something every woman fantasizes about doing,” she says, and while her long hair remains tucked under her wig, she’s happy for now to have it both ways.
In many ways the 34-year-old Kaling is living her fantasies. While a slow build with audiences, “The Mindy Project” was a hit with critics, especially as it grew towards its first season cliffhanger finale
Fans will recall Kaling’s smart and snappy character, obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Mindy Lahiri, was in the middle of a personal crisis when the season ended. She cut both her hair and her ties to her beloved New York to follow her Christian minister boyfriend Casey (Anders Holm) on a year-long mission to Haiti.
Everybody knows that’s not going to last.
It showed, however, that Kaling was willing to stretch the series beyond the original, smarty-pants girl-in-the-city premise, to give it more heart. “The Mindy Show” has evolved into a cheeky ensemble series, with Kaling’s character growing along with it.
A steady flow of big-name guest stars — James Franco appears as a rival doctor in Tuesday’s season opener, along with returning guest star Chloe Sevigny and former “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Bill Hader — has helped bring more viewers to this smart sitcom. Reese Witherspoon and Anne Hathaway are on Kaling’s wish list for this season.
The star power even gets to Kaling, who first met Franco last year while both were working on “This is the End.”
Says Kaling, “He has a smile that could stop a clock.”
She and her regular co-stars, including Chris Messina as gruff-but-loveable Dr. Danny Castellano and Ike Barinholtz as eccentric nurse Morgan Tookers, sat before critics on one of the show’s sound stages. One reporter suggested Dr. Mindy began more as a callous, self-involved Larry David-type character and got more likable as the season progressed. Kaling agreed.
“As it turns out, you shouldn’t be on TV and be like, ‘I want to be unlikable,’” said Kaling. “That’s one of the things you learn.”
The writer/actress also learned that, while keeping the show edgy and being true to her younger comedy cred, there are certain TV conventions you just have to follow to draw a network audience.
“There’s a sense of protecting a female character that I hadn’t really anticipated,” says Kaling, who nevertheless still seems determined to “stretch what we expect female characters to do.”
The Massachusetts native has only ever been on one previous series — but what a hot house that was. A Dartmouth graduate, she landed a writing job on “The Office” at age 24 — the only woman on a staff of eight writers.
Within a few years, she was a co-star on the series as Kelly Kapoor. By the time she left to do “The Mindy Project,” she was an Emmy-nominated executive producer.
Kaling is a hands-on executive producer on her own series, right down to picking out many of the knick-knacks in Lahari’s funky apartment. On the day of the press visit, she led critics on a tour of that set, pointing out some of her actual family photos in frames among the furnishings. She wanted the space to reflect the character, whom she sees as a little louder and more colourful than herself.
Kaling is part of a new generation of female comedy showrunners emerging in Hollywood. Lena Dunham, who stars, writes and created HBO’s “Girls” and Liz Meriwether, the creator and executive producer/writer behind “New Girl,” are following “30 Rock” and former “Saturday Night Live” head writer Tina Fey into TV’s creative power positions.
Kaling is the first South Asian-American woman to headline her own U.S. network TV series. Having the confidence to follow her dream is something she says she got from her parents, who “rocked. They thought I could do anything,” says Kaling, whose father is an architect and whose mother, like Kaling’s TV character, was a gynecologist.
“Until two days before my mom passed away she was like, ‘Don’t get married if the man is going to tell you not to do things. Just do whatever you want to do.
“I was really lucky,” says Kaling, “because I don’t know how many people really have parents like that.”
Bill Brioux is a TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.