LOS ANGELES – When Mindy Kaling was preparing to launch “The Mindy Project” last year, a TV consultant offered some valuable advice: Never order lunch under your real name.
“If they see the show and they hate it, they’re going to screw with your food,” he told her.
Kaling’s alias? Peggy.
“It’s a ‘Mad Men’ reference,” said Kaling, referring to a budding feminist character on that show. “A woman in an all-male field.”
As “Project” starts its second season on Wednesday, Kaling remains the only woman of color running and starring in her own sitcom, a feat that has led some to believe that Kaling is one of Hollywood’s most self-assured people. Not so, says the 34-year-old star.
“If a man who had my job was comparably confident, no one would think he was confident,” said Kaling, while providing a personal tour of her set. “It’s just that I don’t make a ton of apologies about what I do day to day, which I think is surprising to people. Do I care what people think? Yeah, desperately. I’m an insecure, crazy actor at heart.”
Kaling needn’t worry about getting plenty of love. After a shaky start, “Project” has settled into one of TV’s most reliable series with a voice that stands out in a sea of testosterone-heavy sitcoms that appear to have been written by white, middle-aged men who keep whoopee cushions in their desk drawers.
“I always get young women of color coming up to me at screenings and saying, ‘Mindy knows me. That’s my life,’ ” said Ike Barinholtz, a “Mad TV” alum who plays a nurse on “The Mindy Project” and also contributes in the writers’ room. “That’s touching in a way. You don’t turn on your TV and see people like her, at least not the lead in a romantic show. Lots of times people like her are people you really can’t relate to, like a computer hacker.”
Kaling’s character — Mindy Lahiri, an ob-gyn doctor who thinks real life should play out like a classic Meg Ryan movie — has drawn a lot of attention to the show and attracted a lot of talent. Bill Hader and James Franco make guest appearances early in the season, as does Minnesota-bred pro basketball player Kris Humphries, who plays a loose version of himself.
Veteran actress Beth Grant, who joins the cast this year, said she dreamed of working for Kaling long before she even met her.
“I had a magazine with her picture on the cover and I told my husband, ‘Give me a piece of cardboard’ and I made a dream board that I would be able to someday be of service to her voice,” she said. “I put it behind the china cabinet and forgot about it until the day they called and I was like, ‘Whoa!’ ”
Part of the show’s appeal is the perspective from the show’s female writers. They can suggest stories from their own experiences with their gynecologists or with awkward sexual encounters.
One of the more memorable moments from last year was a shower scene between Mindy and one of her co-workers.
“Every time you’ve seen one of those scenes on a show, it’s always sexy and hot and steamy,” Barinholtz said. “The harsh reality of taking a shower with someone is, it’s very tragic. You see them in a bad light. You see every imperfection.”
Of course, the most important voice is Kaling, who was hired as a writer for “The Office” at age 24 after much acclaim for “Matt and Ben,” a play she co-wrote about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. She soon found herself to be one of the most notable cast members. In addition to running a TV show, she’s written a bestselling collection of essays and was named this year as one of Time magazine’s most influential people in the world.
Most important, at least from the writers’ perspective, is that she’s a well of inspiration for the series.
Real Mindy can’t stand live music? Then let’s send TV Mindy to a music festival. Real Mindy would despise Comic-Con? Let’s send TV Mindy to San Diego.
“The key is knowing what she loves and, more importantly what she hates, and putting her in those situations,” Barinholtz said.
But finding Mindy Lahiri’s voice took some time. At the start of the series, she was a self-absorbed princess who you wouldn’t set up with your worst enemy. Adjustments were made. By the end of the season, she had fallen so hard for a big-hearted minister that she agreed to accompany him on a mission trip to Haiti, which is where the new season picks up.
“It turns out you shouldn’t be on TV and be like I wanted to be, which is unlikable,” Kaling said. “Unfortunately, if you’re a woman there are some things people don’t want to see and I don’t want to see, and there’s a sense of protecting a female character that I hadn’t really anticipated. We all have our comedy cred, and we want to do really edgy stuff, that our characters should just do whatever. But it’s not that kind of show.”