When Modesto native Ginger Gonzaga was growing up, her goal was to be a lawyer.
While that hasn’t happened, she does get to play a lawyer on TV. So, you know, close enough.
The actress and comedian is one of the stars of the new ABC series “Mixology.” The ensemble comedy is set to première Feb. 26 in the coveted time slot behind the network’s megahit “Modern Family,” and the first two episodes are already online.
“It’s a really fun show,” said Gonzaga, who plays a tough sports attorney, Maya, on the series. “We also got blessed with our time slot – the network seems to be behind the show, which is great.”
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The series is from the writers of “The Hangover” and produced by ubiquitous media personality Ryan Seacrest in his first foray into scripted television. Its unusual premise – following 10 people on one night in one bar as they search for love and everything else – brings together a cast of mostly newcomers, including Gonzaga.
After graduating from Beyer High School, Gonzaga went to the University of California, Santa Barbara, and earned her degree in political science with a minor in Chinese. Her original plan was to pursue a career in international law.
“But I have used none of it. While I was at college, I just realized it definitely wasn’t what I wanted to do. I like performing and being funny,” she said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she now lives.
She graduated from UC Santa Barbara a year early to enter the Groundlings School, the famed Los Angeles training ground and springboard for the careers of comedians such as Phil Hartman, Melissa McCarthy, Paul Reubens and Kristen Wiig. It was there Gonzaga began to hone her comedy chops.
“I always wanted to be on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” she said. “I did ‘SNL’ sketches with friends in high school. And at that time, all of the people on ‘SNL’ were from the Groundlings. I love how ugly and weird these people make themselves to be funny.”
Gonzaga was able to put the skills she perfected on the Beyer speech team to good use in her comedy career. She did speech and debate throughout high school and competed in state and national tournaments.
“Having done impromptu speaking in high school helped a lot for improv,” she said. “I was used to making stuff up right away.”
After the Groundlings, Gonzaga studied at improv schools Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade. She created her own independent mockumentary, called “Modesto Mavericks,” that was shot in town and featured her playing a series of oddball characters. In Los Angeles, she auditioned for commercials and remembers her first one vividly.
“It was for SoyJoy (nutrition bars). They tasted like cardboard and I ate like 40,” she said. “And then I got cut from it. But I got my (Screen Actors Guild) card out of it.”
Her other commercial work includes national spots for McDonald’s, TurboTax and Pepsi Max. A handful of small TV roles followed, and then her first steady acting gig came in 2009 for the NBC Web series “In Gayle We Trust.” She was a regular on the online show, which featured “Clueless” actress Elisa Donovan, for three seasons.
In 2012 Gonzaga landed her first feature film role, in the Mark Wahlberg comedy “Ted,” by “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane. She played Gina, a work friend of Mila Kunis. In 2013 she was cast as a recurring character on the FX series “Legit,” as series star Jim Jefferies’ girlfriend, Peggy.
Also last year during pilot season, when TV studios cast and create new projects between January and March, Gonzaga was up for a couple of other shows. One was “Mixology” for ABC and the other was “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” for Fox. For actors, whichever network tests (essentially auditions) with them first has rights to them throughout the season. Gonzaga tested with Fox first, so ABC cast another actress in the role of Maya.
“I was really heartbroken, then Larry Charles – who directed ‘Borat’ and ‘Seinfeld’ – came on to direct for the (‘Mixology’) and I was really, really sad,” she said of initially losing the role.
Fox ended up going with another actress for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” so Gonzaga was released from the network. And, as luck would have it, the initial actress cast as Maya didn’t work out. So ABC called Gonzaga back to shoot the pilot last March. She was the last of the 10 leads on the show to be cast, which also includes former “Glee” actress Vanessa Lengies.
“I got hired on a Friday and we started shooting on a Monday,” she said. “I was doing character fittings and trying to learn how to play basketball because my character plays basketball.”
She describes Maya as someone who “says everything you wish you could say out loud.” Gonzaga is featured heavily in the pilot, titled “Tom & Maya.” Each episode focuses a couple of characters on that same night in the bar, intercut with flashbacks from their past. Maya is at the bar with her best friend, Liv, played by Kate Simses. She runs into Tom (Blake Lee), who has been recently dumped by his fiancée. Maya’s official ABC character description calls her “as beautiful as she is brutal.”
“She doesn’t want to hear men who are weepy and tell their sad love story,” Gonzaga said. “She’s kind of unromantic, but very modern-day.”
The series finished filming its 13-episode first season in November. Late last month, Gonzaga was completing additional dialogue recording, or dubbing, in post-production. She said the final product, with its unorthodox format, should be a treat for viewers.
“The pacing is fast and smooth because of the format,” she said. “It’s a very fresh thing to watch. It feels like you’re watching a 13-episode movie.”
Entertainment Weekly agrees, calling the show’s pacing “snappy” and saying that “underneath the glossy, Ryan Seacrest-produced banner, this cocktail actually has some genuine sweetness and originality.”
For Gonzaga, the series is a shot at doing what she loves to do: make people laugh. And while it may not be what she thought she’d be doing in high school, people back home might not be too shocked by her chosen career path.
“I was always goofy. So I think maybe it makes sense,” she said. “I think some people will be surprised I didn’t do law. But I accomplished my goal in a way. See, I am playing a lawyer.”