Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Mindy Sterling began her acting career in the 1970s, but her life-changing moment came a decade later, when she accepted an invitation to visit the Groundlings Theatre. It not only helped her expand her comedic range but also led directly to her scoring her big breakthrough role as Frau Farbissina in Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery. Both before and since that performance, however, Sterling has made appearances in numerous movies and TV series, and she can currently be seen playing mom to D.J. Qualls and Dan Bakkedahl in the FXX series Legit, which is now in its second season.
Legit (2013-present)—“Janice Nugent”
Mindy Sterling: I love Janice. [Laughs.] She’s so wackadoodle. And she’s literally like an aunt, mother, sister, or someone of that nature that everyone knows. She’s just trying to keep it together, like everybody, except… I think she’s just a little abrupt. But she has her own demons. She’s a hoarder. She has one child in a wheelchair—I’m calling him a child because that’s how she sees him—and she’s got a thirtysomething child who’s divorced and an alcoholic and a loser in her eyes. She’s a control freak, so everybody around her is wrong or is not good enough. Yet she does show that she’s got a heart of gold every now and then.
The A.V. Club: How did you find your way onto the series? Did they reach out to you?
MS: I just auditioned for the pilot, and it was a very little part. At the time, it was just written where we were in the hospital, and I was appalled that Jim took my son Billy, the one who’s in the wheelchair and who has muscular dystrophy. Basically, Billy wants to live his life, he doesn’t know how much time he’s got left. And, of course, as a mom I’m like, “Oh, my God, no! I want every moment to be with me!” [Laughs.] “I want you to be okay! I don’t want you try anything because I don’t want your life to be taken sooner!” And Jim wants to just give him the best life he can, so whatever Billy wants, Jim goes out and does it… and as a mom, I’m just appalled by it. So it was just that little moment in the pilot, but—thank God!—when it went, they wrote me in and I was part of the family. So it’s been a blessing for me!
AVC: You have quite a history in improv. How much of the part is actually scripted, and how much are you able to be flexible with the lines?
MS: Well, the lines are all fabulous, and it’s written so well, but we do so many takes, and we all get to play, so if we throw something in or if there’s a moment or a take that you can do that… Peter O’Fallon has been directing most of the scripts, and he kind of changes everything. So he may say, “Okay, this time I want you to do this,” or, “I want you to say this.” He kind of plays with the improv abilities of all of us, because all of us are good at that, and… it’s so freeing! Obviously, not everything’s going to end up in the finished product, but it’s so nice that, if you’ve got an idea, you’re able to play with that.
AVC: How much of Janice’s character was on the page when you arrived, and how much has been added since you were cast?
MS: I think it’s part Jim’s mom, and I think it’s part Peter O’Fallon’s mom, so there’s a lot of stuff that they build from their experiences with their mothers. [Laughs.] But a lot of it is universal, so it’s stuff that I can relate to with my mother, and people that you’ve met or known. So I think it’s just sort of evolved in that format. I would like to think now that they know me well enough to know what my strengths are, they can use them more and more.
AVC: One of the opportunities the show has provided you is the chance to get to work opposite John Ratzenberger, who plays your husband.
MS: Yes! And that was just so exciting to find out that they got him, because he was not in the original pilot. He’s… well, you know, you can’t help but look at him and think of his role on Cheers, but he’s really funny, really smart, and I think it’s a really fun combination. And D.J. Qualls is one of my BFs now. I adore him. And Jim, too. He’s so sweet to me. I’m very well taken care of there, and I feel like one of the boys. Or everybody’s big sister. Basically, doing Legit is my favorite thing in the world right now. [Laughs.]
Dusty’s Treehouse (1973)—actor
AVC: In trying to find your first on-camera role, there’s one that’s not actually on your IMDB page, but it is referenced on Wikipedia. Was it Dusty’s Treehouse?
MS: Oh, my God. Oh, my God, yes! Totally yes. Or it was certainly one of the very first things that I did. I was a young—what I thought was an ingénue at the time. And Stu Rosen—it was his show, and it’s so funny because I remember him telling me, “You’re going to work a lot when you’re older.” Of course, you don’t want to hear that when you’re young! [Laughs.] But I totally get it. I think I just sort of had those old kinds of characters that seemed to work. But it was really, really fun!
AVC: The show is referenced, but it doesn’t actually say what you did on the show.
MS: I don’t even remember! [Laughs.] I swear to God! I must’ve been a real young something. Maybe I was a neighbor? I have no idea! We’re talking, like, 1583, right?
AVC: Right around there.
MS: [Laughs.] Yeah, way back then.
AVC: By the way, the first thing that’s actually listed for you on IMDB is an appearance on B.J. And The Bear.
MS: Well, there you go, that just goes to show you that they make mistakes. I was not on that.
[Sterling also subsequently dismissed IMDB’s claims that she had something to do with the theme song of Family Ties or that she appeared in the film UFOria. —Ed.]
Perfect Strangers (1986)—“Hostess”
AVC: Do you recall what your first significant prime-time role was?
MS: Wow. [Long pause.] I want to say… I think one of the very first things was Perfect Strangers. I think I was a hostess, and it was just one of those things where I said, “Follow me, please!” It was nothing, really. I can’t swear that that was the very first, but I know that was way, way back when.
AVC: How did you first find your way into acting?
MS: Well, I came from Miami, but my dad was in the business. His name is Dick Sterling, and he was a comedian and singer. He was partnered with Shecky Greene, with Sammy Shore, and with Ray Baumel, and then he kind of went off on his own. So I sort of feel like I had a little bit of that in my blood, that performing skill. And I was kind of shy as a child, so in school I thought, “Drama? How fun, because I can pretend to be other people!” So that allowed me to get out of my insecurity and my shell, and I just started to take theater classes and did plays.
AVC: At what point did you join the Groundlings?
MS: Um… in the late ’80s? Or mid-’80s. Somewhere around then. I loved improv—I’d started doing it at a couple of other schools—and some Groundlings did a concert and said, “Oh, you should come over, you’d be perfect!” So I did. [Laughs.] It was as easy as that! “Well, all right!”
Elvira’s Movie Macabre (2011)—“Ethel, Mistress Of Crafts”
AVC: You did an episode of Elvira’s Movie Macabre a few years ago, and Cassandra Peterson, a.k.a. Elvira, is an alumnus of the Groundlings as well.
MS: Oh, yes! It was so fun to do that show, and she was so sweet. We were both all dressed up. She was so lovely. It was exciting. I’d met her before, but it was very lovely to be asked to do that. But she wasn’t in the Groundlings anymore by the time I joined. When I got there, the people that I was watching and who were inspiring me were Phil Hartman and George McGrath, Judy Toll and Edie McClurg. Those were the people who I saw and made me go, “Oh, my God, I want to do this!” And I was coming up through the Groundlings with people like Jon Lovitz and Kathy Griffin. Those were my people. [Laughs.]
Even Stevens (2001)—“Ms. Lynch”
Transformers: Dark Of The Moon (2011)—“Female Insurance Agent”
MS: Oh! You know what? I think they cut me out of Transformers… but I still have credit! That was fun. I had a great time. I worked with Shia [LaBeouf] years ago, when he was starring in his show on Disney, Even Stevens—I had a little part on that. I was a teacher. So we had our little “Oh, I remember you!” moment. But I didn’t see Transformers, so I can’t swear to it, but I think I was cut out. I still got credit, and it was fun to play. He went on and on and on, and I was just, you know, very no nonsense. I usually get those roles, where I’m kind of tough and kind of humorless. I don’t know why I get those. [Laughs.] I’m not like that!
On The Spot (2003)—“Fifi”
MS: Oh, my God, I loved that! Me and Mike Hitchcock played Fifi and the Professor, and we were an older couple who… It took place in a hotel, and we were the horrible lounge act who performed there. So you can imagine, if you know Mike Hitchcock, that we were just completely insane and over the top. I would walk around in my bra half the time. [Laughs.] And we’d always pop in with something insane. It was one of the first sort of improv/scripted shows that we were trying to do, and unfortunately I think we only did five or six episodes. But oh, my God, I had so much fun with that.
AVC: How did you enjoy the experience of working with Tim Conway?
MS: Oh, such a dream. What a lovely man. So funny… and the stories! It was just great. The whole cast was wonderful, and, you know, everybody worked their hardest. It was definitely a dream.
Desperate Housewives (2010-2011)—“Mitzi Kinsky”
MS: I loved her! She was just a crabby, unliked woman. I don’t even know why people invited her places. [Laughs.] She had a chip on her shoulder, and she didn’t know how to be nice. And what a great opportunity for me to work with those women, and to work on a show that was so iconic with everybody. It was such a hit. Marc Cherry was so lovely and sweet and kind of gave me that. He’s a huge improv fan. So, yeah, I got to do several episodes, and that was really fun for me.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)—“Clarnella”
MS: Yes! What a delight to work with Ron Howard. Oh, my God, what a gift. Such a nice, lovely man. And so fun for me, because we were all part of Whoville, and all the people who were part of that were so exceptional. We had to wear those prosthetics for hours and hours—it felt like years!—and we just bonded together and had such a great time. Everyone on that shoot, the crew… It was just magic to be part of something so amazing and a classic. Really, really enjoyed that.
AVC: So the makeup got old pretty quickly, then?
MS: Very quickly. [Laughs.] And I’m claustrophobic! It would take something like two, two and a half hours to put it on, and not much to take it off, thankfully, but it was a real big deal to put it on, so you had to get there incredibly early. But the combination of the makeup and the wigs on-screen… It was just magic.
The Larry Sanders Show (1992)—“Writer”
MS: Oh, that too was very, very cool for me! [Laughs.] I had met Garry Shandling… Well, actually, I met his girlfriend at the time, because she was taking a Groundlings class that I was teaching, and she just kept saying, “Oh, my God, you’ve got to meet my boyfriend!” So I met him and he really liked me, and he was just like, “I’d love to put you in something.” So he just kind of threw me into the writers’ room on the show. I only did a couple of episodes. They really focused on the other people that they wanted, that they’d really cast. Still, it was really nice to be a part of it. That was an early-career moment, so it was nice to get my feet in the door, and to get to work with Garry. He’s always been one of my favorites.
AVC: So did your character actually have a name?
MS: Oh, God… I don’t know. What does it say? Does it say I had one?
AVC: You’re just referred to as “writer.” But maybe you have some insider information.
MS: If there’s not one there, I probably didn’t have one. But I probably gave her my own name. Sometimes when you’re given nothing, you go, like, “Well, then I’m going to give myself a name. Her name is Lisa, she’s a diabetic…” [Laughs.] You just make stuff up!
The Amazing Screw-On Head (2006)—“Aggie/Geraldine”
MS: My son would probably remember that one. I don’t, though. I mean, I know I did it. I remember doing it. I just don’t remember what I did! [Laughs.]
Chowder (2007-2010)—“Ms. Endive”
MS: Oh! Loved it! I played a character called Ms. Endive. All of the names of these characters were food. [Breaks into character.] She was a big, robust woman who was just very demanding and always after somebody that she couldn’t get. [Laughs.] Just a really wonderful character. It wasn’t my first voiceover work, but it was sort of the beginning of my voiceover career. I loved doing voice work.
The Devil And Max Devlin (1981)—“Fan #1 At Grammy’s”
House (1986)—“Woman In Bookstore”
AVC: I’m a little gun-shy at this point, but… were you actually in The Devil And Max Devlin?
MS: I was!
AVC: Oh, thank God.
MS: [Laughs.] I think it was my first film. But it was one of those things where I was, like, a fan or something. There wasn’t much to it, and I can’t remember a single moment from it, it was so long ago. Which you’d think I would, because it was with Bill Cosby! But, nope, not a clue what that was all about.
AVC: In that case, what’s the first film you did that actually left an impression?
MS: Well, I was in a movie called House, and… I think I was just credited as “Bookstore Lady” or something. [Laughs.] But that was one of my first roles where I was actually talking, and I just remember being able to play slightly ditzy, which was sort of fun. But, you know, with a role like that, you really just go in and you do your thing, and that’s it. So even on that one, I can’t look back and go, “Oh, this person was just wonderful!”
Friends (1996)—“Wedding Planner”
MS: That was fun. I got laughs. [Laughs.] I really enjoyed that. And I got to meet the Friends people. But I knew Lisa Kudrow from the Groundlings, so at lunch I’d hang out with Jennifer Aniston and Matt [LeBlanc]. That was really cool for me. And Jennifer’s always been so lovely and wonderful.
iCarly (2007-2012)—“Mrs. Briggs”
A.N.T. Farm (2011-2013)—“Susan Skidmore”
AVC: You mentioned your one-off appearance on Even Stevens, but more recently you’ve had recurring roles on two other Disney ’tween-coms.
MS: Oh, I constantly get stopped by kids—even by adults—who know me from those. And because they repeat, like, every hour… [Laughs.] You’re just a part of their lives, and people recognize me, remember me, and remember the episodes. I think that’s the lovely part about shows that can carry on for kids. Because kids do like repetitive shows. They like to be able to recite them, they like to be able to remember them. They don’t get bored or tired of them.
AVC: How was it to work before a live audience filled with younger kids?
MS: Oh, it’s great. And I love working with kids, too. With those two shows, I was very fortunate to be working with great kids. iCarly, those kids are so well behaved and so good at their craft, and their moms were wonderful. And the same goes for A.N.T. Farm. I loved those kids, too. I did a lot of episodes, so I was always recurring, I knew so many people… You become part of their family. And it was a gift for me. I really enjoyed it.
Working Tra$h (1990)—“Mary”
MS: Yeah, that’s a really old one! [Laughs.] That was kind of cool, because I got to work with George Wallace, who I loved, and I got to work with Ben Stiller, who was sort of just starting out but was very lovely. And George Carlin was in that! So I was like, “Oh, my God, what a gift I’ve gotten!” [Laughs.] Another gift!
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)—“Iris Clark”
MS: I love that movie! I look back now and think of all the amazing people who were in it that I was surrounded by. I mean, Amy Adams? I loved Amy Adams in that, and we would hang out and talk, and I said, “You’re gonna do very well.” But look at the people in that cast! Kirstie Alley, Ellen Barkin, Denise Richards… It was so great for me because, you get to improvise a little bit, and… well, it was just wonderful. We worked in Minnesota, so we got to have that accent down. [Laughs.] So it was very special.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2007)—“Nurse”
MS: It was so great to be a part of that. I wanted to do that show, and it was a great theme because… I don’t know if you remember it or if you even saw it, but you know how you go to the doctor’s office and the nurse always comes in and says, “So why are you here?” And he was like, “You know what? I’m just going to wait for the doctor, because he’s going to ask me anyway.” And I said, “Well, I still need to write this down.” But you know his neuroses: “No, I’m gonna wait.” Then he finally blurts out something like… I think he said he had a hamster up his ass or something. [Laughs.] And I just chuckled at him and said, “The doctor will be right in.” But it was so much fun just to be on the set and watch him work and watch everyone else, because improv is my first love. I’m so much more comfortable in that than I am when it’s scripted!
Reno 911! (2004)—“Mrs. Leonard”
Reno 911!: Miami (2007)—“Spoder’s Mom”
MS: Yes! I got so lucky to do the series with these boys… and to be in the movie! The improv on Reno 911!... I think on the DVD for the movie, there’s a scene that I did with them and Patton Oswalt. Someone said, “It’s, like, 20 minutes long, and you guys just go on and on and on.” [Laughs.] And it’s all improv! Obviously, they couldn’t put the whole thing in the movie, but… that’s just my total favorite, when you get somebody who works so well with you. Patton’s amazing.
Saved By The Bell: The College Years (1993)—“Clara Meade”
Family Matters (1993 & 1995)—“Woman” / “Coach”
MS: Saved By The Bell! Oh, my God, yes! [Laughs.] I was on there twice, in fact! I couldn’t have told you her name, but she worked in the lunchroom. That’s from my over-the-top years, where my characters were very big and goony. But, yeah, I did that. And Family Matters, which you probably see on there, too. I did two different characters on Family Matters, and I remember going in for the audition for the second one and saying, “You do know that I was in this once before?” And they said, “That’s all right, they won’t remember!”
AVC: Family Matters fans are apparently not concerned with continuity.
MS: [Laughs.] Not at all! So I was just, like, “Well, all right, then.” And I got the part!
AVC: You mentioned that those were the over-the-top years for you. Did anyone ever ask you to take it down a notch?
MS: Oh, yeah. Like, so much that I thought, “I will never be able to act again!” I was used to theater and that kind of thing, so I was always taking it too far. Although it’s funny that now I’m told, “You need to bring it up more!” [Laughs.] Especially with kids’ shows. I worked so hard to pull back, and now when I do kids shows, they’re like, “Oh, no, no. This is a kids’ show. You’ve got to go for it.” In particular, on A.N.T. Farm I was always being told, “Go bigger! Go broader!” And you’ve got to do what they want. But, yeah, there were a lot of times in the beginning where I was asked to take it down.
Just Shoot Me! (2001)—“Mrs. Lubitz”
The League (2011)—“Nadia”
AVC: Are there any one-off sitcom appearances that haven’t come up yet that you remember with particular fondness?
MS: Oh, wow, I wish I had my résumé in front of me! [Laughs.] Well, The League was really fun. I got to play the landlord of one of the guys. And I did an episode of Just Shoot Me! years ago, which was also really fun. Nothing else necessarily pops out… although I’m sure if you named them I’d go, “Oh, yeah!” But they all have their lovely moments, because everyone’s always been so sweet and wonderful.
The Favor (1994)—“Debbie Rollins”
MS: Oh, that was a long, long, long, long time ago. But that was fun, too. I got to work with my friend Heather Morgan, who was a Groundling. We played lesbians in a Lamaze class. I do get the best parts. [Laughs.] You have to understand, I’m lucky to get some of these wonderful roles… and I hope to continue to get these wonderful roles.
Any Day Now (2012)—“Miss Mills”
AVC: Is there any role that hasn’t come up yet that you either thought or hoped would?
MS: Well, I did a movie that I really enjoyed called Any Day Now. It wasn’t a comedy. It was with Alan Cumming, and it was a really sweet movie set in the ’70s, about a gay couple adopting a Down syndrome boy. I got to play a social worker in that, and it was great, because I wasn’t out to be funny. It wasn’t a comedy. Someone just thought of me because, you know, I am good at those authoritative roles. But it was a nice little role for me, and it was a great opportunity to do something a little out of my comfort zone. I’d love to do more drama, so I’m glad it kind of showed me in a different light.
Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery (1997) / Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) / Austin Powers In Goldmember (2002)—“Frau Farbissina”
MS: I met Mike [Myers] when he came to do an improv show at the Groundlings, so we worked together there, we knew a couple of mutual friends, and we just made each other laugh. So when this part came up, I went and auditioned. But he had seen my work, and the director, Jay Roach, saw my work. New Line didn’t really know me, but they had me on tape and just said, “She’s really funny!” So I’m so blessed that I was given that opportunity, because it turned into such a franchise. Who would’ve guessed?
AVC: Was that a case where you had an opportunity for improv?
MS: You play with it a little bit. I more or less let Mike do it, because he does a lot of improvising, but the scripts are so funny, and you don’t want to change anything unless you have an idea for one little bit. But they work out so beautifully. You kind of work off of Mike, so if you do add something, you do it in the context of what’s going on, and he wants everyone to be funny, so he’s very playful with that, and he likes people to play with him. So, yeah, I had a little leeway, and certainly other people improvised when needed as well.
AVC: As far as Frau Farbissina’s accent, did they steer you in any particular direction?
MS: Well, it was written that she was German, but whatever accent comes up with me, they all sound the same as far as I’m concerned. [Laughs.] But she was German, and it would say that she calls out the numbers or whatever, so… I just yell like that anyway. That’s just me yelling! You know, you walk into it and you kind of make it your own, and you hope that you’re able to deliver what they’re asking for and more. I didn’t look at the James Bond movies, though. I didn’t want to connect with a character that was similar to her, because I didn’t want to feel like, “Oh, I have to do her!” I wanted to bring what I could read on the paper, and I wanted to do what I thought was funny.
AVC: How did you enjoy the sequels?
MS: Just as much as the first, if not more. Because I was more confident, you know? And then you get to be with all the same people again. After the second one, I was like, “Oh, my God, a third one? I can do a third one?” [Laughs.] I’m still waiting for the fourth!
AVC: There’s been no updates on that front, then?
MS: No. I mean, everyone always says, “Oh, I read… I heard…” Well, we all have. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.