Mindy Sterling on Improv, Training and Observing


Mindy Sterling
Mindy Sterling
is probably best known for playing “Frau Farbissina” in the Austin Powers movies where she matched wits with Mike Myers. But throughout her long career – which includes The Grinch, Reno 911: Miami, TVs  Desperate Housewives and a slew of other projects – she’s demonstrated that she’s a versatile actress who is totally fearless.

An alumni of the Groundlings, she credits them with making her a “well-rounded” actor.

She works constantly and is one of the nicest people around!

Watch for her in Robert Zemeckis‘ upcoming film, Mars Needs Moms!

For the full interview, click onto the audio link above or download from iTunes.

How did you get your start?

Mindy Sterling:  I came out here because it was really the next best thing, I’m from Miami, Florida, so this is the place. You know, it’s either here or New York. And I came out here to pursue it. Did some local theatre and tried to get a commercial agent. Got a commercial agent and started that way. And, then just hooked-up, with improv and got really interested with improvisation and went to The Groundlings and really that’s where I made most of my connections.

When did you join The Groundlings?

Oh my God, I would say, maybe ’87. Something like that.

Wow, because, back then it wasn’t really the hot thing to do, you know?

Well, there wasn’t as much right now offered to you in terms of improv. I mean, you’re right. It wasn’t such a big outlet for people and there wasn’t very many improv groups and people weren’t so much turned on to it like they are now, but there was always the sketch comedy.

I think when I first joined it was much more improv and less focus on the set stuff. It was more of a balance where now it’s more sketch-written stuff. But I just love the idea of improv.  I love creating, making things up in the moment and not having anybody give you any dialog.

Did it come easy to you or did it take a while to kick-in?

Well, they have a great program and a great school, so they’re giving you the tools and they really help hone your skill. I don’t want to say that I thought it came easy. I don’t know if it was so much a struggle, but I think, more than anything, it was just a building of confidence that really helped me work on those tools that I already had and then, just, to stretch them and exercise then.

Do you still work with them?

I do. I teach every so often, and I get to perform improv on Thursday nights. They do an all improve show, which is how I met Mike Myers. I’m not a member but, as an alumni, I still get to participate.

For someone new to improv, how do you think it’s important for an actor.

I think it really does sort-of stretch your muscles in different ways. It allows you to think on your feet. It allows you to create. It allows you to take risks. You don’t feel so restricted or limited to something scripted. You can look at other possibilities to things. And, it’s just, it’s more playful and I think that it’s a great tool to have as an actor; for commercials, for interviews, for things that really, you know, make you a well-rounded actor.

Looking at your resume, you do voice-overs, commercials, films, T.V. Do you have any preference?

Yeah,  it’s really whatever, you know, pays me [LAUGHTER] and keeps me laughing. I love doing projects that are fun. I love voice-over. You don’t have to look nice, dress and it’s a whole different thing since you’re creating just with your voice and you can’t rely on the little behavioral things you may do with your body or your face.

I love films. I love films because each take is something different. Sometimes T.V. you’re restricted with the time limit and what you can do, and how fast things have to happen. And, also, I don’t know if it’s as flexible as film is, so, I do like the art of filmmaking.

You’ve obviously worked with some really fantastic, actors, what do walk away from the set learning?

I think you learn from watching other people. I don’t really hang out in my trailer so much, unless it’s going to be a really, really, really long day. But, I’m one of those people that likes to sit on the set and watch. Watch other actors work and how they work. I love to see how directors work.  I watch from take to take to take–how an actor changes a little bit, or how they keep it the same, or how they get into it, or the playfulness of how engaging two people can be. And how a director works and the ideas that come from that because sometimes, somebody will create something in a moment and then the director is like, “Great! Oh my god. Do that. Do that again!” Or, “Why don’t we try it this way? Or that way?” So, I think that you learn from other people. I think you learn from how they do the shots and how they create that.

There’s so many wonderful people that contribute to making good T.V., good film, a good scene and it–it behooves us as, as actors–to learn all aspects of it.

How did you get your SAG card?

Oh, let’s see, I think I did a commercial for the California Prune Company and that was –oh my god, it was so cheap back then I can’t believe how much it is now.

You seem to do a lot of roles where you don’t look like yourself. You’re heavily made-up. When you go into those auditions, how do convey that?

Well, I’m a character actress. So, I go in and give the suggestion of maybe what they’re looking for or how I can create it. In other words, if it said, “She’s very severe and very intimidating.” Well, I could go in looking really hot and beautiful like I could, and would, but, you know, you put your hair back or it’s what you wear. I won’t go to the extreme but you want to give them the suggestion of what you can do to yourself. Being in The Groundlings, those are the things that you create for yourself. Those are characters that you come up with and you costume them and wardrobe them and make-up them. And I’m not going to say that I go in complete costume but I will go in with a suggestive look about it.

Mindy SterlingWhen you get a scene how do you go about breaking it down?

Well, I have to read it like a thousand times because I don’t get it at first. [LAUGHTER] And sometimes I won’t see some things that’s obvious. I have to read it several times and it’s like, “Oh! I see. I see why they do this or why they do that!” So, sometimes it’s not as clear to me as I think it is.

And then I try to read into what the description is or what the synopsis is or what the style is and kind-of take a look at that. And, read it out loud a lot and I read the other parts out loud with it.

Sometimes it’s just a given. “This is where it’s going to go.” You know, kids show–you know what they’re looking for–they want the nasty, old, mean teacher. And then, sometimes, maybe I don’t want to yell and scream in this all the time so maybe I can add a little bit of this or a little bit of that.

The thing I like about theatre, that you don’t get from movies –especially from movies–television, you might get a little more rehearsal, but movies you really don’t – you’re in, you’re out. And television is like that, too, unless it’s sitcom, but there’s no rehearsal period. And, so, you don’t get to change and create… “Oh! I feel my character. I’d love if my character was in this direction…” So you miss that rehearsal period. You kind of have to do the rehearsal period on your own.

What is your advice to actors?

I think that you have to, you have to be trained. You have to find something. Whether taking improv, whether taking audition classes, whether taking acting classes, I think you always have to be doing something to improve and to rejuvenate, reinvent. You’re just oiling the oil, your rusty elements every now and again.

You just have to constantly keep on top of it. Do whatever you can. I do a lot of student things, I do a lot of web things–and some of them pay, some of them don’t. But, when somebody asks me to do something and I like the project… I want to work and I constantly want to keep creating and keep exercising my craft.

So, don’t ever say no to things unless it’s, you know, really hideous and it’s embarrassing. But constantly keep working and listen–and listen and watch. Like I said, I’m a huge, big observer on the set. I like to watch how other people work and how they act. Not that I’m sitting there I’m copying but I like to see what people do to create.

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