There are a few film characters that sear into the collective mind of moviegoers, and Austin Powers’s Frau Farbissina is one of them. Cocreated by comedian/actor Mindy Sterling, Frau, with her forehead hair curl, tendency to screech loudly when you least expect it, and diabolical disposition, is unforgettable — and show-stealingly funny. And while Frau is perhaps the character that made Sterling a household name, she has since established an impressive, flourishing career in film and television.
Following the first two Austin Powers films, Sterling starred in a dark comedy/mockumentary called Drop Dead Gorgeous, about a small-town beauty pageant in which contestants keep turning up dead. Since its release in 1999, the film has become a cult classic and will be the subject of the UCSB Carsey-Wolf Center’s Women in Comedy series on Tuesday, April 17. Mindy Sterling will be there to discuss the film post-screening, but I had a chance to speak with the charming, personable actor prior to the event. What follows is a truncated version of our conversation.
I saw Drop Dead Gorgeous when it came out, and I thought it was so funny because there was so much truth to it. I think that the woman who wrote it, Lona [Williams], used a lot of stuff that really happened. … It was one of the funniest films, and still there are people that look at it as a cult film and are still so excited to talk about it …. This was really such an honor to be asked [to do].
How did it come about? I got this call from a booking agent for special appearances, and he said, “Hey, look, they’re offering you to come up there and do this, you know, this appearance,” and I was like, first of all, I love Santa Barbara, and I thought, “Oh my god, what a lovely, lovely, thing to do.” And to be honored this way! I was so flattered, so I immediately said yes.
Women in comedy — how has it changed? What has #MeToo done? Obviously, #MeToo started something. But, I think that it’s always been really tough and hard for women to get into certain positions that men have monopolized, and, women being funny, I think that audiences of certain people judge them more harshly. But I also think that we have come a long way — not to say that we still don’t have a long way to go, but that more is accepted, and more is certainly honored that way. There’s always going to be haters … [We] will have to fight for the idea that women are just as powerful, just as interesting.
I imagine in the earlier days people just didn’t think women should be funny. Way before we were born, there wasn’t a place to be funny and talk about uncomfortable things and talk about family life, and talk about their vaginas …. It was [considered] appalling. So we had to show them.
Now, with films such as Girls Trip, finally women get to be a little more raunchy. I think women can be so much raunchier than men. It’s okay for us to talk about ourselves. … It’s like [for] women writers, it’s still a struggle in some of the industry that there are not enough women writers allowed to write for women directors, allowed to be given opportunities. And, you know, these women are doing the work. I know some struggling women that just can’t get a break yet.
How did you get into comedy? I think I’ve [always] been quirky, and my father was an actor, and he was funny … Laughter was just a big part of our lives at home. It wasn’t like I can say I was the class clown. I wasn’t. I was very shy … but I definitely think I got a lot of the humor from my dad. And then in school I started doing plays … and I attached myself to it. I’ve always loved doing characters and doing people that you’ve seen or can relate to and finding a way to embellish them or finding what’s interesting about them and use that. The Groundlings was the perfect place to do that. I remember going to see a show and seeing these incredible actors perform, like Edie McClurg and Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens and Tress MacNeille. They were fascinating to me. I blossomed there and found a place that I fit in.
As a shy person, how do you get up onstage? It was the idea that “oh my God, I could play somebody else,” or, you know, I don’t have to do myself. I think I’m much, much, much better at being myself with age. And I think teaching [helped]. I got an opportunity to teach at The Groundlings.
I had a day job, and they were basically letting me go out on auditions, and … I was out more than they wanted me to be, so they said, “All right, you gotta make a choice.” So I said, okay, bye. An alum at The Groundlings, Cynthia Szigeti, who has passed on, was running the school, and she kind of took me under her wing and said, “You’d be an incredible teacher.” And so I learned to teach. I trained, and I think it was just getting up and performing, getting more time under [my] belt, more confidence arose.
Now I don’t have a problem at all. I mean, I’ve never done stand-up — that frightens me because you’re all alone and you’ve got to really rely on your own material and stories, and I like to work with people. I like to work off of people and do scenes and things of that nature. So now I direct improv at The Groundlings occasionally.
And there’s nothing like teaching to hone your own skills. Oh, absolutely. I get to give them the wisdom and things that helped me get through classes and auditions, and still I’m just like everybody else: I go out on auditions; I don’t get everything; but I can impart my expertise and experience … I mean, sometimes it’s almost better to sit back and work with someone else than yourself.
You’ve done a lot of voice work, too. I would love to do more of that. It’s a much more difficult place to get into because of the people that have been doing this for years … they can do so many voices and do them on a dime. … But any opportunity that I can get to do it, I’m so appreciative of.
What do you like about it? You don’t have to worry about your looks. You don’t have to worry about other people looking at you. You don’t have to memorize anything; you’re reading it off the copy; but you’re still acting. And sometimes, beforehand, you can see a little bit of what the creator has drawn out. You can kind of see, “Oh, she’s got a big butt, and she’s got a beak, and she looks older.” So you get to try different things that way, and it’s very exciting.
It must be strange when the film is finished to hear your voice coming out of some critter. Oh, it’s weird, but it’s a little easier to deal with than watching myself.
How did you come up with Frau Farbissina? You mentioned you take qualities from people you know. Who did you know that was like her? Oh my god, well, nobody really. When Mike [Myers] wrote [Austin Powers], she was sort of militant and definitely one of the hench people, so she was kind of in charge and in command, even though [Dr. Evil] thought he had it all together. There’s nothing more dangerous than a militant, bossy woman. That was just so much fun to do. [Frau is] one of my all-time favorite characters.
She is one of the best characters and even gave Dr. Evil a run for his money. When people come up to me and say things like, “You, oh my god, you by far were the best” … I mean, not that that is important, but in their eyes. How blessed I am to have helped create this character that has gotten so much exposure … I still get recognized daily. And I couldn’t be more flattered; I never get tired of it.
You don’t look much like Frau in real life; how do fans know it’s you? No, I don’t … When my mother was alive, she was just floored that people would recognize me. She’s like: How did they recognize you? You don’t look like that now; you look so much more beautiful. And I think, by now, though, just other things I’ve done and interviews and, you know, pictures … people can recognize me now. … The movies, people watch them all the time.
Were you surprised by the impact the film had worldwide? The first Austin Powers really didn’t do that well at the theaters, and then it got on to video, and then it caught some kind of a crowd. I remember being asked to do the second one, which was like, “Oh my god, really?” And then the second one really took off. And then to do a third one … the fact that I was still asked to be a part of it was pretty magical for me.
It wouldn’t be the same without Frau. I still don’t understand why they never made an action figure of me or Number 2, Robert Wagner. It’s weird. I thought, for sure you’ve made it when you’ve got an action figure. [Laughs.]
How was it on Drop Dead Gorgeous in terms of working with such a strong female cast, on a script written by a woman, etc.? First of all, I’m so pro-women. I’m very much a part of supporting women in the business, in directing, writing, starring, whatever. Lona was actually a student at The Groundlings … I got to work with Kirstie Alley, whom I had never met before, who was really fun and outrageous and kooky. … I remember, Amy Adams — she was so cool, she was so great, and I thought, this girl is going to make it because she’s got a good head on her shoulders, she’s beautiful, and she’s really smart and talented. … I adored Brittany Murphy. She was so much her character. She was always so lovely, and her mother was always on the set. And I remember, when it was over, she gave me this sticker [that] said “Goddess.” I put it on my door in my home. She was so incredibly lovely … I didn’t really get to know Denise Richards. … Allison Janney — oh my God, loved, loved her. … She’s so funny, and she can do anything … I thought Allison Janney was by far the funniest thing in the film. … And then our director allowed us to play a little bit and improvise, which is always magic for me.
I think they should rerelease the film because I think it holds up. The great thing is it still is on in on demand and Netflix. There are people that just will stop me, and I’ll think they’re going to say “Austin Powers,” and it’s just like: “Oh my god, you were in one of my most favorite movies, Drop Dead Gorgeous.” And I’m like, “Mine too! I love that movie.”
It sounds like you’ve had some great experiences in your job. There are certain moments in your life when you go, If I die tomorrow, I’ve experienced something that was so amazing to me. Like meeting Warren Beatty and working with him, like, blew me away.
It’s so great to get to do what you love to do and then actually make a living. It’s really true … Hollywood and all the actors in the Screen Actors Guild, how many of them can honestly say that they’re able to make a living and doing something that they love? I don’t have to do another job, an office job, or wait tables … I’m getting older … so … it’s, you know, and then you have the pension, and you have retirement, but I think a lot of us just want to keep going because we’re having so much fun. Why stop?
Mindy Sterling appears as part of the Carsey-Wolf Center’s Women in Comedy series for her film Drop Dead Gorgeous Tuesday, April 17, 7 p.m., at the Pollock Theater, UCSB. Following the screening, Sterling will join moderator Patrice Petro for a Q&A. See carseywolf.ucsb.edu/pollock.