INDEPENDENCE, Ky. — Mandy McMillian’s first big break in show business came in 1998 when she earned the starring role in a national TV commercial for Tylenol cold medicine.
“The guy who described the type of character they were looking for said, ‘We want you to be super perky, like Miss America on crack,’” said McMillian, who naturally exudes “super perky.” “I immediately thought, ‘I’m finally auditioning for something I totally get!’ ”
McMillian, 40, was born and raised in Independence. She has appeared in more than 30 commercials, films and television shows in the past two decades, including hits like “Mad Men,” “The Mentalist,” “Law & Order,” “Modern Family,” and a recurring role on ABC’s “The Middle.” She also sings in a Southern California rockabilly band, Crown City Bombers.
McMillian said that as a child, when she told people she wanted to be an actress and singer, her dream wasn’t taken too seriously.
“Many of them said, ‘Oh, that’s adorable,’ like they might say to a little girl who says she wants to be a princess,” McMillian said. “But it was all I wanted to do. I would always put on shows for my stuffed animals. That little step in front of the fireplace was my stage. And I took advantage of every opportunity I could in school to sing and act.”
McMillian attended Simon Kenton High School, where she starred in school plays and sang in choir.
“She was a brilliant student,” said Laura Schneider, a teacher at Simon Kenton since 1987. Schneider was McMillian’s English teacher and cheerleading coach and still keeps in touch with her former student.
“She was incredibly conscientious, upbeat and had loads of personality,” Schneider said. “She could do anything. You could tell back then she had that special talent.”
McMillian graduated from Simon Kenton in 1993. After earning a degree in theater four years later from Transylvania University, she stuffed all her possessions in her car and headed to Los Angeles with no job prospects.
“Some people asked how long I was going to give it,” McMillian said. “I knew the odds, but in my mind, this was forever.”
With that confidence, McMillian found an agent and earned the Tylenol commercial job. That allowed her to join a union, which opened the door to many more auditions. While the television work didn’t exactly roll in – most of her work was for brief one-time appearances – the shows she was on were popular ones. Along with those already mentioned, there have been more than two dozen others, including “Charmed,” “Gilmore Girls,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Scandal,” “Bones,” “Baskets” and Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie.”
“On ‘Gracie and Frankie,’ I was in a scene with Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Corbin Bernsen. All these stars and me,” McMillian said. “I just tried to be as professional and reliable as I could so that they knew they could count on me to do the job.”
She knows her effort in one brief scene could lead to more work.
“There’s always the hope that they might bring you back, or that you could make an impression on a producer or director for when they do another show,” McMillian said. “That’s always in the back of your mind.”
That’s what happened with “The Middle.” McMillian was cast in one episode as the mother of a child, but most of her scene was cut because of the length of the episode. Because she played the part so well, producers brought her back in a different role – as a teacher. She’s played that role in a handful of episodes, including one scene in last year’s season finale that featured just her and one of the main characters, Sue Heck, played by Eden Sher.
“It was really fun to be able to be funny and have a nice scene with her,” McMillian said.
While waiting for her next audition, McMillian is planning her wedding. She will be getting married in July to her boyfriend of 17 years, actor/writer/director Larry Anderson. Several family members from Northern Kentucky will be attending.
She also keeps busy by singing with the Crown City Bombers. She has been with the band for eight years, and they just released a new album called “In the Shadows.” They generally play on the West Coast, though she hopes to bring them soon to Northern Kentucky.
McMillian’s dream job is to have the lead role in a sitcom. Even if that never happens, her decision to head west 19 years ago was certainly the right one.
“I may not be famous or working as often as I would like, but I’m still living my dream of being an actress and singer,” she said. “I also met the man I’m spending the rest of my life with – that alone has made it all worth it.”