Stephanie Courtney as Flo, the Progressive Car Insurance lady
09/02/2009 AT 08:10 AM EDT
After years of doing improv theatre, commercials and small roles on TV and in movies, Stephanie Courtney hit it big as the delightfully quirky Flo, a happy-to-help insurance expert in the commercials for Progressive.com.
What started out as an audition like any other has led to more than 20 finished spots (watch them here
), which she says can take more than a day to film. With her retro style and super sweet demeanor, Flo has caught the eye of bloggers who have said she's "so goshdarned perky she makes Kelly Ripa
look like Amy Winehouse
" and called her a "babelicious brunette" with "kissable red, red lips."
"I realized when people starting sending me pictures of them dressed up as Flo for Halloween," Courtney says of her character's surprise appeal. (In case you're considering a Flo costume this year, her advice is to "keep powdering and you've got to keep applying the lipstick," she says. "You have to do it every five minutes or else it's gone.")
The actress, who is a main stage cast member of Los Angeles's acclaimed Groundlings theatre company, spoke with PEOPLE about her alter ego, playing a switchboard operator on Mad Men
, falling for the lighting director at her job and more.
1. She's not like her character, Flo.
Transforming into the perky insurance expert is no small task for Courtney, who says she barely gets recognized in public. "They don't use any tricks or anything," Courtney says of Flo's big hair. "That's all [the stylist] teasing it and shaping it and spraying it. That's like one hour in her chair. And then the makeup is like another hour." Instead of Flo's thick eye makeup and bright red lipstick, Courtney says she's more of a J.Crew kind of girl when it comes to her personal style. "I'm sort of East Coast so I like the off-white and the navy blues and the low-key preppy kind of thing," she says.
2. She always wanted to be an actor.
Courtney grew up in Stony Point, N.Y., where she started doing plays "every year since the first grade," she says. "I just loved it. Even if I wasn't due for rehearsal that day, I'd just sit and watch. It just didn't feel like work to me." After some "hard going" in New York City, where she did mostly free theatre, Courtney decided to move to L.A. when her now-manager discovered her six months after giving stand-up comedy a try.
3. She played a switchboard operator on Mad Men.
"The amount of work in L.A. as opposed to New York just kind of blew my mind," Courtney says of her decision to relocate. Since then, she's appeared in movies and on TV shows, including three of her favorites: HBO's canceled comedy The Comeback
, Adult Swim favorite Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job
and Mad Men
. "It was just magical. I love that era," she says of playing switchboard operator Marge on the AMC hit. "I absolutely jumped on that opportunity. It's so much fun. It's smoky, '50s debauchery. It's just wonderful."
4. She married the lighting director.
After moving to L.A., Courtney started at The Groundlings, a sketch comedy and improv theatre company that counts Cheryl Hines, Kristen Wiig, Jennifer Coolidge, Will Forte, Will Ferrell, Kathy Griffin and Lisa Kudrow as alumni. It was there that she met her husband Scott Kolanach, who is a lighting director for the theatre. "Every crazy old lady character I ever walked out as on that stage had beautiful, peachy gem lighting because he liked me," she says.
5. She admires Steve Carrel and Amy Adams.
"I love how [Carrel] can marry absolute humanity and hilarity. He can walk that tightrope. He pulls it off," she says. "Amy Adams has the same thing where she's skirting the edge. It's amazing. She's bigger than life but it's very grounded. It's really heartwarming. These guys take risks I think that are really cool."