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Ana Gasteyer Discusses Mean Girls And Katherine's Battles In American Auto - Exclusive Interview

Season 2 of NBC's "American Auto" sees Payne Motors facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge in the aftermath of some serious, widespread car trouble. The team is sent into overdrive with a problem that just won't go away, and embattled CEO Katherine (Ana Gasteyer) is leading the charge into — and hopefully out of — the trenches. The problem? She's no car expert, but rather going by the time-honored "fake it 'til you make it" approach to success, to mixed results. The hilarious series' second season sees the team trying everything to rehabilitate Payne's reputation, from social media and late-night appearances to celebrity endorsements and more. 

We spoke with star Ana Gasteyer in an exclusive interview about the complex situations Katherine finds herself in throughout the series, the continued popularity and timeliness of "Mean Girls," Gasteyer's time at "Saturday Night Live," and how Martha Stewart would handle Payne's pains (or at least, how Gasteyer's Stewart would).

Avoiding being a national joke

Katherine's social media troubles are very resonant in an era full of social media-embattled CEOs. I appreciate how she starts finding her way out by actually being honest. What's the lesson here?

Oh, I don't know what the lesson is for me. "The internet's evil"? I don't know. 

What do you think she and similarly embattled real-life individuals might be able to take from "American Auto"?

That's funny. I didn't even think of it ever in that context ... Obviously, it's a comedy, and she's a large character. She's cocky AF; she's got all the bluster and bombast of most CEOs. She's got chronic Attention Deficit Disorder with regards to listening to anybody for more than four seconds who's not telling her what she wants to hear. But she's also a human being, and this crisis is not just going to impact her on a human level — meaning she could lose her job, and her team's jobs are on the line, and the stock price is going to plummet, and her reputation is going to suffer — but it also sucks to be made fun of by everybody. It's hurtful.

It's a nice little micro-moment into the fact that she doesn't want to be the butt of a national joke. On the other hand, she's happy to use her vulnerability to put the screws to Seth. She's a chess player. She's really good at it, which is satisfying.

Absolutely. It's interesting to see Katherine turn down such a generous golden parachute in this time of crisis to save the team so early in Season 2. Why do you think she risked so much for them?

Everything [for her in] "American Auto" is ... I'm going to say about 40% altruism, 60% narcissism. 

She likes the idea of herself as a savior ... It's always so funny getting analytical about essentially what's a ridiculous boss character, but she's not a fool. That's something that [creator] Justin [Spitzer]'s constantly emphasizing. She may be misguided, but she's not an abject idiot. That there is probably her model. Again, I'm not a CEO — I've just read about them — but her model of management is, "I don't know the product; I don't care about the product. I sell the product well, and I manage people pretty well, so I've managed a massive corporate cruise ship with efficacy." I assume that's what she did.

Her superpowers are crisis management, but at the end of the day, the story being told ... She also knows if she protects them, they'll owe her. If she can suffer through a crisis, which I think she gets off on, she'll end up having them over one. It's a fun game. It's like a chess game, but also, from a storytelling standpoint, it's a lot more fun to see them working as a common cause than trying to torpedo each other. There are outside divisive forces that are fun to watch them navigate as a community, with all of their obnoxious little selfish intentions.

Seeing characters less as evil cartoons and more as complex human beings

The Seth Meyers cameo was hilarious. I know you've been on his show, and you overlapped a bit on "Saturday Night Live." What was it like to bring him on as Katherine's greatest critic?

It was a great move. First of all, Seth is the nicest person on the planet, and [he's] unbelievably smart and has a strong ethical backbone. He would be repulsed by somebody who was motivated entirely by corporate greed, so it's a great storytelling device to have somebody making those jokes.

On the other hand, it gave a chance to show that she wasn't a total monster, that there's a way to look at the situation [where] a lot of it was, in fact, out of her control. The disaster ballooned in spite of her, not entirely because of her ... There were things she was responsible for, but she certainly wasn't responsible for the fire and the PR disaster. The desire to pile on, like we do in our culture, was excessive. It was such a masterful stroke on Justin [Spitzer]'s part.

What I love about these characters, and especially in Season 2, is we're getting to see them less as evil corporate cartoons and more as human beings who are trying to do the right thing but are also motivated by money and selfish intentions. She has this shot at apologizing, but the shot at apologizing will also benefit her and her company. It's like a chess game.

Seth is the best. [He] leaned in and had fun with it, and we actually put some B-roll up on the internet. There was a lot of stuff that couldn't make it into a 21-minute cut, but these runs were so funny with her not giving an inch. We had this whole thing where she was reading mean tweets — and they were really mean — but then her taking shots at his writers and him having fun with that. It was a fun experience.

I know so many people on [Seth's] show because so many of them are born from our "SNL" extended family. It's always a pleasure to be on that set. It was fun to navigate ... There's Ana Gasteyer-going-on-Seth, which is a very fun and comfortable talk show for me because it's shot in the studio I auditioned for "SNL" in, which used to be the old Rosie O'Donnell set. Then there's imagining a person like Katherine, who is both starstruck and knows it's a PR move and is terrified. She's not a comedian; she's not a public figure. [She is] to the extent [that] some corporate people are, but not at the level that we are. It's fun to play to be in her shoes there and how overwhelmed she would have been.

I love the whole dynamic.

It must have been good, because my mom called to say she liked it. That's a rarity. "I loved when Katherine was on Seth. I thought it was so moving and funny." Like, "Oh, great." It's very rare. I was delighted.

Mean Girls remains timely because people haven't changed

As far as talented businesswomen with no experience in the automotive industry go, how would the Martha Stewart from your impressions handle that same crisis?

Same idea: She's all poised and has blind spots. I've been fascinated by women's "sort-of-in-control of out-of-control situations" thing my whole career, so it's an interesting insight, and she would probably love it. So would Celine Dion, for that matter! There's this, "I'm going to barrel along on the path I have been plowing, and I'm going to have a great time."

And Martha won! She's winning the internet every day. She's in this amazing golden era where she's trying stuff that's weird and fun and interesting. She's like, "Hey, CBD gummies are good. I'm going to go make those." She's amazing.

I'm happy for her success. I love that you have this trajectory of playing these powerful women in a way that pokes fun with them, but not at them, in a way.

Thanks! I hope so — meanness for its own sake isn't all that satisfying. Human beings are tough, and human beings are flawed. That's much more interesting to me.

On the topic of flawed humans, I do have to talk "Mean Girls." I loved you as Cady's mom, and it's having such a renaissance right now with the musical and the adaptation of the musical. Why do you think it still resonates so well so many years later, and would you return for a new sequel to the original?

Of course, I would return. It's a piece of masterful writing — the book, which we forget. I remember when Tina [Fey] optioned the book, it was "Queen Bees and Wannabes," and it was ... an anthropological study or a psychological study of group dynamics.

As much as we've evolved, we haven't, and I think that resonates for people. No matter how we parse it, high school — with social media [or] without it; online, not in person — development is development, and people go through phases. It may be evolved in a new kind of mutation, but there's a reason that "Mean Girls" works. It's awesome.

Missing 'having a little spark with any given writer any given week'

I also grew up watching you on "SNL," and I always liked your impressions. What do you miss the most?

What I miss the most is the ridiculous collaborations. There's something about the eternal deadline of having to write something for its own sake, and I didn't appreciate it then because you're panicking and you're anxious. Your anxiety usually overrides. But the obligation to be ridiculous and creative every week — that, I miss.

I miss [doing] whatever, having a little spark with any given writer any given week and buckling down and writing a ridiculous piece of comedy. I loved that part of it. "Let's try something with you, and let's try something with you."

It's not a very exact [answer]. I loved playing Bobbi and Marty, I loved doing the NPR ladies — I loved doing everything I did. There wasn't anything [where] I was like, "Oh, no, this again!" ever at that show.

I never consider myself an impressionist; I consider myself a character-based comedian, so finding the hook is sometimes hard, but pretty rarely. That's my answer. The camaraderie was ridiculous.

Rachel Dratch and I have just turned in our first draft of our second "Clüsterfünke" movie, this holiday Christmas franchise that we're engaged in, these Hallmark holiday parodies. We just wrote a royal one, and it's the closest thing to [that "SNL" camaraderie]. It's pure, ridiculous joy, having a good time and not being hypercritical or analytical and just writing things that make us laugh. It's really fun, and it's such a privilege. It's such a privilege to have access to a community that is that good at what they do.

You have such a good dynamic with Rachel. She's so talented.

The best. It's like that with all the "SNL" girls. It's not easy, it's comfortable. There's a shorthand. [That's] not just with the girls — "SNL" people, I should say; people who made it through and survived it and learned from it.

Catch "American Auto" Tuesdays on NBC at 8:30 p.m. ET (7:30 p.m. CT).

This interview has been edited for clarity.