Ana Gasteyer says her CEO character on 'American Auto' is no Mary Barra

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As NBC’s “American Auto” prepares to launch its second season Tuesday night, Ana Gasteyer, who plays the beleaguered CEO of Detroit-based Payne Motors, sounds enthusiastic about inviting real-life General Motors CEO Mary Barra to do a guest spot.

“I keep pitching that we find a story line to actually have her on the show,” says the “Saturday Night Live” alum who stars in the corporate workplace comedy. “The reason being that my character is truly an outsider to the automotive business. She doesn’t know a thing about cars. She comes from pharma. She’s definitely of the management style that is not about the product but about the marketing.”

Adds Gasteyer: “She doesn’t really care about the product. She just cares about how to sell it.”

In short, her fictional woman-in-charge, former pharmaceutical boss Katherine Hastings, who doesn’t even know how to drive when she is hired to lead Payne Motors, is pretty much the exact opposite of Barra.

Ana Gasteyer as Katherine, the CEO of Payne Motors, in NBC's "American Auto."
Ana Gasteyer as Katherine, the CEO of Payne Motors, in NBC's "American Auto."

“Mary is obviously enormously competent, enormously knowledgeable, worked her way up that system,” Gasteyer says. ”I would argue that she’s probably Katherine Hasting’s biggest insecurity.”

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Set in Detroit (but not filmed here), “American Auto” mines the humor of the everyday chaos at a century-old car manufacturer that is barely surviving at a time when the industry is evolving rapidly. The first season drew 24 million people across viewing platforms, according to the network, and was a hit with critics.

In Tuesday's season premiere, things go from difficult to worse as Payne Motors brings in a crisis manager (Eric Stonestreet of “Modern Family”) to handle looming catastrophes sparked by a problem with a defective part.

Says Gasteyer, speaking by phone from Los Angeles: ”What I like about season two, in particular, is we do have to become a bit of a united front, for reasons that become apparent very quickly. It’s sort of an all or nothing (thing). I mean, it’s a Titanic situation. We either have to make the boat work as a unit or sink together.”

Although creator Justin Spitzer (who also did NBC's underrated gem "Superstore") visited several Ford sites in Dearborn while doing research for the series, he has stated firmly that “American Auto” is not modeled after any one automaker, but instead is a comedic take on the stress and uncertainty of the white-collar world in general.

Gasteyer says the show's car focus is a rich source of potential material.

“I think the automotive industry is enormously relevant and forward thinking. It is the perfect microcosm of a workplace that gives you access to issues regarding the economy, the supply chain, technological advancements, the relationship between an historical brand and the future. There’s a lot to play with there. … It’s critical to how our culture was shaped, and this, arguably, is a show about modern culture.”

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Gasteyer, of course, is part of the “Saturday Night Live” pantheon for her 1996-2002 stint as a cast member. Whether she was playing a topless Martha Stewart or joining Will Ferrell as the Culps, the least hip pair of married music teachers ever, Gasteyer was able to go from a calm presence to a zany force of nature as quickly as, well, a muscle car accelerates from zero to 60 mph.

On “American Auto,” Gasteyer is surrounded by a strong ensemble of actors portraying Katherine’s top staffers. Harriet Dyer plays Sadie, the tightly wound communications chief who tries to keep Katherine on course with the automotive media. Detroit native Tye White is Jack, an assembly line worker who’s promoted to bring a fresh perspective to corporate (and whose on-and-off flirtation with Sadie has a pleasing Jim and Pam from “The Office” vibe). X Mayo is Dori, Katherine’s no-nonsense assistant whose loyalty is as intense as her ability to sense a bad course.

From left: Michael Benjamin Washington as Cyrus, Harriet Dyer as Sadie, X Mayo as Dori, Ana Gasteyer as Katherine, Tye White as Jack in NBC's "American Auto."
From left: Michael Benjamin Washington as Cyrus, Harriet Dyer as Sadie, X Mayo as Dori, Ana Gasteyer as Katherine, Tye White as Jack in NBC's "American Auto."

While Sadie, Jack and Dori represent the saner side of Payne Motors, three other actors play marvelously quirky archetypes of the executive suite. Jon Barinholtz is Wesley, a goofy, talent-free heir of the Payne family. Michael Benjamin Washington portrays Cyrus, the chief designer whose pompousness is balanced by his often wounded pride. And Humphrey Ker rounds out the cast as Elliot, the company’s legal counsel and unofficial pessimist.

“American Auto” hit its stride last year with episodes involving a failed attempt to film a car ad for maximum inclusivity and the season-end story that followed Katherine as she was being profiled by a TV news show.

Asked about the occasional appearance in Katherine’s wardrobe of very Barra-ish leather jackets, Gasteyer admits that the comedy did borrow one detail from the GM leader.

“We always do that when (Katherine) is public facing because she wants to look a little more relatable and she wants to look a little more automotive,” Gasteyer says. In an upcoming episode where Katherine makes a television appearance on Seth Meyers’ “Late Night” talk show, she adds, “Of course, we have a leather jacket in that situation.”

X Mayo as Dori, Ana Gasteyer as Katherine in NBC's "American Auto."
X Mayo as Dori, Ana Gasteyer as Katherine in NBC's "American Auto."

Gasteyer, who has several family ties to Michigan (including a brother and sister-in-law who live in East Lansing and both teach at Michigan State University), was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and started her journey in comedy at Chicago’s Northwestern University, where she got involved with a campus improv comedy troupe. After moving to Los Angeles, she joined the acclaimed improv talent incubator the Groundlings, which also was a launching pad for Will Ferrell, Jennifer Coolidge and Maya Rudolph and many others.

Since leaving “SNL,” she has appeared in films like “Wine Country” (directed by her “SNL” pal Amy Poehler) and “Happiest Season” with Kristen Stewart and Victor Garber and played a recurring part on ABC’s “The Goldbergs.” She also has been busy with musical theater, co-starring in the Fox network’s live productions of “A Christmas Story” and ”Grease,” and as a singer-songwriter, made albums like her most recent “Sugar & Booze.”

Like other women veterans of comedy, Gasteyer has accumulated a body of work fueled by stepping in and creating her own opportunities.

“We were always kind of left to our own devices if anything interesting was going to happen," she says. "There were roles there and certainly many of our male peers cast us in them. But the more interesting stuff came from the fact that we had to write it and make it for ourselves.”

Ana Gasteyer as Katherine in NBC's "American Auto."
Ana Gasteyer as Katherine in NBC's "American Auto."

Currently, Gasteyer is writing and producing a second movie with Rachel Dratch, her collaborator on the 2021 Lifetime holiday rom-com “A Clusterfunke Christmas.”

Gastyer says she heard good reactions from Detroiters to “American Auto” through anecdotes and social media.. As for certain auto journalists who’ve delivered harsher feedback, she realizes that people can prefer a more documentary-like take on their own industries.

“Look, my dad worked in small-town village oversight, and it was nothing like Pawnee, Indiana’s parks and rec department. Neither was Dunder Mifflin particularly representative of paper manufacturers,” she says, citing the classic NBC sitcoms “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office.”

Unlike Katherine, Gasteyer is comfortable talking about cars. She recalls that her first car ever was a Datsun B210 that she loved despite its flaws. “We exchanged the title with our neighbor, who was about to junk it for a dollar. It was a tin can on wheels, and it’s amazing that I survived.”

If the actor shares one quality with Katherine, it’s probably the ability to handle a crisis calmly . “It is a character, but yes, I’m a professional improviser and comedian, so I’ve had to fake it till I make it a lot. I’m also a mom. Same dif!”

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at

'American Auto'

Season premiere

8:30 p.m. Tuesday


Season one streaming on Peacock

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: "American Auto" CEO Ana Gasteyer wants GM's Mary Barra to guest star