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On NBC's American Auto, Ana Gasteyer plays Katherine Hastings, the car industry's first woman CEO who's determined not to fail at her mission of rescuing declining giant Payne Motors.
Creator Justin Spitzer previously co-produced a workplace comedy classic The Office, but what drew Gasteyer to this project was that American Auto zigs where The Office zagged.
"Actually, she's got an MBA, she's come up through the ranks ... she just has no experience with, or history, or knowledge about cars — and she doesn't care," adds Gasteyer. "She truly is one of those management managers that's like, 'Well, I'm good at managing people. I don't have to know the product,' which is just inherently kind of funny. She literally doesn't know how to drive or care. She really cares about her stock options."
Throughout its 10-episode first season, American Auto found plenty of fodder for comedy in corporate America — especially when it came to the flawed way decisions are often made in the C-suite. "I haven't seen a show taking a crack comedically at the C-suite at the corporate level," Gasteyer notes. "There's a whole lot to be made fun of up there."
In "Commercial," Gasteyer's favorite episode, Payne's executives find themselves entangled in what the actress describes as a "horrific, domino fiasco" after the company attempts to "virtue signal" its values of diversity and inclusion when casting an ad.
For Gasteyer, the episode reached a comic peak when the company's in-house lawyer Elliot (Humphrey Ker) begins "maniacally covering himself" in sunscreen at a completely absurd — but subconsciously telling — moment. Gasteyer says she "couldn't look at [Ker]" while filming and still laughs today thinking about the character choice. "I just assumed that was a metaphor for his whiteness, like, in the midst of this conversation about [trying] to be colorblind and inclusive on every level," she explains.
The whole thing, she notes, embodied "this runaway train of people-pleasing poorly balanced with a corporate bottom line — which I think is what the show essentially does incredibly well. I really do feel like that is what makes it a 2022 show."
The cracks at the C-suite were slightly sharper in other episodes, such as when the executives mulled over whether to issue a recall by weighing their profit losses against "the value of human life." Says Gasteyer, "It's a constant conversation of, like, human beings with the dollar sign on their heads. [It's] cynical, but really reflective of the world that we live in."
Looking ahead to the show's next season, Gasteyer teases that viewers will see a bit of a different side to Katherine as her "core competencies come to play" in moments of crisis.
And given that Gasteyer is a Broadway alum, she and Spitzer are contemplating whether Katherine should show off her pipes in the next set of episodes — though Gasteyer admits she's "really torn about it … it just seems odd like I don't see this MBA lady as being a really good singer."
Still, she says, "Could be, you never know!"
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Before American Auto returns for its second season, all season 1 episodes can be streamed on Peacock or the NBC app.