Whether you know her as NPR radio host Margaret Jo on Saturday Night Live or Cady Heron’s mom in Mean Girls, odds are you know — and love — Ana Gasteyer’s work. An actor, comedian and singer, Gasteyer ’89 has worked across screen and stage for decades.
After graduating from Northwestern, a place she would “do literally anything for,” Gasteyer got her start with the Los Angeles–based improv and sketch comedy group The Groundlings. A cast member on SNL for six years, Gasteyer also worked on Broadway, where she played Elphaba in Wicked.
Since leaving the stage (not for long, we hope!), she’s appeared in countless movies and TV shows, from Wine Country and A Clüsterfünke Christmas to The Goldbergs and Suburgatory. She’s also released two studio albums — I’m Hip and Sugar & Booze — and performed her original songs across the country.
Most recently, Gasteyer starred on NBC’s American Auto, playing an out-of-place executive who finds herself at the helm of an automotive company despite knowing next to nothing about cars. Last May, Gasteyer returned to campus for a “Dialogue with the Dean” event with School of Communication Dean E. Patrick Johnson. During her time in Evanston, Gasteyer also sat down with Northwestern Magazine’s Clare Milliken to discuss her twists and turns and tips for aspiring artists.
Can you share a highlight from your time as a student?
When I discovered The Mee-Ow Show, I realized I’d found my people. It felt the most comfortable as a performer. I loved improvisation, and I discovered sketch writing, which I had never done before. I made my closest girlfriend, who’s a big television writer now, and went on to write with her for years thereafter. I found people who thought and acted like I did in a really great way.
What have been the turning points in your life?
Northwestern was the first big turning point. It opened the sense of possibility of what I could be. I came here as an opera student. It wasn’t at all who I was, but I had a gift. So I got in, and then the world of making and doing exploded for me.
When I got to do The Groundlings’ Sunday show, that was definitely a breakthrough. A big agency sent someone to see me, and once I got an agent, I was on Saturday Night Live within a year. That was the biggest break.
Your daughter is a student in the School of Communication now. How has your impression of Northwestern changed since you were a student?
There are some amazing bookends and parallels. I was a student during theater professor Rives Collins’ first year teaching, and my daughter has taken a ton of theater for young audiences classes with him. Theater professor of instruction David Catlin ’88 was a peer of mine.
Northwestern is unique in that the curricular life and the extracurricular life are equally balanced. Speaking specifically as a performer, my experience here of making and doing is unlike most of the experiences of my friends who did not go to Northwestern. I was hoping that that would be the same experience for my daughter.
There was a real grassroots quality to extracurricular life when I was here, but it’s even more structured and organized today. I’ve been really impressed. The population is a get-up-and-go gang, and that is what is necessary to make it in the arts. You need a lot of can-do, community-oriented entrepreneurialism in your work.
How did you get started in the entertainment industry after graduation?
The Northwestern network in New York and Los Angeles is impossible to quantify. I got my first apartment in LA with four Northwestern students. I got a night job working as a host at a restaurant where my roommate was a waitress, and I got my day job as a production assistant at an animation company thanks to another Northwestern person.
Jim Duda ’89, whom I’d met when he sublet my apartment in Evanston one summer, worked as an assistant voiceover agent in LA after he graduated. He called me up while I was waiting tables and said, “Hey, you’re really good at voices. I remember how funny you are from The Mee-Ow Show. Come in and audition for us.” So I went in and read a bunch of commercials scripts. I booked a Wiener schnitzel commercial and got my union card.
It’s all Northwestern connective tissue and engagement.
What do you wish you’d known before entering the industry?
When you’re in college, the one thing you cannot ever be prepared for is the freelance nature of the arts. It’s hard to visualize what that really means in terms of how much time you’re on the road, how often you’re going to have to pick up and take the covered wagon with you again, how many bar mitzvahs, weddings, birthdays and funerals you’re going to miss because you’re always at the beck and call of a big production that doesn’t really have time for sensible hours.
Also, you’re often in the midst of one project and thinking about the one that’s coming, which can seem like a curse, but actually I see it as a blessing.
Do you have any dream roles or projects?
I’ve done a movie, Wine Country, with my Saturday Night Live girlfriends — Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Emily Spivey and Paula Pell — and I'd love to do more of that and help steer the vision of something that’s on the silly side.
I would love to originate a big Broadway role. I want to go back and sing in a big show once my son is out of high school. That’s really my fantasy — get him off to college and go back to Broadway.
What keeps you motivated?
When I began my career, I was fueled a lot by terror, fear of failure and true worry that I was somehow not going to cut through and do what I wanted to do for a living. No matter what, there’s a lot of attrition in performing arts. So my drive was about being legitimated as a performer and a writer.
I would say my drive now is finding joy in what I do. I like what I do. I like working hard. I have a good work ethic, but I’m increasingly wanting to simply experience things for the sake of joy and to create joy in the world.
Clare Milliken is senior writer and producer in Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.