Legendary SNL castmember Ana Gasteyer lives up to her reputation on the brilliant new Netflix streaming comedy Lady Dynamite, on which she plays talent agent Karen Grisham. Created by Arrested Development’s Mitch Hurwitz and writer/producer Pam Brady, Lady Dynamite follows comedian Maria Bamford (playing a version of herself) as she struggles with mental illness and her career in Hollywood.
If you’ve ever met a talent agent in the flesh, you’ve probably met someone like Gasteyer’s Karen Grisham. She chatters at the speed of light, flatters with abandon, and is prone to deranged bouts of irrational anger. Saying so much crazy so quickly was a challenge, but Gasteyer makes it look easy. Be warned: the jokes land swiftly, so it can be difficult to catch all the funny over the sound of your own laughter.
I caught up with Gasteyer on Lady Dynamite, her jazzy musical act, and method acting at the guacamole table.
What was your favorite moment working on the first season of Lady Dynamite?
You know I have to say, it’s such a brave undertaking from Maria Bamford. I have to give her full credit for being such a fantastic scene partner. I play such a horrendous human being that if she wasn’t such a completely likable foil to that, the scenes would be harder to play. You know what I mean? Lots of comics are great comics but she’s a great scene partner on top of being a great comic. She really lets everybody shine so much, its really impressive.
The dynamic between the two of you is hilarious.
Yeah! And Fred Melamed is such a genius too that those were fun scenes to play as well with all three of us.
Where did you find inspiration for your talent agent character Karen Grisham?
Mmm. That’s a question people are asking. Certainly if I knew specifically I’d never be able to reveal my source because god knows they’d never speak to me again. [laughs] She’s like a bad mashup of every agent who never signed me over the years.
Did you and the cast do any team building activities?
It was a powerhouse bunch of writers and performers so every day that I worked on the show there was a lot of really fun hangout time. Even just craft services-wise – if you were at the same table as Lennon Parham or Bridgett Everett or whoever, you know, its going to be a good day. Every day was a mashup of hilarious people.
Do you think Lady Dynamite will give viewers a greater understanding of mental illness?
I don’t know if it will give anyone a better understanding, but I do think it will do a significant job or at least take a scratch at removing some of the stigma attached to it. I think it’s a really hard thing to talk about, but I think comedians are really great at discussing the truth in a non-threatening and compelling way. Maria’s gift is that she’s such a tremendously likable performer and such a lovely, graceful presence that to look at mental illness through her lens is really a likable version of a really difficult thing, you know? I think it’s cool that she made it accessible to people and talked about it. It’s not my story so I don’t know what her feelings are regarding it, but I think it’s very brave of her and very human. Which is really the most you can ask for in entertainment, I think. Especially in comedy.
Was it difficult to stay in character with so many funny people on set?
No. [laughs] Well, I’m not a method actor so I wasn’t like Karen Grisham when I was sitting at the guacamole table or anything. Actually the only challenge was that my character is a speed talker and I wanted to make sure I did that really cleanly. Like all really powerful executives – I think they kind of switch subjects quickly and then move on and they’re really precise. So I felt like I had to be very prepared to deliver these big monologues.
The glasses you wear as Karen Grisham are amazing. Did you participate in putting together your look for the show?
I give such credit to the costume designer. In a part like this that is this theatrical and over the top, it’s like fifty-percent costume. Pam Brady actually made me wear the glasses. At first I was like ah, they’re too much! But they’re so perfect. They are such a perfect metaphor for what a nightmare this woman is. The costume is a significant part of her storytelling. She’s a super status-y person. She wears Louis Vuitton shoes. She wants to be taken seriously, seen professionally, and the glasses are really very important to her sense of all those things.
What is a day in the life like for you these days?
For Ana Gasteyer? Well, I’ve been touring my act. I released my first album last year and I continue to tour with that and do shows. And then I’ll be doing this TBS comedy this summer. So right now I’m either cleaning up my house after being out of town or preparing again to leave town. Or spending the time with my children because I’ve been working. So it’s one or the other.
You do have a phenomenal voice.
Thank you! I’ve been wildly researching music charts for a Christmas album, so that’s been kind of an ongoing project.
Who are your favorite musical performers?
In terms of inspiration? You know, all the old grand entertainers. Everyone from Ella to Betty Hutton to Francis Faye to Danny Kaye. Anyone fun, loud and sassy.
Does your past at Saturday Night Live haunt you? Do you still have people yelling Delicious Dish at you on the street?
People definitely bring it up for sure, but not in a way that’s haunting – in a way that’s nice. It’s a mafia that you join pretty willingly, so I’m proud – it’s nice, it’s really nice.
Catch Ana Gasteyer in Lady Dynamite, now streaming on Netflix.