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Jon Barinholtz Plays His American Auto Character Like Two Succession Siblings

Photo: Steven Simione/FilmMagic

It’s about time that Payne Motors gets to be on the offense. Following two seasons of near-constant corporate catastrophes, American Auto is finally letting Katherine (Ana Gasteyer) and her ragtag team of Detroit executives make some moves in the season finale: They hit their stock-price goal with seconds to spare, and their new car, the Pika, is reaching historic levels of preorders. This is great news for the group’s resident brat of a scion, Wesley Payne, whose net worth is now as large as his ego. But, as Superstore alum Jon Barinholtz tells us, he sees his character’s worth as more than just a number, which would explain why he comes into the office day after day despite not having a real job at the company. Sure, Wesley might be a nepo baby, but even they aren’t immune to needing a purpose in life.

I saw that we interviewed your brother a few years ago, so I figured it’s only fair that we give you the same opportunity.
Finally, equal time!

How did he weasel his way into guest-starring onto your show?
When he came on last season, Justin said that he was thinking of having a big role for Ike, but we only had ten episodes. He was like, “We’re thinking of doing this family banquet and it could be fun if Ike could play one of your brothers. It probably won’t be a huge thing this first time around, but if we don’t get more episodes, it would be silly to not have you guys in the same season together.” I agreed. So I called him and said, “Hey, do you want to come do this? It would be really fun.” And he’s like, “Absolutely. It’s our parents’ dream that we get together in a television show.” We will always say yes to each other’s projects.

Did your parents enjoy the episodes?
Yeah. I get texts from my mom every Tuesday right at 9 p.m.: “Very good show and very adorable.”

I find myself always debating the degree of Wesley’s ego and intelligence. What’s your read on him?
I think actual intelligence is there, but social intelligence isn’t necessarily there. Surprisingly, Wesley is much more well read than he’s able to read a room. It’s a product of having come up surrounding himself with people who are just like him. It’s irrelevant for him to be able to read a room well, right? These are instincts that we learn because we had to survive, and he’s never really had to survive because he’s always going to have a seat at the table. When I first looked at this character, I was like, “Well, where is he deficient? That’s where we’re going to mine the most comedy from.” His biggest deficiency is the assumption that he belongs at the table, and the knowledge might be deep in his head that something doesn’t feel right — but he can’t pinpoint why he’s not getting the exact response he wants. No one wants a little nepo baby sitting at the table and weighing in on things that they feel they have no position to weigh in on.

His wealth renders him able to never work for the rest of his life. Why is he motivated to come into that office every day?
I think it gives him worth and community. They say workplace comedies are similar to family comedies because the people at your work you see as much as the people in your family. For Wesley, he sees these people more than anyone in his life. I don’t think there’s really anyone else. So it gives him purpose. There’s that episode earlier in the season, the funeral episode when his grandfather dies, where the company’s going to get bought out and there’s no way out. Wesley is like, “Maybe I could just get another boat or take my private jet and go anywhere. I guess I could do that.” Any real person would be like, “Yeah, go do that. Go take your boat out and go anywhere you want with your staff.” But he still doesn’t do that. It’s a sweet spot for Wesley of needing the friendship and camaraderie that he lacks and finding that in a forced way with his co-workers.

When you watch Succession, you’re not like, “These siblings are cool.” You’re like, “Ooh, that’s rough.” Yeah, they’re billionaires, but that’s not a fun or fulfilling life. I think Wesley is that but in a comedy.

Do you see any qualities of the Roy siblings in Wesley?
Absolutely. He’s the oldest and the youngest combined.

Connor and Roman?
Roman is the one who wants to be with Dad the most out of all them. And Connor is the biggest dreamer. Connor and Wesley both think that they could run for president eventually and win. They both think they’re the guys who can invent the flying car, conceptually, but then hire out a team to make it happen. They’re dreamers.

I maintain the belief that American Auto could’ve worked on premium cable if NBC passed on it.
Not just how they really go for it with the story lines, but the pace itself. It’s a quick, fast show. I totally agree. This is a show you could expect to turn on HBO and watch if it was slightly retooled. It wouldn’t even take a heavy lift for it. It really makes me happy that NBC would take that swing and put something like this on network TV.

Have you imagined all the stuff he does with his money that the show hasn’t written in yet? Like, his stupid-rich-person hobbies?
If we go to his house, are we going to see a chessboard on his lawn, but it’s people as the pieces? Are we going to see something like that? Something very Mel Brooks–y? The hope would be, as we get more seasons, we also get more into their personal lives. We saw it with Katherine this year. I loved going into her home life and seeing the fallout of her marriage — and tracking this very powerful person who’s now living in a big empty castle and putting her co-workers in there and letting them have a night. I love when shows get to the point where we can start expanding out the worlds we’ve built. I hope we get to see some of Wesley’s craziness in his personal life. Like, it’s him going to the club, renting out a club, and hiring people to be there to have a good time. In my mind, that’s what goes on with him.

I recently had a conversation with Ana about the hallmarks of a Justin Spitzer show, and how he isn’t cautious about his approach to American society and the workplace, which is unusual for a network comedy.
He’s so good at finding the right vehicle for them and that point of view. Both American Auto and Superstore deal with the same issues — which are unfortunately evergreen issues that we’re dealing with in our ramped-up, possibly late-stage-capitalism society. Superstore is from the worker’s perspective and American Auto is from the C-suite; it’s how these real-life things are handled at those two different levels. So he’s, first, great at having an honest approach of: How would a floor worker address maternity leave? How would that happen? I think that’s one of the greatest Superstore episodes, when America Ferrera’s character has only one day off after she gives birth then has to come back to work. And then on the other side, the commercial episode for American Auto last season. Every episode has something to tackle. You’re able to skewer these topics. When you’re looking at it through an American Auto executive point of view, it gives the safe distance as a viewer of, “We’re not preaching about this, but how would a company actually handle this and how would that go down? How is it real? What’s funny about that while also enlightening?”

I also think it’s so effective with American Auto because you’re all mocking each other, but not the people below you.
That really is the recipe for success. When there are moments of punching down, so to speak, it’s only to make us look bad. A great example is the HR episode. Katherine and Sadie have to go to HR — Katherine makes fun of the HR guy and calls him a pissy little eunuch. And then that same HR guy, when the guys go to HR, calls us pissy little eunuchs. It shows, “Oh, the trauma has passed. It just transfers from person to person.”

Do you see any parallels of douchebaggery between your Superstore and American Auto roles? You play into that so well.
Oh, I appreciate it. Yeah. When I first read Wesley on the page for the pilot, I did see the connection points to Marcus. Maybe it’s just because I was fresh out of Superstore and felt like, “Oh, there’s some similarities here. How do I differentiate that enough, but also don’t deny the fact that these characters are written in a similar way?” They both are people who want love and friendship around them and are desperate for that. I think that’s their big connection point, even if it’s not obvious at first.

The first season’s dynamic was the group versus Katherine, while the second transitioned to everyone being on the same side for a common goal. The finale’s conclusion presents a new creative opportunity: They now have power and money, and can get anything they want. How would you like to see those ideas reflected in the next season?
I love the tracking of this season — watching the stock price, what’s going to happen with the Pika’s release, and Katherine’s job security. Those are the ticking clocks that start in the first episode and we have a conclusion of all of them. Now we’re going into this next season with a lot of capital. We have the power to do what we want. Because at this point, we’ve just been playing catch-up. It was, how do we put out the fires? Now we’re the fire starters.

I want an episode where we try to have a hostile takeover of a Japanese car company or a German car company. The gang goes to Tokyo, or the gang goes to Berlin, to put the company on a bigger stage. I think that’s where this will lead. We have some victory to play with by the end of this season. How do we ruin that in the most funny and real way? It’s probably by taking it on a bigger global stage and getting us out of Detroit. Something that I always imagine is Wesley spending his time in the office trying to justify his position there, but also thinking of other business ideas that are not car-company related. Do you know the Koch brothers?

One of the Koch brothers has a son who, of course, has endless money and could just retire and do nothing. But he created a tropical-shirt line — like a Tommy Bahama type of thing. And to me, it’s incredible. It’s hard to find something endearing about billionaires, but it’s very endearing. He just wants to make fun shirts. He filmed a commercial for it and it’s him on a boat with models and they’re all wearing his shirts. I imagine Wesley is constantly thinking of something like that. I can’t take credit for this, but someone pitched an idea to me that was like, “Oh, he probably wants to have his own brand of wine.” His last name is Payne, so his own brand of Champagne would be called Wesley Champayne.

If you had hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bitcoin on your blockchain, what would your password be?
I’ll tell you, because I just changed all of my actual passwords. It’s very easy. It’s my first two dogs, Nigel and Edwina. It would be “Nigel Edwina.”

Jon Barinholtz Plays His American Auto Role Like Succession