Ana Gasteyer called me on Tuesday afternoon after ducking into a New York City Starbucks to escape the rain. She’d just placed her order when we began our conversation and as we ended the interview 15 minutes later, she was still waiting for her beverage.
That’s exactly the sort inconvenience that would annoy so many of Gasteyer’s marvelously high-strung characters over the years, vivid creations like her “SNL” Martha Stewart or her “In your opinion…” judge on “The Good Wife.”
To her credit, Gasteyer doesn’t seem at all flustered by her delayed order, as we discuss her newest character, “Suburgatory” neighborhood autocrat Sheila Shay. The actress has been newly elevated to cast regular status on the hit ABC freshman comedy and Wednesday (Nov. 23) night’s Thanksgiving episode is the biggest showcase yet for Sheila and her family. Rest assured that Sheila isn’t the kind of woman to take kindly to a Starbucks slight.
While she was waiting for that elusive beverage, Gasteyer and I discussed what makes Sheila tick, why George (Jeremy Sisto) and Tessa (Jane Levy) are threats to her sense of order, working with long-time collaborator Chris Parnell and her own Thanksgiving favorites.
Click through for the full Q&A.
HitFix: First off, slightly belated congratulations on getting the bump to “regular” status on the show!
Ana Gasteyer: Oh my gosh! Not belated at all. It’s totally still sinking in, so thank you. I’m delighted.
HitFix: Tell me what the means for you personally and also for your character.
AG: Well, to be honest with you, I think that was Emily Kapnek’s intention all along. The mechanics of television showmaking are complicated and require a lot decisions along the way in deciding where the writing’s going to go, but she definitely, when I first went in for the role, was like, “Oh, the writers love Sheila and we’ve got big plans for her,” after she was in the pilot, so I knew that that they were thinking of me. Then they added Chris [Parnell] as my husband and the dynamic is so fun in our family with Parker Young and with Allie Grant, so I can’t speak to what they have planned, but it definitely means that… I dunno. I think we’re turning into the Fun, Crazy Family. Ultimately it’s up to Emily where that continues to go and luckily it’s been really fun so far.
HitFix: So knowing that this is a character you’re now definitely going to play on a weekly basis, that doesn’t change the way that you play her, it doesn’t impact the volume, maybe, with which you express the character’s eccentricities?
AG: That’s really interesting, but I don’t think so. God, I hope not. I hope not at all. The writing is really what mandates that for me and the directing. It’s sorta relative to what else is happening, circumstantially. We play pretty crazy, antagonistic people, so to the degree that that’s part of the storytelling, I think that we’ll always do it. It’s hard to be academic about it, but I always try to play things as real as I can, even within the confines of insanity and I think Sheila kinda lives there. That’s been my experience so far with this part and with the way that Chris plays his part and the rest of my family members do. I think that they’re kinda outrageous people who think that they’re very normal. Do you know what I mean?
HitFix: I do and a lot of people have talked about how this is the story of two relatively normal people — in George and Tessa — moving into this heightened version version of Suburbia. How heightened do you feel like your character and the characters around you are, when they’re compared to George and Tessa?
AG: Well, there are two ways to answer that. The first is that it’s a question of style and the choices that are being made in the writing and in the acting to play things at an exaggerated level. And I think that the creative decision has been not to try to play things as big as a barn, you know? That’s certainly not what I’m going for. I may accidentally do it, but it’s certainly not what I hope to be doing. But I think that at the same time, the story is always being told from the point of view of George and Tessa and their kinda “Rashomon”-like existence within that world, so we’re always going to seem strange to them, because that’s through their lens. So that’s what I think. Does that make sense? Your relatives don’t know that you make fun of their sweaters. They pick out their sweaters and wear them.
HitFix: OK, so this Wednesday’s episode is a very big episode for Sheila. Do you want to tease a little bit about what we learn about your character this week?
AG: To me, the whole point of these characters are their dynamic relationships. Like I said, I love working with Chris Parnell and I love working with Allie and I love working with Parker. And what is Thanksgiving to most Americans besides one big exercise in f***ed up family dynamics? And, in particular, this is about the dynamics between a mother and her adolescent daughter, which I think are really fraught. And you get to see the different version of it with Dalia and Dallas, but you don’t get to see that power struggle a lot and that’s honestly what it’s about in this episode is sorta how you play that out. And on the other side, all control freaks, all domestic goddess control freaks, approach Thanksgiving with an insane amount of vigor and precision and Sheila certainly doesn’t disappoint in this episode in that way. She definitely, I think, probably prides herself on doing the holidays better than anybody and so when her family disagrees with her, that’s when it all falls apart. There’s nothing funnier than seeing a control freak out of control.
HitFix: You’ve mentioned Chris a few times. Could you talk about what your working relationship is like after all of these years?
AG: I was just talking about it with my husband actually, my real life husband, but I’ve known Chris for so incredibly long and I respect him so deeply as a comedian. I think he plays everything from such a real place and he also just makes me laugh, personally. I like watching him perform. So I’m really flattered by the fact that I get to work with him, frankly. I find that he makes other people look good and I hope that he makes me look good. More than that, I just like him very much and we have all of these weird instincts that are the same, so it’s so fortunate that we get to be coupled together, because we have been coupled together for ever and ever. Like the other day I was just in the editing suite looking at a couple takes in a row that they just showed us for fun and there was this direction that they’d given us and it wasn’t even in the script, it was just something in a reaction shot to a funny moment of George’s, and it was hilarious, because we’d made exactly the same facial expression, even though we were both looking at George and we weren’t looking at each other. And I thought, “Oh my God, that looks like we planned to have a tandem move,” but we didn’t. I just like to think that we come from a similar place comedically. Or at least that’s what I hope, because I really think that he’s funny.
HitFix: Based on what you just said, it sounds like the answer will be “Yes,” but is there a shorthand that you guys share from all of those years of common experiences?
AG: Yes, there is. This whole experience has been so shorthand. The way the Emily writes… Again, I was just saying to my husband last night, but of all the myriad of good fortune dealings… Emily’s writing for Sheila is so natural that I can’t even describe it and I’m sorta rendered speechless by how naturally the character is occurring for me. All the work you do, I’ve done so much theater for the last seven or eight years and there’s all this preparation and discovery, but on this, it’s been incredibly weird, because the writing is so organically exactly how I would say things. I’ve never even had to ask for even a mild rephrase or anything in the writing, as actors usually do. And I feel the same exact way about Chris, where we have played opposite one another for so long now. We were in the Groundlings together in 1995 and we we went up through that program together. We’ve literally been kinda this uptight, reacting couple and there’s a lot of love between us and history obviously anyway, so that’s also what I like about working with him, is I never feel like it’s from a mean-spirited place, I don’t think that we’re angry and awful. Our marriage isn’t terrible. I think Emily has really emphasized that, too. It may be an annoying marriage or a crazy marriage, but there’s love in it. That’s actually strangely important to me as a human being, working on a television show that my kids will watch.
HitFix: You described Sheila as a domestic diva. So I have to ask: How much Martha Stewart is there in her?
AG: There’s so much Martha Stewart, it’s not even funny! Martha would be horrified by her chintz and by the number of dolls that she has, without a doubt, but I also think that, without a doubt, Sheila’s also making the most beautiful and impeccable Thanksgiving. And I don’t think she’s uptight, but I think she starts making everything… You know when Martha says to lay out your serving pieces 10 days prior, when you look at those little guidelines? I’m sure that Sheila has done all of that. The linens are pressed and folded, after going to some Belgian-French linen-folder-outer the year prior, and all of the seams have been removed. The silver is polished in the most up-to-date possible way. So yeah, I’m sure there’s some Martha in there.
HitFix: When it comes to Sheila, how benign do you think her intentions are towards her new neighbors?
AG: I don’t think it’s that benign. She’s the head of the PTA. She’s the Queen Bee of the neighborhood. And I think that to a woman like her, with her investment in the community, she’s chosen her neighborhood in a very specific and deliberate way. It wasn’t just like she moved in and then some weirdos across the street moved in. She’s lived there and she cares about it and she cares about property values and she cares about the way that she looks, but also the way her neighbors make her look and they reflect back to her who she is. I think she’s got a pretty limited scope about what she finds acceptable and it’s all got to kinda reflect back on her in a way. So I think her interests are not so benign. I think she’s terribly invested, actually, in every member of her community.
HitFix: I don’t know how much you guys have been paying attention, but there’s a vocal corner of the Internet that has begun to feel like George and Tessa might be a little too close.
AG: To what?
HitFix: To each other… So to speak.
AG: I don’t know what that means, but that scares me.
HitFix: Oh, there’s just a sense that there’s a weird intimacy between those two characters that goes beyond father and daughter…
AG: Oh. Well. That’s upsetting. I don’t know what to say about that. You know, I actually love their relationship. I think they have such a close and comfortable bond. Maybe that weirds people out, but I guess we’re just not that comfortable with the idea of fathers and daughters being really good friends and sorta having each others’ backs. I think there’s something very likable about it. But yeah. I don’t read the Internet. Well, I do read the Internet, but I try not to read about… things that people say.
HitFix: I hear you guys were visited by The Situation on “Suburgatory.” Did you get to work with him?
AG: I did not work with The Situation. But I’ve met The Situation. But I did not work with The Situation. I heard all about him and I saw his pictures in the makeup trailer and, um, The Situation’s got a situation. I understand where the name comes from.
HitFix: How did you come to meet him previously?
AG: I’ve met him backstage at talk shows and things like that. It’s the funniest thing in the world. In fact, I have a picture of The Situation on my cell phone and it’s on Facebook. Because it makes me laugh.
HitFix: Is being a regular on “Suburgatory” going to knock you out of the “Good Wife” judging rotation?
AG: I hope not! God. I mean, I really hope not. I still live in New York, but I’m flying back and forth for work and it’s so satisfying to play those sanctimonious people, isn’t it? And there’s nobody more sanctimonious than a judge. And particularly that judge, Patrice Lessner.
HitFix: Those seem like dream gigs, the revolving judge roles. To have characters that big and just pop in and out, whenever, kind of.
AG: It’s so incredibly fun and they’re such wonderful actors. It’s always like an exercise in humility every time I show up there. It’s also great, because it’s two exits away from my house in New York and it’s a real New York show. It’s got a real grittiness to it. I think it’s a fantastic television show and I actually watch it religiously, even if I wasn’t on it. I’m allowed to do a few guest stars every year now that I’m a series regular and I hope I can continue to do that show, because I’m really grateful to have been a part of it. People love it.
HitFix: Do you have any personal favorite Thanksgiving or seasonal TV shows or movies?
AG: We always watch Charlie Brown and that’s a really big thing. And, you know, we tend to tune in to “It’s a Wonderful Life” right around this time of year, because it puts you in the right frame of mind. But yeah, I’d have to say Charlie Brown is my favorite.
The Thanksgiving episode of “Suburgatory” airs on Wednesday, November 23 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.