Actress, singer, and alumna Ana Gasteyer (C89) talks Northwestern in final Dialogue with the Dean of the academic year
“Northwestern was my long shot. It changed my life. It truly was the most instrumental thing that happened in my life. When I look back, what an unbelievably perfect match it ended up being.” - Ana Gasteyer (C89)
An eager crowd gathered in the lobby of the Josephine Louis Theater in the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, May 2 for the last Dialogue with the Dean of the academic year. This year’s focus was on comedy and multimedia entertainment, so School of Communication alumna Ana Gasteyer was the obvious choice for the final event—and what an evening it was. As the actress, singer, and comedian regaled SoC Dean E. Patrick Johnson and the audience with stories about her illustrious career. It was clear just how much Gasteyer’s strong Northwestern network and willingness to work hard truly shaped the course of her career.
Growing up, Gasteyer was a violinist and classical music singer who dreamed of attending Northwestern University for college after learning about it from Julia Louis-Dreyfus (C83, H07), the older sister of her best friend.
“I wasn’t an impressive student, but I had won a ton of vocal contests,” said Gasyeter, a Washington, D.C., native. “So, I definitely sang my way in. I have no doubt that that's how I got in…I wanted to go to conservatory and be an actress, but I was too embarrassed to tell my family, and Northwestern had an amazing music school with a five-year degree where you could get a real job after you left, and my parents thought that sounded fine.”When she got to Northwestern, Gasteyer began taking classes in the School of Music (now Bienen School of Music) and soon realized she wasn’t cut out out for it. After a particularly interesting lecture involving a guest speaker and spontaneous overtone singing (“I became unglued and I was asked to leave,” laughed Gasteyer) she switched into the School of Communication and the rest was history.
“I found my people right away,” Gasteyer said. “I did the Waa-Mu Show my freshman year by total accident. I was totally in over my head, and it was fun. Then I got into the Mee-Ow Show and was like, ‘My people!’”
Gasteyer wasn’t a traditional theatre major, instead she chose interdisciplinary studies in speech, but she took advantage of all the SoC classes available to her and credits the culture of storytelling, hard work, and “the idea of performance being instrumental to a happy and fulfilling life” as her most salient Northwestern takeaway.
“What's so exciting about Northwestern is the maker and doer phenomenon on this campus,” Gasteyer said. “There's a weird combination of incredible drive, talent, and this Midwestern can-do mentality that was endless.”
In fact, it was the extended network that she built at Northwestern, through student groups and shows, that helped jumpstart Gasteyer’s career once she graduated. A fellow Wildcat pitched her to a well-known agency and within a year she’d moved from Los Angeles to New York City and begun what would be an epic six-season run at Saturday Night Live.
“When I started the show, it was thought to be a place that female comics went to die, but I had to go do it obviously; it was Saturday Night Live,” Gasteyer said.
“We had no camaraderie at first,” she added. “We just churned ahead in our little lane, but eventually we started to have more of a critical mass.” Gasteyer was there for the addition of some of Saturday Night Live’s other iconic female comics, including Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Poehler. Their presence fostered a sense of belonging and community for Gasteyer and allowed for “a different sensibility around the power of the women in the show.”
“My favorite days were the rewrite table,” she recalled. “I felt like, ‘I worked on this thing, and now I have these talented people to help me make it better.’ It's a fun, collaborative experience…And I liked blocking days and writing nights too, when it was going great. But it was the hardest when it was going badly.”
When asked by Dean Johnson about her key ingredients to storytelling and why she values comedy as a medium, Gasteyer explained that finding common ground in human stories and emotions helps us all feel seen similarly and that was what was most important to her in comedy.
As the night came to a close, Gasteyer cautioned SoC students to stay away from seeking perfectionism on the stage or on the screen.
“When you're working hard to make [something] perfect, you're no longer your best witness,” Gasteyer said during the audience Q&A portion. “Just go out there and try. Know your lines, do your blocking, and have a good time.”
Gasteyer has starred in many iconic films and TV series, including Mean Girls, What Women Want, Wine Country for Netflix, A Clusterfunke Christmas, People of Earth, The Goldbergs, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Additionally, she’s an acclaimed stage actor, having played Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway (after having originated the role in the Chicago company), Mrs. Schwartz in FOX’s A Christmas Story: Live!, and Principal McGee in FOX’s Grease: Live!, and more. She is currently starring in Northwestern alumnus Justin Spitzer's (C99) critically acclaimed NBC series, American Auto.Dialogue with the Dean is a series of conversations with emerging and established communicators who are advancing the futures of their fields, challenging paradigms, and promoting social justice. Watch this conversation in full below. We’ll be back for the 2023-2024 Dialogue with a Dean series this Fall.